Logos, Word

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]; 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.”

Translation for “Logos” include:

  • Xicotepec De Juárez Totonac: “the one who is called the Word”
  • Sayula Popoluca: “the Word by which God is known”
  • Miahuatlán Zapotec: “one who revealed God’s thoughts”
  • Alekano: “God’s wise Speech”
  • Tojolabal: “he who told us about God” (Source for this and above: M. Larson / B. Moore in Notes on Translation February, 1970, p. 1-125.)
  • Yatzachi Zapotec: “Jesus Christ the person who is the Word, he who gives eternal life”
  • Eastern Highland Otomi: “the Word that gives new life to our hearts”
  • Garifuna: “the one named Word, the one who gives life” (Source for this and two above: John Beekman in Notes on Translation 12, November 1964, p. 1ff.)
  • Tzeltal de Oxchuc y Tenejapa (Highland Tzeltal): te C’opile: “the Word” (in a new, 2001 version of the New Testament to avoid the previous translation “the Word of God,” a term also used for “Bible.” — Source: Robert Bascom)
  • Mairasi: “The Message” (source: Enggavoter 2004)
  • 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)
  • 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.)
  • Ajië: (click or tap here to read an explanation by Maurice Leenhardt — in The Bible Translator 1951, p. 154ff.):

    “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 no. 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 (tao), 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 Latin Verbum (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.”

vain (worship)

The Greek that is translated into English as “vain” or “in vain” in English is (back-) translated in various ways:

  • Cashibo-Cacataibo: “say I am important, but they do not believe it”
  • Kekchí: “has no meaning when they praise me”
  • Toraja-Sa’dan, Pamona: “uselessly”
  • Copainalá Zoque: “uselessly they remember”
  • Farefare: “their religion is their mouth”
  • Southern Subanen: “their worship has no meaning”
  • Tzotzil: “they say they love me, but this means nothing”
  • Southern Bobo Madaré: “they worship me but they do not mean what they say”
  • Central Mazahua: “it is of no value that they honor me”
  • San Blas Kuna: “their thinking is not in their hearts” (source for this and above: Bratcher / Nida)
  • Mairasi: “tribute of theirs for me [which] will-be-on-their-own” (source: Enggavoter 2004)
  • Guhu-Samane: “with the front teeth of their mouths they worship me” (“‘In vain’ caused puzzlement [because] why should their efforts to worship God produce no results, try as they may? [But the idiom] ‘with the front teeth of their mouths they worship me’ comes from the picture of one who is making a pretense at eating food, hence their deceit is apparent.’ Source: Ernest L. Richert in Notes on Translation December 1963: p. 4-7; reprinted in The Bible Translator 1965, p. 198ff.)

cast lots

The Greek that is translated as “casting” or “drawing lots” in English is often translated with a specific idiom, such as “to take out bamboo slips” — 掣 籤 chè qiān (in most Chinese Bibles), “each to pick-up which is-written (i.e. small sticks inscribed with characters and used as slots)” (Batak Toba), a term for divination by means of reed stalks (Toraja-Sa’dan).

In some cases a cultural equivalent is not available, or it is felt to be unsuitable in this situation, e.g. in Ekari where “to spin acorns” has the connotation of gambling, one may have to state the fact without mentioning the means, e.g. “it came to him,” (source for this and all above: Reiling / Swellengrebel). In Shipibo-Conibo there was no equivalent for “casting lots” so the translation for Mark 15:24 is descriptive: “they shook little things to decide what each one should take” (source: Nida 1952, p. 47).

Other solutions include:

  • Purari: “throw shells” (source: David Clark)
  • Kwara’ae (in Acts 1:26) “they played something like dice to find out who of the two God chose (God revealed his will that way)” (source: Carl Gross)
  • Navajo: “draw straws”
  • Yatzachi Zapotec “raffle”
  • Chol “choose by a game” (source for this and above: M. Larson / B. Moore in Notes on Translation February 1970, p. 1-125)
  • Chichimeca-Jonaz: “threw one or two little hard things that had a sign…to see which person it would be”
  • Kekchí: “tried with luck
  • Lalana Chinantec: “there were little things they played with that made evident who it would be who would be lucky”
  • Chuj: “entered luck upon them”
  • Ayutla Mixtec: “put out luck” (Source for this and five above: Viola Waterhouse in Notes on Translation August 1966, p. 86ff.)

In North Alaskan Inupiatun a term for “gambling” is used. The same Inupiatun term is also used in Esther 3:7, “though there winning and losing is not in view, but rather choosing by chance” (source: Robert Bascom)

The stand-alone term that is translated “lots” in English is translated as “two pieces of potsherd” in Highland Totonac. (Source: Ronald D. Olson in Notes on Translation January, 1968, p. 15ff.)

baptize with the Holy Spirit

The Greek that is translated in English as “baptize with the Holy Spirit” is translated in Ixcatlán Mazatec as “(baptize so that) the Holy Spirit will come upon/enter you” (source: Robert Bascom) and in Mairasi as “wash with the Holy Spirit” (“water” baptism is “wash with water”) (source: Enggavoter 2004).

Other languages translate as follows:

  • Rincón Zapotec: “be baptized with the Holy Spirit the Holy Spirit will come to be with you”
  • Teutila Cuicatec: “God’s Holy Spirit will possess you”
  • Chuj: “God’s Spirit will be given to you”
  • Mezquital Otomi: “be baptized with the power of the Holy Spirit”
  • Mayo: “receive the Holy Spirit in the same way you receive baptism”
  • Lalana Chinantec: “the Great Spirit will enter your hearts” (Source for this and above: Viola Waterhouse in Notes on Translation August 1966, p. 86ff.)

See also Holy Spirit and baptism / baptize.

Levite

The Greek that is transliterated “Levites” in English (only the Contemporary English Version translates it as “temple helpers”) is translated in Ojitlán Chinantec as “temple caretakers,” Yatzachi Zapotec as “people born in the family line of Levi, people whose responsibility it was to do the work in the important church of the Israelites,” in Alekano as “servants in the sacrifice house from Jerusalem place,” and in Tenango Otomi as “helpers of priests.” (Source: M. Larson / B. Moore in Notes on Translation February 1970, p. 1-125.)

I will lay down my life for you

The Greek that is translated as “I will lay down my life for you” is translated in various ways:

(Source: John Beekman in Notes on Translation 12, November 1964, p. 1ff.)

demon

The Greek that is typically translated/transliterated in English as “demon” is translated in Central Mazahua as “the evil spirit(s) of the devil” (source: Ellis Deibler in Notes on Translation July, 1967, p. 5ff.).

In Sissala it is translated with kaŋtɔŋ, which traditionally referred to “either a spirit of natural phenomena such as trees, rivers, stones, etc., or the spirit of a deceased person that has not been taken into the realm of the dead. Kaŋtɔŋ can be good or evil. Evil kaŋtɔŋ can bring much harm to people and are feared accordingly. A kaŋtɔŋ can also dwell in a person living on this earth. A person possessed by kaŋtɔŋ does not behave normally.” (Source: Regina Blass in Holzhausen 1991, p. 48f.)

In Umiray Dumaget Agta it is translated as hayup or “creature, animal, general term for any non-human creature, whether natural or supernatural.” creature.” Thomas Headland (in: Notes on Translation, September 1971, p. 17ff.) explains some more: “There are several types of supernatural creatures, or spirit beings which are designated by the generic term hayup. Just as we have several terms in English for various spirit beings (elves, fairies, goblins, demons, imps, pixies) so have the Dumagats. And just as you will find vast disagreement and vagueness among English informants as to the differences between pixies and imps, etc., so you will find that no two Dumagats will agree as to the form and function of their different spirit beings.” This term can also be used in a verb form: hayupen: “creatured” or “to be killed, made sick, or crazy by a spirit.

See also devil and formal pronoun: demons or Satan addressing Jesus.

What then are we to say

In Kadiwéu, it is not possible to use a rhetorical question for the purpose of linking subjects as is done in this case in the Greek (and English) text. Here, the link was maintained by omitting this first question, and then expanding the second question (“Is there injustice on God’s part?” in English) to now say, “Is God unjust when He chooses just those people He wants to choose?” (Source: Glyn Griffiths in Notes on Translation June 1986, p. 25ff.)

See also here.

tent of testimony

The Greek that is translated as “tent of testimony” or similar in English is translated as “a leather house which they could pack up again, where they remembered God” in Lalana Chinantec, as “cloth house where they worshipped God” in Eastern Highland Otomi, as “cloth house where God spoke to the people” in Chichimeca-Jonaz, as “house of God where they kept the stones on which were written the commandments of God” in Morelos Nahuatl, as “small holy house which was of the skins of animals, in it were the stones which contained the ten commandments” in San Mateo del Mar Huave, and “inside this church the slates on which God’s law was written were kept” Teutila Cuicatec. (Source: Viola Waterhouse in Notes on Translation August 1966, p. 86ff.)

stiff-necked, uncircumcised in heart and ears

The phrase that is translated into English as “you stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears” is translated into Afar as “You dry stones that nothing enters, and people who have hearts that refuse God, and ears closed saying we didn’t hear God’s message.” (stiff-necked > dry stones, uncircumcised in heart > hearts that refuse God, uncircumcised ears > ears closed to hearing God’s message) (Source: Loren Bliese)

Other translations for “uncircumcised in heart and ears” include:

  • Rincón Zapotec: “it doesn’t enter your hearts or your ears. You are like those who don’t even believe”
  • Eastern Highland Otomi: “hard are your hearts and not a little bit open are your ears”
  • Morelos Nahuatl: “you have your heart as unbelievers, you do not want to hear God’s word”
  • Highland Popoluca: “you never wanted to do God’s will, never truly believed”
  • Teutila Cuicatec: “you are just the same as those who do not believe God’s word because you do not obey”
  • Huichol: “you have not been marked with God’s sign in your hearts or in your ears (you are unruly and unsubmissive like an untamed, unbranded bronco)”
  • Ojitlán Chinantec: “you do not have the word-sign in your hearts. Your ears are clogged”
  • Copainalá Zoque: “you just don’t understand”
  • Isthmus Mixe: “your hearts and minds are not open” (source for this and above: Viola Waterhouse in Notes on Translation August 1966, p. 86ff.)
  • Kaqchikel: “with your hearts unprepared” (Source: Nida 1964, p. 220)

persecute, suffer

The Greek that is often translated as “persecute” or “suffer” in English has the option of various terms in Luang with different shades of meaning.

For Acts 8:1 and 9:4, ramuki-rama’ala (“hit and kick”). This term refers to “physical persecution.”

For Acts 7:6, 7:19, 7:24, rnahora-rnala’a (“to send here-to send there”, “give the run-around”). This term is used when “emotional pressure or frustration is in focus.”

For Acts 20:23, kropna-kreut (“send here-there”). This term is used for “pushing people around, treating them as no better than a slave.”

For 2 Tim. 1:12, mola-ma’a (“make shame”). This term is used when “making someone lose face, generally with words.”

Source: Kathy Taber in Notes on Translation 1/1999, p. 9-16.

advocate, comforter, helper

The Greek that is translated as “comforter,” “advocate,” or “helper” in English is similarly difficult to translate in other languages.

Nida (1952, p. 164) notes:

“Perhaps no word in all the New Testament is so hard to translate adequately as the word ‘Comforter.’ The Greek word, generally transliterated as Paraclete, is exceedingly rich in its wealth of meaning, for it implies not only “to comfort” but also “to admonish,” “to exhort,” “to encourage,” and “to help.” To put all these meanings into one native expression is indeed difficult, and yet the missionary translator must try to find a term or phrase which will give the people an adequate picture of the unique ministry of the Holy Spirit.

“In the Tausug language of southern Philippines the people use the phrase ‘the one who goes alongside continuously.’ In this sense He is the constant companion of the believer. In Eastern Highland Otomi of central Mexico the native believers have suggested the phrase “He who gives warmth in our soul.’ One can readily see the picture of the chilled heart and life seeking comfort in the Living Word and finding in the ministry of the Spirit of God that warmth which the soul so needs if it has to live in the freezing atmosphere of sin and worldly cares.

“The Baoulé Christians speak of the Comforter as ‘He who ties up the thoughts.’ The thoughts of the worried heart are scattered every place in senseless and tormenting disorder. The Comforter ties up these distracted thoughts, and though they still exist, they are under the control of the Spirit.”

In Luba-Katanga the legal aspect of Paraclete is particularly emphasized with the term Nsenga Mukwashi, a term that’s also used in the traditional legal system, referring to a person who in court proceedings “interests himself in the people and stands by them in trouble, in other words to plead their cause and be their advocate.” (Source: Wilfred Bradnock in The Bible Translator 1953, p. 49ff.)

In South Bolivian Quechua it is translated as “the heartener (=one who make one have a heart)” (source: T.E. Hudspith in The Bible Translator 1952, p. 66ff.).

Here is another story that Nida (1952, p. 20) retells of Kare (click or tap here):

“When porters, carrying heavy loads on their heads, go on long journeys, often for as long as two or three months, they may become sick with malaria or dysentery, and in their weakness they straggle to the end of the line of carriers. Finally in complete exhaustion they may collapse along the trail, knowing full well that if they do not get to the safety of the next village, they will be killed and eaten by wild animals during the night. If, however, someone passing along the trail sees them lying there prostrate, and if he takes pity on them, stooping down to pick them up and helping them to reach the safety and protection of the next village, they speak of such a person as ‘the one who falls down beside us.’ It is this expression [that was] taken to translate ‘Comforter,’ for this is the One who sustains, protects, and keeps the children of God on their journey toward their heavenly home.”

“In Nyanja, it is translated in 1 John 2:1 by nkhoswe yotinenera: ‘mediator who speaks on our behalf.’ The nkhoswe is the traditional clan representative who speaks on behalf of individual members in negotiations involving another clan, as when a marriage is being arranged or a dispute (‘case’) is being settled. The modification yotinenera emphasizes the fact that the group as a whole requires this representation — certainly a very fitting metaphor depicting Christ’s role in pleading the case of humanity before his heavenly Father.” (Source: Wendland 1987, p. 78)

In Miao (Chuanqiandian Cluster) it is translated as “to get at the heart round the corner” (source Kilgour 1939, p. 150) and in Colorado as “helping Counselor” (source: M. Larson / B. Moore in Notes on Translation February 1970, p. 1-125.).