tetragrammaton, YHWH

The translation of the tetragrammaton (YHWH or יהוה‎) is easily the most often discussed issue in Bible translation. This is exemplified by the fact that there is virtually no translation of the Bible — no matter into which language — where the position of the respective translator or translation team on how to translate the name of God into the respective language is not clearly stated in the preface or introduction.

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The literature on this topic is overwhelming, both as far as the meaning of YHWH and the translation of it by itself and in combination with other terms (including Elohim and Adonai). There is no reason or room to rehash those discussions. Aside from various insightful translations of YHWH into various languages (see below), what’s of interest in the context of the TIPs project are official and semi-official statements regarding the translation by Bible translation agencies and churches. These include the 1992 statement by United Bible Societies’ “Names of God” Study Group (see The Bible Translator 1992, p. 403-407) or the “Letter to the Bishops’ Conference on ‘The Name of God'” by the Congregatio de Cultu Divino et Discriplina Sacramentorum of 2008 (see here et al.).

In summary, the UBS study group gives six different options on how to translate YHWH: 1) transliterate (some form of “Yahweh” or “Jehovah” if this is an already established term); 2) translate (along the lines of kyrios — κύριος in the Septuagint); 3) translate the meaning of YHWH; 4) use a culture-specific name; 5) translate Elohim and YHWH in the same way; or 6) use a combination of any of these options.

The official Catholic directive states that for liturgical purposes YHWH is to be translated as an equivalent of Kyrios (“Lord”) unless when appearing in combination with Elohim (“God”) or Adonai (“lord”), in which case it’s to be translated with “God.”

In the following collection of stories, any of the above-mentioned strategies are used.

Use of Typographical Means to Offset the Name of God

A large number of Bible translations in many Western European languages have used a similar strategy to translate YHWH as an equivalent of Kyrios or Adonai (“lord” in Greek in Hebrew) but have used either small caps or all caps to denote these occurrences as an equivalent to a proper name. Here are some examples:

  • English: Lord
  • Danish: Herren
  • Swedish: Herren (traditionally: YHWH – Herren and Elohim – Herren)
  • French: SEIGNEUR (in the Traduction œcuménique de la Bible)
  • German: Herr or Herr (see also the translation by Buber/Rosenzweig below)
  • Dutch: HERE
  • Portuguese: Senhor
  • Welsh: ARGLWYDD
  • Spanish: Señor

None of the European languages have found a “cultural-linguistic equivalent” with the possible exception of Eternal or l’Éternel (see below).

In languages where capitalization is not a typographical option, other options are available and used.

In Japanese, the generic term shu for “Lord” is bolded in some translations to offset its meaning (Source: Omanson, p. 17).

The latter strategy of putting the translation of YHWH in bold (and uppercase) characters is used in Guhu-Samane: QOBEROBA (a term of address for a respected person and also connotes “forever”) (for “forever”, see below under Translations of the Name of God) and the upper-casing in Bible translations in several other languages in Papua New Guinea:

  • Bola: BAKOVI DAGI (lit. “BIG MAN”)
  • Sinaugoro: VEREGAUKA (lit. “BIG ONE”)
  • Kamano: RA ANUMAZA (lit. “BIG STRONG”)
  • Dedua: KEBU (lit. “LORD”)
  • Nukna: TÁWI (lit. “BIG ONE”)
  • Gizrra: LOD (lit. “LORD”)
  • Ubir: BADA (lit. “BIG MAN/CHIEF”)
  • Mailu: GUBINA (lit. “MASTER”) (Source: Phil King, The Bible Translator 2014, p. 194ff.)

Translations of the Name of God

A translation of YHWH with a rendering of the meaning of “Eternal” was done in English by James Moffatt (between 1926 and 1935) with Eternal, The Voice translation with Eternal One (2012), in French versions as L’ÉTERNEL by J. F. Ostervald in 1904 or l’Éternel by L. Segond (1910-1938) and Zadoc Kahn (1964), or in Obolo as Okumugwem: “The Ever-Living” (source: Enene Enene).

Similarly and at the same time expanding its meaning, the Nzima translation of 1998 translated YHWH as Ɛdεnkεma, the “Eternal All-Powerful Creator and Sustainer” (Source: David Ekem, The Bible Translator 2005, p. 72).

Nepali, Bengali, and Hindi are all derived from Sanskrit and have (eventually) all found similar translations of YHWH. In Bengali “God” is translated as Ishwar (widely used in Hindu scriptures, where it’s used as a title, usually associated with “Siva”) and YHWH as Shodaphrobhu — “Eternal Lord”; in Nepali YHWH is translated as Param-Ishwar — “Supreme Ishwar” (the same Ishwar used in Bengali); and Hindi translates YHWH as Phrabu – “Lord” (see Bengali). In earlier translations all three languages used transliterations of Jehovah or Yahweh (Yahowa / Yahwe) (Source: B. Rai in The Bible Translator 1992, p. 443ff. and Barrick, p. 124).

The influential German Jewish translation of Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig (between 1925 and 1961) translates YHWH in Exodus 3:15 with “Ich bin da” (“I exist” or “I am”) and in all other instances with pronouns in small caps (Er, Ihm, Ihn, Ich — he, him, his, I).

Akan uses “Forever-Owner” (Source: Jacob Loewen, The Bible Translator 1985, p. 401ff.).

Warlpiri uses Kaatu Jukurrarnu (Kaatu is a transcription of “God” and Jukurrarnu means “timelessness” and shares a root with jukurrpa — dreamings) (Source: Stephen Swartz, The Bible Translator 1985, p. 415ff.).

Any term for any word for God in Urak Lawoi’ contains Tuhat (which is related to Malay / Indonesian Tuhan) and is something that is rooted ion mythology. Terms that refer to Buddha or Allah are often used as swear words. How to distinguish YHWH from lord or God? YHWH is Tuhat besal deq atas (God great above), “God” is Tuhat deq atas (God above), Lord is Tuhat or Tuhat besal (Source: David Hogan, The Bible Translator 1984, p. 409ff.).

The translation of YHWH into Weri with Aniak Tupup or “man of the holy house” intends “to maintain the Jewish practice of not uttering God’s name [with] the use of another vernacular phrase that signals that a ‘taboo’ name is being referred [which] could give a cue that would be recognisable in written or oral communication” (Source: P. King, The Bible Translator 2014, p. 195ff.).

The Uzbek Bible uses the term Ega (Эга) — “master, owner” in various forms (including Egam / Эгам for “my Owner” or Egamiz / Эгамиз for “our Owner.” (Click or tap to see an explanation):

Jim Zvara (2019, p. 6) explains: “The Uzbek term ega means owner or master (‘master,’ in the historical context of an owner-slave relationship). By extension, it is natural for an Uzbek to speak to or refer to God as Egam (my owner/master). In the Uzbek context to be God’s slave is a positive way of understanding one’s relation to him. It suggests that one is in a dependent and obedient relationship to God. The team felt that this relational connection and what it implies fits well with the concept of YHWH as the God who is in a covenant relationship with his people. In the Uzbek context, the choice of Ega was deemed to be the best balance of natural language with meaningful translation.”

The Seediq Bible translation team chose Utux Tmninun (“the weaving god”) for their translation of YHWH. (Click or tap to see a retelling of the process of how that decision was reached):

“(…) The Seediq team requested that we spend time with them on key terms. They had compiled a list of key terms that they wanted input on, and we went through the list item by item. The most important item was how to deal with the divine name. They had tentatively translated it as Yehoba, transliterated from Jehovah, but they were also aware that this transliteration may not be accurate, and they were keen to explore other options.

We explored various alternatives. Were they interested in following the ancient Jewish practice of substituting “lord” for the divine name? Would capitalising the letters help? Would they be bold enough to use “Yahweh,” following the opinion of most Old Testament scholars who regard this as the correct pronunciation? Was it feasible to adopt a mixed approach in dealing with the divine name (…)? Each option had its advantages as well as disadvantages.

“In the midst of the discussion, a participant said, “Our ancestors, as well as we today, always call God by the term Utux Tmninun. I suggest we use this term.” The term Utux Tmninun in the Seediq culture means “the weaving God.” In their culture, God is the weaver, the one who weaves life together. All the participants were excited about this proposal. They tried this term with all the composite terms that involve the divine name, and it seemed to work well, so they decided tentatively to adopt this term. After the workshop, the participants went back to their villages and sought feedback from the wider community, and eventually they confirmed the use of the term Utux Tmninun as the rendering of the divine name.

Translating the divine name as Utux Tmninun, the weaving God, is a creative solution. This term is viewed very positively in the Seediq community. It also correlates well with the concept of God as the creator (Gen 1-2) and as the weaver who formed our inward parts and knit us together in our mothers’ wombs (Ps 139:13). It also has the advantage of portraying God beyond the traditional masculine form.

“Some may argue that since names are usually transliterated, we should do the same with YHWH, most likely pronounced “Yahweh.” Unfortunately, due to the influence of Chinese Union Version for almost one hundred years now, Chinese Christians only know God as Yehehua. Attempts to change the term Yehehua to Yahweh have not been successful. This is a reality that the Seediq Christians have to live with.

“Others may argue on theological grounds that YHWH is not only the creator, but also the God of the covenant, hence any attempt to substitute another term for YHWH will not do justice to the Hebrew text. In the case of the Seediq translation, there are significant similarities between Utux Tmninun and YHWH, though the terms are not identical. This is a reality translators often have to struggle with. Exact correspondence is hard to come by. Often it is a matter of approximation, give and take. Besides theological considerations, one has to deal with the constraints of past traditions (“Jehovah,” in this instance), the biblical cultures and one’s own culture, and audience acceptance. Hopefully, by using Utux Tmninun for YHWH, the Seediq term will be transformed and take on the aspect of the covenant God as well.” (Source: Yu Suee Yan, The Bible Translator 2015, p. 316ff.)

For a major new translation into Chichewa, we have a detailed retelling of why the term Chauta (“Great-One-of-the-Bow”) was chosen for YHWH (Click or tap to see the detailed story):

“The name Chauta, literally ‘Great-One-of-the-Bow’, i.e. [is] either the rainbow (descriptively termed uta-wa-Leza the-bow-of-God’) or, less likely, the hunter’s bow. And yet Chauta was also distinct from Mulungu [“God”] in that it has reference to the specific tribal deity of the Chewa people – the God who ‘owns’ yet also ‘belongs to’ them — and hence it carries additional positive emotive overtones. Although research indicated that in an ancient traditional setting, Chauta too was probably associated with the indigenous ancestral rain cult, in the Christian era it has been progressively generalized to encompass virtually all religious contexts in which God may be either appealed to, proclaimed, or praised. After prolonged deliberation, therefore, the translation committee determined Chauta to be the closest functional equivalent to YHWH of the Hebrew Scriptures. The choice of this name is not without its difficulties, however, and these were carefully considered by the Chewa committee. For example, the use of a more specific local term, as opposed to the generic Mulungu, carries a greater likelihood of bringing along with it certain senses, connotations, and situations that were (and no doubt still are) associated with the indigenous, pre-Christian system of worship. If these happened to remain strong in any contemporary sacred setting, then of course the dangers connected with conceptual syncretism might well arise. In the case of Chauta, however, it appeared that the process of positive Christian contextualization had already reached an advanced stage, that is, judging from the widespread use of this name in all aspects of religious life and practice. A more scholarly argument against Chauta takes the position that there is too great a female component associated with this term because it was traditionally applied (by figurative metonymy) to refer also to the ritual ‘wife of God’, i.e. the chief officiant at a traditional rain shrine and worship sanctuary. However, this usage seems to be quite remote, and most people questioned do not even recognize the connection anymore. Besides, in a matrilineal society such as the Chewa, it does not seem inappropriate to have this aspect of meaning lying in the background, particularly since it is not completely foreign to the notion of God in the Bible (cf. Ps. 36:7; 73:15; Isa. 49:14-15; Mt. 23:37). In terms of ‘connotative fit’ or emotive identification and appeal, there can be little doubt that the name Chauta is by far the closest natural equivalent to YHWH in the contemporary Chewa cultural and religious environment. This aspect of meaning was probably also utmost from the ancient Jewish perspective as well; in other words, “for them the associated meaning of this special name [YHWH], in terms of their history and culture, far outweighed any meaning it may have suggested because of its form or derivation”. To be sure, this ‘new’ divine name – that is, new as far as the Scriptures are concerned – may take some getting used to, especially in the formal setting of public worship. But this is not a foreign god whom we are talking about; rather, he is certainly by now regarded as the national deity of the Chewa nation. Chauta is the great God who for one reason or another “did not make himself known to them by his holy name, the LORD” (Exod. 6:3), that is, in the prior translations of his Word into Chichewa. He is, however, and always has been “a God who saves … the LORD (Chauta), our Lord, who rescues us from death” (Ps. 68:20, Good News Bible)!” (Source: Wendland 1998, 120f.; see also The Bible Translator 1992, 430ff.)

Transliteration of YHWH

Mandinka for instance uses Yawe for “YHWH” (and “Yawe God of the universe” for “Yahweh Sabaoth” or “Yahwe, the Lord of Hosts” in English). “The use of Yawe for YHWH is good and may be a trendsetter in this part of Africa.” (source: Rob Koops)

Early translations into Gilbertese faced a problem when transliterating “Jehovah” (a form of “Jehovah” was first used in Spanish Bible translations in 2569 and 1602): “There are only thirteen letters in the Kiribati alphabet: A, E, I, O, U, M, N, NG, B, K, R, T (pronounced [s] when followed by ‘i’), W For instance, ‘Jehovah’ is rendered Iehova, but Kiribati speakers can only pronounce it as Iowa, since the phonemes [h] and [v] do not exist in Kiribati.” (source: Joseph Hong, The Bible Translator 1994, p. 329.)

Other transliteration include Yoba (Kovai), Iaue (Mussau-Emira), Jawe (Waskia), Iave (Maiadomu), or Iawe (Waboda) (source: P. King, The Bible Translator 2014, p. 194ff.).

In the Chinese (Protestant) tradition the transliteration of “Jehovah” is historically deeply rooted, even though there are also some historical burdens (Click or tap to see more details):

“YHWH “is rendered in the Chinese Union Version—the most widely used Bible translation in China—as well as most other Chinese Bible translations as yehehua 耶和華. According to Chinese naming conventions, yehehua could be interpreted as Ye Hehua, in which Ye would be the family name and Hehua — “harmonic and radiant” — the given name. In the same manner, Ye would be the family name of Jesus (transliterated as yesu 耶穌) and Su would be the given name. Because in China the children inherit the family name from the father, the sonship of Jesus to God the Father, yehehua, would be illustrated through this. Though this line of argumentation sounds theologically unsound, it is indeed used effectively in the Chinese church.” (see Wright 1953, p. 298, see also Jesus).

“Ye 耶, an interrogative particle in classical Chinese, is part of the same phonetic series as ye 爺, which gives it a certain exchangeability. Ye 爺 carries the meaning “father” or is used as an honorable form of address. The choice of the first Bible translators to use the transliteration yehehua 爺火華 for Jehovah had a remarkable and sobering influence on the history of the 19th century in China by possibly helping to shape the fatal Taiping ideology, a rebellion that ended up costing an estimated 20 million lives.

“The founder of the Taiping rebellion, Hong Xiuquan, was given a tract (…) [that he used to] interpret a nervous breakdown he had had in 1837 as his “call” to be the “Messiah.” This “vision” that Hong experienced is likely to have had a direct correlation with the name of “God” in that tract. Shen yehuohua 神爺火華 (directly translated: “God (or: spirit); old man (or: father); fire; bright”) was the term that was used in that tract for “God Jehovah,” but this was not indicated as a (in its second part) transliteration of a proper name. In his vision, Hong saw “a man venerable in years (corresponding with ye), with golden (corresponding with huo and hua) beard and dressed in a black robe,” an image likely to have been inspired by a direct translation from that name for “God,” especially as it appeared at the beginning of the tract. That this term was considered to be a term of some relevance to the Taiping ideology is demonstrated by the fact that both Yehuohua 爺火華 as the personal name of God and ye 爺 as “God the Father” later appeared in Taiping writings.” (Source: Zetzsche in Malek 2002, p. 141ff.)

For further reading on the translation of YHWH, see Rosin 1956, p. 89-125.

prophet

(To view the different translations of this term in a simplified graphical form on a new page, click or tap here.)

Eugene Nida wrote the following about the translation of the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek terms that are typically translated with “prophet” in English:

“The tendency in many translations is to use ‘to foretell the future’ for ‘prophesy,’ and ‘one who foretells the future’ for ‘prophet.’ This is not always a recommended usage, particularly if such expressions denote certain special native practices of spirit contact and control. It is true, of course, that prophets of the Bible did foretell the future, but this was not always their principal function. One essential significance of the Greek word prophētēs is ‘one who speaks forth,’ principally, of course, as a forth-teller of the Divine will. A translation such as ‘spokesman for God’ may often be employed profitably.” (1947, p. 234f.)

Following is a list of (back-) translations from other languages (click or tap for details):

  • San Blas Kuna: “one who speaks the voice of God”
  • Central Pame and Vai: “interpreter for God”
  • Kaqchikel, Navajo, Yaka: “one who speaks for God”
  • Northern Grebo: “God’s town crier” (see more about this below)
  • Sapo: “God’s sent-word person”
  • Shipibo-Conibo, Ngäbere: “one who speaks God’s word”
  • Copainalá Zoque: “one who speaks-opens” (a compound meaning “one who discloses or reveals”)
  • Sierra Totonac: “one who causes them to know” (in the sense of “revealer”)
  • Batak Toba: “foreteller” (this and all the above acc. to Nida 1961, p. 7)
  • Ekari: “person who speaks under divine impulse”
  • Chinese: 先知 xiānzhī — “one who foreknows” (or the 1946/1970 translation by Lü Zhenzhong: 神言人 shényánrén — “divine-word-man”)
  • Uab Meto: “holy spokesman” (source for this and two above: Reiling / Swellengrebel)
  • Kouya: Lagɔɔ gbʋgbanyɔ — “the one who seeks God’s affairs” (source: Saunders, p. 269)
  • Kafa: “decide for God only” (source: Loren Bliese)
  • Martu Wangka: “sit true to God’s talk” (source: Carl Gross)
  • Eastern Highland Otomi: “word passer” (source: John Beekham in Notes on Translation November 1964, p. 1-22)
  • Obolo: ebi nriran: “those with power of divine revelation” (source: Enene Enene)

In Ixcatlán Mazatec a term is used that specifically includes women. (Source: Robert Bascom)

About the translation into Northern Grebo:

In some instances these spiritual terms result from adaptations reflecting the native life and culture. Among the Northern Grebo people of Liberia, a missionary wanted some adequate term for ‘prophet,’ and she was fully aware that the native word for ‘soothsayer’ or ‘diviner’ was no equivalent for the Biblical prophet who spoke forth for God. Of course, much of what the prophets said referred to the future, and though this was an essential part of much of their ministry, it was by no means all. The right word for the Gbeapo people would have to include something which would not only mean the foretelling of important events but the proclamation of truth as God’s representative among the people. At last the right word came; it was ‘God’s town-crier.’ Every morning and evening the official representative of the chief goes through the village crying out the news, delivering the orders of the chief, and announcing important coming events. ‘God’s town-crier’ would be the official representative of God, announcing to the people God’s doings, His commands, and His pronouncements for their salvation and well-being. For the Northern Grebo people the prophet is no weird person from forgotten times; he is as real as the human, moving message of the plowman Amos, who became God’s town-crier to a calloused people.” (source: Nida 1952, p. 20)

See also prophesy and prophesy / prophetic frenzy.

king

Some languages do not have a concept of kingship and therefore no immediate equivalent for the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic that is translated as “king” in English. Here are some (back-) translations:

(Click or tap here to see details)

  • Piro: “a great one”
  • Highland Totonac: “the big boss”
  • Huichol: “the one who commanded” (source for this and above: Bratcher / Nida)
  • Ekari: “the one who holds the country” (source: Reiling / Swellengrebel)
  • Pass Valley Yali: “Big Man” (source: Daud Soesilo)

Faye Edgerton retells how the term in Navajo was determined:

“[This term was] easily expressed in the language of Biblical culture, which had kings and noblemen with their brilliant trappings and their position of honor and praise. But leadership among the Navajos is not accompanied by any such titles or distinctions of dress. Those most respected, especially in earlier days, were their headmen, who were the leaders in raids, and the shaman, who was able to serve the people by appealing for them to the gods, or by exorcising evil spirits. Neither of these made any outward show. Neither held his position by political intrigue or heredity. If the headman failed consistently in raids, he was superceded by a better warrior. If the shaman failed many times in his healing ceremonies, it was considered that he was making mistakes in the chants, or had lost favor with the gods, and another was sought. The term Navajos use for headman is derived from a verb meaning ‘to move the head from side to side as in making an oration.’ The headman must be a good orator, able to move the people to go to war, or to follow him in any important decision. This word is naat’áanii which now means ‘one who rules or bosses.’ It is employed now for a foreman or boss of any kind of labor, as well as for the chairman of the tribal council. So in order to show that the king is not just a common boss but the highest ruler, the word ‘aláahgo, which expresses the superlative degree, was put before naat’áanii, and so ‘aláahgo naat’áanii ‘anyone-more-than-being around-he-moves-his-head-the-one-who’ means ‘the highest ruler.’ Naat’áanii was used for governor as the context usually shows that the person was a ruler of a country or associated with kings.”

(Source: Faye Edgerton in The Bible Translator 1962, p. 25ff.)