The Hebrew, Greek, and Latin that is translated as “soul” in English is translated in Chol with a term that refers to the invisible aspects of human beings (source: Robert Bascom).
The Mandarin Chineselínghún (靈魂 / 灵魂), literally “spirit-soul,” is often used for “soul” (along with xīn [心] or “heart”). This is a term that was adopted from Buddhist sources into early Catholic writings and later also by Protestant translators. (Source: Zetzsche 1996, p. 32, see also Clara Ho-yan Chan in this article )
The Greek term that is translated as a form of “save” in English is translated in Shipibo-Conibo with a phrase that means literally “make to live,” which combines the meaning of “to rescue” and “to deliver from danger,” but also the concept of “to heal” or “restore to health.”
In San Blas Kuna it is rendered as “help the heart,” in Laka, it is “take by the hand” in the meaning of “rescue” or “deliver,” in Huautla Mazatec the back-translation of the employed term is “lift out on behalf of,” in Anuak, it is “have life because of,” in Central Mazahua “be healed in the heart,” in Baoulé “save one’s head” (meaning to rescue a person in the fullest sense), in Guerrero Amuzgo “come out well,” in Northwestern Dinka “be helped as to his breath” (or “life”) (source: Bratcher / Nida), and in Nyongarbarrang-ngandabat or “hold life” (source: Warda-Kwabba Luke-Ang).
The Greek that is translated as “sinner” in English is translated as “people with bad hearts” (“it is not enough to call them ‘people who do bad things,’ for though actions do reflect the heart, yet it is the hearts with which God is primarily concerned — see Matt. 15:19”) in Western Kanjobal, “people who are doing wrong things in their hearts” in San Blas Kuna (source: Nida 1952, p. 148), “people with bad stomachs” in Q’anjob’al (source: Newberry and Kittie Cox in The Bible Translator 1950, p. 91ff. ), “those others who don’t fully obey our laws” in Tagbanwa (source: Tagbanwa Back Translation), or “people with dirty hearts” or “people who are called ‘bad'” in Mairasi (source: Enggavoter 2004).
In Central Mazahua and Teutila Cuicatec it is translated as “(person who) owes sin.” (Source: Waterhouse / Parrott in Notes on Translation October 1967, p. 1ff.)
The Greek that is typically translated with a generic expressions such as “he who,” “whoever,” or “if anyone” in English is translated with the plural form (“they”) in Daga. “A literal translation of these conveys the idea that one specific unnamed individual is being dis cussed. Thus, for instance, in John 5:24 ‘he who hears my word and believes in him who sent me has eternal life’ meant in Daga that there was one fortunate individual to whom it applied.”
Following are a number of back-translations of James 5:20:
Uma: “For the person who brings a sinner back from his wrong actions has lifted him from eternal disaster, and his many sins are forgiven.” (Source: Uma Back Translation)
Yakan: “You ought really to know that whoever persuades a sinner so that he leaves/gives-up his faulty/mistaken deeds, he really saves the soul of that sinner so that he doesn’t go to hell, and his many sins are already forgiven. Wassalam” (Source: Yakan Back Translation)
Western Bukidnon Manobo: “remember that he who helps him has made a way for him to be freed from punishment. And by means of that, the very many sins of that person can be forgiven.” (Source: Western Bukidnon Manobo Back Translation)
Kankanaey: “large (appreciative particle) is his help to that sinner, because that is how-he-will-be-saved so he will not be separated from God, and furthermore his many sins, they will be forgiven.” (Source: Kankanaey Back Translation)
Tagbanwa: “For this is what you are to consider. Whoever can cause to return a sinner who has been led astay from the truth, it’s clear that he will cause that person to be saved from death which is unending punishment, and all of his sin will be forgiven.” (Source: Tagbanwa Back Translation)
Tenango Otomi: “You must know that whoever changes the heart of his fellowman so that he will depart from the evil in which he lives, has then saved the person who would have had to be punished, and all the sins which he had committed would be forgiven.” (Source: Tenango Otomi Back Translation)
The Hebrew and Greek that is typically translated as “sin” in English has a wide variety of translations.
The Greek ἁμαρτάνω (hamartanō) carries the original verbatim meaning of “miss the mark.” Likewise, many translations contain the “connotation of moral responsibility.” Loma has (for certain types of sin) “leaving the road” (which “implies a definite standard, the transgression of which is sin”) or Navajo uses “that which is off to the side.” (Source: Bratcher / Nida). In Toraja-Sa’dan the translation is kasalan, which originally meant “transgression of a religious or moral rule” and has shifted its meaning in the context of the Bible to “transgression of God’s commandments.” (Source: H. van der Veen in The Bible Translator 1950, p. 21ff. ).
In Shipibo-Conibo the term is hocha. Nida (1952, p. 149) tells the story of its choosing: “In some instances a native expression for sin includes many connotations, and its full meaning must be completely understood before one ever attempts to use it. This was true, for example, of the term hocha first proposed by Shipibo-Conibo natives as an equivalent for ‘sin.’ The term seemed quite all right until one day the translator heard a girl say after having broken a little pottery jar that she was guilty of ‘hocha.’ Breaking such a little jar scarcely seemed to be sin. However, the Shipibos insisted that hocha was really sin, and they explained more fully the meaning of the word. It could be used of breaking a jar, but only if the jar belonged to someone else. Hocha was nothing more nor less than destroying the possessions of another, but the meaning did not stop with purely material possessions. In their belief God owns the world and all that is in it. Anyone who destroys the work and plan of God is guilty of hocha. Hence the murderer is of all men most guilty of hocha, for he has destroyed God’s most important possession in the world, namely, man. Any destructive and malevolent spirit is hocha, for it is antagonistic and harmful to God’s creation. Rather than being a feeble word for some accidental event, this word for sin turned out to be exceedingly rich in meaning and laid a foundation for the full presentation of the redemptive act of God.”
In Kaingang, the translation is “break God’s word” and in Sandawe the original meaning of the Greek term (see above) is perfectly reflected with “miss the mark.” (Source: Ursula Wiesemann in Holzhausen / Riderer 2010, p. 36ff., 43)
Martin Ehrensvärd, one of the translators for the DanishBibelen 2020, comments on the translation of this term: “We would explain terms, such that e.g. sin often became ‘doing what God does not want’ or ‘breaking God’s law’, ‘letting God down’, ‘disrespecting God’, ‘doing evil’, ‘acting stupidly’, ‘becoming guilty’. Now why couldn’t we just use the word sin? Well, sin in contemporary Danish, outside of the church, is mostly used about things such as delicious but unhealthy foods. Exquisite cakes and chocolates are what a sin is today.” (Source: Ehrensvärd in HIPHIL Novum 8/2023, p. 81ff. )
The imperative let him know means “he must know.” This “he” refers to the believer who turns the one who has gone astray back to the right way. The imperative is some sort of assurance and therefore may be rendered “remember this” (Good News Translation, Bible en français courant, New International Version) or “be sure of this” (New English Bible).
James describes the wandering away as the error of his way. Here the word error is from the same root as the verb “wander” in verse 19. The way, a parallel concept to “truth” in verse 19, is to be understood in an ethical sense, relating to a person’s life style (Psa 1.6; 101.2; Pro 4.14; see also the discussion on 1.8). In order to maintain the connection with verse 19, we may render the phrase the error of his way as “his wandering way.” This first sentence may also be expressed as “Be sure of this, whoever causes a sinner to stop wandering from the truth,” or “Be sure of this, whoever causes a sinner to begin listening to the true word again.”
Whoever turns a sinner back from his or her wandering will save his soul from death. The subject of will save is not God but a human person. In some languages it will therefore be more natural to use another word such as “rescue” (so Phillips, Revised English Bible) rather than “save.” The soul is not part of a person but represents the total person (see the discussion in 1.21). Death here apparently means more than physical death; it means more a spiritual and eternal death, since it is the result of sin (see the discussion in 1.15). There is a question as to whose soul is meant by his soul. Is it the person who has sinned? Or is it the person who has turned the sinner back? The text can be understood either way. But it seems clear that the soul that has been saved from death is the soul of the one who has sinned and then come back. In order to make this clear, we may have to repeat the word “sinner”; for example, “… will save that sinner’s soul from death” (Good News Translation, New Revised Standard Version). However, if we are not too sure about this interpretation and still believe that an alternative rendering should be provided, we can also render the phrase as “… will save his own soul,” as in the Good News Translation alternative rendering. Since the soul represents the total person, it may not need to be repeated in translation; for example, “… will save him from death” (New International Version), “will save them from death” (Contemporary English Version), or even “will rescue them from death.”
Turning back a sinner from wandering away will not only save that sinner, it will also cover a multitude of sins. This is the second assurance. The same phrase is used in 1 Peter 4.8. Here the verb cover is to be understood in the familiar Old Testament sense of “to cause to be forgotten” and therefore “to procure forgiveness” (Psa 32.1; Rom 4.7). The expression a multitude of sins is not meant to convey the degree of wickedness of the sinner but the extent of God’s grace and forgiveness (Psa 85.2). So the phrase may be rendered as “bring about the forgiveness of many sins” (Good News Translation) or “will cause many sins to be forgiven” (Translator’s New Testament). Since God is the one who forgives, it may be desirable to make this clear; for example, “will cause God to forgive the many sins that you have [or, that person has] committed.”
Here we also have the question as to whose sins are covered. Is it the sinner who is brought back? Is it the one who brings back the sinner? Or is it other people?
(1) One possible interpretation is to take the blessing of forgiveness as offered, not to any single person, but to both the person who brings back the sinner and the restored sinner, or to the Christian community at large. But this line of interpretation does not seem to fit the context and is not widely accepted.
(2) Another possibility is to take the assurance of forgiveness as offered to the person who brings about the return of a fellow believer. There are certainly some biblical texts that indicate that someone who brings others to repentance brings benefits and blessings to himself or herself (compare Ezek 3.18-21). It is a case of a good act rewarded. So understood, the phrase will cover a multitude of sins may be rendered as “will bring about the forgiveness of many of his own sins” (compare Barclay‘s rendering, “will draw a veil over a host of sins of his own”). It seems, however, a little strange that the assurance of forgiveness is not offered to the person who is saved.
(3) Both the context and the sequence of thought in this verse appear to favor a third possibility, namely that the assurance of pardon is offered to the person who is brought back. It is more natural to assume that both the assurance of salvation and the assurance of forgiveness are offered to the same person, namely the converted sinner. Reflecting this interpretation, and using inclusive language by adjusting the pronoun references, we may render verse 20 like this:
• You should know this: whoever among you turns sinners back from their wrong way will save them from death and bring about forgiveness of their many sins.
• Remember this: whoever among you causes a sinner [or, sinners] to stop wandering from the truth of the Gospel will rescue him [or, them] from death and will cause God to forgive his [or, their] many sins.
James is concerned about the well-being of the Christian community. And so, with a call for that community to take responsibility for their erring members, he concludes the letter.