The Greek that is translated as “world” in English is translated as “all the people who sleep in all the places of the earth” in Samo. (Source: Shaw / Van Engen 2003, p. 178)
Translator Lee Bramlett submitted this on the translation of the Greek word that is translated into English as “love” (referring to God’s love). This letter was then reposted by Bob Creson (see here):
“Translator Lee Bramlett was confident that God had left His mark on the Hdi culture somewhere, but though he searched, he could not find it. Where was the footprint of God in the history or daily life of these Cameroonian people? What clue had He planted to let the Hdi know who He was and how He wanted to relate to them?
“Then one night in a dream, God prompted Lee to look again at the Hdi word for ‘love.’ Lee and his wife, Tammi, had learned that verbs in Hdi consistently end in one of three vowels. For almost every verb, they could find forms ending in i, a, and u. But when it came to the word for love, they could only find i and a. Why no u?
“Lee asked the Hdi translation committee, which included the most influential leaders in the community, ‘Could you ‘ɗvi’ your wife?’ ‘Yes,’ they said. That would mean that the wife had been loved but the love was gone.
“‘Could you ‘ɗva’ your wife?’ ‘Yes,’ they said. That kind of love depended on the wife’s actions. She would be loved as long as she remained faithful and cared for her husband well.
“‘Could you ‘ɗvu’ your wife?’ Everyone laughed. ‘Of course not! If you said that, you would have to keep loving your wife no matter what she did, even if she never got you water, never made you meals. Even if she committed adultery, you would be compelled to just keep on loving her. No, we would never say ‘ɗvu.’ It just doesn’t exist.’
“Lee sat quietly for a while, thinking about John 3:16, and then he asked, ‘Could God ‘ɗvu’ people?’
“There was complete silence for three or four minutes; then tears started to trickle down the weathered faces of these elderly men. Finally they responded. ‘Do you know what this would mean? This would mean that God kept loving us over and over, millennia after millennia, while all that time we rejected His great love. He is compelled to love us, even though we have sinned more than any people.’
“One simple vowel and the meaning was changed from ‘I love you based on what you do and who you are,’ to ‘I love you, based on Who I am. I love you because of Me and NOT because of you.’
“God had encoded the story of His unconditional love right into their language. For centuries, the little word was there — unused but available, grammatically correct and quite understandable. When the word was finally spoken, it called into question their entire belief system. If God was like that, did they need the spirits of the ancestors to intercede for them? Did they need sorcery to relate to the spirits? Many decided the answer was no, and the number of Christ-followers quickly grew from a few hundred to several thousand.
“The New Testament in Hdi is ready to be printed now, and 29,000 speakers will soon be able to feel the impact of passages like Ephesians 5:25: ‘Husbands, ‘ɗvu’ your wives, just as Christ ‘ɗvu’-d the church…'”
In Mairasi, the term that is used for love by God, for God and for people is the same: “desire one’s face.” (source: Enggavoter 2004)
In Hawai’i Creole English the love that God has is often translated as love an aloha. Aloha has a variety of meanings, including “hello,” “goodbye,” “love,” “thank you,” etc.
The Philippine languages of Cebuano, Tagalog, and Pampanga use a word (gugma, pag-ibig, and lugud respectively) that is also used for a “noble, refined love of people for each other,” distinct from romantic love. (Source: G. Henry Waterman in The Bible Translator 1960, p. 24ff.)
A particularly interesting development in the history of Christianity [related to translation] took place with respect to the Greek term monogenés, literally, ‘only, unique, one of kind.’ It was used of Isaac as the son of Abraham [see Gen. 22:2], though Isaac was not the only son of Abraham, for he had a son Ishmael, and with a later wife Keturah, several sons. But Isaac was the only son of a particular kind, that is to say, the unique son of the promise. The term monogenés was translated into Latin as unigenitus, meaning literally ‘only begotten’ [in English — or likewise traditionally in Chinese: “dúshēng 獨 生,” Italian: “unigenito,” Spanish “unigénito,” or German: “eingeboren”] but in Greek the equivalent of ‘only begotten’ would have two n’s and not just one. Nevertheless, the Latin misinterpretation of monogenés has constituted such a long tradition that any attempt to speak of Jesus as the ‘unique son of God’ rather than the ‘only begotten son’ is often announced as a case of blatant heresy. (Source: Nida 1984, p. 114.)
In Waiwai, the Greek that is translated as “only begotten Son” in English in John 3:16 is translated as cewnan tumumururosa okwe, where the “particle okwe indicates dearness, and it must be included in Waiwai for the expression ‘only begotten Son’ to mean anything like what it means to God or to us as Christians.” (Source: Robert Hawkins (in The Bible Translator 1962, pp. 164ff.)
See also complete verse (John 3:16).
The Greek that is often translated as “perish” in English is translated in Latvian in this particular verse as pazust: “get lost” or “disappear.”
The Greek that is translated in English as “eternal life” is translated in various ways:
- Berik: “good living forever” (source: Kroneman 2004, p. 536)
- Asháninka: “keep on living”
- Aguaruna: “will always live”
- Yanesha’: “immortal state forever”
- Inupiaq: “endless life”
- Colorado: “live forever with God”
- Lalana Chinantec: “heart will be alive forever,” (source for this and five above: M. Larson / B. Moore in Notes on Translation February 1970, p. 1-125)
- Tagalog: buhay na walang hanggan: “life which has no boundary”
- Iloko: biagna nga agnanayon: “continuing life” (source for this and one above: G. Henry Waterman in The Bible Translator 1960, p. 24ff.)
- Kele: loiko: “survival: enduring through crisis, catastrophe and death” (source: William Ford in The Bible Translator 1957, p. 203ff.).
- Mairasi as “life fruit” (source: Enggavoter 2004).
Lloyd Peckham explains the Mairasi translation: “In secret stories, not knowable to women nor children, there was a magical fruit of life. If referred to vaguely, without specifying the specific ‘fruit,’ it can be an expression for eternity.”
Following are a number of back-translation of John 3:16:
- Tezoatlán Mixtec: “For since God loves very much the people of this world, therefore he gave his only son to arrive in this world, and whoever trusts in him, they will never die. Instead they will be able to live forever.” (’Chi̱ sa̱ꞌá ña̱ kúꞌu̱ nda̱ꞌo ini Ndios sa̱ꞌá ña̱yuu ndéi iin níí kúú ñayuú, sa̱ꞌá ño̱ó ni̱ xi̱ꞌo na iin tóꞌón dini̱ de̱ꞌe na ni̱ ka̱sáa̱ na̱ ñayuú yóꞌo, dá kía̱n ndi ndáa mií vá ña̱yuu ná kandeé ini ñaá, ni iin kuu̱ ta̱ꞌón o̱ ku̱ú na̱. Diꞌa koni na̱ kataki chíchí ná.)
- Ayutla Mixtec: “Because since God loves so much the people of this world, therefore he sent me, his only son to this world. So whoever trusts in me, they will never die before God, instead they will receive life that never ends.” (’Kua̱chi̱ ndii kundani̱ yaꞌa̱ Ndiosí ne̱ yivi̱ꞌ i̱i̱n yivi̱ꞌ, sa̱kanꞌ na ni̱ ti̱ꞌviꞌ a̱ yuꞌu̱, ña̱ nduuꞌ siꞌe̱ a̱ ña̱ i̱i̱n nda̱a̱ꞌ tilu̱ꞌ, i̱i̱n yivi̱ꞌ yoꞌoꞌ. Te̱ yo̱o̱ ka̱ i̱ni̱ xini yuꞌu̱ ndii, kö̱o̱ꞌ kivi̱ꞌ ku̱vi̱ ni̱a̱ nuu̱ꞌ Ndiosí, süu̱ꞌ ja̱a̱nꞌ ndii na̱ti̱i̱n ni̱a̱ kivi̱ꞌ ñu̱u̱ ña̱ kö̱o̱ꞌ kivi̱ꞌ ndiꞌiꞌ.)
- Uma: “Like this God loves all people in the world, with the result that he gave his Only Child, so that whoever believes in that his Child, they will not receive punishment/condemnation, but they will receive good life forever.” (Hewa toi-mi Alata’ala mpoka’ahi’ hawe’ea tauna hi dunia’, alaa-na napewai’ Ana’-na to Hadudua, bona hema–hema to mepangala’ hi Ana’-na toe, uma-ra mporata huku’, tapi’ mporata-ra katuwua’ to lompe’ duu’ kahae–hae-na.)
- Kankanaey: “Since God’s love for people in this world is great, he sent his only Child so that whoever believes in him, he would not be separated from God to be punished, but rather there would be in him life that has no end.” (Gapo ta peteg di layad Diyos sin ipogaw isnan lobong, inbaa na din bogbogtong ay Anak na ta say mo sino di mamati en sisya, adi kaisian en Diyos ta madosa, mo adi et wada en sisya di biyag ay iwed patingga na.)
- Eastern Highland Otomi: “God very much loves the people who live here on earth. Therefore he sent his only son to be killed in order that every one who believes in him will not be lost, rather he will have the new life forever.” (Nguetho ɛ̨mmɛ di huɛ̨gahʉ Oją gue dí ‘bʉhmbʉ ua ja ra ximhäi. Janangue’a bi ‘dajʉ rá ‘dats’ʉnt’ʉ ngue ma yąntehʉ, n’damhma hin da nu ran ʉnbi maząi to’o gätho di däp rá mbʉi a, pɛgue din t’un ra ‘da’yote maząi.)
- Tagbanwa: “For God really values very much all people here under the heavens. Therefore he gave his one-and-only Son, so that as for whoever will believe-in/obey and trust-in/rely-on him, he won’t get to go there to suffering/hardship, but on the contrary he will be given life without ending.” (Ka talagang pagrarasan nga banar it Ampuꞌang Diyus i muꞌsang taw situt sinirungat langit. Aypaꞌ ibinggay yay Anak ya nga paeꞌesa-esa, isaꞌun in siyuy mamayaꞌ baw sumarig it kanya, ega kaꞌaduꞌun it kakuriꞌan, in daꞌga mabgayan kanyat kaꞌgenan nga egay kaskedan.)
- Western Bukidnon Manobo: “All mankind is very big in the breath of God and because of this, even his only son he did not hold back, but rather he sent him here so that all who believe in him, their souls will not be punished, but rather they will be given life without end.” (Utew mahal ziyà te g̵ehinawa te Megbevayà is tivuuk he menusiyà, ne tenged kayi minsan sikan is budtung he Anak din wazè din menug̵uni, kekenà, impehendini zin su wey is langun he edtuu kandin, kenà mesiluti is gimukud dan, kekenà, meveg̵ayi sikandan te untung he wazà pidtemanan.)
- Miahuatlán Zapotec: “Because God greatly loves people of the world, because of it, God sent his only son to earth so that all men who believe in God’s son, those men will not be lost to the evil thing. On the contrary, they will have life forever.” (Tac Diox axta arid nazin’ mèn no nque’ lezo’ Diox ñèe Diox mèn loo izlyo’. Por cona, mtel’ Diox angoluxte xgan’ Diox loo izlyo’ par gàca le’ ryete mèn co’ yila’s loo xgan’ Diox, ne’quexù’de Diox mèna par co’ xà’ Diox mèna loo Diox yiloa. Ndxe’leque’, yòo ban no mèna Diox thidtene yiloa.) (Source for this and above: John Williams in the Seeing Scripture Anew blog.)
- Yakan: “God really loved mankind, therefore he gave/handed over his only Son to be killed so that all who trust in his Son will not be separated from God but will live forever there in the presence of God.” (Kinalasahan teꞌed weꞌ Tuhanin manusiyaꞌin, hangkan sinōngan weꞌ ne Anakne dambuwaꞌ-buwaꞌin pinapatey, supaya kēmon masandel si Anaknen gaꞌi pasapeꞌ amban Tuhan saguwaꞌ ellum siye salama-lama laꞌi si panaꞌanan Tuhanin.) (Source: Yakan Back Translation)
Daniel Shaw reflects on the complex translation of this verse into Samo. Click here to see the story.
As I learned in Sunday school, John 3:16 is what the Bible is all about — the Gospel in a nutshell. But how was I to communicate this verse without these key words? Like any other language, Samo is not deficient. I knew Nida and Taber’s famous dictum, ‘If it can be said in one language, it can be said in another.’ I quickly realized I had to get beyond the horizontal and surface plane. This was not just about how to translate John 3:16. That would have been simply a matter of applying translation principles to a particular language problem — a transposition of human ideas. Rather, I wanted to help them deal with the theological issue of who God is: God’s power, God’s relationship with human beings, and the far-reaching implications of that relationship for dealing with is¬sues of life, death, and eternal life. I needed to get beyond the immediate text to the whole of Scripture and allow the Samo to stand in awe at this incredible God who included them in his plan for humanity. What could this mean for them individually and as a group of former cannibals living in the dense rain forest on the Island of New Guinea?
As a translator I knew how to solve the lexical and semantic problems. As an anthropologist I knew the importance of considering both the cultural setting of those who first received John’s Gospel, as well as the need to understand the Samo culture. I knew the value of analyzing collocational ranges. I appreciated the value of text /communication styles and how these are used for effective presentation of a mes¬sage. I also knew the Samo were aware of a ‘guy in the sky’ who was always ready to zap them when they did wrong (mothers would caution playing children not to make too much noise lest they attract his attention). But this was not the concept of God characterized in John 3:16 by the apostle.
Eventually I discovered the concept of the ayo, of the oldest among a group of brothers who lived in a longhouse. This was a benevolent, caring man who was never in charge but always in control — a traffic director for the entire household. They spoke of him as ‘the authority person.’ When combined with an all-inclusive possessive pronoun this term eventually became the term we used for God — oye ayo, ‘our authority person.’ (See God.) When extended to all the people who ‘sleep in all the places of the earth’ (a way to communicate ‘the world’ — see world) the Samo began to appreciate God in a whole new way, in relationship to themselves and to their enemies.
The relationship between the ayo and those in a longhouse reflected a strong, caring concern for everyone in the household — ‘love.’ For the Samo, a very practical, down to earth people surviving in a hostile environment, belief was a matter of experience. How do they know something is true? They see it, hear it, feel it! In short, they experience truth. This has profound implications far beyond trying to translate John 3:16. It relates to the broader context of all of John chapter 3, including Nicodemus’s awe of Christ and Israel’s experience with the brass serpent in the desert, particular experiences tied to the history of a specific people in a particular time and place. More broadly, it is about how humans experience God.
As a Bible translator I was, in fact, communicating through this verse in its place within a text, an entire semantic constellation tied to the very purpose of Scripture. Suddenly the Samo found themselves in the flow of human involvement with a caring God who knew them and wanted to have an intimate, family-type rela¬tionship with them — not merely sit in judgment and zap them without warning. As a result of understanding John 3:16, the Samo also found themselves in relationship with people beyond their recognized circle of alliance, with the whole of humanity beyond their borders, including people they normally considered enemies (see thief (parable of the wise householder)). That the ‘one in control’ of their feared enemies, the Bedamoni, also had authority over them was not only revelatory, it was transforming. This new understanding — experienced through relationship — had eternal implications for a ‘life that would not end’ and gave insight to a spirit world populated by evil beings, but also included the pool of ancestors who constantly reentered the world to energize a newborn baby and move through the cycle of life once again to join the ancestors and assist the living in their struggle. These new and far-reaching theological in¬sights relating to the Samo also challenged my understanding of the text, forced me to reevaluate my own assumptions, and made me appreciate more deeply the Samo from whom I learned so much about God. (Source: Shaw / Van Engen 2003, p. 177f.)
(To view the different translations of this term in a simplified graphical form on a new page, click or tap here.)
Translations of the Greek pistis and its various forms that are typically translated as “faith” in English (itself deriving from Latin “fides,” meaning “trust, faith, confidence, reliance, credence”) and “believe” (from Old English belyfan: “to have faith or confidence in a person’) cover a wide range of approaches.
Bratcher and Nida say this (1961, p. 38) (click or tap here to read more):
“Since belief or faith is so essentially an intimate psychological experience, it is not strange that so many terms denoting faith should be highly figurative and represent an almost unlimited range of emotional ‘centers’ and descriptions of relationships, e.g. ‘steadfast his heart’ (Chol), ‘to arrive on the inside’ (Chicahuaxtla Triqui), ‘to conform with the heart’ (Uab Meto), ‘to join the word to the body’ (Uduk), ‘to hear in the insides’ (or ‘to hear within one’s self and not let go’ – Nida 1952) (Laka), ‘to make the mind big for something’ (Sapo), ‘to make the heart straight about’ (Mitla Zapotec), ‘to cause a word to enter the insides’ (Lacandon), ‘to leave one’s heart with’ (Baniwa), ‘to catch in the mind’ (Ngäbere), ‘that which one leans on’ (Vai), ‘to be strong on’ (Shipibo-Conibo), ‘to have no doubts’ (San Blas Kuna), ‘to hear and take into the insides’ (Kare), ‘to accept’ (Pamona).”
Following is a list of (back-) translations from other languages (click or tap here to read more):
- Western Kanjobal: “truth entering into one’s soul”
- Highland Puebla Nahuatl: “following close after”
- Huichol: “conform to the truth”
- Loma: “lay one’s hand on it”
- Mashco Piro: “obey-believe”
- Mossi: “leaning on God” (this and all the above acc. to Nida 1952, p. 119ff.)
- Tzeltal: “heart believe / heart obedience” (source: Marianna C. Slocum in The Bible Translator 1958, p. 49f. — see also wisdom (Proverbs))
- Thai: “place one’s heart in” (source: Bratcher / Hatton 2000, p. 37)
- Cameroon Pidgin: “to put one’s heart in God” (source: Jan Sterk)
- Kafa: “decide for God only” (source Loren Bliese)
- Martu Wangka: “sit true to God’s talk” (source: Carl Gross)
- Muna: kataino lalo or “stickiness of heart” (for “faithfulness”) (source: René van den Berg)
- Limos Kalinga: manuttuwa. Wiens (2013) explains: “It goes back to the word for ‘truth’ which is ‘tuttuwa.’ When used as a verb this term is commonly used to mean ‘believe’ as well as ‘obey.'”
Awabakal: ngurruliko: “to know, to perceive by the ear” (as distinct from knowing by sight or by touch — source: Lake, p. 70) (click or tap here to read more)
“[The missionary translator] Lancelot Threlkeld learned that Awabakal, like many Australian languages, made no distinction between knowing and believing. Of course the distinction only needs to be made where there are rival systems of knowing. The Awabakal language expressed a seamless world. But as the stress on ‘belief’ itself suggests, Christianity has always existed in pluralist settings. Conversion involves deep conviction, not just intellectual assent or understanding. (…) Translating such texts posed a great challenge in Australia. Threlkeld and [his indigenous colleague] Biraban debated the possibilities at length. In the end they opted not to introduce a new term for belief, but to use the Awabakal ngurruliko, meaning ‘to know, to perceive by the ear,’ as distinct from knowing by sight or by touch.”
Language in southern Nigeria: a word based on the idiom “lose feathers.” Randy Groff in Wycliffe Bible Translators 2016, p. 65 explains (click or tap here to read more):
What does losing feathers have to do with faith? [The translator] explained that there is a species of bird in his area that, upon hatching its eggs, loses its feathers. During this molting phase, the mother bird is no longer able to fly away from the nest and look for food for her hungry hatchlings. She has to remain in the nest where she and her babies are completely dependent upon the male bird to bring them food. Without the diligent, dependable work of the male bird, the mother and babies would all die. This scenario was the basis for the word for faith in his language.
J.A. van Roy (in The Bible Translator 1972, p. 418ff.) discusses how a translation of “faith” in a an earlier translation into Venda created difficult perceptions of the concept of faith (click or tap here):
The Venda term u tenda, lutendo. This term corresponds to the terms ho dumela (Southern Sotho), and ku pfumela (Tsonga) that have been used in these translations of the Bible, and means “to assent,” “to agree to a suggestion.” It is important to understand this term in the context of the character of the people who use it.
The way in which the Venda use this term reveals much about the priority of interpersonal relationships among them. They place a much higher priority on responding in the way they think they are expected to respond than on telling the truth. Smooth interpersonal relationships, especially with a dominant individual or group, take precedence over everything else.
It is therefore regarded as bad form to refuse directly when asked for something one does not in fact intend to give. The correct way is to agree, u tenda, and then forget about it or find some excuse for not keeping to the agreement. Thus u tenda does not necessarily convey the information that one means what one says. One can tenda verbally while heartily disagreeing with the statement made or having no intention whatsoever to carry out what one has just promised to do. This is not regarded as dishonesty, but is a matter of politeness.
The term u sokou tenda, “to consent reluctantly,” is often used for expressing the fatalistic attitude of the Venda in the face of misfortune or force which he is unable to resist.
The form lutendo was introduced by missionaries to express “faith.”
According to the rules of derivations and their meanings in the lu-class, it should mean “the habit of readily consenting to everything.” But since it is a coined word which does not have a clearly defined set of meanings in everyday speech, it has acquired in church language a meaning of “steadfastness in the Christian life.” Una lutendo means something like “he is steadfast in the face of persecution.” It is quite clear that the term u tenda has no element of “trust” in it. (…)
In “The Christian Minister” of July 1969 we find the following statement about faith by Albert N. Martin: “We must never forget that one of the great issues which the Reformers brought into focus was that faith was something more than an ‘assensus,’ a mere nodding of the head to the body of truth presented by the church as ‘the faith.’ The Reformers set forth the biblical concept that faith was ‘fiducia.’ They made plain that saving faith involved trust, commitment, a trust and commitment involving the whole man with the truth which was believed and with the Christ who was the focus of that truth. The time has come when we need to spell this out clearly in categorical statements so that people will realize that a mere nodding of assent to the doctrines that they are exposed to is not the essence of saving faith. They need to be brought to the understanding that saving faith involves the commitment of the whole man to the whole Christ, as Prophet, Priest and King as he is set forth in the gospel.”
We quote at length from this article because what Martin says of the current concept of faith in the Church is even to a greater extent true of the Venda Church, and because the terms used for communicating that concept in the Venda Bible cannot be expected to communicate anything more than “a mere nodding of assent”. I have during many years of evangelistic work hardly ever come across a Venda who, when confronted with the gospel, would not say, Ndi khou tenda, “I admit the truth of what you say.” What they really mean when saying this amounts to, “I believe that God exists, and I have no objection to the fact that he exists. I suppose that the rest of what you are talking about is also true.” They would often add, Ndi sa tendi hani-hani? “Just imagine my not believing such an obvious fact!” To the experienced evangelist this is a clear indication that his message is rejected in so far as it has been understood at all! To get a negative answer, one would have to press on for a promise that the “convert” will attend the baptism class and come to church on Sundays, and even then he will most probably just tenda in order to get rid of the evangelist, whether he intends to come or not. Isn’t that what u tenda means? So when an inexperienced and gullible white man ventures out on an evangelistic campaign with great enthusiasm, and with great rejoicing returns with a list of hundreds of names of persons who “believed”, he should not afterwards blame the Venda when only one tenth of those who were supposed to be converts actually turn up for baptismal instruction.
Moreover, it is not surprising at all that one often comes across church members of many years’ standing who do not have any assurance of their salvation or even realise that it is possible to have that assurance. They are vhatendi, “consenters.” They have consented to a new way of life, to abandoning (some of) the old customs. Lutendo means to them at most some steadfastness in that new way of life.
The concept of faith in religion is strange to Africa. It is an essential part of a religion of revelation such as Christianity or Islam, but not of a naturalistic religion such as Venda religion, in which not faith and belief are important, but ritual, and not so much the content of the word as the power of it.
The terms employed in the Venda Bible for this vital Christian concept have done nothing to effect a change in the approach of the Venda to religion.
It is a pity that not only in the Venda translation has this been the case, but in all the other Southern Bantu languages. In the Nguni languages the term ukukholwa, “to believe a fact,” has been used for pisteuo, and ukholo, the deverbative of ukukholwa, for pistis. In some of the older Protestant translations in Zulu, but not in the new translation, the term ithemba, “trust”, has been used.
Some languages, including Santali, have two terms — like English (see above) — to differentiate a noun from a verb form. Biswạs is used for faith, whereas pạtiạu for “believe.” R.M. Macphail (in The Bible Translator 1961, p. 36ff.) explains this choice: “While there is little difference between the meaning and use of the two in everyday Santali, in which any word may be used as a verb, we felt that in this way we enriched the translation while making a useful distinction, roughly corresponding to that between ‘faith’ and ‘to believe’ in English.”
God transcends gender, but most languages are limited to grammatical gender expressed in pronouns. In the case of English, this is traditionally confined to “he” (or in the forms “his,” “him,” and “himself” in many English Bible translations when referring to the persons of the Trinity with the capitalized “He,” “His,” “Him,” or “Himself”), “she” (and “her,” “hers,” and “herself”), and “it” (and “its” and “itself”).
Modern Chinese, however, offers another possibility (click or tap here to read more):
In modern Chinese, the third-person singular pronoun is always pronounced the same (tā), but it is written differently according to its gender (他 is “he,” 她 is “she,” and 它/牠 is “it” and their respective derivative forms). In each of these characters, the first (or upper) part defines the gender (man, woman, or thing/animal), while the second element gives the clue to its pronunciation.
In 1930, after a full century with dozens of Chinese translations, Bible translator Wang Yuande (王元德) coined a new “godly” pronoun: 祂. Chinese readers immediately knew how to pronounce it: tā. But they also recognized that the first part of that character, signifying something spiritual, clarified that each person of the Trinity has no gender aside from being God.
While the most important Protestant and Catholic Chinese versions respectively have opted not to use 祂, many other Bible translations do and it is widely used in hymnals and other Christian materials. (Source: Zetzsche)
Early versions of Lü Zhenzhong’s (呂振中) version (New Testament: 1946, complete Bible: 1970) also used 祂 to refer to “God.” Kramers points out: “This new way of writing ‘He,’ however, has created a minor problem of its own: must this polite form be used whenever Jesus is referred to? Lü follows the rule that, wherever Jesus is referred to as a human being, the normal ta (他) is written; where he is referred to as divine, especially after the ascension, the reverential ta (祂) is used.”
Source: R. P. Kramers in The Bible Translator 1956, p. 152ff.
In Kouya, Godié, Northern Grebo, Eastern Krahn, Western Krahn, and Guiberoua Béte, all languages of the Kru family in Western Africa, a different kind of systems of pronouns is used (click or tap here to read more):
In that system one kind of pronoun is used for humans (male and female alike) and one for natural elements, non-liquid masses, and some spiritual entities (one other is used for large animals and another one for miscellaneous items). While in these languages the pronoun for spiritual entities used to be employed when referring to God, this has changed into the use of the human pronoun.
Lynell Zogbo (in The Bible Translator 1989, p. 401ff) explains in the following way: “From informal discussions with young Christians especially, it would appear that, at least for some people, the experience and/or concepts of Christianity are affecting the choice of pronoun for God. Some people explain that God is no longer ‘far away,’ but is somehow tangible and personal. For these speakers God has shifted over into the human category.”
In Kouya, God (the Father) and Jesus are referred to with the human pronoun ɔ, whereas the Holy Spirit is referred to with a non-human pronoun. (Northern Grebo and Western Krahn make a similar distinction.)
Eddie Arthur, a former Kouya Bible translation consultant, says the following: “We tried to insist that this shouldn’t happen, but the Kouya team members were insistent that the human pronoun for the Spirit would not work.”
The English “Contemporary Torah” addresses the question of God and gendered pronouns by mostly avoiding pronouns in the first five books of the Jewish Bible/Old Testament (unless God is referred to as “lord,” “father,” “kind,” or “warrior”). It does that by either using passive constructs or by using “God” rather than a pronoun.
Translator: Simon Wong
There are various approaches to the translation of the Greek theos and Hebrew elohim or el that are translated as “God” in English. Click or tap here to see more.
While some of the main language groups of European languages have the origin of their translations go back to somewhat nebulous sources (see below), many other languages use a translation that can be more easily traced back to its original meaning.
Click or tap here to see the translations by many Germanic, Romance, or Slavic languages.
- Germanic languages use a term that goes back to the first Gothic Bible translation (guþ) in the 4th century that might originally have meant “divine entity summoned to a sacrifice” or “to pour, pour a libation” (source: Online Etymology Dictionary) (see: Afrikaans/Norwegian/Dutch/English: God; Danish/Swedish/Faroese: Gud; German: Gott; Icelandic: Guð; Yiddish: גאָט [got])
- Romance languages use a term that derives from the Latin Deus (and is unrelated to the Greek θεός) which itself comes from Proto-Indo-European deywós “sky, heaven” (source: Wiktionary) (see Catalan: Déu; French: Dieu; Galician/Portuguese: Deus; Italian: Dio; Spanish: Dios; Romanian: Dumnezeu [from: domine deus])
- Slavic languages use a term that comes from Proto-Slavic bogъ with the meaning of “poor, miserable,” as well as the later meaning “earthly wealth/well-being; fortune,” “dispenser of wealth/fortune” and finally “god” (source: Wiktionary) (see: Belarusian/Bulgarian/Macedonian/Russian/Serbian/Ukrainian: Бог; Bosnian/Croatian/Slovenian: Bog; Czech: Bůh; Slovak: Boh; Polish: Pan Bóg)
Eugene Nida (1947, p. 204ff.) provided a theoretical framework for ways to select a translation for “God.” (Click or tap here to see)
“The name for God in an aboriginal language is one of the keystones to the entire theological structure and Bible teaching. The problem is by no means as simple as it may at first appear. Some translators, not finding in the pagan religious system, exactly the word which they think appropriate, have introduced a foreign name for God, e.g. Spanish Dios or English God. They have thought that such a word would have prestige because it comes from the language of a culturally dominant group. The fact that such a borrowed word seems to have no bad connotations appears to justify its use. It is assumed that the native people will automatically come to understand by the borrowed word for ‘God’ exactly what we understand by the same term. The translator has counted upon taking a word with zero meaning and giving it the proper content. This is not so easily done as imagined. In almost every case the native will immediately try to equate this new name of God with one of the gods of his own religious system. Since all people attempt to understand the unknown in terms of the known, it will not be very long before the natives will have worked out what seems to them a perfectly consistent equivalent for the new term.
“On the other hand, the translator may attempt to use some native word for ‘God’ which seems applicable. A further investigation may reveal that there are many characteristics which are given to this god in native legend which are quite inconsistent with Biblical truth. The translator’s examination must be thorough, for he does not want to run the risk of using a term which does not contain at least the central core of meaning which is essential.
“The translator should not be fearful of using a native word for ‘God.’ He should remember that in terms of the native culture the Greek word theos, the Latin deus, and the Gothic guþ could hardly be termed exact equivalents to the concept of God as taught in the Bible. Nevertheless, these terms did possess the essential core of meaning. It is interesting to note that they are generic terms. In no case were they the names of one particular god. The use of names such as Zeus, Jupiter, or Woden would not have been wise, for these specific names included a great deal of legend as to the individual peculiarities, excesses, and immoral actions of the particular gods. In the generic terms, however, there existed enough of the fundamental core of religious significance that they have been used successfully. In Greek, theos designated any god. In the plural it could be used to include all the gods. In the Bible this generic term is used and made to apply specifically to only one God. The Christians took a term which designated any important supernatural entity and by context and teaching made it apply to only one such entity. Where this same situation exists in another culture, there is no reason for believing that this process could not be repeated, and with good results.
“In choosing the name for God it is important to consider the usage of the trade language. Very frequently the native church is assimilated into the church group speaking the trade language or the national language. The native church also draws much of its leadership from among those who speak the trade language. A similar name for God is valuable, but it is not absolutely essential.”
Following are examples of what Nida above considers “native words.” (Click or tap here to see)
Lakota: Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka (“the universal spiritual power” — source: Steve Berneking in Beerle-Moor / Voinov, p. 119 — click or tap here to see more)
“The Lakota translators have intentionally chosen to use the traditional Lakota name of the Deity instead of the name ‘God.’ Past missionary movements across North America have colonized Indian people to assume that the word ‘God’ is the appropriate gloss for traditional understandings of the Deity. Even more troubling, the waves of violence — physical, social, and psychological — were more often than not carried out in the name of ‘God.’ In an intentional strike against this violence (…) these Lakota translators are using the name Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka. Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka is the universal spiritual power, sometimes wrongly rendered in English ‘Creator’ or ‘Great Spirit.’ In Lakota spirituality, however, Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka is not personified with any name. What Christians would refer to as ‘God’ is understood as a spiritual force or energy that permeates all of creation and is manifest in numerous ways in the world around us at any given moment and in any given place. So, to assume that the name ‘God’ is an appropriate gloss to translate Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka fully and culturally not only reflects some latent ‘imperial’ attitude, it also negates and oppresses the deep understanding of Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka for the Lakota people. Therefore, the choice of the Lakota translators to bring Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka into the biblical text is an attempt to heal and to reconcile the brokenness in the history of their people.”
Ap Ma: Yamom (“the creator” — click or tap here to see more)
“Yamom is the creator. He made the trees and everything else we see in the world around us. There is no tradition as to where Yamom lives, and he is never seen. ‘We do not know him directly. We know only that he was in his own place and at his word everything was created. A person might sit somewhere and reflect, ‘How could such a thing as a coconut tree grow out of that nut?’ The answer is that these things that people could never do could only have been done by Yamom. Yamom is sometimes referred to as Yadima, which means ‘word’ or ‘story.’ It is a kind of euphemism so that one doesn’t have to say the real name. There is a feeling that if the name is used carelessly, the person may experience some kinds of problems. According to the traditional culture, Yamom himself never gave anyone direct messages. However, the konim ‘spirits,’ would sometimes mention him: ‘Yamom says the rains are coming,’ or ‘Yamom says the eels are coming.'”
Keapara: palagu (“God” or “spirit of humanness” — click or tap here to see more)
“Apart from the meaning ‘God,’ palagu is used in ordinary speech to mean something like ‘spirit of humanness.’ Each person is born with their own palagu, and this is what makes them able to become mature human beings. If the palagu leaves a person, then that person will begin to act in strange ways. In this way it is rather like the English word ‘mind.’ There is a special concern for babies, because the palagu of a baby is easily separated from the baby. When preparing to give a baby a bath, or if a person is carrying a baby under big trees, or at night, people are often encouraged to call out Kivani palaguna O, onove rake kaumai — ‘Baby’s spirit, come after us.’ If the baby’s palagu does not come, then the baby will become very fussy and difficult. The family must then try to figure out how to get the palagu to come back. Perhaps they will pray. There is often a feeling that something has gone wrong within the family, and this must be straightened out before the baby’s palagu will return.”
Mbandja: Chuchu (the traditional maker of world and mankind — click or tap here to see more)
“People claim that he made the world and mankind. What is more, he likes mankind. But his people did not like him. To escape from him, they ran away and have practically forgotten about him, though he has never forgotten about them. Here, embedded in the legends of the people, lies the truth which the missionary may use. He may show the people how far they have wandered from God and how He has not forgotten about them. In fact, He sent His Son in order that He might reconcile them to Himself.”
- Kovai: Yoba Maro (variant of Molo, a traditional cultural hero)
- Waskia: Kaem (general word for revered spirit)
- Misima-Panaeati: Yabowaine (traditional god who lives in the sky and helps with journeys or fights)
Zimakani: ‘Bi’bukia’mene (“True supernatural being” — source for this and above: Norm Mundhenk in The Bible Translator 2004, p. 215ff. — click or tap here to see more)
In Zimakani there were supernatural beings called ‘bi’buki. The stars are among the ‘bi’buki, as are the sun and moon. Kau was the traditional god of the Zimakani, their ancestral folk hero. They would say Kau is our ‘bi’buki. Using this term as a base, a form ‘Bi’bukia’mene was developed. It means ‘The True (masculine, singular) ‘bi’buki‘ This is the term being used for ‘God.'”
- Thai: phra’ cao (พระเจ้า) (“Divine Lord”) (Phra’ cao is also used to refer to the king in Thailand; source: Stephen Pattemore).
- Bacama: Həmɨnpwa: “king of up” (“In pre-Christian days, this was the name for the highest among the gods. Sometimes the shorter form Pwa is used.” Source: David Frank in this blog post)
- Lamba: ŵaLesa — the prefix ŵa is a plural form for “proper names when addressing and referring to persons in any position of seniority or honor.” While this was avoided in early translations to avoid possible misunderstandings of more than one God, once the church was established it was felt that it was both “safe” and respectful to use the honorific (plural) prefix. (Source C. M. Doke in The Bible Translator 1958, p. 57ff.)
Ajië: Bao (“a spirit,” “an ancestor,” or “a corpse” — source: Clifford, p. 79-91 — click or tap here to see more)
Maurice Leenhardt, the missionary and translator in charge of the first and only Ajië translation “believed at first that the Melanesian experience of Divinity could be brought directly over into Christianity. In 1905 he began experimenting with using bao (a spirit, an ancestor, or corpse) to clarify in the native language the ‘visions’ spoken of in the Gospels. (…) The Christian God had to appropriate the essence of Melanesian spirits by taking possession of their generic name, Bao. (…) [Leenhardt wrote to his father in 1913:] If Jehovah is really that which is visible since the creation then the pagans must have an obscure revelation of God at the heart of their beliefs. This is a minimum of experiences upon which the preaching of the Gospel can be based, And this we shouldn’t reject the entire jumble of their gods in order to give them a new god with a foreign name; rather we should search for the word in their language, even the strangest word, into which can be translated the visible experience of God. (…) The bao concept would have to be reunderstood, not as a generic term but capitalized, as a personal name. (…) Leenhardt was encouraged by his discovery that bao had always been a highly adaptable concept. It could apply not merely to a corpse, recent ancestor, or magical divinity, but its masculine ‘power’ could sometimes fuse spontaneously with feminine-totemic principle of life. (…) In adopting the language of totemic myth to evoke the Christian Bao (…) Leenhardt in effect broadened the God of European orthodoxy in two crucial ways. In translating his deity, the missionary made ‘Him’ more androgynous, a totem-bao of feminine ‘life’ as well as of masculine power.”
Ngäbere: Ngöbö (source: Nida 152, p. 37f. — click or tap here to see more)
Nida tells this story: “Frequently the translator is indebted to pagan shamans for some of the most important terms. For years Efrain Alphonse tried to find the Ngäbere name for ‘God.’ Many of the people did not know the word, and others refused to give it. Though there was a belief in a beneficent Creator, His name was too sacred to be known by the uninitiated. On one occasion, Mr. Alphonse went with some of his Ngäbe helpers to visit an old medicine woman back in the recesses of the tropical forest of Bocas del Toro. After being ushered into the presence of this greatly revered (…) woman, they answered at length the many questions she asked. Finally she began to chant and sing and as her voice rose higher and higher, she shouted out in trance-like ecstacy so that all could hear, ‘These men are talking about Ngöbö, the God of heaven and earth, Listen to them!’ There was the name ‘Ngöbö,’ the very word which Mr. Alphonse had been seeking for so many years. It came from the lips of a native diviner and sorceress, but all agreed that this was the name of God, and throughout the years it has been used by the Ngäbe Christians.”
Gbaya: sõ (originally: “to ooze; to anoint, to rub on” also “spirit” later “god” and finally a proper name for “God” — source: Noss, Current Tends 2002, p. 157ff. — click or tap here to see more)
“When the Gbaya translator of the Bible, like the Protestant and Catholic missionaries who first translated Scripture texts into Gbaya, adopts the traditional term for God, what does this mean theologically? The issue is not whether this term fits into the broad sweep of African Traditional Religion as it is referred to by modem African theologians, but what kind of God is this? The noun sõ may be derived from the verb so which means ‘to ooze; to anoint, to rub on.’ This term, which may have a basic meaning similar to ‘spirit,’ has come to be used as the equivalent of ‘god’ and as a proper name for ‘God.’ Folk etymology explains that this word depicts the unique power of God in that he created himself like sap oozing from the trunk of a tree. This God is the Creator God who created Adam and Eve and who also created the Gbaya ancestors. To the Gbaya this is YHWH of the Old Testament. (…) The theological implications of this practice are two-fold. First, the use of a vernacular term offers legitimacy to traditional beliefs. Secondly, there may appear to be a clash between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the translated text if the traditional term is retained (…) Lamin Sanneh observes two possible explanations with regard to this issue (1988:18). The first is that what any one language may say may not totally describe God; the second is that all languages may be inherently inadequate with regard to religious truth. Gbaya readers interpret the translated text in the light of tradition and transmitted knowledge. Adam and Eve are seen against the backdrop of the folklore heroes, Wanto and his wife Laaiso. Like Adam and Eve, Wanto and Laaiso are archetypes of humankind whose descendants pay the price of their misdeeds in those ancient times of the beginning. Just as Adam and Eve suffer the consequences of their deeds and are deprived of their pristine garden, so also Wanto and Laaiso lose the paradise that is created for them by an unknown benefactor of Gbaya myth.”
- Khmer: Preah Chea Mchas (“Illustrious one who is master” — “Because a concept for ‘God’ does not exist in Buddhism” (source: Joseph Hong in The Bible Translator 1996, 233ff.)
- Wayuu: Maleiwa (“Wayuus had automatically made the correspondence between the Christian God and their own Maleiwa. They considered them identical” — source: Nida 1947, p. 207)
Akan: Onyame or Onyankopon (“the supreme God” — source: J. Loewen in The Bible Translator 1985, p. 201ff. — click or tap here to see more)
“If we take an African example and consider the Akan of Ghana we see that they recognize Onyame or Onyankopon as the supreme God. Both of these names are personal and cannot be pluralized, but they also recognize the abosom, called idols or fetishes in the earlier dictionaries, but now called god/gods by Akan scholars. A is the prefix which pluralizes a root, bo means ‘stone’ or rock’ and som means ‘to worship.’ Thus the word as a whole literally means ‘rock things people worship.’ While the above example is from a single tribal society, the model it presents is duplicated in many, if not most West African societies. In such situations, the local word ‘gods’ will probably cover the domain of two Hebrew words gods and idols.”
- Northern Indian languages including Hindi, Nepali, Assamese, and Bengali use “Ishwar (Assamese: ঈশ্বৰ, Bengali: ঈশ্বর) or Param-Ishwar (“Supreme Ishwar”) (Hindi and Bengali: परमेश्वर). “This is a term used widely in Hindu scriptures in different senses. It is mainly used as a title, usually associated with the Hindu god ‘Siva.’ But there are passages in some scriptures where Ishwar is used as a name of a personal god who is the maker or master of the universe.”
- Southern Indian languages tend to use Deva, “another term tor a divine being. But this is not a personal name: it is a term to refer to any divine being, of which there are plenty in the Hindu pantheon. The term means ‘respectable or glorious being,’ so it has a positive sense.” Languages include Gujarati: દેવ, Kannada: ದೇವರ, Marathi: देव, Malayalam: ദൈവം, Tamil தேவன், Telugu దేవుడు (source for this and above: B. Rai in The Bible Translator 1992, p. 443ff. and Hooper, p. 86f.). This term is also used in some Indonesian languages: Sangir and Batak Toba: Debata (source: Rosin, p. 200)
- Many Bantu languages use Mungu (or a form thereof), the “traditional creator and sustainer of the world and of all life in it,” including Swahili, Nyanja, Digo, Bena, Pokomo, Gogo, Pogolo, Sanga, Rundi, Kinyarwanda, Bemba, Chuwabu, Ngungwel (sources: Bühlmann, p. 146 and E. Wendland in The Bible Translator 1992, p. 430ff.)
Most Polynesian languages use Atua, the traditional concept for “spirit” or “god,” including Gilbertese, Māori, Tuvalu, Rarotongan, Tahitian, Samoan (Atua), Rotuman (‘Ạitu), or Tonga (‘Otuá) (Source J. Hong in The Bible Translator 1994, p. 329ff.; click or tap here to see more)
“The word is Polynesian, although it has long been used in parts of Melanesia too. In Polynesia, it originally had various meanings, many of which were very distant from the Christian meaning. In the first place there are countless atuas, while the Christian God is one only, even though He be a Trinity in Unity — and that difficulty would have to be faced later. But at bottom an atua is only a spirit, not necessarily masculine, or good or powerful, and certainly a very poor foundation for conveying the Christian concept of God. The term atua is applied to gods possessing personal names, as well as to ancestral spirits and even to dead chiefs. In many ways its coverage corresponds to that of kami in Japanese. In Samoa one could even speak of an atua of war, thunder, etc. Yet this term atua has been employed everywhere in Polynesia by all the missions, from the first efforts of the London Missionary Society up to the present time.” (Source: A. Capell in The Bible Translator 1969, 154ff.
Adoptions of terms from other languages
Translations of God with loan words (what Nida above styles as “introduction of a foreign name for God”) include the following. (Click or tap here to see)
The term used for God is Allah or some variation of this word in most predominantly Muslim regions in the Middle East (Arabic, Pashto, Urdu, Dari, etc.), but also in other Muslim parts of the world as a loan word from Arabic, including in Wolof (Yàlla), Kpelle (Ɣâla), Hausa and Pulaar (Allah), Malay and Indonesian (Allah — depending on the version sometimes for YHWH and in exchange with Tuhan — see Atua above — click or tap here to see more)
Reasons for using Allah include that “the loan word Allah is the Arabic equivalent of the Hebrew names of God El, Elohim, Eloah in the Hebrew Old Testament;” that “Arab Christians from before the dawn of Islam have been praying to Allah, and Allah was used by Christian theologians writing in Arabic. So the Christian usage of Allah is actually older than Islam;” “Allah is the word used for ‘God’ in all Arabic versions of the Bible;” “Christians in countries like Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, and other places in Asia and Africa where the languages are in contact with Arabic, have almost all been using the word Allah as the Creator God and the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Source: D. Soesilo in The Bible Translator 2001: p. 414ff., reproduced online here.)
- A number of languages in predominantly Spanish-speaking areas are using forms of Spanish Dios, including Tojolabal (Dyosi), Poqomchi’ (Tiox), Chol (Dios), Quetzaltepec Mixe (Tios), Kekchí, K’iche’ (all: Dios) (Source: Robert Bascom).
Ottman (p. 130) shows that in the 16th century the use of Dios in materials for Classical Nahuatl equated with a proper name for “God”: “The new God not only has the proper name of ‘Dios,’ rather than ‘God,’ in accordance with the almost universal practice of the Church in the Spanish Indies, but is not always referred to as a ‘god’ at all, as if the word were irretrievably contaminated by its association with the old deities.”
- Creole languages naturally tend to adopt terminology from their originating language(s) but sometimes they do that via a non-standard term, such as in Saint Lucian Creole French where “God” is Bondyé (from French bon Dieu — “good God” — rather than Dieu) (source: David Frank (in: Lexical Challenges in the St. Lucian Creole Bible Translation Project, 1998)
- A number of languages in Papua New Guinea use the English “God” and the German “Gott” (dating back to the German occupation of PNG in the late 19th and early 20th centuries), including Tok Pisin / Waboda / Mussau-Emira: God, West Kewa: Gote, Goto, Onobasulu: Gode, Bamu: Godi, and Yagaria (Source: Norm Mundhenk in The Bible Translator 2004, p. 215ff.). Other languages with Bible translations that use the German “Gott” under the influence of German missionaries include Arawak in Suriname (source: Jabini 2015, p. 21).
The traditional Kâte term Anutu was adopted by a number of other languages in Papua New Guinea: Adzera: Anutu; Dedua: Anutu; Nukna: Ánutu — source: Norm Mundhenk in The Bible Translator 2004, p. 215ff.) — click or tap here to see more)
“‘Anutu’ — despite his apparent insignificance in the mythological system — could not be placated by humans. ….Thus, although the … name Anutu had several variations and was understood in several ways, it was apparently for the Kâte people, living in the cradle of the Lutheran Mission, the most acceptable translation for ‘the Lord’ or ‘God.’ (…) Kâte was selected by the early Lutheran missionaries working in the area to serve as a church lingua franca. As the Lutheran church spread through the Finisterre Mountains and on into the Highlands, the Kâte language went along. God therefore became known in all of these areas as Anutu. In areas where the Lutherans remain strong, the name Anutu tends to be used even today. In other areas, such as among the Melpa speakers around Mount Hagen, many Lutherans continue to use Anutu, but this name has not been acceptable to Christians of other denominations. On the other hand, Anutu is still used in the Baiyer River area, north of Mount Hagen, even though most Christians in the area are now Baptist rather than Lutheran.”
Translations of Attributes of God for a translation of “God”
A translation principle not described by Nida is the translation of “God” with descriptive terms. Following are some examples. (Click or tap here to see)
- Mazahua: “the Great Spirit”
- Navajo: “the Eternal Spirit” (Navajo also uses the English borrowing “God” in the combination Diyin God: “Holy God”)
- San Blas Kuna: Nhialich: “the Great Father”
- Kipsigis: Jehoba (“the great ruler” — which accidentally resembles Jehovah)
- Northwestern Dinka: Nhialich (“one in the above”) (source for this and above: Bratcher / Nida 1961)
- Banaro: Nor Mik (“the Great Father”)
- Imbongu: Gote Pulu iye (lit. “root man”); Ola iye (lit. “above man”)
- Gwahatike: baraŋ al (“creator”); tikula al (“creator”)
- Bola: Vuri (“super being”)
- Guhu-Samane: Ohonga (“Someone who is permanently sitting on a chair. The word for ‘king’ is derived from the same word.” — source for this above: Norm Mundhenk in The Bible Translator 2004, p. 215ff.)
- Aja: Mawu (“there is nothing greater”) (source: Joshua Ham)
- Una: Er Imtamnyi: “He heaven-One” (source: Dick Kroneman)
- Mairasi: Janav Enggwar Nyan (“Great Above One”) (source: Enggavoter 2004)
Samo: oye ayo (“our authority person”) (source: Source: Shaw / Van Engen 2003. p. 178) — click or tap here to see more)
Daniel Shaw explains the genesis of this term: “Eventually I discovered the concept of the ayo, of the oldest among a group of brothers who lived in a longhouse. This was a benevolent, caring man who was never in charge but always in control — a traffic director for the entire household. They spoke of him as ‘the authority person.’ When combined with an all-inclusive possessive pronoun this term eventually became the term we used for God — oye ayo, ‘our authority person.’ When extended to all the people who ‘sleep in all the places of the earth’ (a way to communicate “the world”) the Samo began to appreciate God in a whole new way, in relationship to themselves and to their enemies. The relationship between the ayo and those in a longhouse reflected a strong, caring concern for everyone in the household — ‘love.’ For the Samo, a very practical, down to earth people surviving in a hostile environment, belief was a matter of experience. How do they know something is true? They see it, hear it, feel it! In short, they experience truth. This has profound implications far beyond trying to translate John 3:16. It relates to the broader context of all of John chapter 3, including Nicodemus’s awe of Christ and Israel’s experience with the brass serpent in the desert, particular experiences tied to the history of a specific people in a particular time and place. More broadly, it is about how humans experience God.”
Translations of “God” in maturing contexts
In some cases it took failed attempts before finding the “right” translation for “God.” (Click or tap here to see)
“When the first missionaries, teachers, and catechists came to the Huli country in the 1950s, they may have done some investigation of the Huli worldview before they began to preach.
“But they apparently did not find any obvious local word for ‘God,’ and they began teaching the people about ‘Ngode,’ a Huli-ized form of the English name. In recent years some Huli people have suggested that in fact the Huli did have their own name for God: ‘Datagaliwabe.’
“This led the missionaries of both the Evangelical Church of Papua and of the Roman Catholic Church to investigate the matter more carefully. It soon became clear that there was a traditional figure with the name Datagaliwabe who was still talked about by the Huli people.
“According to traditional Huli belief, Datagaliwabe lives up above the clouds in a place called Dahuliya andaga. This is in fact the term which has been used to translate ‘heaven’ in the Huli Bible. Datagaliwabe is very concerned about how people act. People know what is right, but they often act in ways that they know are not right. When they do this, Datagaliwabe may punish them. He is able to know what people are doing wherever they are. It is not possible to hide one’s actions from him or to deceive him. If a person wants to get away from one of the evil spirits, one can always run away to another area. One cannot run away from Datagaliwabe.
Before Huli people became Christian, they were very much afraid of powerful spirits who could do much to harm them, such as causing sickness. It was important to make offerings to appease these spirits and to keep them on one’s good side.
Datagaliwabe was not like these evil spirits who had to be ‘paid’ in order to get their help. One never made offerings to him. Therefore he must be God.
“In times of sickness or trouble, people would sometimes call out, ‘Father Datagaliwabe, help me.’ All of these traditional beliefs certainly supported the possible connection of Datagaliwabe with God. On the other hand, there was at least one problem. For the Huli, Datagaliwabe was not the creator. The old Huli stories said that it was the Sun (Ni) who created the world. This seemed to be a relatively small point that could easily be dealt with. The most serious problem seemed in fact to be that Christians were used to calling God Ngode.
“Would they be willing to change? The translation of the Old Testament was in process while this investigation was going on, so the matter was discussed in detail by the checking team, which included representatives of almost all of the major churches working in the area. Most of the group felt that it was willing to give Datagaliwabe a chance. As books were being completed, it was the policy of the team to publish trial editions. So for several years an experiment was conducted, using both Ngode and Datagaliwabe together in the text. Readers were told that they were not supposed to read both names, but to choose whichever one they preferred.
“In the meantime, a more serious problem surfaced. Representatives from one of the churches on the edge of the language argued that in their area Datagaliwabe has other characteristics different from those described above, which make it inappropriate to use this name as a name for God. As the time for publication of the Bible neared, it was clearly necessary to make a choice. At first, different churches made different choices, and it looked as though the Bible Society might be put in the unhappy position of having to publish separate editions with different names for God. However, as the Huli people thought about the implications of this decision, they themselves realized that some other solution must be found. Representatives from the different churches were invited to another series of meetings, where they were apparently convinced of the importance of finding a single solution that everyone could accept.
“The eventual decision was to continue the practice of the various trial editions, printing both names together in the text, as ‘Ngode Datagaliwabe.'”
“Missionaries working in the Pawaia language reported that the local people had originally been using the word “Got.” However, this name had been confused by the people with “an unsavory character in a legend.” Because of this the missionaries decided to try an expression meaning “The Powerful One.” They say that the term chosen has been accepted by the people.” (Source for this and above: Norm Mundhenk in The Bible Translator 2004, p. 215ff.)
The Basque Word for God
Since it’s unclear where Jainko, the Basque word for “God” originated, it doesn’t seem to fit into any of the above categories. One likely expanation is that it’s a contraction from Jaungoikoa, itself a portmanteau from jaun “lord” and goiko “who is on high.” (Source: Blas Pedro Uberuaga)
The Chinese and the Korean “Term Question”
The translation of the Greek theos and the Hebrew elohim (or in the case of early Catholics, the Latin deus) into Chinese was easily the most passionately discussed translation in the history of Bible translation. (Click or tap here to see)
Jesuit missionaries that had come to China in the late 16th century had to find a Chinese term for “God.” An early Chinese term for “God” was dousi 陡斯, a mere transliteration of the Latin deus, but from 1583 on tianzhu — “Lord of Heaven” — was used. It was seen to be of no or little previous religious coinage. Very soon, though, the leader of the Jesuit mission Matteo Ricci, embraced the terms tian 天 — “heaven” — and shangdi 上帝 he had found the Christian God in Chinese literature. After Ricci’s death this caused conflict in the Catholic mission, because Franciscan and Dominican missionaries understood these terms as too pre-occupied by Chinese notions of religion. The question was eventually brought to Rome during the 1630s. In 1705 and again in 1742 the Vatican forbade the use of these terms. The whole episode is known as one part of the “Question of Rites.” The Catholic church in China today still employs tianzhu 天主for the translation of “God,” clearly shown in the Chinese term for “Catholicism” — tianzhujiao 天主教.
Protestants who arrived much later started to have a similar argument in in 1847, when missionaries of various nationalities and Protestant denominations attempted to have a common Bible version for China. This lead to the greatest controversy of the Protestant mission in China, the “Term Question.”
For them, the most important terms in question were shen 神 and shangdi 上帝.
“The side supporting shen held that it was the only true translation for the biblical ‘God,’ even though it never had had this meaning historically because of the absence of a Chinese monotheistic faith. However, it was comparable to the Greek θεός and the Latin deus in its being a generic term describing the highest class of Chinese gods, including shangdi. This also made it possible to use this term in the plural. For these reasons, shen was held to be the term which could best be adapted to the meaning of the Christian God. Shangdi, on the other hand, was understood as a name rather than a generic term, which could not be used in the plural.
“The other side maintained that the Christian God had revealed himself in ancient China, especially during the time of the Zhou dynasty (ca. 1122-255 BC). Belief in him had been set forth even in the Confucian classics, where shangdi was described as the highest deity. Shangdi was regarded in Chinese mythology as the creator of all things, including shen, which in most cases meant ‘spirit’ and in only very rare cases ‘deity,’ although it was used for ‘false gods.’ Shen could not be used for ‘God’ but only for another person of the Trinity, namely the ‘Spirit.’ This final point complicated the matter immensely, and made a compromise much more difficult because the shen advocates had determined ling 灵 to be the right term for Spirit.’
“These few examples only touch the surface of the numerous arguments that were raised from either side. The reasons behind the arguments were of an ideological nature and basic for the understanding of mission work in China. Those who argued for shen were convinced that the Chinese had never known the Christian God, and had therefore no equivalent term to describe him; they believed, however, that shen could grow into a suitable term. The other side represented an Old Testament belief that God had revealed himself even in China, and had been to some extent known throughout Chinese history. They believed that it was only necessary to ‘reawaken’ the Chinese knowledge of Christianity, whereas the other side had to introduce a whole new concept. In addition, the conflict often also had the appearance of a national struggle, because to a high degree the lines were drawn between British (and German) (pro-shangdi) and American missionaries (pro-shen).
“This conflict resulted in various editions of Bibles being published by the different sides with their respective preferred terminology. A modern analysis of the conflict even reveals a positive aspect of the use of two terms. According to at least one view, one of the terms represents a concept of divine immanence (shen), while the other one represents transcendence (shangdi) which gives the Chinese church an advantage that other churches don’t have.
“The same kind of pragmatism can be found in the fact that the (one character term) shen is typically preceded by a ‘reverential’ space which allowed the printing plates to be used twice by accommodating the (two character term shangdi.” (Source: Zetzsche 1999, p. 83f., 90, 275).
While the Korean translation of God did not develop into as full-blown a conflict as the one in China, it’s still interesting to follow. (Click or tap here to see)
The Protestant translation of elohim and theos in Korean is ha-na-nim 하나님, the supreme deity revered and worshiped by most of the Korean people even when their national religions were Confucianism, Buddhism, or Taoism.” (Source: Min Suk Kee in The Bible Translator 2013, p. 332ff.)
According to Ahn (2011, p. iif.) there “was a significant theological continuity between the Chinese and Korean Term Questions. The Term Question in both China and Korea proceeded on a similar pattern; it was a terminological controversy between an indigenous theistic term (Chinese Shangdi and Korean Ha-na-nim) on the one hand and a neologism (Chinese Tianzhu and the corresponding Korean Ch’on-zhu) or a generic term (Chinese Shen and the corresponding Korean Shin) on the other hand. Central to both Term Questions was the theological issue of whether a primitive monotheism, congruent with Christian belief, had existed among the Chinese and Koreans. It will suggest that whilst those who adhered to a degeneration theory of the history of religions used either Shangti or Ha-na-nim as the name of the God of the Bible, those who rejected the existence of primitive monotheism preferred to use the neologism or the generic term.
“[However], a significant divergence between the Term Question in China and that in Korea. Whereas the Term Question in China became polarized for over three centuries between two equal and opposite parties — between the Jesuits (Shangdi) and the Dominicans-Franciscans (Tianzhu), and later between the Shangdi party and the Shen party in Protestant missions, in Korea it was a short-term argument for three decades between a vast majority (of the Ha-na-nim party) and a small minority (the opponents of Ha-na-nim). (…) The disproportion in Korea in favor of Ha-na-nim was due to the much closer analogy between Ha-na-nim and the Christian trinity, as seen in the Dan-Gun myth [of Ha-na-nim sending his son to earth], than was the case with Shangdi in Chinese religion. For this reason, the thesis concludes by suggesting that the adoption of the indigenous monotheistic term, Ha-na-nim, in a Christian form contributed to the higher rate of growth of the Korean church compared to that of the church in China.”
Kee agrees: “(…) Such a rapid growth of Christianity in Korea should be ascribed to ha-na-nim, the indigenous god deeply rooted and long revered in the hearts of Koreans. Surely, as some evangelists have claimed, the Israelite god was incarnated as ha-na-nim in Korea. Or, to put it the other way round, ‘ha-na-nim was baptized to be born again,’ as Sung Deuk Ok has wittily observed.”
The popularity of ha-na-nim is maybe even more surprising since, unlike the similar Catholic term ha-neu-nim 하느님 for God, it is ungrammatical in Korean. Kee says:
“Reviewing the history of the survival of the name is truly intriguing. We may enjoy the irony which is evident when a logical absurdity no longer matters in the face of purely practical considerations. Ha-na-nim is composed of ha-na and nim. While the latter means ‘dear one’ or ‘lord,’ the tricky problem lies with the first part, ha-na. The earliest form of this is ha-nă or ha-nal meaning ‘heaven,’ which orthographically developed into both ha-nal and ha-neul. When the suffix nim is added, they are spelled, respectively, ha-na-nim (하나님) and ha-neu-nim (하느님), with the phoneme /l/ (ㄹ) omitted, as is common in Korean orthography. Though both mean the same, ‘heavenly lord,’ ha-na-nim was much preferred to ha-neu-nim. This is partly due to a wordplay on ha-na. While it is a shortened form of ha-năl (“heaven”), ha-na by itself, independent of ha-năl, signifies the number ‘one.’ Consequently ha-na-nim, regardless of its original meaning ‘heavenly lord,’ sounds like a proud reference to ‘One Lord.’
“Could the spelling ha-neu-nim possibly challenge ha-na-nim again in the future? I would answer that this is very unlikely and unnecessary. The name ha-na-nim may be absurd, but ironically its inherent weakness may turn to great advantage in situations where it is challenged. The proud oneness of the Christian God implied and applied in the name must be left untouched.”
For further reading on the translation of “God,” see Rosin 1956.