In the Tuvan Bible translation project, the official policy (…) was to keep the spelling of names of major characters the same as in the Russian Synodal translation. However, the translation team and representatives of local Tuvan churches agreed that deviation in proper name spelling from the RST would be allowed on a case-by-case basis if there was a concrete need to do so.

Such a need arose with the name of Noah’s son Ham (חָ֥ם) in Genesis and elsewhere in the Old Testament.

In Russian, as in English, this is transliterated with three letters — Хам (Kham). In Russian, the name of this character has entered the language with the meaning of “boorish lout, impudent person” because of how Ham treated his father; in Tuvan, however, the word Хам (Kham) already means “shaman.” Since the Tuvan people continue to practice their traditional religion in which shamans play a major role, the translation team felt that leaving the transliteration of this name with the exact spelling as in Russian might cause needless offense to Tuvan sensibilities by unwittingly causing the text of Gen. 9:20-27 to portray shamans as the targets of Noah’s curse. Therefore, the translation team chose to avoid this potential stumbling block while continuing to maintain a close sound correspondence with the name of the biblical character as Tuvan Christians already knew it from the RST text. This was done by doubling the vowel — Хаам. Tuvan has long vowel phonemes that are written with a double vowel, so this is perfectly acceptable from the point of view of Tuvan orthographic conventions.

The correspondence of the Tuvan version of the name to the Russian Synodal spelling is still recognizable, but hopefully, the wrath of Tuvan shamans and their supporters has been averted by this small disliteration.

The rationale behind such an approach to spelling changes in names is concisely described in the foreword to the Tuvan Bible for the sake of transparency

Apparently, the similarity of the English version of this name to the food item (as in “I’ll have a ham and cheese sandwich”) is not deemed offensive enough to the meat-packing industry for a similar disliteration to be performed in English Bible translations.

Source: Vitaly Voinov in The Bible Translator 2012, p. 17ff.

In Spanish Sign Language it is translated with a sign that signifies “African,” referring to passages like Psalm 105:23. (Source: Steve Parkhurst)

“Ham” in Spanish Sign Language, source: Sociedad Bíblica de España

See also Shem and Japheth.


The Hebrew and Greek that is transliterated as “Shem” in English is translated in Spanish Sign Language with a sign that signifies “Arab,” referring to the fact that Shem traditionally is seen as the forefather of Semitic people, including Abraham and his descendants (see Genesis 11:26 et al.)(Source: Steve Parkhurst)

Note that the terms “Semite” and “Semitic” are derived from “Shem.”

“Shem” in Spanish Sign Language, source: Sociedad Bíblica de España

See also Ham and Japheth.


The Hebrew that is transliterated as “Japheth” in English is translated in Spanish Sign Language with a sign that signifies “Europe,” referring to the fact that Japheth traditionally is seen as the forefather of the European people. (Source: Steve Parkhurst)

“Japheth” in Spanish Sign Language, source: Sociedad Bíblica de España

See also Ham and Shem.

complete verse (Genesis 10:1)

Following are a number of back-translations as well as a sample translation for translators of Genesis 10:1:

  • Newari: “Here is the list of the descendants of the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham and Japheth. These were born after the flood came.” (Source: Newari Back Translation)
  • Hiligaynon: “This is the story about the families of the children of Noe who were Shem, Ham ang Jafet. Their children were-born after the very severe flood.” (Source: Hiligaynon Back Translation)
  • English: “This is/I will now give a list of the descendants of Noah’s sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. They had many children after the flood.” (Source: Translation for Translators)

Translation commentary on Genesis 10:1

These are the generations: These points forward to the list of names in verses 2-29. Generations is the same word used in 2.4b, but it has the sense as used in 5.1, that is, “list of descendants,” “line of offspring.”

Sons of Noah, Shem, Ham, Japheth is here as in 6.10; 7.13.

Sons were born to them after the flood: only sons are named because the reckoning of the genealogy or line of descent is through the male line.

Translators need to pay particular attention to the translation of sons throughout this chapter. Sons in the expression “sons of Noah” refers to Noah’s immediate male offspring who were with him in the boat. Sons in sons were born to them may refer either to their immediate male offspring or, more generally, to descendants. However, after the flood tends to support the sense of immediate offspring. In sons of Japheth (verse 2) the names of the sons refer on the one hand to the literal meaning, and on the other to ethnic groups or nations that are referred to by these names throughout the Old Testament. In verse 5 sons of Japheth refers to peoples, tribes, or nations speaking different languages (see comments on Gen 10.5 for this expression.)

Translators handle this problem in various ways. Some translate sons in each of the above passages with a term meaning immediate male offspring. (In some languages “sons” may also carry the extended sense of “descendants.”) Others translate with a term meaning immediate male offspring in verses 1a and 1b, but in verse 2a translate sons of Japheth as “descendants of Japheth.”

Good News Translation attempts to deal with the double meaning of sons in verses 2, 6, 15, and 22 by translating “sons of…,” and after the last-named person adding “were the ancestors of the peoples who bear their names.” In this way these “sons” are identified as the first in the line of descent that eventually gave rise to a tribe, ethnic group, or nation known by the name of their ancestor. Translators may need to consider doing something similar.

As an example of the Good News Translation approach, which tries to translate according to the meaning in each context, one translation proceeds as follows:
In verse 2 the text begins “The children of Japhet are as follows:….”
After the names of the children comes this statement: “And the people who have these names [today] are their descendants.”
In verses 3 and 4 the text begins “Those who were descended from Gomer [or Javan] are as follows:….”
The text then continues to give the list, “The people of Ashkenaz, the people of….”

After the flood is the starting point for repopulating the earth. In some languages it will be desirable to place this information first. For example, Bible en français courant translates “After the great flood, the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, had sons. Here is the list of their descendants:….” In some languages it may be preferable to say “After the flood the sons of Noah, who were Shem, Ham, and Japheth, had their own sons. This is a list of their descendants:….” Bible en français courant has a footnote, “This list of Noah’s descendants classifies the people known at that time by ethnic and geographical groupings.” A note in New Jerusalem Bible says in part “The principle behind the classification is not so much racial affinity as historical and geographical relationships.”

In some languages the opening in verse 1 may require some restructuring to take the form that normally introduces a list. For example, it may be necessary to begin “Noah had three sons whose names were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. After the flood they all had sons. Here is a list of the names of their descendants:…” or “… a list of the peoples who bore their names:….”

For the writing of Hebrew names, see “Names in Genesis” in “Translating Genesis,” page 8.

Quoted with permission from Reyburn, William D. and Fry, Euan McG. A Handbook on Genesis. (UBS Helps for Translators). New York: UBS, 1997. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .