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.)

different levels of fatherhood

New Testament Greek is by Balinese standards an extremely impolite language. Consider, for example, the second person pronoun. When speaking to God, to a nobleman, to a friend, to a pupil, or to a slave, the same word is used. In Balinese this is completely different. In the above examples one would differentiate various social ranks and use terms which, more or less freely translated, mean “adored one” or “he who is borne on the head”, “feet of Your Highness”, “older (or younger) brother”, “little one”, and “you”. (…) In Balinese one has to cope with three vocabularies within the language, each of which, at a moderate estimate, includes some hundreds of words. One employs the ordinary common language (“Low Balinese”) when speaking with intimates, equals, or inferiors; polite terms must, however, be used as soon as one begins to speak to one’s superiors or to strangers; and “deferential” terms are obligatory in all cases when one is so bold as to speak of parts of the body, or the acts, possessions, and qualities of important people. The Balinese sums up the two last named vocabularies under the term alus (“fine”, or “noble”): we say “High Balinese”. (…)

Joseph and Mary are spoken of as Jesus’ parents, and here the familiar words for “father” and “mother” are appropriate. But when Jesus speaks of being “about my Father’s business” (vs. 49), thus indicating who His true Father is, He uses the High Balinese word adji “father”.

Source: J.L. Swellengrebel in The Bible Translator 1950, p. 124ff.

he is our peace

The Greek that is translated as “(he is our) peace” in most English translations is translated in Guhu-Samane as “He is our peace-feather.”

Richert explains: “This affords a delightful cultural and physical ‘exegesis’ for the future teachers, who apply it in this manner. They have an idiom, ‘he is my pinion,’ meaning ‘he is my mainstay;’ for no bird can fly without its pinion feathers. Therefore they first apply this to Christ in his relationship to mankind before the event of Calvary. Then as the feather must be carved in order to be the effective symbol of peace, so Christ was crucified in order to bring peace on earth. In the context of Eph. 2 this is very meaningful to the Guhu-Samanes.”

Source: Ernest Richert in The Bible Translator, 1965, p. 81ff.


“In Genesis 29:15, the verse speaks of the ‘wages’ Laban should have paid Jacob, but in Bari the ordinary word for wages cannot be used, as there is no question of hire between relatives. The reward for work done is called doket, ‘gift’, or yariet, ‘help’.”

Source: Source: P. Guillebaud in The Bible Translator 1965, p. 189ff.


The Greek and Hebrew that is typically translated in English as “Passover” is translated more descriptively by various languages:

  • Ojitlán Chinantec: “the feast of the passing by of God’s angel”
  • Lalana Chinantec “the day would come which is called Passover, when the Israel people remember how they went out of the land of Egypt.
  • Huehuetla Tepehua: “the celebration when they ate their sheep”
  • Umiray Dumaget Agta: “the celebration of the day of their being brought out of bondage”
    (source for this and above: M. Larson / B. Moore in Notes on Translation February 1970, p. 1-125.)
  • Obolo: ijọk Iraraka: “Festival of Passing” (source: Enene Enene)
  • Guhu-Samane: “special day of sparing” (source: Ernest Richert in The Bible Translator 1965, p. 198ff.)
  • Yakan: “The festival of the Isra’il tribe which they call For-Remembering”

justification, justify

The Greek that is translated as “justify” in English is translated into Tzotzil in two different ways. One of those is with Lec xij’ilatotic yu’un Dios ta sventa ti ta xc’ot ta o’ntonal ta xch’unel ti Jesucristoe (“we are seen well by God because of our faith in Jesus Christ”) (source: Aeilts, p. 118) and the other is “God sees as righteous” (source: Ellis Deibler in Notes on Translation July, 1967, p. 5ff.).

Other (back-) translations include:

  • Bilua: “straigthened” (Rom 3:20: “Nobody can be straightened in God’s presence…” (source: Carl Gross) (see also: righteous)
  • Western Highland Purepecha: “he sees him with the goodness of his Son” (“justification”)
  • Highland Puebla Nahuatl: “heart-straightening”
  • Western Kanjobal: “having a straight soul” (source for this and two above: Nida 1952, p. 145)
  • Central Mazahua: “no longer carrying sin in God’s estimation.”
  • Rincón Zapotec: “come out good before God”
  • Guhu-Samane: “God called one right” (source for this and two above: Ellis Deibler in Notes on Translation July, 1967, p. 5ff.)
  • Mairasi: “already straight: completely clean” (source: Enggavoter 2004)
  • Uma: “straight in God’s sight”
  • Yakan: “be reckoned straight/righteous by God”
  • Ekari: “maa nigajawii (“deem us right through favor”) (source: Marion Source in The Bible Translator 1963, p. 37f.)
  • Kwara’ae: “regard as righteous” (source: Norman Deck in The Bible Translator 1963, p. 34ff.)
  • Manikion: “heart sits next to Jesus” (source: Daud Soesilo)
  • Obolo: ben itip-oyerebet isan̄a: “take away condemnation” (source: Enene Enene)

complete verse (Mark 10:38)

The translation of Mark 10:38 into Avaric demanded a particularly difficult decision. [In it] we are faced with two metaphors, for which literal translation is impossible, since the expressions “drink the cup” and “be immersed in water, be washed” are, for the Avar, in no way connected with the idea of suffering and death. Nevertheless there is an equivalent for the first metaphor; in the Avaric language there is an idiomatic expression “to drink from the horn of death,” which is identical to the idea of the Gospels’ “cup.” For the second metaphor the translator used a less obvious equivalent: “to cross the river” (‘or baxine) — an expression which can express “to experience hardship, suffering” and at the same time contains the idea of immersion in water.

Source: Magomed-Kamil Gimbatov and Yakov Testelets in The Bible Translator 1996, p. 434ff.

formal pronoun: crowd and Pilate

Like many languages (but unlike Greek or Hebrew or English), Tuvan uses a formal vs. informal 2nd person pronoun (a familiar vs. a respectful “you”). Unlike other languages that have this feature, however, the translators of the Tuvan Bible have attempted to be very consistent in using the different forms of address in every case a 2nd person pronoun has to be used in the translation of the biblical text.

As Voinov shows in Pronominal Theology in Translating the Gospels (in: The Bible Translator 2002, p. 210ff.), the choice to use either of the pronouns many times involved theological judgment. While the formal pronoun can signal personal distance or a social/power distance between the speaker and addressee, the informal pronoun can indicate familiarity or social/power equality between speaker and addressee.

Here, the crowd and Pilate address each other with the formal, respectful pronoun.

colt that has never been ridden

The phrase that is translated into English as “a colt that has never been ridden” can be translated in Kalmyk much more succinctly than even the original Greek text since Kalmyk has a specific word for an unbroken colt. (source: David Clark)

In the Arhuaco translation of Luke 19:35 (in the English translation: “after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it.”) the co-translator knew how unruly unbroken colts are so they translated “they held the donkey steady so that Jesus could get on it.” (source: Paul Lundquist in The Bible Translator 1992, p. 246.)