The Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin terms that are typically translated as “mercy” (or “compassion” or “kindness”) in English are translated in various ways. Bratcher / Nida classify them in (1) those based on the quality of heart, or other psychological center, (2) those which introduce the concept of weeping or extreme sorrow, (3) those which involve willingness to look upon and recognize the condition of others, or (4) those which involve a variety of intense feelings.
While the Englishmercy originates from the Latinmerces, originally “price paid,” Romance languages (Italian, Spanish, Corsican, Catalan) and other Germanic languages (German, Swedish, Danish — Barmherzigkeit, barmhärtighet and barmhjertighed, respectively) tend to follow the Latin misericordia, lit. “misery-heart.”
The Greek and Hebrew terms that are translated as “redeem” or “redemption” in most English translations (see more on that below) are translated in Kissi as “buying back.” “Ownership of some object may be forfeited or lost, but the original owner may redeem his possession by buying it back. So God, who made us for Himself, permitted us to accept or reject Him. In order to reconcile rebellious mankind He demonstrated His redemptive love in the death of His Son on our behalf.
“The San Blas Kuna describe redemption in a more spiritual sense. They say that it consists of ‘recapturing the spirit.’ A sinful person is one in rebellion against God, and he must be recaptured by God or he will destroy himself. The need of the spirit is to be captured by God. The tragedy is that too many people find their greatest pleasure in secretly trying to elude God, as though they could find some place in the universe where He could not find them. They regard life as a purely private affair, and they object to the claims of God as presented by the church. They accuse the pastor of interfering with the privacy of their own iniquity. Such souls, if they are to be redeemed, must be ‘recaptured.'” (Source: Nida 1952, p. 138)
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In Ajië a term is used, “nawi,” that refers to the “custom of planting a small tree on land cursed either by the blood of battle or some calamity.” Clifford (1992, p. 83ff.) retells the story: “Maurice Leenhardt tells how he finally arrived at a term that would express ‘redemption.’ Previous missionaries had interpreted it as an exchange — an exchange of life, that of Jesus for ours. But in Melanesian thinking more strict equivalents were demanded in the exchanges structuring social life. It remained unclear to them how Jesus’ sacrifice could possibly redeem mankind. So unclear was it that even the natas [Melanesians pastors] gave up trying to explain a concept they did not understand very well themselves and simply employed the term “release.” So the matter stood, with the missionary driven to the use of cumbersome circumlocutions, until one day during a conversation on 1 Corinthians 1:30, [Melanesian pastor and Leenhardt’s co-worker] Boesoou Erijisi used a surprising expression: nawi. The term referred to the custom of planting a small tree on land cursed either by the blood of battle or some calamity. ‘Jesus was thus the one who has accomplished the sacrifice and has planted himself like a tree, as though to absorb all the misfortunes of men and to free the world from its taboos.’ Here at last was a concept that seemed to render the principle of ‘redemption’ and could reach deeply enough into living modes of thought. ‘The idea was a rich one, but how could I be sure I understood it right?’ The key test was in the reaction of students and natas to his provisional version. They were, he reports, overjoyed with the ‘deep’ translation.”
In Folopa, the translation team also found a deeply indigenous term. Neil Anderson (in Holzhausen 1991, p. 51) explains: “While I was explaining the meaning of the [concept] to the Folopa men, I could see their faces brighten. They said that this was a common thing among them: ‘If someone falls a tree and it tips to the wrong side, killing someone, the relatives of the injured party claim the life of the guilty party. But in order to save his life, his relatives make amends. Pigs, shells (which are still used as currency here) and other valuables are given to the relatives of the deceased as payment for the life of the guilty party. In this way he can live because others stand up for him.’ Full of joy, I began to utilize this thought to the difficult translation of the word ‘redemption.’ Mark 10:45 reads now, translated back from the Folopa: ‘Jesus came to make an atonement, by which he takes upon himself the punishment for the evil deeds of many. He came so that through his death many might be liberated.’ After working on this verse for half an hour, I read it to my friends. They became silent and moved their slightly bowed heads thoughtfully back and forth. Finally, one of them took the floor, ‘We give a lot to right a wrong. But we have never given a human being as a price of atonement. Jesus did a great work for us when he made restitution. Because he died, all of us now don’t have to bear the punishment we deserve. We are liberated.'”
In Samoan the translation is togiola which originally refers to a fine mat. John Bradshaw (in The Bible Translator 1967, p. 75ff. ) explains: “The rite of submission applies in cases of grave sin which demands an extreme punishment: offenses such as murder, adultery or disrespectful behavior towards a chief. Submission is made in expectation of forgiveness. The rite is normally enacted at dawn. The prisoner and his family, or even his whole village bow down in silence before the house of the chief or other offended party. The prisoner heads the group and is covered with a fine mat, offered as his ransom. In other words, he submits himself completely to the authority of those whom he has offended. Many such submissions have been successfully offered and received. Those inside the house will come out, and bring into it those offering submission. The priestly orators speak sweetly and all join in a meal. The fine mat is accepted, while the prisoner is set free and forgiven. He no longer goes in fear of retribution for his sin. (…) If now we turn to the relation between the believer and the Redeemer, we notice at once that the word togiola, literally the price of one’s life, was the word used to denote the fine mat with which the sinner covered himself in the rite of Submission. The acceptance of the togiola set free the prisoner. It was inevitable that togiola should render lutron, ransom, as in Matt. 20: 28.”
“In Hebrew there are two terms, ga’al and padah, usually rendered ‘to redeem,’ which have likewise undergone significant changes in meaning with resulting obscurity and misunderstanding. Both terms are used in the Old Testament for a person being redeemed from slavery. In the case of padah, the primary emphasis is upon the redemption by means of payment, and in ga’al the redemption of an individual, usually by payment, is made by some relative or an individual of the same clan or society. These two words, however, are used in the Old Testament in circumstances in which there is no payment at all. For example, the redemption of Jews from Egypt is referred to by these two terms, but clearly there was no payment made to the Egyptians or to Pharaoh.
“In the New Testament a related problem occurs, for the words agorázō and exagorazó, meaning literally ‘to buy’ or ‘to buy back’ and ‘to buy out,’ were translated into Latin as redimo and into English normally as ‘redeem.’ The almost exclusive association of Latin redimo with payment became such a focal element of meaning that during the Middle Ages a theory developed that God had to pay the Devil in order to get believers out of hell and into heaven.
“As in the case of the Old Testament, New Testament contexts employing the Greek verb lutroó, literally ‘to redeem’ or ‘to ransom,’ do not refer primarily to payment but focus upon deliverance and being set free. But even today there is such a heavy tradition of the theological concept of payment that any attempt to translate lutroó as ‘to deliver’ or ‘to set free’ is misjudged by some as being heretical.” (Source: Nida 1984, p. 114f.)
Following is a translation of the songs of Moses and Miriam from Exodus 15 into dance and a song presented in the traditional Fang troubadour style (mvét oyeng) by the group Nkuwalong as part of a project by Bethany and Andrew Case. (Note that you can activate English, French and Spanish subtitles.)
The Hebrew that is translated as “steadfast love,” “lovingkindness” or similar in English is translated in Vidunda as “love of enduring.” (Source: Pioneer Bible Translators, project-specific translation notes in Paratext)
In Bura-Pabir it is translated as hyirkur na a palidzi wa or “love which not [can] be-changed not.” (Source: Andy Warren-Rothlin)
Translators of different languages have found different ways with what kind of formality God is addressed. The first example is from a language where God is always addressed distinctly formal whereas the second is one where the opposite choice was made.
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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.
In these verses, in which humans address God, the informal, familiar pronoun is used that communicates closeness.
Voinov notes that “in the Tuvan Bible, God is only addressed with the informal pronoun. No exceptions. An interesting thing about this is that I’ve heard new Tuvan believers praying with the formal form to God until they are corrected by other Christians who tell them that God is close to us so we should address him with the informal pronoun. As a result, the informal pronoun is the only one that is used in praying to God among the Tuvan church.”
In Gbaya, “a superior, whether father, uncle, or older brother, mother, aunt, or older sister, president, governor, or chief, is never addressed in the singular unless the speaker intends a deliberate insult. When addressing the superior face to face, the second person plural pronoun ɛ́nɛ́ or ‘you (pl.)’ is used, similar to the French usage of vous.
Thou hast led … thy people is past tense in English, but this is not clearly indicated in the Hebrew. In fact the tense of most of the verbs in verses 13-17 must be handled according to the translator’s choice of setting. (See the discussion on tense at verse 14.) New International Version, for example, uses the future tense, “you will lead the people.” This limits the song to its original setting, when the Israelites were just beginning their journey of faith. New Jewish Publication Society’s Tanakh, on the other hand, uses the present tense, “You lead the people.” This allows for a meaningful expression of faith for future generations. Most translations (including Good News Translation and Contemporary English Version), however, place this in the past tense, and translators are encouraged to do so also. (See also the comment at verse 17.)
In thy steadfast love uses the word chesed, which means “faithful love” (Translator’s Old Testament), “constant love” (Revised English Bible), or “unfailing love” (New International Version), or even “unchanging love”; these all bring out the meaning of both love and “faithfulness.” Good News Translation expresses this as “Faithful to your promise.” (See the comment on chesed at 20.6.) The people whom thou hast redeemed refers to the Israelites whom Yahweh has “rescued” (Good News Translation) from the king of Egypt. The word for redeemed is different from that used in 13.13, where it refers to “buying back” the firstborn. The word used here refers more to “buying back” an inheritance, or a family member who had been sold as a slave. (See 21.2, 7.) Translators in certain languages will need to state from whom the Israelites were redeemed, so one may translate, for example, “the people whom you rescued from their enemies.”
Thou hast guided them (New International Version “you will guide them”) is a word often used for leading or helping along a person or an animal that is handicapped. By thy strength is the same word used in verse 2. To thy holy abode refers to Yahweh’s place of residence, but it is not clear whether this refers to the promised “land” (Good News Translation), or to the “mountain” or “sanctuary” mentioned in verse 17. Others have “habitation” (New American Standard Bible) or “dwelling-place” (Revised English Bible). It is holy, or set apart, because of Yahweh’s holiness. (See verse 11.) This should not be translated as “your tabooed place” but rather “the place that you own,” or simply “the place where you live.”
Quoted with permission from Osborn, Noel D. and Hatton, Howard A. A Handbook on Exodus. (UBS Helps for Translators). New York: UBS, 1999. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .