In English, the Greek term Pneûma tò Hagion is translated as “Holy Ghost” or “Holy Spirit.” The English terms referring to Pneûma are synonyms: “ghost” is derived from Old English gast (“breath” or “good or bad spirit”) and “spirit” from Latin spiritus (“breath” or “supernatural immaterial creature”). Until the late 19th century, English translators of all traditions used “Holy Ghost” (or “holy Ghost”) but generally switched to “Holy Spirit” (or “holy Spirit”) thereafter, likely because the meaning of “ghost” had transitioned to predominantly refer to the spirit of a dead person.
Other languages with a long tradition in Bible translation translate Pneûma (for “holy” see holy) as follows (click or tap here to see more):
- While a few Germanic languages still use terms derived from gast (see above) including German and Dutch (Geist and Geest respectively), the majority use forms of Proto*-Germanic anadô (“breath,” “spirit,” “zeal” — used in Latin as anima), including Danish (Ånden), Swedish (Ande/ande — for more on the gender of the Swedish translation, see below), Icelandic (andi), and Norwegian (Ånd/ånd). (*”Proto” refers to the most recent common, often hypothetical language ancestor).
- The majority of Romance languages use a form of the Latin Spiritus (French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Catalan among others).
- Slavic languages derive their translation from the Proto-Slavic dȗxъ (“breath,” “wind,” “spirit”), including Russian, Belarusian, Ukrainian, and Bulgarian (all: Дух)
- Most Semitic languages (Hebrew, Arabic, Assyrian, Chaldean — with the exception of Maltese which uses the Latin-based l-Ispirtu s-Santu), Iranian languages (Urdu, Tajik, Dari, Persian, Pashto), Turkic languages (Uzbek, Turkish), Malayic languages (Indonesian, Balinese, Sangir, and Malay — for further information on Malay, see below) use a derivative of the Proto-Semitic rūḥ- (“to blow,” “breathe”). Compare the Hebrew term ruach (רוּחַ: “breath,” “wind,” “spirit”) in the Old Testament. (For the use of Roho in Swahili, see below)
- Many Indo-Aryan languages have chosen translations derived from Sanskrit आत्मन् ātman, meaning “soul,” “life,” “self,” including Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Odia, Panjabi, Santali, and Telugu — source: Hooper, p. 176f.
Bratcher / Nida say this about the translation into languages that do not have an existing Bible translation (click or tap here to see more):
“Undoubtedly no word has given quite so much trouble to the Bible translator as spirit, for (1) it includes such a wide range of meaning, from ‘evil spirit’ to ‘poor in spirit’ to ‘Holy Spirit’ and (2) it touches so vitally the crucial comparison and contrast between Christianity and so-called ‘animism.’
“There are four principal dangers in the choice of a word for Holy Spirit: (1) the term may identify an essential malevolent spirit, and no mere addition of the word ‘holy’ or ‘good’ is likely to change the basic connotation of the word, (2) the word may mean primarily the spirit of a deceased person (hence God must have died — a not infrequent error in Bible translations), (3) the expression used to mean ‘spirit’ may denote only an impersonal life force, a sort of soul-stuff which may be conceived as indwelling all plant, animal, and human substances (therefore, to say that ‘God is spirit’ is to deny His essential personality), and (4) a borrowed term may signify next to nothing to the people, and can only be explained by another term or terms, which, if they are adequate to explain the borrowing, should have been used in the first place. It is true that in some instances a borrowed word has seemed to be the only alternative, but it should be chosen only as a last resort.
“There is no easy formula to be employed in finding an adequate equivalent for Holy Spirit, for what seems to work quite well in one area may not serve in another. One thing, however, is certain: one should not select a term before making a comprehensive study of all kinds of words for spirits and for parts or aspects of personality and thus having as complete a view as possible of all indigenous beliefs about supernatural beings.”
Following are ways that languages without a long tradition Bible translation have translated Pneûma (click or tap here to see more):
The grammatical gender of the Greek Pneûma is neuter (and the Hebrew ruach has a feminine gender). While many languages either do not have a grammatical gender or have a word for Pneûma that grammatically is masculine, other languages found various ways of dealing with this. (Click or tap here to read more):
The earliest example is Classical Syriac which, like Hebrew, used a term — Ruhä — that was of feminine gender. According to Ashbrook (1993), in early documents the feminine gender was not only used in a grammatical sense but the Spirit was often described with feminine imagery as well. “Around the year 400 [though], a change emerges in our texts. Starting in the fifth century, and almost universally by the sixth, the Spirit is masculine in Syriac writers. Ruhä when referring to wind or spirit continues to follow rules of grammar and to be construed in the feminine; but when referring to the Holy Spirit, it is now construed as masculine, although this does violence to the fabric of the language.” (Source: Ashbrook 1993)
A similar process of ungrammatical usage was attempted in Asháninka. The “Good Spirit of God” required a feminine, inanimate pronoun which was artificially changed to masculine. After a while this was changed back to its true grammatical form with no perceptible difference in the understanding of the Trinity. Will Kindberg (in The Bible Translator 1964, 197f.) tells that story (click or tap here to read more):
“For the past several years Mr Sylvester Dirks of the Mennonite Brethren Mission and I have been engaged in missionary work with the Asháninka sub-group of the Campa tribe in Peru, and have collaborated on Christian vocabulary items and translation as well as other phases of our missionary activities. For the ‘Holy Spirit’ we are using ‘the Good Spirit of God’. The normal pronominal reference for spirit, whether it be a human spirit or the spirit of a god, is third person feminine inanimate. Long ago, Sylvester and I agreed that we would force the use of the third person masculine animate pronoun to refer to the Holy Spirit, although we recognized it was contrary to the grammatical system of Asháninka. We did this because of a theological bias: the Holy Spirit is referred to in English as masculine, and we think of the Spirit as a masculine member of the Godhead. We ignored the fact that it has a neuter reference in Greek.
“In the Gospel of Mark and also in the book of Acts, my translation consistently uses the third person masculine pronoun to refer to the feminine inanimate spirit. There has been a reaction against this by the people as they hear or read these portions of Scripture, though some of the believers have accepted it when it was explained to them why it had been done.
“This past year while I was continuing working on other portions of Scripture, I was again troubled by the non-grammatical use of the pronominal referent.
“I checked again with some of my colleagues here in Peru and they agreed with me that it might be wise to switch back to the correct grammatical usage. So I checked with Mr Dirks and he did not object to the change.
“Because of the importance of the issue, I also wrote to Dr Eugene Nida and Dr John Beekman for their opinions. They both suggested the use of the grammatically correct forms. The following is a quote from Dr Beekman’s letter :
“‘There is a distinction between animate and inanimate reference in one of the Zapoteco dialects of Mexico. All spirits fall into the inanimate class. The weight of theological considerations led the translators to use the animate form contrary to usage. In consultation, however, it was agreed that it would be preferable not to violate the grammatical pattern especially since the informants felt that the use of the inanimate form did not necessarily mean that the Holy Spirit was not a person. The translators are now using the inanimate form to the satisfaction of all of the believers.’
“I have switched the pronominal reference throughout John and it has just been printed. The reaction of the few people with whom I have checked this has been good. The question has been asked: ‘How does having two masculine members and a feminine-inanimate member affect the Asháninka’s idea of a triune God?’
“One day I was talking to my informant (still a relatively untrained believer) about the different gods in which his fellow tribesmen believe. And I said, ‘What does the Bible teach about God? How many are there?’ (Note that I used the unmarked form that might be either singular or plural.) He answered, ‘There is one God’. Then after thinking a minute, he said, ‘There are two—there’s Jesus. Then afterwards he said, ‘There are three— there’s God’s Spirit’. It seems to me he has understood the doctrine of the Trinity about as well as most Christians. For the last few months we have been using a feminine inanimate referent for the Holy Spirit and this has not seemed to hinder his understanding of the Trinity. Time will tell the reaction of the rest of the people.”
In Swahili, the translation of Pneûma tò Hagion is Roho Mtakatifu. Roho, derived from the Semitic / Arabic Rūḥ, should be in the noun class for loan words but to prevent the misunderstanding of Roho as an inanimate object, it is (grammatically incorrectly) used in the first class of nouns which is specifically reserved for people (source: Bühlmann 1950, p. 176). While some Bantu languages use similar strategies, Lamba left Umupasi Uswetelele in the third noun class that is also used for trees and plants, making a grammatically a non-person. But, as C. M. Doke (in The Bible Translator 1958, p. 57ff.) remarks, “it is [left] to numerous references in the Scriptures to establish that the Holy Spirit us a person, the third person of the Trinity.”
While Swedish used to have three genders (masculine, feminine, neuter), modern Swedish only uses two genders (common [utrum] and neuter). Until the Bibel 2000, “Holy Spirit” was translated as helige Ande which used a masculine adjective and paired it with ande (“Spirit”), which historically could be read as masculine. With the merging of the masculine gender into the common gender it is now translated as the common-gendered heliga ande, matching a more widely-used gender-equal language practice in Swedish. (Source: Mikael Winninge and Sara Rösare)
See also “God’s Gender” under God.