fallen by the sword

The Hebrew that is translated as “they had fallen by the sword” in English is translated into Igede with the existing idiom “the war had eaten them.”

the head slips from the handle

The Hebrew that is translated as “the head slips from the handle” in English had to be expressed much more specifically in Kutep.

Rob Koops tells this story: “I came across what appeared to be an ambiguity in this verse, which describes an axe-head slipping off its handle and killing someone. The Kutep word kujwo can mean ‘hand/arm’ or ‘handle.’ The first draft of the Kutep text had: rikae fwer ru wu kujwo, which could mean a) the axe slipped out of his hand or b) the axe (head) slipped out of its handle. On discussion, we found out that the drafter had used a culturally equivalent scenario, namely the axe slipping out of the user’s hands, which seemed to be more likely to him than the head coming off. We also discovered a word for the ‘head’ on an axe, so we can now describe the actual biblical scenario, which requires a different verb for slipping out, which is nwae ru. Finally, we discovered that by using a grammatical construction that describes an action that is unexpected and/or unwanted, we can enhance the elegance of the translation, which in idiomatic English now reads something like ‘the axe-head went and slipped out of the handle’ or ‘the axe-head slipped out of the handle on him.'”


The Hebrew and the Greek that is usually directly translated as “kiss” in English is translated more indirectly in other languages because kissing is deemed as inappropriate, is not a custom at all, or is not customary in the particular context (see the English translation of J.B. Phillips, 1960 in Rom. 16:16: “Give each other a hearty handshake”). Here are some examples:

  • Pökoot: “greet warmly” (“kissing in public, certainly between men, is absolutely unacceptable in Pökoot.”) (Source: Gerrit van Steenbergen)
  • Chamula Tzotzil, Ixcatlán Mazatec, Tojolabal: “greet each other warmly” or “hug with feeling” (source: Robert Bascom)
  • Afar: “gaba tittal ucuya” (“give hands to each other”) (Afar kiss each other’s hands in greeting) (source: Loren Bliese)
  • Roviana: “welcome one another joyfully”
  • Cheke Holo: “Love each other in the way-joined-together that is holy” (esp. in Rom. 16:16) or “greet with love” (esp. 1Thess. 5:26 and 1Pet. 5.14)
  • Pitjantjatjara: “And when you meet/join up with others of Jesus’ relatives hug and kiss them [footnote], for you are each a relative of the other through Jesus.” Footnote: “This was their custom in that place to hug and kiss one another in happiness. Maybe when we see another relative of Jesus we shake hands and rejoice.” (esp. Rom. 16:16) (source for this and two above: Carl Gross)
  • Balanta-Kentohe and Mandinka: “touch cheek” or “cheek-touching” (“sumbu” in Malinka)
  • Mende: “embrace” (“greet one another with the kiss of love”: “greet one another and embrace one another to show that you love one another”) (source for this and two above: Rob Koops)
  • Gen: “embrace affectionately” (source: John Ellington)
  • Kachin: “holy and pure customary greetings” (source: Gam Seng Shae)
  • Kahua: “smell” (source: David Clark) (also in Ekari and Kekchí, source: Reiling / Swellengrebel)
  • Nyanja: “to suck” (“habit and term a novelty amongst the young and more or less westernized people, the traditional term for greeting a friend after a long absence being, ‘to clap in the hands and laugh happily'”)
  • Medumba: “suck the cheek” (“a novelty, the traditional term being ‘to embrace.'”)
  • Shona (version of 1966): “to hug”
  • Balinese: “to caress” (source for this and three above: Reiling / Swellengrebel)

bridegroom of her youth

The Hebrew that is translated as “Lament (or: wail) like a virgin . . . for the bridegroom of her youth” in English is translated into Igede as “when her betrothed dies green” (i.e., prematurely).


The Hebrew of the middle part of Song of Songs 5:1 is translated in many English translations (Authorized Version, Revised Standard Version, New Revised Standard Version, English Standard Version, Christian Standard Bible, Common English Bible, New Living Translation and the New American Bible among others) as “I ate my honeycomb with my honey.”

Rob Koops remarks on this: “One wonders if they missed the double meaning of ‘my honey,’ (=my loved one) or saw it, chuckled, and left it in the text. I’m not sure how widely ‘honey’ or ‘my honey’ is used in English for a loved one, but for some of us this is quite common.”

hovering over the face of the waters

The Hebrew that is translated into English as “moving (or: hovering) over the (sur)face of the waters” is translated into Ebira as “(the spirit of God) stayed above the water doing NANANA [ideophone].” (Source: Rob Koops)

In Bari it is translated with bibirto, “which is used of a bird hovering over its nest or fluttering round a bunch of ripe bananas.” (Source: Source: P. Guillebaud in The Bible Translator 1965, p. 189ff.)

make someone work hard

The Hebrew that is translated with some version of “they made the people of Israel work hard” in English is translated in Mandinka as “made them work like donkeys.”

eyes brightened, strength returned

The Hebrew that is translated as “eyes brightened” or “strength returned” in English is translated in Mandinka as “his eyes were opened.” “This turns out to be a remarkable coincidence of idiom between Hebrew and Mandinka, both implying ‘strength returns.'”

Herod's brother

Many languages have terms for siblings that define whether one is younger or older in relation to another sibling.

The brother of Herod is translated as “older brother” in Basa (“baatagwu”) (source: Rob Koops) or Chilcotin (“bunagh”) (source: Quindel King).

Reiling / Swellengrebel (p. 178) say: “According to Josephus Herodias’ first husband, referred to in this verse, was Herod, son of Herod the Great and Mariamne (the second wife of that name). Herod the tetrarch was the son of Herod the Great and Malthake, whom he married after Mariamne. Hence ‘adelphou’ refers to an older brother of a different mother.”


The Hebrew that is translated with “ruddy” in English is translated in Mandinka as “light-skinned.”

“‘Light-skinned’ could be considered a cultural equivalent. Although there are a few people with reddish skin in Mandinka, this is not an attractive trait. The UBS Handbook (A Handbook on the First and Second Books of Samuel by R.L. Omanson and J. Ellington) suggests that ‘ruddy’ may have referred to the hair, but medical people know that reddish hair is a sign of malnutrition.”