bread, loaf

The Greek term that is translated in English as “bread” or “loaf” is translated in Samo, it is translated as “Sago,” which serves “like ‘bread’ for the Hebrews, as a generic for food in the Samo language. It is a near-perfect metonymy that has all the semantic elements necessary for effective communication.” (Source: Daniel Shaw in: Scriptura 96/2007, p. 501ff.)

In Chol as waj, the equivalent of a tortilla.

John Beekman (in The Bible Translator 1962, p. 180f.) explains: “The word ‘bread’ in Scripture primarily occurs as either a specific term for bread (including the Lord’s Supper), or as a generic term for food. It is not surprising, however, the some aboriginal groups use something other than bread as the staff of life. The Chols, with their cultural focus in the cultivation of corn, use waj, a type of thin corn flake. Since a meal is not complete without this main item of food, the term has been extended to include any other foods which may be served along with waj. While bread is known to them, its use is limited to a few occasions during the year when it functions as a dessert. In translating this term in the Chol New Testament, consistent use has been made of the word waj whenever the function of bread as a basic food was in focus. John 6:35, “I am the bread of life,” was thus translated with this word. If the word for bread had been used, it was feared that the Chol would compare Christ to the desirable, but not absolutely necessary, dessert.”

Robert Bascom adds his thoughts to this in relation to other Mayan languages (in Omanson 2001, p. 260: “In many Mayan languages, ‘bread’ can be translated waj or kaxlan waj. The first term literally means anything made from corn meal, while the second term literally means ‘foreigner’s waj,’ and refers to the local wheat-based sweet breads which are so popular within the broader European-influenced culture of the region. On the one hand, waj would be a better dynamic equivalent in cases where ‘bread’ meant ‘food,’ but in cases where the focus is literal or the reference well-known, kaxlan waj would preserve a flour-based meaning (though in biblical times barley was more in use than wheat) and not insert corn into a time and place where it does not belong. On the other hand kaxlan waj is not the staff of life, but refers to a local delicacy. In cases such as these, it is even tempting to suggest borrowing pan, the Spanish word for ‘bread,’ but native speakers might respond that borrowing a foreign word is not necessary since both waj and kaxlan waj are native terms that cover the meaning (though in this case, perhaps not all that well).”

your hands are full of blood

The Hebrew that is translated as “your hands are full of blood” in English is translated in K’iche’ as “your hands are covered with blood form killing people.”

Robert Bascom (in Omanson 2001, p. 255) explains: “A difficult metaphor to translate into some languages is ‘your hands are full of blood,’ which refers to God’s rejection of the sacrifices due to the blood covering the hands of the priests. It was not clear to the translators of the K’iche’ Bible in Guatemala what kind of blood this was. Animal blood from the sacrifices? Had the priests been messy, getting blood all over their hands, and thus God had rejected their sacrifices? When the translators were told that this was human blood, the reason for it being on the priests’ hands was still not clear to them. Had they been bandaging wounded people? Again, was there something unclean about this which made God upset with their sacrifices? What made this image more difficult was that it was a play on images even in Hebrew. ‘Hands covered with blood’ is a common enough metaphor for murder in the Bible, but of course the priests would have literally bloody hands from sacrificing. It would be nice to preserve the play on images, but if that is not possible, the best solution is to specify ‘hands covered with blood… from killing people.’”

front / back / left / right

The Hebrew of Ezekiel 1:10 is typically translated in English as “Each living creature had four different faces: a human face in front, a lion’s face at the right, a bull’s face at the left, and an eagle’s face at the back.” Tzeltal has no words for left, right, front or back, so translation is “Each living creature had four different faces: on one side of their head they had a human face, on another they had a lion’s face, on another they had a bull’s face and on the last side they had an eagle’s face.” (Source: Ronald Ross in Omanson 2001, p. 361)

Jerusalem (gender of)

“In the book of Lamentations, Jerusalem is presented as a series of feminine metaphors. (…) She is called a widow, a queen among the provinces, the Daughter of Zion, the Virgin Daughter of Judah. She weeps at night, her tears flow like a river, her lovers fail to console her. From beginning to end, Jerusalem is a woman. However this aspect of the text cannot be reproduced in the Garifuna translation, because in this language all cities are masculine. Jerusalem becomes the king of all provinces and the lovers who fail to console him are women.” (Source: Ronald Ross in Omanson 2001, p. 374)

complex architectural terms

The second part of 1 Kings 6:6 is translated into English as “for around the outside of the house he made offsets on the wall in order that the supporting beams should not be inserted into the walls of the house” or similar in English. For the translators into Cusco Quechua this presented an interesting challenge.

Bill Michell (in Omanson 2001, p. 433) explains: “Although their [Inca] ancestors constructed magnificent buildings, architechtural terminology is quite limited in the languages spoken by Andeans today. The typical house in the rural areas is a simple, mud brick structure, with a thatched roof, a low door and no windows. However, there are some very complex buildings in the Bible. Solomon’s Temple is one of these. 1 Kings 6.6b reads: Yupaychana wasi perqataqa anchotan qallarirqanku, kinsa kutitataq ithiykachirqanku muyuriq pata kurkukunata chayman chakanapaq, ahinapin perqata mana t’oqorqankuchu: “For-adoring house the wall wide they-began three times-and they-made-it-smaller-towards-inside that-which-surrounds level-place beams to-there to reach-across in this way the-wall not they-made-a-hole.”

wild honey

The Greek that is translated as “wild honey” in English was difficult to translate in Toba and Iyojwa’ja Chorote.

Bill Mitchell (in Omanson 2001, p. 435) explains why: “Unlike urban, industrialized society, the indigenous way of life is inextricably linked with the land. A deep relationship with nature permeates all of life. This can sometimes be seen in the wealth of vocabulary for certain items. Mark 1:6 and Matthew 3:4 state that John the Baptist ate ‘wild honey.’ The Tobas of northern Argentina have ten different words for ‘wild honey,’ the Chorotes have seven or eight. The biblical text does not specify a type of wild honey, but Toba translators live in the Gran Chaco and harvest wild honey. They want to use the exact word; they do not have a generic term.”

In both cases the translators ended up using the most common term for “wild honey.”


The Greek that is often translated in English as “leap (or: leaped)” is translated with appropriate idioms as “trampled” (Javanese), “shook-itself” (Kituba), “wriggled” (Thai), “danced” (Taroko), “stirred” (Toraja-Sa’dan), “sprawled” (Batak Toba), “played” (Shipibo-Conibo). In Dan the clause has to be “her stomach moved” since “leaping” sounded vulgar. (Source: Reiling / Swellengrebel)

Bill Michell (in Omanson 2001, p. 431) explains why in Cusco Quechua the women on the translation team had to intervene to correct a translation that was too literal:

“In the [Cusco Quechua] project in Peru the first draft of Luke’s Gospel was done by a man. In the case of Luke 1:41 his translation was quite literal. He had the unborn child physically jumping, unhampered and unhindered. This was met with some laughter from the women on the team. They suggested an onomatopoeic expression to communicate the sensation of a sudden movement in the womb: wawaqa ‘wat’ak’ nirqan — ‘the child said, ‘Wat’ak!” The child didn’t jump, it ‘spoke’! This times there were smiles instead of laughter as the women recognized something that was authentically their own.”

introducing a riddle

In the Cusco Quechua Bible Samson’s riddle is introduced by the traditional formula with which riddles are started: Imasmaris, imasmaris, ¿imataq kanman? “What is it? What is it? What can it be?” (Source: Bill Mitchell 2001, p. 438)

close relative, kinsman-redeemer, next-of-kin

The Hebrew that is translated as “kinsman-redeemer” (or “next-of-kin” or “close relative”) is translated in Yasa as “a near family member who has responsibility for protecting the family.”

Joshua Ham explains why: “One of the most important terms in the book of Ruth is the Hebrew word go’el. This word is often translated kinsman-redeemer in English Bibles. In ancient Hebrew culture, the go’el could play many roles. If a married man died without children, his brother (acting as go’el) was expected to marry the widow and carry on the dead man’s lineage. If someone was forced to sell their family land (keeping in mind that family land was very important in the Old Testament), a family member (again acting as go’el) was supposed to eventually restore the family’s title to the land. If a family member was murdered, it was up to the go’el to seek justice.

“As you can imagine, there’s just no way we’re going to find a single word in any language that covers all of those cultural aspects. And if we tried to explain all of those aspects in the text itself, it would get unwieldy pretty fast. So in translating a word like go’el, we try to pick out the most salient points. In the Yasa text of Ruth, we ended up with something like ‘a near family member who has responsibility for protecting the family.’ It’s a bit smoother in Yasa than it sounds in English!”

In Cusco Quechua it is translated “close relative of a corpse.”

The translation consultant Bill Mitchell (in Omanson 2001, p. 428) tells this story: “The translators struggled to translate the idea [of the near relative responsible for helping a family or clan member hit by misfortune, for example, loss of property, liberty or life]. The translation consultant asked them, ‘Is there anyone in your wider family who takes responsibility for a relative in such circumstances?’ They replied, ‘Yes, of course.’ ‘What do you call that person,’ the consulted asked. ‘There is no special name,’ they said. The consultant replied, ‘If a widow or an orphan needed help, what would they say to this person?’ ‘It will probably seem a bit strange to you, but they would say: ‘You are my close relative and I am your corpse.’’ The translators introduced this into their translation. When they tested it out with different groups, they found that it communicated the Hebrew concept of go’el very well.”

See also redeem / redemption and redeemer.

they dart like lightning

The Hebrew that is translated as “they dart like lightning” or similar in English is translated in Cusco Quechua as illapa hinan q’enqo-q’enqota phawan: “they fly like flashing lightning.”

Bill Mitchell (in Omanson 2001, p. 438) explains: “The expression q’enqo-q’enqota, with its reduplication and glottalised, postvelar consonants, both echoes the clashing action and visualizes the moment, for q’enqo also means ‘zigzag.'”

female first person singular pronoun in Psalms

In Garifuna the first person singular pronoun (“I” in English) has two forms. One is used in women’s speech and one in men’s speech. In the Garifuna Bible the form used in men’s speech (au) is typically used, except when it’s clear that a woman’s speech is quoted (for instance in John 4:9) or in Psalms where the women on the translation team insisted that the form used in women’s speech (nuguya) would be used throughout the whole book.

Ronald Ross (in Omanson 2001, p. 375f.) tells the story: “Throughout most of the translation, [the distinctions between the different forms of the pronouns] presented no problem. Whenever the speaker in the text was perceived as a man, the male speech forms were used; and when a woman was speaking, the female speech forms were used. True, the women members of the translation team did object on occasion to the use of the male forms when the author (and narrator) of a book was unknown and the men translators had used the male speech forms as the default. Serious discord arose, however, during the translation of the Psalms because of their highly devotional nature and because throughout the book the psalmist is addressing God. The male translators had, predictably, used the male form to address God, and the male form to refer to the psalmist, even though women speakers of Garifuna never use those forms to address anyone. The women contended that they could not as women read the Psalms meaningfully if God and the psalmist were always addressed as if the readers were men. The men, of course, turned the argument around, claiming that neither could they read the Psalms comfortably if the reader was assumed to be a woman.

“Initially there seemed to be no way out of this impasse. However a solution was found in the ongoing evolution of the language. There is a strong propensity for male speech and female speech to merge in favor of the latter, so the few remaining male forms are gradually dying out. Moreover, male children learn female speech from their mothers and only shift to the male speech forms when they reach adolescence to avoid sounding effeminate. However they use the female form buguya when addressing their parents throughout life. So the women wielded two arguments: First, the general development of the language favored the increasing use of the female forms. Secondly, the female forms are less strange to the men than the male forms are to the women, because the men habitually use them during early childhood and continue to use them to address their parents even in adulthood. Therefore, the female pronominal forms prevailed and were adopted throughout the book of Psalms, though the male forms remained the default forms in the rest of the translation.”

See also female second person singular pronoun in Psalms.