holy, sacred, taboo

The use of the word “tapu” (from which the English word “taboo” derives) in translations of various languages in the South Pacific is noteworthy. The English term “taboo” was first used by Captain Cook in 1785. It does not only mean “forbidden, prohibited, untouchable,” but also “sacred, holy.” This concept is attested in almost all South Pacific islands (see this listing for the use of forms of “tapu” in many of the languages — for a modern-day definition of tapu, according to Māori usage, see here).

While some Bible translators working in South Pacific languages did not use “tapu” for the Hebrew Old Testament term קֹדֶשׁ (“holy” in English translation), many did, including in Tongan (“tapuha”), Gilbertese (“tabu”), Tuvalu (“tapu”), Rarotongan (“tapu”), and Māori (“tapu”). (See: Joseph Hong, The Bible Translator 1994, p. 329.)

In some of those languages, for instance in the Kiribati (Gilbertese) New Version Bible of 2016, other Old (and New) Testament terms that don’t contain a “Holy” marker in the source language, use “tabu” as a modifier for terms that are rendered in English as “Bread of Presence (shewbread),” “Sabbath,” or “Temple.”

Some South Pacific languages also use forms of “tapu” in translation of the “Holy” (Ἅγιον) in “Holy Spirit.”

The Hebraist Franz Steiner gave a series of lectures on the topic of “taboo” and the Old Testament idea of “holy” or “sacred” that are now considered classic. Steiner died shortly after giving the lectures and they were published posthumously. While he never actually arrives at an actual definition of “taboo” in his lectures the following excerpts show something of the difficult relationship between “taboo” and “קֹדֶשׁ” (Click or tap here):

“The most common form of the word is tapu. That is the Maori, Tahitian, Marquesan, Rarotongan, Mangarevan and Paumotan pronunciation, which in some cases sounds more like tafu. The Hawaiian form is kapu, the Tongan tabu. Forms like tambu and tampu are not unknown, particularly in the mixed linguistic area or in the Polynesian periphery. The word is used extensively outside Polynesia proper. Thus in Fiji tabu means unlawful, sacred, and superlatively good; in Malagassy, tabaka, profaned, polluted. The New English Dictionary remarks: ‘The accentuation taboó, and the use of the word as substantive and verb, are English; in all the native languages the word is stressed on the first syllable, and is used only as an adjective, the substantive and verb being expressed by derivative words and phrases.’

“Up to this point my report is straightforward, and I only wish I could continue, as so many have done, with the following words: ‘A brief glance at any compilation of the forms and meanings of this word in the various Polynesian languages shows that in all of them the word has two main meanings from which the others derive, and these meanings are: prohibited and sacred.’ The comparison of these data, however, suggests something rather different to me; namely, (i) that the same kind of people have compiled all these dictionaries, assessing the meaning of words in European terms, and (a) that, with few exceptions, there are no Polynesian words meaning approximately what the word ‘holy’ means in contemporary usage without concomitantly meaning ‘forbidden’. The distinction between prohibition and sacredness cannot be expressed in Polynesian terms. Modern European languages on the other hand lack a word with the Polynesian range of meaning; hence Europeans discovered that taboo means both prohibition and sacredness. Once this distinction has been discovered, it can be conveyed within the Polynesian cultural idiom by the citation of examples in which only one of the two European translations would be appropriate. I have no wish to labour this point, but I do want to stress a difficulty all too seldom realized. It is for this reason that it is so hard to accept uncritically the vocabulary-list classifications of meanings on which so much of the interpretation of taboo has been based. Tregear’s (Tregear Edward: “The Maoris of New Zealand,” 1890) definition of the Maori tapu is an example: ‘Under restriction, prohibited. Used in two senses: (i) sacred, holy, hedged with religious sanctity; (2) to be defiled, as a common person who touches some chief or tapued property; entering a prohibited dwelling; handling a corpse or human bones . . .’ and so forth.

“This sort of classification almost suggests that there was in Polynesian life a time in which, or a group of objects and situations in relation to which, the notion of prohibition was employed while the society did not yet know, or related to a different group of objects and situations, the notion of sacredness. This is not so. Taboo is a single, not an ‘undifferentiated’, concept. The distinction between prohibition and sacredness is artificially introduced by us and has no bearing on the concept we are discussing. (…)

“Before we go on to the meaning of impurity in taboo, I should like to mention the exceptions I alluded to before: when, according to dictionary evidence, taboo means only ‘sacred’ and not ‘prohibited’. As translations of tapu Tregear gives for the island of Fotuna ‘sacred’, and for the island of Aniwan, ‘sacred, hallowed’. There they are, but I think one is entitled to be suspicious of such cases, since they are not accompanied by any examples of non-Christian, non-translatory use, for the word taboo was widely used by missionaries in the translation of the Bible: in the Lord’s Prayer for ‘hallowed’, ‘sacred’, and as an adjective for words like Sabbath. On the other hand, Tregear’s second point is plausible: that the notion of impurity is derived from that of prohibition (or, as one should rather say, prohibition and sacredness). A mere glance into Polynesian dictionaries reaffirms this statement, for while there is no use of a word — with, as I said, a few exceptions — which connotes sacredness without implying prohibition, there are many words meaning dirty, filthy, not nice, putrid, impure, defiled, etc. Thus it was possible to convey a notion of an object’s unfitness for consumption, or unsatisfactory surface or state of preservation, without any reference to sacredness and prohibition. Only some of the notions of impurity were connected with taboo notions. (p. 33-34)

(…)

“Qodesh [קדש] is, for the man of the Pentateuch, unthinkable without manifestation. Furthermore, it is a relation, and what is related to God becomes separated from other things, and separation implies taboo behaviour. According to taboo concepts, man must behave in a certain way once the relationship has been established, whether or not he is part of the qodesh relationship. For it does not follow from either the behavioural or the doctrinal element of qodesh that (1) in the establishment of the relationship the incipient part must be God, or that (2) man must be the other part.

“The full relationship, including the ritual behaviour which it to some extent explains, is basically a triangular one, but two corners of the tri¬angle may coincide. Thus the Pentateuch tells us of qodesh, holiness: (1) when God manifests Himself, then the spot is qodesh for it has been related to Him. Here the notion of contagion operates. (2) When some thing, animal, or human being has been dedicated to Him, then it is qodesh and hence taboo. Contagion, however, is in no way involved in this case. (3) The baruch relationship, the so-called blessing, also establishes holiness. God himself — this comes as a shock to most superficial Bible readers — is never called holy, qodesh, unless and in so far as He is related to something else. He is holy in His capacity as Lord of Hosts, though He is not here related to man. Very often the Bible says. The Holy One, blessed be He, or blessed be His name. The name is, in the framework of the doctrinal logic of the Pentateuch, always qodesh because it establishes a relationship: it has, so we primitives think, to be pronounced in order to exist.” (p. 85-86)

See also consecrate / consecration and complete verse (Exod. 3:14-15).

apostle, apostles

The Greek term that is translated as “apostle(s)” in English is (back-) translated in the following ways:

blood, body, flesh

Fijian uses four noun classes:

(1) Possessible items in general, taking normal or “neutral” pronoun forms
(2) Edible items, to which are linked “edible” pronoun forms
(3) Drinkable items, to which are linked “drinkable” pronoun forms
(4) Body parts and kinship, taking “familiar” pronoun suffixed forms.

The Greek terms that are translated as “body (or: flesh)” and “blood” used in John 6:52-56 “as symbols of Christ’s sacrifice are not treated by either version as edible and drinkable objects, even though they are said in the text to be eaten and drunk. The apparent reason is that the passage is taken to be about the institution of a memorial and not about the actions of eating and drinking themselves. Hence the translators use the familiar pronoun for the body part (lewequ ‘my body’) and the neutral pronoun for the blood part (noqu dra ‘my blood’).”

Source: Joseph Hong in The Bible Translator 1994, p. 419ff.

redeemer

The Hebrew that is translated as “redeemer” in English is translated the following way in these languages:

While in Tonga, an early version by J.E. Moulton (1902) used a phonetic transcription — Koeli (from Hebrew gaal גָּאַל)– (Job 19:25, Moulton Version) the West version (1884, 2014) uses huhu’i. This “word, meaning ‘Redeemer,’ is made up of two components: Hu meaning “to enter,” hu’i meaning “to free.” It is thus understood as someone who enters, intervenes in order to set free. (Source: Joseph Hong in The Bible Translator 1994, p. 329ff.)

In Tai Dam the translation is “Lord-come-seek-buy.” “This is the Lord who came and sought us, and then bought us for Himself. Just “to buy a person” might imply acquiring a personal slave. But one comes seeking in order to buy is one who is earnestly looking for the straying sheep who is lost in the mountainside in his own sinful wandering away form the Shepherd of his soul.” (Source: Nida 1952, p. 139.)

In Luba-Katanga it is Mukuji: “Kinsman Redeemer.” Kilgour (1939, p. 95f.) tells this story: “John A. Clarke translated the Gospels and Acts and has this illustration: ‘One day a boy bleeding from cruelty arrived at the mission. Mr Clarke offered to ‘redeem’ him from his master. But the lad cried out, ‘You are not able to redeem me, for you are no relation of mine: only my parents or one of my relations can ‘redeem’ me. You may buy me, but I would be your slave: only a relation can ‘redeem’ me.’ As the translator adds, ‘the Son of God became one with us so that He might be our Redeemer’. Mukuji is the Katanga term; it means ‘Kinsman Redeemer.’”

priest

The Greek hierus and its various forms that are typically translated as “priest” in English (itself deriving from Latin “presbyter” — “elder”) is often translated with a consideration of existing religious traditions. (Click or tap for details)

Bratcher / Nida (1961) say this:

However, rather than borrow local names for priests, some of which have unwanted connotations, a number of translations have employed descriptive phrases based on certain functions: (1) those describing a ceremonial activity: Pamona uses “tadu,” the priestess who recites the litanies in which she describes her journey to the upper or under-world to fetch life-spirit for sick people, animals or plants; Batak Toba uses the Arabic “malim,” “Muslim religious teacher;” “one who presents man’s sacrifice to God” (Bambara, Eastern Maninkakan), “one who presents sacrifices” (Baoulé, Navajo), “one who takes the name of the sacrifice” (Kpelle), and “to make a sacrifice go out” (Hausa); (2) those describing an intermediary function: “one who speaks to God” (Shipibo-Conibo) and “spokesman of the people before God” (Tabasco Chontal).

In Obolo it is translated as ogwu ngwugwa: “The one who offers sacrifice” (source: Enene Enene) and in Mairasi as agam aevar nevwerai: “religious leader” (source: Enggavoter 2004).

For Guhu-Samane, Ernest Richert (in The Bible Translator, 1965, p. 81ff.) reports this:

The [local] cult of Poro used to be an all-encompassing religious system that essentially governed all areas of life. (…) For ‘priest’ the term “poro father” would at first seem to be a natural choice. However, several priests of the old cult are still living. Although they no longer function primarily as priests of the old system they still have a substantial influence on the community, and there would be more than a chance that the unqualified term would (in some contexts particularly) be equated with the priest of the poro cult. We learned, then, that the poro fathers would sometimes be called “knife men” in relation to their sacrificial work. The panel was pleased to apply this term to the Jewish priest, and the Christian community has adopted it fully. [Mark 1:44, for instance, now] reads: “You must definitely not tell any man of this. But you go show your body to the knife man and do what Moses said about a sacrifice concerning your being healed, and the cause (base of this) will be apparent.”

For a revision of the 1968 version of the Bible in Khmer Joseph Hong (in: The Bible Translator 1996, 233ff.) talks about a change in wording for this term:

Bocheachary — The use of this new construction meaning “priest” is maintained to translate the Greek word hiereus. The term “lauk sang” used in the old version actually means a “Buddhist monk,” and is felt to be theologically misleading. The Khmer considers the Buddhist monk as a “paddy field of merits,” a reserve of merits to be shared with other people. So a Khmer reader would find unthinkable that the lauk sang in the Bible killed animals, the gravest sin for a Buddhist; and what a scandal it would be to say that a lauk sang was married, had children, and drank wine.

Sabbath

The Greek that is translated as “Sabbath” in English is rendered as “day we rest” in Tzotzil whereas in Mairasi it is the “Jew’s Rest Day.”

Shilluk translates it as “day of God” and Obolo as Usen Mbuban: “Holy Day.”

(Sources: Tzotzil: Marion Cowan in Notes on Translation with Drill, p. 169ff; Mairasi: Enggavoter 2004; Shilluk: Nida 1964, p. 237; Obolo: Enene Enene)

In the old Khmer version as well as in the first new translation this term was rendered as “day of rest” (Thngai Chhup Somrak). Considered inadequate to convey its religious meaning (not only about cessation of work, but also in honour of Yahweh as the Creator), the committee has decided to keep the Hebrew word and use its transliterated form Thgnai Sabath. The Buddhist word Thngai Seil “day of merits” used by some Catholics was once under consideration but was rejected because it did not receive unanimous support.” (Source: Joseph Hong in The Bible Translator 1996, p. 233ff.)

In Spanish, the translation is either día de reposo (“day of rest”) or sábado (usually: “Saturday,” derived from the Greek and Hebrew original. Nida (1947, p. 239f.) explains that problem for Spanish and other languages in its sphere of influence: “In translation “Sabbath” into various aboriginal languages of Latin America, a considerable number of translators have used the Spanish sábado, ‘Saturday,’ because it is derived from the Hebrew sabbath and seems to correspond to English usage as well. The difficulty is that sábado means only ‘Saturday’ for most people. There is no religious significance about this word as the is with ‘Sabbath’ in English. Accordingly the [readers] cannot understand the significance of the persecution of Jesus because he worked on ‘Saturday.’ It has been found quite advantageous to use the translation ‘day of rest,’ for this accurately translated the Hebrew meaning of the term and resolves the problem in connection with the prohibitions placed upon some types of activities.”

inclusive vs. exclusive pronoun (1Thess. 3:7)

Many languages distinguish between inclusive and exclusive first-person plural pronouns (“we”). The inclusive “we” specifically includes the addressee (“you and I and possibly others”), while the exclusive “we” specifically excludes the addressee (“he/she/they and I, but not you”). This grammatical distinction is called “clusivity.” While Semitic languages such as Hebrew or most Indo-European languages such as Greek or English do not make that distinction, translators of languages with that distinction have to make a choice every time they encounter “we” or a form thereof (in English: “we,” “our,” or “us”).

For this verse, translators typically select the exclusive form (excluding the addressee).

Source: Velma Pickett and Florence Cowan in Notes on Translation January 1962, p. 1ff.

In Fijian the trial exclusive form “neitou” (“of me and of them two”) is used instead. This choice is understandable in view of the introduction found in both letters to the Thessalonians, where the writer Paul indicates clearly that the letters were co-authored by two other colleagues, Silas and Timothy, hence the use of the trial form “our God” (“of me and of Silas and Timothy”).

Source: Joseph Hong in The Bible Translator 1994, p. 419ff.

inclusive vs. exclusive pronoun (1Thess. 2:13)

Many languages distinguish between inclusive and exclusive first-person plural pronouns (“we”). The inclusive “we” specifically includes the addressee (“you and I and possibly others”), while the exclusive “we” specifically excludes the addressee (“he/she/they and I, but not you”). This grammatical distinction is called “clusivity.” While Semitic languages such as Hebrew or most Indo-European languages such as Greek or English do not make that distinction, translators of languages with that distinction have to make a choice every time they encounter “we” or a form thereof (in English: “we,” “our,” or “us”).

For this verse, translators typically select the exclusive form (excluding the addressee).

Source: Velma Pickett and Florence Cowan in Notes on Translation January 1962, p. 1ff.

In Fijian the trial exclusive form “neitou” (“of me and of them two”) is used instead. This choice is understandable in view of the introduction found in both letters to the Thessalonians, where the writer Paul indicates clearly that the letters were co-authored by two other colleagues, Silas and Timothy, hence the use of the trial form “our God” (“of me and of Silas and Timothy”).

Source: Joseph Hong in The Bible Translator 1994, p. 419ff.

inclusive vs. exclusive pronoun (1Thess. 5:14)

Many languages distinguish between inclusive and exclusive first-person plural pronouns (“we”). The inclusive “we” specifically includes the addressee (“you and I and possibly others”), while the exclusive “we” specifically excludes the addressee (“he/she/they and I, but not you”). This grammatical distinction is called “clusivity.” While Semitic languages such as Hebrew or most Indo-European languages such as Greek or English do not make that distinction, translators of languages with that distinction have to make a choice every time they encounter “we” or a form thereof (in English: “we,” “our,” or “us”).

For this verse, translators typically select the exclusive form (excluding the addressee).

Source: Velma Pickett and Florence Cowan in Notes on Translation January 1962, p. 1ff.

In Fijian the trial exclusive form “neitou” (“of me and of them two”) is used instead. This choice is understandable in view of the introduction found in both letters to the Thessalonians, where the writer Paul indicates clearly that the letters were co-authored by two other colleagues, Silas and Timothy, hence the use of the trial form “our God” (“of me and of Silas and Timothy”).

Source: Joseph Hong in The Bible Translator 1994, p. 419ff.

inclusive vs. exclusive pronoun (1Thess. 2:8)

Many languages distinguish between inclusive and exclusive first-person plural pronouns (“we”). The inclusive “we” specifically includes the addressee (“you and I and possibly others”), while the exclusive “we” specifically excludes the addressee (“he/she/they and I, but not you”). This grammatical distinction is called “clusivity.” While Semitic languages such as Hebrew or most Indo-European languages such as Greek or English do not make that distinction, translators of languages with that distinction have to make a choice every time they encounter “we” or a form thereof (in English: “we,” “our,” or “us”).

For this verse, translators typically select the exclusive form (excluding the addressee).

Source: Velma Pickett and Florence Cowan in Notes on Translation January 1962, p. 1ff.

In Fijian the trial exclusive form “neitou” (“of me and of them two”) is used instead. This choice is understandable in view of the introduction found in both letters to the Thessalonians, where the writer Paul indicates clearly that the letters were co-authored by two other colleagues, Silas and Timothy, hence the use of the trial form “our God” (“of me and of Silas and Timothy”).

Source: Joseph Hong in The Bible Translator 1994, p. 419ff.

inclusive vs. exclusive pronoun (2Thess. 3:11)

Many languages distinguish between inclusive and exclusive first-person plural pronouns (“we”). The inclusive “we” specifically includes the addressee (“you and I and possibly others”), while the exclusive “we” specifically excludes the addressee (“he/she/they and I, but not you”). This grammatical distinction is called “clusivity.” While Semitic languages such as Hebrew or most Indo-European languages such as Greek or English do not make that distinction, translators of languages with that distinction have to make a choice every time they encounter “we” or a form thereof (in English: “we,” “our,” or “us”).

For this verse, translators typically select the exclusive form (excluding the addressee).

Source: Velma Pickett and Florence Cowan in Notes on Translation January 1962, p. 1ff.

In Fijian the trial exclusive form “neitou” (“of me and of them two”) is used instead. This choice is understandable in view of the introduction found in both letters to the Thessalonians, where the writer Paul indicates clearly that the letters were co-authored by two other colleagues, Silas and Timothy, hence the use of the trial form “our God” (“of me and of Silas and Timothy”).

Source: Joseph Hong in The Bible Translator 1994, p. 419ff.

inclusive vs. exclusive pronoun (1Thess. 3:8)

Many languages distinguish between inclusive and exclusive first-person plural pronouns (“we”). The inclusive “we” specifically includes the addressee (“you and I and possibly others”), while the exclusive “we” specifically excludes the addressee (“he/she/they and I, but not you”). This grammatical distinction is called “clusivity.” While Semitic languages such as Hebrew or most Indo-European languages such as Greek or English do not make that distinction, translators of languages with that distinction have to make a choice every time they encounter “we” or a form thereof (in English: “we,” “our,” or “us”).

For this verse, translators typically select the exclusive form (excluding the addressee).

Source: Velma Pickett and Florence Cowan in Notes on Translation January 1962, p. 1ff.

In Fijian the trial exclusive form “neitou” (“of me and of them two”) is used instead. This choice is understandable in view of the introduction found in both letters to the Thessalonians, where the writer Paul indicates clearly that the letters were co-authored by two other colleagues, Silas and Timothy, hence the use of the trial form “our God” (“of me and of Silas and Timothy”).

Source: Joseph Hong in The Bible Translator 1994, p. 419ff.