cardinal directions

The cardinal directions “east” and “west” are easy to translate into Maan here since the language uses “where the sun comes up” and “where the sun goes down.” For “north” the translator had “facing toward the sun rising to the left,” and for “south” she had “facing toward the sun rising to the right.” So the listener had to think hard before knowing what direction was in view when translating “to the north and south, to the east and west.” So, in case all four directions are mentioned, it was shortened by saying simply “all directions.” (Source: Don Slager) Likewise, Yakan has “from the four corners of the earth” (source: Yakan back-translation) or Western Bukidnon Manobo “from the four directions here on the earth” (source: Western Bukidnon Manobo back-translation).

Kankanaey is “from the coming-out and the going-away of the sun and the north and the south” (source: Kankanaey back-translation), Northern Emberá “from where the sun comes up, from where it falls, from the looking [left] hand, from the real [right] hand” (source: Charles Mortensen), Amele “from the direction of the sun going up, from the direction of the sun going down, from the north and from the south” (source: John Roberts), Ejamat “look up to see the side where the sun comes from, and the side where it sets, and look on your right side, and on your left” (source: David Frank in this blog post).

In Lamba, only umutulesuŵa, “where the sun rises” and imbonsi, “where the sun sets” were available as cardinal directions that were not tied to the local area of language speakers (“north” is kumausi — “to the Aushi country” — and “south” kumalenje — “to the Lenje country”). So “north” and “south” were introduced as loanwords, nofu and saufu respectively. The whole phrase is kunofu nakusaufu nakumutulesuŵa nakumbonsi. (Source C. M. Doke in The Bible Translator 1958, p. 57ff.)

“West” is translated in Tzeltal as “where the sun pours-out” and in Kele as “down-river” (source: Reiling / Swellengrebel).

In Morelos Nahuatl, “north” is translated as “from above” and “south” as “from below.” (Source: Viola Waterhouse in Notes on Translation August 1966, p. 86ff.)

The Hebrew text that gives instructions where to place items in the tabernacle with the help of cardinal directions (north and south) had to be approached in the Bambam translation specific to spacial concepts of that culture.

Phil Campbell explains: “There are no words in Bambam for north and south. In Exodus 26:35, God instructs that the table is to be placed on the north side and the lamp on the south side inside the tabernacle. The team wants to use right and left to tell where the lamp and table are located. In many languages we would say that the table is on the right and the lampstand is on the left based on the view of someone entering the tabernacle. However, that is not how Bambam people view it. They view the placement of things and rooms in a building according to the orientation of someone standing inside the building facing the front of the building. So that means the table is on the left side and the lampstand is on the right side.”

See also cardinal directions / left and right.


The Greek that is translated into English as “anchor” in English is, due to non-existing nautical language, rendered as kayo’ barko (“an instrument that keeps the boat from drifting”) in Chol (source: Steven 1979, p. 76), “iron hooks” (“that make the boat stop”) in Isthmus Mixe, “irons called ‘anchors’ with ropes” in Teutila Cuicatec (source for this and above: Ronald D. Olson in Notes on Translation January, 1968, p. 15ff.), “weights, and thus they were able to make the boat stand” in Xicotepec De Juárez Totonac (source: Larson 1998, p. 99), “an iron attached to a rope attached to the boat so that it may not drift away” in Lalana Chinantec (source: John Beekman in Notes on Translation, March 1965, p. 2ff.), “a thing that makes the water vehicle stand still” in Kamwe (source: Roger Mohrlang in here), “the metal piece that was in the water that detained the boat” in Eastern Highland Otomi (source: Viola Waterhouse in Notes on Translation August 1966, p. 86ff.), “iron crab” in Bawm Chin (source: David Clark), and “big canoe stopping metal” in Kouya.

Eddie Arthur tells the story of the translation into Kouya: “A slightly more prosaic example comes from Paul’s sea voyages in the Book of Acts. In Acts 27, when Paul’s ship was facing a huge storm, there are several references to throwing out the anchor to save the ship. Now the Kouya live in a tropical rain-forest and have no vessels larger than dug-out canoes used for fishing on rivers. The idea of an anchor was entirely foreign to them. However, it was relatively easy to devise a descriptive term along the lines of ‘boat stopping metal’ that captured the essential nature of the concept. This was fine when we were translating the word anchor in its literal sense. However, in Hebrews 6:19 we read that hope is an anchor for our souls. It would clearly make no sense to use ‘boat stopping metal’ at this point as the concept would simply not have any meaning. So in this verse we said that faith was like the foundation which keeps a house secure. One group working in the Sahel region of West Africa spoke of faith being like a tent peg which keeps a tent firm against the wind. I hope you can see the way in which these two translations capture the essence of the image in the Hebrews verse while being more appropriate to the culture.”

Click or tap here to see a short video clip showing an anchor in biblical times (source: Bible Lands 2012)

See also ship / boat, rudder, and anchor (figurative).

complete verse (Acts 27:13)

Following are a number of back-translations of Acts 27:13:

  • Uma: “At that time the wind from the south was blowing well. That’s why the workers of the ship said/thought that they would be able to continue their journey with goodness/safety. So they raised the iron that restrains the ship (called the anchor), and they continue to go by the edge of the island of Kreta.” (Source: Uma Back Translation)
  • Yakan: “So-then when the south wind blew not so strong, the people thought-mistakenly it was good to sail. So they pulled the anchor up and we (excl.) sailed following the coastline of that island of Kerete.” (Source: Yakan Back Translation)
  • Western Bukidnon Manobo: “Then it began to blow, however not strong, coming from the direction of Libya. And they supposed that what they decided would come to pass. Therefore they pulled up the weights of the ship, and we did not go very far away from the shore of the island of Crete.” (Source: Western Bukidnon Manobo Back Translation)
  • Kankanaey: “When that was so, a breeze arrived from the south, and they said that it was now possible. So they pulled to raise-up (lit. cause-to-climb-up) the hooked metal that caused-the ship -to-stop, and then we (excl.) set-out keeping-to-the-edge along Creta.” (Source: Kankanaey Back Translation)
  • Tagbanwa: “Well, when they observed that the wind had changed, being now like a salatan (type or favorable wind), and it wasn’t really strong, they became happy for they thought-mistakenly that (we) could now accomplish-the-plan. Therefore they pulled up the anchor and sailed. Our sailing was just going along close to the coast of Creta.” (Source: Tagbanwa Back Translation)

Translation commentary on Acts 27:13

Perhaps it is worthwhile to point out that while the Greek text of this verse has twelve words, the Good News Translation rendering has thirty-seven words. One reason for this is that the Good News Translation uses six words, so they pulled up the anchor, for what in Greek is a single word, a technical term meaning “to pull up the anchor.” The Greek sentence itself is structured with only one finite verb, sailed, while the remaining verbs are participles or infinitives. In order to restructure the sentence most naturally for the English reader, the Good News Translation has transformed these participles and infinitives into a series of finite verbs. However, what is important in translation is not the number of words which are employed, but the extent to which the words reflects accurately the meaningful components of the original text. Accuracy of translation cannot be determined by the number of words, but by the extent to which the structure of the meaning is accurately reproduced.

A soft wind from the south began to blow (An American Translation* “a moderate south wind sprang up”) is literally “when the south wind began to blow softly.” In many languages one cannot speak of a soft wind; on the other hand, it is possible to speak about “a wind which is weak,” “a wind which is not strong,” or “a wind which does not make waves.”

For languages which are spoken by people far removed from a coast, an expression for anchor may be extremely difficult to find or even to develop. In some languages an anchor is represented as “a heavy object which keeps the boat from moving” or even “a heavy object which holds the boat in one place.” However, if the people in question have no experience with anchors, it may be important to have a marginal note to indicate specifically what an anchor is, and then to employ some abbreviated form of that description as an identification for such an object.

They tried to sail as close as possible along the coast of Crete, in order not to be blown out into the open sea.

Quoted with permission from Newman, Barclay M. and Nida, Eugene A. A Handbook on The Acts of the Apostles. (UBS Handbook Series). New York: UBS, 1972. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .