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”1) 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):
Western Highland Chatino: “God’s perfect heart” J. Hefley (1968, p. 210) tells this story (click or tap here to read more):
“Ninu [a Chatino translation assistant] told his translator that the word ‘holy’ could be used to modify an idol, a household god, the witch doctor, an altar, a lion, the sea which had caused a flood and disaster, a sacred mushroom, and several other things. The translator and his consultant deduced that holy had two main components of meanings for Chatinos. It referred to persons purported to hold supernatural powers, and to objects which, if not properly respected, would bring evil upon one. With this and other information, they agreed that they could not use the Chatino word for ‘holy’ and ‘spirit’ in defining the third person of the Trinity. Their approved translation for Holy Spirit became ‘God’s perfect heart’ (referring primarily to the life principles of one who is living).”
Malay (Today’s Malay Version, publ. 1987): Roh Allah: “Spirit of God.” Barclay Newman (in The Bible Translator 1974, p. 432ff.) explains this as follows (click or tap here to see more):
“A third difficult phrase that had to be dealt with was ‘Holy Spirit,’ since in popular Islamic theology there are many ‘holy spirits.’ In order to overcome this problem it was decided that ‘the Holy Spirit’ would always be rendered ‘God’s Spirit,’ and that wherever ‘Spirit’ or ‘the Spirit’ was used as a reference to God’s Spirit this would be clearly marked.
“Other illustrations could be given of the clearing up of ambiguous and difficult phrases, but only one more will be selected, and it will serve as a transition to the next major section of this article. In John 6:63 the phrase ‘Spirit and life’ (in the expression ‘the words I have spoken to you are Spirit and life’) is taken to refer to one thing not two. That is, even though the words are connected by the conjunction ‘and’ they are not in the relationship to one another that ‘and’ normally suggests. Moreover, ‘spirit’ in John’s Gospel, unless otherwise indicated, always refers to God’s Spirit. So then, the Common Malay has translated with the meaning, ‘the words which I speak come from God’s Spirit and bring life.’ This exegesis also has the advantage of tying in the meaning closely to the previous verse.
“As previously indicated, except in the passages where the context clearly indicates otherwise (John 11:33; John 13:21; John 19:30), it was assumed that ‘spirit’ or ‘the spirit’ refer to God’s Spirit, and so the translator always made this information explicit. For example, John the Baptist’s words in John 1:32 become ‘I saw God’s Spirit come down like a dove from heaven.’ The one exception to this rule is in 3:8a, where there is a play on words. In Greek, as in Hebrew, the same word may mean either ‘wind’ or ‘spirit.’ In this context most translations take ‘wind’ to be the basic comparison, and so have translated in this way; and some have even provided a footnote, indicating the play on words. Since the basic comparison here is seen to be ‘wind,’ the Malay New Testament translated the text in this way.”
Shipibo-Conibo: “Spotless Spirit” — James Lauriault (in The Bible Translator 1951, p. 56ff) explains (click or tap here to see more):
“The Shipibo consider all spirits evil, with the exception of certain entities making up a human personality. It would be a manifest contradiction to say ‘Good Evil-Spirit’ for ‘Holy Spirit,’ and it would be completely misinterpreted if one should say that Jesus perceived in his evil-spirit that some of the scribes thus questioned within their hearts (Mark 2:8).
“For these reasons we have translated this word (…) when it unmistakably refers to a disembodied evil personality yoshin ‘demon.’ (‘Unclean spirit’ we have translated ‘harmful demon.’)
“When it refers to the ‘Holy Spirit,’ we have finally translated it ‘Spotless Spirit,’ using for ‘Spirit’ a word designating one of the larger entities of human personality, the one which includes most of the others and which is always used of a live person.”
Sranan Tongo: Santa Yeye (from previously Santa Winti). Marlon Winedt explains (click or tap here to see more):
“One of the translators in Sranan Tongo followed the historically and scientifically correct analysis that the word for Holy Spirit should be ‘Santa Winti.’ However, the churches had traditionally used ‘Santa Yeye.’ Although in the spiritual world-mapping of the afro-descendants of the country Santa Yeye refers to a more limited spirit, it was the most acceptable choice because ‘winti’ besides meaning ‘spirit, wind’ also refers to the afro-Caribbean religion /spiritual practice ‘winti’ which can be compared to voodoo or other forms in the Caribbean. The Catholic lectionary used this translation (Santa Winti) though there was a heated debate about the use. The then-bishop of Paramaribo advised the faithful to choose whether they wanted to say Santa Winti or Santa Yeye when reading the text. In the interior of Suriname, Catholic catechists actually burned the lectionary because they found the term Santa Winti to be blasphemous.
“When the Sranan Tongo New Testament translation project was underway an attempt to merge two teams did not succeed partially based on this issue. Ultimately the remaining SIL/Bible Society of Suriname team did not chose to use Santa Winti but the accepted Santa Yeye. [This version was published in 2002.]”
Anuak: with a term that means ‘that which comes from God’ Eugene Nida (in The Bible Translator 1955, p. 63) explains (click or tap here to see more):
“In Anuak there is no term for ‘spirit’ in the sense of the Holy Spirit.
“There is a word (ywey) which may be used to translate human soul or spirit, but which is essentially the ‘life principle.’ One cannot speak of the ywey of God, for the Anuaks insist that God does not have a ywey and that He is not a ywey. It is God who has given ywey to all people, animals and plants, but He Himself is of a different order of existence.
“To speak of the ywey of God would be to equate him with earthly creation. There seems to be no easy solution to this problem, but for the time being ‘Spirit’ is to be translated as ‘that which comes from God’, in the sense of that which emanates from or has its origin in God.”
Kaingang: Topẽ kuprĩg (God’s Spirit — kuprĩg is often to the spirit of a dead person). Ursula Wiesemann (in Notes on Translation 1978, p. 32ff.) explains how the translation team reached that conclusion (click or tap here to see more):
“All human beings have a kãnhvég which has as an outward manifestation the shadow or the reflection of that person. It is closely linked to the body and cannot leave it. It is an indication of life in the body. According to one language helper, it lives in our chest (that is, heart), but this may be a carry-over from his Christian teaching.
“The kãnhvég at death becomes vẽnh kuprĩg. Vẽnh is a pronoun meaning ‘someone’s’. The vẽnh kuprĩg seem to live in groups and can be heard at night making a peculiar humming noise. They may do mischievous things like throwing dirt on the house which scares the inhabitants. A vẽnh kuprĩg may also appear to an individual, be recognized by him for whose spirit he is, speak kindly to him, and even touch him. The purpose is to take the living person along to the place where the dead live. It is reported that in this way the vẽnh kuprĩg cause death, or that they might even choke babies to death during the night. In describing an encounter with a vẽnh kuprĩg, the Indians say: ‘I saw a vẽnh kuprĩg. It was so-and-so.’ Whereas kãnhvég collocates with all pronouns and names (that is, can be directly identified as belonging to a specific person), kuprĩg collocates most naturally with vẽnh when it refers to the spirit of a dead person.
“Such conflicting reports on the meaning of the terms is difficult to choose the right terms for the Spirit of God. In Rio das Cobras and in Guarita, God is said to have a kuprĩg and a kãnhvég, but it is His kuprĩg who has a life of his own without being tied to God’s body. In both localities (and some others, where, however, the question was not looked into in detail as in the three areas identified), the definite and unquestioned choice of all people asked was to identify the ‘Holy Spirit’ as Topẽ kuprĩg ‘Spirit of God’. In Nonoai (same dialect area as Guarita but different dialect area from Rio das Cobras), however, the definite and unquestioned choice is Topẽ kãnhvég ‘because kuprĩg refers to the spirit of one who died.’ So it will be necessary to use both terms in a paraphrase to satisfy everyone. The objection to kãnhvég is its close tie to a body, and only in Nonoai this connection seems to be broken.
“Postscript: Since writing the above, several years have passed, and the New Testament has been completed, and the revision committee, composed of three Indians from as many dialect areas, unanimously chose Topẽ kuprĩg for ‘Spirit of God,’ rejecting the word kãnhvég as being ‘too weak and not meaningful’ — that is, the kãnhvég is not a spirit at all but just a sign of life, so it has been dropped in the last revision, as well as the reference to the ‘kãnhvég not dying’ as eternal life.”
- Papiamento: Spiritu. Since the term on its own means “bad spirit,” in any case that no modifier is used (such as “Holy” or “of truth”), the translators used Spiritu di Dios (“Spirit of God”) to differentiate it from the negative connotation (source: Marlon Winedt).
- Ditammari: “air of God.” Loewen (in The Bible Translator 1983, p. 213ff.) explains that a search for the term “spirit” was conducted (especially as in “Holy Spirit”). Since faith healers often avoided using the name of unclean spirits by saying “impure air” a suggestion was made to call Holy Spirit “clean/pure air”. This was accepted but changed to “air of God” to avoid ambiguity with air that we breath.
- Warlpiri: Pirlirrpa Kaatu-kurlangu: “God’s Eternal Spirit,” since “holy’ carries the meaning of taboo and cannot be used (source: Stephen Swartz (SIL) in The Bible Translator 1985, p. 415ff.)
- Eastern Highland Otomi: God’s Good Spirit (source: John Beekman in Notes on Translation November 1964, p. 1-22.)
- Kahua: the term for “Spirit” is a generic term for a spirit which never had a body (i.e., not the spirit of a dead ancestor). (Source: David Clark)
- Keapara: Vea’a Palaguna (“Holy Spirit” but can also be “Holy God” or “angels” — “there is not a strong contrast between the meaning of God and Holy Spirit” since “God” is translated with “Palagu”) (source: Norm Mundhenk in The Bible Translator 2004, p. 222f.)
- Naro: Tc’ẽe: a word that refers to the “thinking/willing part” of one’s personality. (Source: van Steenbergen)
- Mairasi: Janav Enggwarjer Nanen Oroug (“Great Above One’s Clean Spirit”) (source: Enggavoter 2004)
- Seediq: Biyax Utux Baraw (“Power of God”)
- Paiwan: “Most Excellent Spirit” (source for this and above: Covell 1998, p. 246f.)
- Cheyenne: Ma’heonemȧhta’sooma or “Sacred Shadow” (source: Wayne Leman)
- Supyire Senoufo: Munaa (“nose/spirit/breath”) (source: Michael Jemphrey)
- Many Bantu languages translate Pneûma with a word that originally means “soul,” including Ganda and Haya (both: mwoyo), Ndebele (uMoya), Chichewa (mzimu), Sotho (Moya). Fang uses Nsísim: “shadow” or “separate soul” (anima separata) (source: Bühlmann 1950, p. 176)
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 is 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.