complete verse (1John 2:1)

Following are a number of back-translation of 1John 2:1:

Yatzachi Zapotec: “My little children, these things I write you in order that you will not do evil. But if any of us should do evil, there is a person who speaks in favor of us before our father God, he is Jesus Christ the person who walks straight (is righteous).”

Eastern Highland Otomi: “My dear children who are believers, I am writing this paper to you. I’m telling you not to do sin. But if a believer does sin, there is our Helper, who is Jesus Christ, the Good-person, he will speak to the Father about us when we sin.”

Tzotzil: “My children, I wrote thus to you in order that you not anymore sin. If there are those of you who have sinned, remember that Jesus Christ talks for us (on our behalf) before our Father God. He (Jesus Christ) has a straight heart.”

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

complete verse (John 17:10)

Following are a number of back-translations of John 17:10:

  • Chol: “All who belong to you also are mine. All who are mine are yours. My greatness has been shown in the believers.”
  • Mezquital Otomi: “All mine are yours and all yours are mine. We own them together. My glory appears in them.”
  • Yatzachi Zapotec: “And all the people who follow me are your children. And thus it is, whoever are your children are also my children. I receive honor because of what they do.”
  • Central Pame: “. . . It is apparent that I am glorious when the people I rule live righteously.”

(Source: M. Larson / B. Moore in Notes on Translation February 1970, p. 1-125.)

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.)

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.)
  • 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. 549p.): “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 add this perspective (in Noss / Houser, p. 885): “The Chinese term chosen for logos in the 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.”

complete verse (1John 2:22)

Following are a number of back-translation of 1John 2:22:

Yatzachi Zapotec: “The person is a liar who says about Jesus that he is not the Christ the Son of God. The person who shoves aside our father God and his son, that person does contrary to Christ.”

Eastern Highland Otomi: “We know which word is a lie. That which denies that Jesus is the same as the Christ, the Chosen-One of God. He is God’s enemy who says that, and thinks that Jesus Christ is not God’s Son. Neither does he believe the Father.”

Tzotzil: “If we say ‘Jesus Christ has not been given his work by God,’ we are lying. If we say ‘God is not the father of Jesus Christ,’ we are opposing Christ.”

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

complete verse (1John 4:2)

Following are a number of back-translation of 1John 4:2:

Yatzachi Zapotec: “This is how we may know if the Spirit of God is in the head-heart of a person: Everyone who says that Jesus Christ is God and he was born a man on this earth, we know that the Spirit of God is in his head-heart.”

Eastern Highland Otomi: “We must know which word is really God’s Word. If it says that God’s chosen-One became a person and he is Jesus Christ, that is really the Word of God.”

Tzotzil: “I will tell you how it is if we have received the Spirit of God. If plainly we say ‘Jesus Christ has come and took his body here in the world (became a person),’ we have received the Spirit of God for sure.”

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

complete verse (1John 5:14)

Following are a number of back-translation of 1John 5:14:

Yatzachi Zapotec: “And we are not afraid to pray before God, because God heeds us so long as what we ask is worthy of our asking him.”

Eastern Highland Otomi: “We don’t fear to come near to God, because if what we ask for is in accordance with God’s will, we know that he hears well our word.”

Tzotzil: “Because our hearts are the same with God (we are of the same mind as God), thus we are not afraid when we talk to him. We know that he grabs our words.”

Garifuna: “Here is what we know/are sure God will do: If we ask with him as by means of his desire (in accordance with his will), he will hear us.”

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

complete verse (3John 1:12)

Following are a number of back-translation of 3John 1:12

Yatzachi Zapotec: “Everyone speaks well of Demetrio. It is obvious that he walks with the truth (heeds/obeys it). We (ex) also tell how he does what is good. And you know that we (ex) speak true words.”

Eastern Highland Otomi: “All the siblings speak well of Demetrio, and all his deeds are in accord with the true Word. Also I say the same about the man, that he is good. And you know that I speak the truth.”

Isthmus Zapotec: “Everyone praises Demetrio, and we know he follows what is true. We (ex) also praise him, and you know what we (ex) speak is true.”

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

born again, born from above

The Greek that is translated “born again” or “born from above” in English is translated in Xicotepec De Juárez Totonac as “have new life,” in Tenango Otomi as “live anew,” or in Tojolabal as “become new like a little baby.” (Source: M. Larson / B. Moore in Notes on Translation February 1970, p. 1-125)

complete verse (John 6:63)

Following are a number of back-translations of John 6:63:

  • Ojitlán Chinantec: “People live because their spirit is in them. A person’s flesh is worthless if the spirit is absent from the body. Those words that I told you give eternal life, the way a person’s spirit gives him natural life.”
  • Huehuetla Tepehua: “Well, the Holy Spirit, he is the one who gives eternal life. The life of just men can’t give life everlasting up in heaven. The words that I declare unto you are for your heart, and they give life everlasting.”
  • Chol: “That which is for our spirits gives us our lives. That which is for our body does not give us that. My words that I told you are for your spirit. They give you your life.”
  • Tenango Otomi: “Only the Holy Spirit gives the new life. That which I told you means that you should believe in me, not that I was saying that you should eat me.”

(Source: M. Larson / B. Moore in Notes on Translation February 1970, p. 1-125.)

the perfect law - the law of liberty

The Greek that is translated as “the perfect law, the law of liberty” or similar in English is translated in Central Mazahua as “God has set us free so that we are able to obey his word,” in Rincón Zapotec as “the law of God which is perfect and is able to cause us to be saved,” in Mezquital Otomi as “God’s new word frees us in order that our life will be good,” and in Eastern Highland Otomi as “the new word which is like a law strengthens our hearts so that with pleasure we will obey it.”

(Source: Ellis Deibler in Notes on Translation July, 1967, p. 5ff.)