The Hebrew and Greek that is translated in English as “you shall not commit adultery” is translated in Toraja-Sa’dan with an established figure of speech: Da’ mupasandak salu lako rampanan kapa’ or “you shall not fathom the river of marriage” (i.e “approach the marriage relationship of another.”) (Source: H. van der Veen in The Bible Translator 1950, p. 21 ff. ).
It is translated as “practice illicit relationship with women” in Tzeltal, as “go in with other people’s wives” in Isthmus Zapotec, as “live with some one who isn’t your wife” in Huehuetla Tepehua, and as “sleep with a strange partner” in Central Tarahumara. (Source: Waterhouse / Parrott in Notes on Translation October 1967, p. 1ff.)
The Greek that is translated as “Jesus loved him” in most English translations is translated as “his heart burned for” in Guerrero Amuzgo, “he hurt in his heart” (Tzeltal), “his heart went away with” (Mitla Zapotec), “his abdomen died for him” (Western Kanjobal), “his thoughts were toward him” (Cashibo-Cacataibo), “put him in his heart” (Toro So Dogon) (source for all above: Bratcher / Nida), “desired his face” (Mairasi) (source: Enggavoter 2004).
Newman / Nida describe some of the difficulties surrounding the translation of the Greek “Logos” which is typically translated as “Word” in English (click or tap here to read more):
“The term ‘the Word’ has a rich heritage, by way of both its Greek and Jewish backgrounds. For the Greeks who held to a theistic view of the universe, it could be understood as the means by which God reveals himself to the world, while among those who were pantheistic in outlook, the Word was the principle that held the world together and at the same time endowed men with the wisdom for living. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament (Septuagint), the Word could be used both of the means by which God had created the world (Ps 33:6) and through which he had revealed himself to the world (Jer 1:4; Ezek 1:3; Amos 3:1). Among certain of the Greek-speaking Jews of New Testament times, there was much speculation about the ‘wisdom’ of God, which God ‘made in the very beginning, at the first, before the world began’ (Prov 8:22-23). (…) By the time that John writes his Gospel, the Word is close to being recognized as a personal being, and it has roles relating to the manner in which God created the world and to the way in which God reveals himself to the world that he brought into being. Moffatt [whose English translation of the New Testament was published in 1913], realizing the difficulty in finding a term equivalent in meaning to the one used by John, transliterates the Greek term: ‘the Logos existed in the very beginning’ [see also Hart’s translation below or The Orthodox New Testament, 2000)]; while Phillips [New Testament translation published in 1958] at least makes an effort to give his translation meaning: ‘at the beginning God expressed himself.’
“Though the Greek term logos may be rendered ‘word,’ it would be wrong to think it indicates primarily a grammatical or lexical unit in a sentence. Greek has two other terms which primarily identify individual words, whether they occur in a list (as in a dictionary) or in a sentence. The term logos, though applicable to an individual word, is more accurately understood as an expression with meaning; that is, it is ‘a message,’ ‘a communication,’ and, as indicated, a type of ‘revelation.’ A literal translation, therefore, more or less equivalent to English ‘word,’ is frequently misleading.
“In some languages there are additional complications. For example, in some languages the term ‘word’ is feminine in gender, and therefore any reference to it must also be feminine [or neuter — see German below]. As a result, the possible use of pronouns in reference to Jesus Christ can be confusing. Furthermore, in many languages a term such as ‘word’ must be possessed. One cannot speak about ‘the word’ without indicating who spoke the word, since words do not exist apart from the persons who utter them.
“Because of these and other difficulties, many translators treat the term ‘Word’ or Logos as a title, and that is precisely what it is. The very fact that it is normally capitalized in English translations marks it as a title; but in many languages the fact of its being a title must be more clearly indicated by some explicit expression, for example, ‘the one who was called the Word’ [see Xicotepec De Juárez Totonac below] or ‘the one known as the Word’ [see German below] In this way the reader can understand from the beginning that ‘Word’ is to be understood as a designation for a person.
“Therefore, this first sentence in John 1:1 may be rendered ‘Before the world was created, the one who was known as the Word existed’ or ‘… the person called the Word existed.’ In languages which employ honorific forms it is particularly appropriate to use such an indication with the title ‘Word.’ Such a form immediately marks the designation as the title of deity or of a very important personage, depending, of course, upon the usage in the language in question.”
German: Er, der ‘das Wort’ ist: “He who is ‘the Word'” — this solution circumvents the different gender of Jesus (masculine) and “das Wort” (neuter) (in: Die Bibel im heutigen Deutsch, 3rd edition: 1997)
Anindilyakwa: Originally translated as N-ayakwa-murra or “he having the properties of a word/message/language.” Since this was not understandable, it is now “Jesus Christ, the one who revealed God who was hidden from us.” (Source: Julie Waddy in The Bible Translator 2004, p. 452ff.)
Kwang: “He who is called ‘The reality (lit: the body) of the Word of God himself’” (source: Mark Vanderkooi)
Assamese: বাক্য (bakya) / Bengali: বাক্ (bāk) / Telugu: వాక్యము (vākyamu) / Hindi (some versions): वचन (vachan). All these terms are derived from the Sanskrit vach (वाच्), meaning “speech,” “voice,” “talk,” “language,” or “sound.” Historically, “in early Vedic literature, vach was the creative power in the universe. Sometimes she appears alone, sometimes with Prajapati, the creator god. She is called ‘Mother of the Vedas.’ All of this suggest an interesting parallel with logos. From the Upanishads on [late Vedic period, the Vedic period overall stretches from c. 1500–500 BC), however, she retreats from her creative role and becomes identified with Saraswati, the goddess of speech.”
Sanskrit and Hindi (some versions): शब्द (shabda), meaning “speech sound.” Historically, “Shabda is of importance from the Upanishads on. As shabda-brahman it is eternal and is the ground of the phenomenal world.” (Source for this and above: R.M. Clark in The Bible Translator 1962, p. 81ff. )
Sinhala: ධර්මයාණෝ (dharmayāṇō), meaning “philosophy” or “religion.”
Tonga: Folofola: “Originally, the term is used in the kingly language and is related to the meaning of unrolling the mat, an indispensable item in Tongan traditions. The mats, especially those with beautiful and elaborate designs, are usually rolled up and kept carefully until the visit of a guest to the house. The term thus evokes to the Tongans the idea of God’s Word being unrolled to reveal his love and salvation for mankind.” (Source: Joseph Hong in The Bible Translator 1994, p. 329ff. )
“There are other words that the learned translators of the West have in vain tried to render into rich tongues as French or Latin. They found obscure expressions for the common ‘word’ or ‘speech’ (…) It would seem that these words would present insurmountable difficulties for the translator in primitive languages. Missionaries of the Loyalty Islands could not find the word to translate ‘Word,’ nor have they imagined that there could be a corresponding term in the native language. They simply introduced the Greek word into the vocabulary, pronouncing it in the native fashion, ‘In the beginning the Logos’. These people are intelligent; and do not appreciate pronouncing words which make no sense whatsoever. However, when a Caledonian speaks French, he translates his thoughts as they seem to him the most adequate. He can easily express himself relative to the man who has conceived good things, has said them, or done them. He simply describes such a person as, ‘The word of this man is good’. Thought, speech, and action are all included in the New Caledonian term nô. In speaking of an adulterous man one may say, ‘He has done an evil word’. One may speak of a chief who does not think, order, or act correctly as, ‘His word is not good’. The expression ‘the Word of God’ is limited in our speech to meaning of the divine Scriptures, but in New Caledonian it includes the thoughts and acts of God, ‘God said and it was done’. The New Caledonian has no difficulty in seeing the Word becoming action, becoming flesh, the word becoming a physical reality. Our deceased colleague Laffay once said: ‘I prefer to read John in the Ajië rather than in French’.
The recent English New Testament translation by David Bentley Hart (2017), that uses the transliteration Logos for the Greek Λόγος, says this about its translation (p. 549ff.): “In certain special instances it is quite impossible for a translator to reduce [Λόγος] to a single word in English, or in any other tongue (though one standard Chinese version of the Bible renders logos in the prologue of John’s Gospel as 道 (dao), which is about as near as any translation could come to capturing the scope and depth of the word’s religious, philosophical, and metaphoric associations in those verses, while also carrying the additional meaning of “speech” or “discourse”).”
Below you can find some background of this remarkable Chinese translation (click or tap here to read more):
Dao 道, which developed into a central concept of classical Chinese philosophy, originally carried the meaning of “path” and “(main) road.” From there it developed into “leading” and “teaching” as well as “say” and “speak.”
As early as the 7th century BC, however, dao appears with the meaning “method.” With this and the derived meaning of “the (right) way” and “moral principle,” dao became one of the central concepts of the Confucian writings.
In Daoist writings (especially in the Daodejing ), dao goes far beyond the Confucian meaning to take on creative qualities.
With this new compendium of meaning, the term became suitable for numerous foreign religions to represent central points of their doctrine, including Buddhism (as a translation for bodhi — “enlightenment”), Judaism (similar to the Confucians as the “right [Jewish] way”), and Islam (likewise the “right [Muslim] way”).
The Jesuits, who had intensively dealt with Confucianism from the 16th century on, also took over dao as the “correct (Catholic) way,” and the so-called Figurists, a group of Jesuits in the 18th century who saw the Messianic figure of Jesus Christ outlined in Chinese history, went so far as to point to the existence of John’s Logos in the dao of Daodejing.
In later Catholic Bible translations, dao was rarely used as a translation for Logos; instead, the LatinVerbum (from the Latin Vulgate) was transliterated, or yan 言 — “language”, “meaning” — was used, usually with the prefix sheng 圣 — “holy” (also used by the Russian Orthodox Church).
Protestant translations, however, began to use dao as a translation for Logos in the 1830s and have largely retained this practice to this day.
Some voices went so far as to describe Logos and dao as a point of contact between Christianity and the Chinese religions. By its gradual shaping in Greek and Jewish philosophy, Logos had become an appropriate “word vessel.” Similarly, dao’s final formation in Daodejing had also assumed the necessary capacity to serve as a translation for Logos.
The origins of dao and Logos have some clear differences, not the least being the personal relationship of Logos as the Son of God with God the Father. But it is remarkable that using dao as the translation of Logos emulates John’s likely intention with the use of Logos: the central concept of the philosophical and religious ideas of the target culture was used to translate the central concept of Christian theology.
This was not possible in the case of European cultures, which for the most part have offered only translations such as Word or Verbum, terms without any prior philosophical or religious meaning. Only advanced civilizations like China — or ancient Greece — were able to accomplish that. (Summarized version of: Zetzsche, Jost. Aspekte der chinesischen Bibelübersetzung. R. Malek (ed.) Fallbeispiel China. Beiträge zur Religion, Theologie und Kirche im chinesischen Kontext. Nettetal: Steyler Verlag, 1996.)
Peng Kuo-Wei adds this perspective (in Noss / Houser, p. 885): “The Chinese term chosen for logos is not hua (‘word’ or ‘utterance’) but dao from which the term ‘Taoism’ is derived and which can denote a general principle, a way (concrete or abstract), or reason. Thus, Chinese readers can understand that the dao of God is not just words spoken by God, but it constitutes the guiding salvific principle underlying the whole biblical account, including his action in history and teaching and action of Jesus whom he sent. Jesus is the dao of God because his ministry, death and resurrection comprises the fulfillment and realization of God’s theological and ethical principles for humanity.”
The English translation by Sarah Ruden (2021) uses true account in John 1. She explains (p. lxiii): “Logos can mean merely ‘statement’ or ‘speech,’ but it also has lofty philosophical uses, especially in the opening of the Book of John, where it is probably connected to the Stoic conception of the divine reasoning posited to pervade the universe. The essential connotation here is not language but the lasting, indisputable, and morally cogent truth of numbers, as displayed in correct financial accounting: this is the most basic sense of logos.”
In Shipibo-Conibo it is translated as “to brag about God” (“This may strike some at first as being an unspiritual approach, but it surely is Pauline, for Paul used the word ‘to brag’ when he declared his confidence in Jesus Christ and in the salvation of the world which God wrought through His Son.”) (Source: Nida 1952, p. 162)
The Greek that is translated as something like “worried (or: anxious) and bothered about many things” is translated in Tzeltal as “doing all kinds of things has gone to your heart and you have difficulty because of it.”
The term that is translated as “worried (or anxious)” in English is often translated idiomatically. Examples include “eating for oneself one’s heart” (Shona, version of 1966), “black with worry” (Chichewa), “breaking one’s head” (Sranan-Tongo), “hanging up the heart” (Bulu), “crumbling in one’s abdomen” (Western Kanjobal), “one’s stomach is rising up” (Farefare), or “one’s mind is killing one” (Navajo).
The Hebrew of Ezekiel 1:10 is typically translated in English as “Each living creature had four different faces: a human face in front, a lion’s face at the right, a bull’s face at the left, and an eagle’s face at the back.” Tzeltal has no words for left, right, front or back, so translation is “Each living creature had four different faces: on one side of their head they had a human face, on another they had a lion’s face, on another they had a bull’s face and on the last side they had an eagle’s face.” (Source: Ronald Ross in Omanson 2001, p. 361)
Some of the Hebrew and Greek phrases that are translated in English in association with “name,” including “in the name of,” “in my name,” “in your name,” “on the account of my name,” “on the account of your name” (according to a classification by Robert Bratcher in The Bible Translator 1963, p. 72ff. , phrases that belong to the categories of “Agency or instrumentality” and “Representation”) present a number of challenges in other languages.
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Eugene Nida (1947, p 178ff.) explains this way:
“The biblical attitudes toward human personality are of great theological importance. There is, however, only one word which produces any considerable difficulty in other languages. This is the word ‘name.’ The great difference attached to the significance of the name of a person in the Bible times in contrast with our own culture is very important. Note such phrases as ‘whatsoever ye shall ask in my name,’ John 14:13, ‘believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God,’ John 3:18, and ‘life through his name,’ John 20:31. These expressions are generally difficult for us to understand, for the word ‘name’ does not mean the same to us as it meant to those of Bible times. To them the name was the symbolization of the authority and personality of the individual who possessed the name. To us a name is far less important. It may be changed whenever one can convince a judge that another name might be more economically advantageous. The name is also a legal method of giving one’s written assent to certain business transactions, but to us it is not the symbol of the personality.”
The translation in Eastern Huasteca Nahuatl typically is “in someone’s authority” (for instance “I have come in my Father’s name” in John 5:43 becomes “I have come on my Father’s authority”) (source Nida 1947, p. 179), or in Highland Puebla Nahuatl with the more paraphrastic equivalent “as though on orders from you” or in Tzeltal as “by your authority, so he said” (both examples for Mark 9:38 and 39, see Bratcher / Nida).
In Guhu-Samane Mark 11:9 (in English: “Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord”) is translated as “Blessed is the Lord’s namesake who comes.” “In the name of the Lord” caused “puzzlement [because] “has he just assumed the name of the Lord, valid or otherwise? [But] with ‘blessed is the Lord’s namesake who comes’ the strong bond between the namesake and the important ancestor for whom named entitles the namesake to the deference due the ancestor. Thought very proper in this context.” (Source: Ernest L. Richert in Notes on Translation December 1963: p. 4-7; reprinted in The Bible Translator 1965, p. 198ff. )
In Malay “the phrase ‘in my name’ is problematic (…) since it sounds like the use of magic. For this reason [the English] Today’s English Version (Good News Bible) was followed at such passages as John 5:43 and 10:25, where ‘in the name of my Father’ is translated as ‘with my Father’s authority’ and ‘by my Father’s authority’ [respectively]. In John 12:13 ‘in the name of the Lord’ has become ‘in his (the Lord’s) behalf,’ following the common language German translation Die Gute Nachricht. In John 14:13, ‘because you are my followers’ is used, in John in 15:16, 16:23 and 24 ‘as my followers,’ in John 17:11 ‘by your own power, the power you gave me,’ and in John 14:26 ‘in my place.'”
Other translations for “in the name of Jesus Christ” include “in the authority of Jesus Christ” (Isthmus Mixe), “calling on Jesus Christ” (Teutila Cuicatec), “calling the name of Jesus Christ over you” (Ayutla Mixtec), “because of Jesus” (Tepeuxila Cuicatec), “by the power of the name of Jesus Christ” (Chichimeca-Jonaz), or “the word of Jesus Christ is strong” (Lalana Chinantec). (source for this and above: Viola Waterhouse in Notes on Translation August 1966, p. 86ff.).
The Greek that is often translated as “patriarchs” in English is translated as “first old fathers” in Isthmus Zapotec, as “the ancient fathers” in Tzeltal, as “the old important people who lived long ago were forefathers of the Israelites” in Yatzachi Zapotec, as “the ancient fathers” in Highland Totonac, as “the 12 sons of Jacob” Central Tarahumara, or “the fathers from way back when” in Chicahuaxtla Triqui. (Source: Waterhouse / Parrott in Notes on Translation October 1967, p. 1ff.)
The Greek and Hebrew that is often translated into English as “(the two) shall become one flesh” is translated as “become just one” in Copainalá Zoque and San Mateo del Mar Huave or with existing idiomatic equivalents such as “become one blood” in Mitla Zapotec, “become the complement of each other’s spirit” in Tzeltal (source for this and above Bratcher / Nida), “become one body” in Uab Meto (source: P. Middelkoop in The Bible Translator 1952, p. 208ff. ), or “tie with wife as one, so that they tie one insides” in Luang (source: Kathy and Mark Taber in Kroneman (2004), p. 539).
In Tataltepec Chatino it is translated as “the two shall accompany each other so that they no longer seem two but are like one person,” in Choapan Zapotec as “when the man and woman live together in front of God, it is as if just one person,” and in Mezquital Otomi as “they aren’t two, it is as though they are one.” (Source: B. Moore / G. Turner in Notes on Translation 1967, p. 1ff.)
In the Tzeltal translation for the dialectal variant of Highland Tzeltal (Biblia Tzeltal yu’un Oxchuc soc Tenejapa, 2001) the translation team used three different words to translate the Hebrew term that is translated as “wisdom” in English. For the verses referenced here, it uses p’ijil c’op or “word wisdom.”