relationship of elder son and father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son

New Testament Greek is by Balinese standards an extremely impolite language. Consider, for example, the second person pronoun. When speaking to God, to a nobleman, to a friend, to a pupil, or to a slave, the same word is used. In Balinese this is completely different. In the above examples one would differentiate various social ranks and use terms which, more or less freely translated, mean “adored one” or “he who is borne on the head”, “feet of Your Highness”, “older (or younger) brother”, “little one”, and “you”. (…) In Balinese one has to cope with three vocabularies within the language, each of which, at a moderate estimate, includes some hundreds of words. One employs the ordinary common language (“Low Balinese”) when speaking with intimates, equals, or inferiors; polite terms must, however, be used as soon as one begins to speak to one’s superiors or to strangers; and “deferential” terms are obligatory in all cases when one is so bold as to speak of parts of the body, or the acts, possessions, and qualities of important people. The Balinese sums up the two last named vocabularies under the term alus (“fine”, or “noble”): we say “High Balinese”. (…)

In the parable of the Prodigal Son, the younger son, who feels himself less than a slave, speaks to his father in High Balinese; the elder son may use the intimate Low Balinese. When, however, the latter severs himself from the intimate family community, he uses High Balinese to express his contempt, thus placing a gulf between himself and his father.

Source: J.L. Swellengrebel in The Bible Translator 1950, p. 124ff.

parable of the prodigal son (image)

Click here to see the image in higher resolution.

Image taken from the Wiedmann Bible. For more information about the images and ways to adopt them, see here .

For other images of Willy Wiedmann paintings in TIPs, see here.

addressing the father in the parable of the prodigal son in Japanese

Like a number of other East Asian languages, Japanese uses a complex system of honorifics, i.e. a system where a number of different levels of politeness are expressed in language via words, word forms or grammatical constructs. These can range from addressing someone or referring to someone with contempt (very informal) to expressing the highest level of reference (as used in addressing or referring to God) or any number of levels in-between.

One important aspect of addressing someone else in one’s or someone else’s family is by selecting the correct word when referring to them.

One way to do this is through the usage of an appropriate title within a conversation. In the widely used Japanese Shinkaiyaku (新改訳) Bible of 2017, in the parable of the prodigal son, both of the sons refer to their father with o-tō-san (お父さん), a form that expresses the intimate father-son relationship, whereas the servant (in Luke 15:27) refers to the father as o-tō-sama (お父様) with a formal title -sama to express a higher level of reference.

Incidentally, the term o-tō-sama (お父様) is used only one other time in the Shinkaiyaku Bible (in Judges 11:36).

(Source: S. E. Doi, see also S. E. Doi in Journal of Translation, 18/2022, p. 37ff. )

See also addressing the father intimately in Japanese and Japanese honorifics

welcoming the prodigal son

The story of welcoming home the son as part of The Prodigal Son is illustrated for use in Bible translations in West Africa by Wycliffe Cameroon like this:

Illustration 1999 Mbaji Bawe Ernest, © Wycliffe Bible Translators, Inc. Used with permission.

Following is a painting by Chen Yuandu 陳緣督 (1902-1967):

Housed in the Société des Auxiliaires des Missions Collection – Whitworth University.

Image taken from Chinese Christian Posters . For more information on the “Ars Sacra Pekinensis” school of art, see this article , for other artworks of that school in TIPs, see here.

sin

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)

In Warao it is translated as “bad obojona.” Obojona is a term that “includes the concepts of consciousness, will, attitude, attention and a few other miscellaneous notions.” (Source: Henry Osborn in The Bible Translator 1969, p. 74ff. ). See other occurrences of Obojona in the Warao New Testament.

Martin Ehrensvärd, one of the translators for the Danish Bibelen 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. )

See also sinner.

complete verse (Luke 15:21)

Following are a number of back-translations of Luke 15:21:

  • Noongar: “‘Father’, the son said, ‘I have sinned before God and before you. I have been very bad and you must not name me your son.'” (Source: Warda-Kwabba Luke-Ang)
  • Uma: “The child then said: ‘Father, I have been wrong to the Lord God and to Father also. I am not fit for you (sing.) to call your (sing.) child….'” (Source: Uma Back Translation)
  • Yakan: “His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against God and you. I am no longer worthy that you call me your son.'” (Source: Yakan Back Translation)
  • Western Bukidnon Manobo: “‘Father,’ said that young man, ‘I have sinned very much against God and against you, my father. I am no longer worthy that you think of me anymore as your son. Just make me one of your servants.'” (Source: Western Bukidnon Manobo Back Translation)
  • Kankanaey: “Then his child said, ‘Father, I have sinned against God and likewise against you (sing.). I am admittedly not worthy to be counted as your (sing.) child.'” (Source: Kankanaey Back Translation)
  • Tagbanwa: “That son spoke, saying, ‘Father, I really sinned against God and you. It is no longer possible/acceptable that you still call me your son.'” (Source: Tagbanwa Back Translation)

heaven

Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and Aramaic all have one term only that refers to what can be expressed in English as “sky” or “heaven(s)” (as a physical and spiritual entity). While there is a slight overlap between the meaning of the two English terms, “sky” (from Old Norse sky meaning “cloud”) typically refers to the physical entity, and “heaven” (from Old English heofon meaning “home of God”) typically refers to the spiritual entity. While this enriches the English lexicon, it also forces English Bible translators to make decisions that can be found only in the context in the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic texts. Most versions tend to use “heaven(s)” even if the meaning is likely “sky,” but the Contemporary English Version (NT: 1991, OT: 1995, DC: 1999) is an English translation that attempted to be more specific in the separation of the two meanings and was used as the basis for the links to verses used for this and this story (“sky”).

Norm Mundhenk (in The Bible Translator 2006, p. 92ff. ) describes the difficulty that English translations face (click or tap here to see more):

“A number of years ago an old lady asked me a question. What did Jesus mean when he said, ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away’? I do not remember what answer I gave, but I was surprised at how concerned she seemed to be about the verse. It was only later, after I had left her, that I suddenly realized what it was that she was so concerned about. She knew that death could not be far away, and all her life she had looked forward to being with God in heaven. But this verse said that ‘heaven will pass away’! What did that mean for her hopes? In fact, of course, in this verse Jesus was talking about the skies or the heavens, not about Heaven as the place of God’s presence. If I had realized the problem in time, I could easily have set the lady’s mind at rest on this question that was troubling her so much. However, I suspect that she is not the only person to be misled by the wording of this verse. Therefore, it is very surprising to find that even today many English versions (including the New International Version, New Revised Standard Version, Revised English Bible, Good News Translation) still say ‘heaven and earth’ in verses like Matt 24:35 and its parallels (Mark 13:31 and Luke 21:33). The Contemporary English Version (CEV) and Phillips’ translation seem to be aware of the problem, and in Mark 13:31 both of these have ‘earth and sky’ instead of ‘heaven and earth.’ But in some other passages (such as Matt 5:18) the traditional wording is still found in both of those translations. The New Century Version (NCV) does have ‘earth and sky’ more consistently, and the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB) has ‘sky and earth’ in these passages. (Although ‘sky and earth’ is closer to the Greek, it seems more natural in English to say ‘earth and sky’; but either way, at least the meaning is correct.)

“Louw and Nida’s Lexical Semantics of the Greek New Testament (publ. 1992) suggests that the Greek expression being translated here, ho ouranos kai he ge is ‘a more or less fixed phrase equivalent to a single lexical unit’ and that it means everything that God created, that is, the universe. They then quote Mark 13:31 as an example, using ‘heaven and earth’ in their translation of it. However, they go on to say that there ‘may be certain complications involved in rendering ho ouranos kai he ge as ‘heaven and earth,’ since ‘heaven’ might be interpreted in some languages as referring only to the dwelling place of God himself. The referents in this passage are ‘the sky and the earth,’ in other words, all of physical existence, but not the dwelling place of God, for the latter would not be included in what is destined to pass away.’ In my opinion, English itself is one of the languages where the word ‘heaven’ will be interpreted as referring only to the dwelling place of God himself, and translations into English should not use ‘heaven’ in these passages. It is probably because these passages are so very familiar that translators do not realize the meaning they are giving their readers when they use the expression ‘heaven and earth’ here. In modern English we might talk about a rocket ‘soaring into the heavens,’ but we would certainly not describe it as ‘soaring into heaven,’ because ‘heaven’ is not another way of referring to the sky or to outer space.

“In fact, it is surely important in all languages to have some way of distinguishing the concept of ‘sky’ from the concept of ‘dwelling place of God.’ In these passages translators should never use a term meaning ‘the dwelling place of God.’ It may not be necessary to use a term meaning ‘sky’ either, if there is some other expression in the language which gives the correct meaning of ‘everything that has been created’ or ‘the universe.’ There are of course places in the New Testament where Heaven, as the place where God lives, is contrasted with the earth. In these passages, translators should be careful to give the correct meaning. A good example of this is in the Lord’s Prayer, in Matt 6:10: ‘Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’ Similarly, 1 Cor 15:47 says that ‘the first man [a reference to Adam] was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven.’ Passages like these are referring to Heaven, not to the sky. Other NT passages where heaven refers to God’s dwelling place, in contrast with earth, are Matt 5:34-35, 16:19, 18:18, Acts 7:49, James 5:12, and Rev 5:3.
“Sometimes in the New Testament, the word ‘heaven’ is used because of the Jewish reluctance to use the name of God. ‘Heaven’ in these cases is used in place of ‘God’ and refers to God himself. This is the case in the many references in Matthew to ‘the kingdom of heaven’ where other gospels have ‘the kingdom of God’ (e.g., compare Matt 4:17 with its parallels in Mark 1:15 and Luke 10:9). It is also most likely the case in references like Matt 16:1, Luke 20:4, 5, John 3:27, and even perhaps Col 1:5.

“There are some places, such as Matt 11:25, where God is called ‘Lord of heaven and earth.’ Since God is of course the Lord of Heaven as well as of the universe, it may not matter so much which interpretation is given in these passages (others are Luke 10:21 and Acts 17:24). Nevertheless, the intended meaning here is likely to be ‘the universe.’ This is because this expression in Greek, as Louw and Nida say, is a set expression referring to everything that has been created. Acts 17:24 in fact combines the idea of the creation of the universe with the idea of God as Master or Lord of the universe. (…)

“Old Testament background The use of ‘heaven and earth’ in the New Testament is very similar to what we find in the Old Testament, because it is largely based on the Old Testament.

“The Old Testament begins with the story of creation, which is presented as the creation of the heavens and the earth, with lights to shine in the heavens and give light to the earth. Birds are created to live in the heavens, animals to live on earth, and fish to live in the sea (Gen 1:1-2:4).

“As we can see from the way the creation story is told, it is meant to be understood as the creation of the universe. Although in English the regions above the earth have traditionally been called ‘the heavens’ in the story of creation, they cannot be called ‘Heaven,’ in the sense of the place where God dwells. In terms of modern English, it would probably be better to say ‘the sky and the earth’ or ‘the earth and the sky.’ The story of creation then becomes an important theme throughout the Old Testament. (…)

“In most passages, whether in the Old Testament or the New Testament, when ‘heaven and earth’ or ‘the heavens and the earth’ are mentioned, the meaning is the created universe. It is not a reference to Heaven, as the dwelling place of God. In English, translators have not been careful to keep this distinction clear, and this is probably true in many other languages as well. However, as we have seen, this can lead to real confusion for ordinary Bible readers. It is better if translators find ways to make the meaning clear in these passages. ‘Heaven’ should be mentioned only in passages which clearly mean the dwelling place of God. In other passages, an expression should be used which means only ‘sky.’ Or else, the whole expression ‘heaven and earth’ can be translated in a way to show that the whole universe is meant.”

Other languages that have a semantic distinction similar to English include (click or tap here to see more):

  • Hungarian: ég — “sky”; menny — “heaven”
  • Tagalog: kalawakan — “sky”; langit/kalangitan — “heaven”
  • Swedish: sky — “sky”; Himmel — “heaven”
  • Loma: “up” — “sky”; “God’s place” — heaven”
  • Mossi: saase — “sky”; nyingeri — “the up above”(source for Loma and Mossi: Bratcher/Nida)
  • Roviana: mamaṉa — “sly”; maṉauru — “heaven” (an old word, meaning “empty, open space of the sky”) (source: Carl Gross)
  • Kayaw: mô̄la or “canopy-under”/mô̄khû̄la or “canopy-above-under” — “sky” (atmosphere where there is just air); mô̄khû̄ or “canopy-on/above” — “heaven” (invisible abode of God and angels)
  • Burmese: မိုး ကောင်း ကင်/moe kaungg kain — “sky”; ကောင်း ကင်/kaungg kain — “sky” or “heaven”; ကောင်း ကင်ဗုံ/kaungg kain bone — “heaven”
  • Mairasi: Sinyavi — an indigenous term that is used for both “sky” and heaven”; Surga — loanword from Sanskrit via Indonesian referring to “heaven” (source: Enggavoter 2004)
  • Noongar: worl — “sky”; Boolanga-Yirakang Boodjer — “Country of God” (source: Warda-Kwabba Luke-Ang)

Many languages follow the original biblical languages in not making that distinction, such as (click or tap here to see more):

In some languages, such as Wandala, the vocabulary for terms for either “heaven” or “sky” is much richer than just to include those two distinction. While zhegela, the term that is specifically used for the physical sky was only used in early translations of the New Testament for “sky,” other terms such as samaya (used for both “sky” and “heaven”), zlanna (specifically used for the perfect abode of God and the goal of the faithful, as in Matthew 8:11), kwárá (a locational term used to speak of a chief’s rule [lit., “voice”] such as Matthew 3:2), or sleksire (“chieftaincy,” “kingship,” or “royalty” [originally from slekse “chief”] and used where there are no locational overtones, such as in Matthew 16:28) are used. (Source: Mona Perrin in Notes on Translation 1/1999, p. 51ff.)

The English translation by Sarah Ruden (2021) uses “sky” throughout. Ruden explains (p. li): “The Greek word ouranos refers evenhandedly to the physical sky and the place—often pictured as a royal court — where supreme divinity resides. ‘Sky’ seems generally better, first of all in avoiding the wackier modern imagery that comes with the English ‘heaven.’ And even when a supernatural realm is meant, ‘sky’ will often do, because the divine realm was thought to be located there, in addition to the weather and the heavenly bodies, whereas ‘heaven’ to us is fundamentally a religious term, and the ancients did not tend to separate linguistic domains in this way. I have retained the plural ‘skies’ where I see it in the Greek, because it is a Hebraism familiar in English translations of scripture and (I hope) not too archaic or jarring.”