gospel

In choosing a word for the Greek that is typically translated as “gospel” in English, a number of languages construct a phrase meaning “good news,” “joyful report” or “happiness-bringing words.” In some instances such a phrase may be slightly expanded in order to convey the proper meaning, e.g. “new good word” (Tzotzil), or it may involve some special local usage:

  • “good story” (Navajo)
  • “joyful telling” (Tausug)
  • “joyful message” (Toraja-Sa’dan) (source for this and all above: Bratcher / Nida)
  • cohuen ñoñets or “message of God” (Shilluk) (source: Nida 1964, p. 237)
  • “good news” (Yanesha’) (source: Martha Duff in Holzhausen 1991, p. 11)
  • “voice of good spirit” (San Blas Kuna) (source: Claudio Iglesias [Mr. and Mrs.] in The Bible Translator 1951, p. 85ff. )
  • suviśēṣattinṟe (0സുവിശേഷം) or “good narrative” (Malayalam)
  • susmachar (ସୁସମାଚାର) or “good matter” (Odia)
  • suvārteya (ಸುವಾರ್ತೆಯ) or “good word” (Kannada) (source for this and two above: Y.D. Tiwari in The Bible Translator 1962, p. 132ff. )
  • the German das Buch translation by Roland Werner (publ. 2009-2022) translates as “all-transformative good news” (alles verändernde gute Botschaft), also “good news”
Vitaly Voinov tells this story about the translation into Rutul (click or tap here to see the rest of this insight):

“In Rutul, it was only during the most recent consultant checking session that I realized that the Rutul word for Gospel – Incir (from Arabic إنجيل — Injil) — sounds and looks exactly like the word that means ‘fig’ in Rutul. This is a case of homonymy, in which two completely non-related words from differing historical sources have come to sound exactly alike. Most Rutul speakers know that incir means ‘fig’ because they grow this fruit in their yard or buy it at the market every week. However, because the religious sphere of discourse was heavily disparaged during the Soviet era, most people simply never encountered Incir with the meaning of ‘Gospel.’ This meaning of the word, which Rutuls of the pre-Soviet era knew from the Koran, simply fell into disuse and never had much reason for returning into contemporary Rutul since there is no Christian church established among the people. So if the translator continues to use the term Incir as the rendering for ‘Gospel,’ he runs the risk that most readers will, at best, read the word with a smile because they know that it also means ‘fig,’ and, at worst, will completely misunderstand the word. The seemingly ‘easy’ solution in this case is for the translator to use a Rutul neologism meaning ‘Joyful Message’ or ‘Good News,’ [see above] instead of Incir; but in fact it is not all that easy to make this change if the translator himself insists on using the historical word because at least some Rutuls still understand it as meaning ‘Gospel.’ This is a situation in which the translation team has to gradually grow into the understanding that a fully intelligible translation of Scripture is preferable to one that maintains old words at the cost of alienating much of the readership.”

For “good news,” see also Isaiah 52:7.

teach

The Greek that is translated as a form of “teach” is translated with some figurative phrases such as “to engrave the mind” (Ngäbere) or “to cause others to imitate” (Huichol). (Source: Bratcher / Nida)

In Noongar it is translated as karni-waangki or “truth saying” (source: Warda-Kwabba Luke-Ang).

elder (of the community)

The Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek that is typically translated as “elders” in English is translated in the Danish Bibelen 2020 as folkets ledere or “leaders of the people.”

Martin Ehrensvärd, one of the translators, explains: “The term ‘elder’ turned out to pose a particularly thorny problem. In traditional bibles, you can find elders all of over the place and they never pose a problem for a translator, they are just always elders. But how to find a contemporary term for this semi-official, complex position? This may have been our longest-standing problem. A couple of times we thought we had the solution, and then implemented it throughout the texts, only to find out that it didn’t work. Like when we used city council or village council, depending on the context. In the end we felt that the texts didn’t work with such official terms, and throughout the years in the desert, these terms didn’t make much sense. Other suggestions were ‘the eldest and wisest’, ‘the respected citizens’, ‘the Israelites with a certain position in society’, ‘the elder council’ –- and let me point out that these terms sound better in Danish than in English (‘de fremtrædende borgere,’ ‘de mest fremtrædende israelitter,’ ‘alle israelitter med en vis position,’ ‘de ældste og de klogeste,’ ‘ældsterådet’). In the end we just said ‘leaders of the people.’ After a lot of hand-wringing, it turned out that we actually found a term that worked well. So, we had to give up conveying the fact that they were old, but the most important point is that they were community leaders.” (Source: Ehrensvärd in HIPHIL Novum 8/2023, p. 81ff. )

The German das Buch translation by Roland Werner (publ. 2009-2022) translates likewise as “leader of the people” (Anführer des Volkes).

scribe

The Greek that is usually translated as “scribe” in English “were more than mere writers of the law. They were the trained interpreters of the law and expounders of tradition.”

Here are a number of its (back-) translations:

  • Yaka: “clerk in God’s house”
  • Amganad Ifugao: “man who wrote and taught in the synagogue”
  • Navajo: “teaching-writer” (“an attempt to emphasize their dual function”)
  • Shipibo-Conibo: “book-wise person”
  • San Blas Kuna: “one who knew the Jews’ ways”
  • Loma: “educated one”
  • San Mateo del Mar Huave: “one knowing holy paper”
  • Central Mazahua: “writer of holy words”
  • Indonesian: “expert in the Torah”
  • Pamona: “man skilled in the ordinances” (source for this and all above: Bratcher / Nida)
  • Sinhala: “bearer-of-the-law”
  • Marathi: “one-learned-in-the-Scriptures”
  • Shona (1966): “expert of the law”
  • Balinese: “expert of the books of Torah”
  • Ekari: “one knowing paper/book”
  • Tboli: “one who taught the law God before caused Moses to write” (or “one who taught the law of Moses”) (source for this and 5 above: Reiling / Swellengrebel)
  • Noongar: Mammarapa-Warrinyang or “law man” (source: Warda-Kwabba Luke-Ang)
  • Mairasi: “one who writes and explains Great Above One’s (=God’s) prohibitions” (source: Enggavoter 2004)
  • Chichewa: “teacher of Laws” (source: Ernst Wendland)
  • North Alaskan Inupiatun: “teachers of law”
  • Huehuetla Tepehua: “writer”
  • Yatzachi Zapotec: “person who teaches the law which Moses wrote”
  • Alekano: “man who knows wisdom” (source for this and four above: M. Larson / B. Moore in Notes on Translation February 1970, p. 1-125.)
  • Saint Lucian Creole French: titcha lwa sé Jwif-la (“teacher of the law of the Jews”) (source: David Frank in Lexical Challenges in the St. Lucian Creole Bible Translation Project, 1998)
  • Chichimeca-Jonaz: “one who teaches the holy writings”
  • Atatláhuca Mixtec: “teacher of the words of the law”
  • Coatlán Mixe: “teacher of the religious law”
  • Lalana Chinantec: “one who is a teacher of the law which God gave to Moses back then”
  • Tepeuxila Cuicatec: “one who know well the law” (Source for this and four above: Viola Waterhouse in Notes on Translation August 1966, p. 86ff.)
  • Huixtán Tzotzil: “one who mistakenly thought he was teaching God’s commandments”(Huixtán Tzotzil frequently uses the verb -cuy to express “to mistakenly think something” from the point of view of the speaker; source: Marion M. Cowan in Notes on Translation 20/1966, pp. 6ff.)
  • German das Buch translation by Roland Werner (publ. 2009-2022): “theologian”
  • English translation by Scot McKnight (in The Second Testament, publ. 2023): Covenant Code scholar

In British Sign Language it is translated with a sign that combines the signs for “expert” and “law.” (Source: Anna Smith)


“Scribe” in British Sign Language (source: Christian BSL, used with permission)

synagogue, temple (inner), temple (outer)

In many English translations the Greek terms “hieron” (the whole “temple” in Jerusalem or specifically the outer courts open to worshippers) and “naos” (the inner “shrine” or “sanctuary”) are translated with only one word: “temple” (see also for instance “Tempel” in German [for exception see below] and “tempel” in Dutch, Danish, or Afrikaans).

Other languages make a distinction: (Click or tap here to see more)

  • Navajo: “house in which worship is carried out” (for naos)
  • Balinese: “inner part of the Great Temple” (“the term ‘inner part’ denoting the hindmost and holiest of the two or three courts that temples on Bali usually possess”) vs. “Great Temple”
  • Telugu: “womb (i.e. interior)-of-the-abode” vs. “abode”
  • Thai: a term denoting the main audience hall of a Buddhist temple compound vs. “environs-of-the-main-audience-hall”
  • Kituba: “place of holiness of house-God Lord” vs. “house-God Lord”
  • Shipibo-Conibo: “deep in God’s house” vs. “God’s house” (source: Reiling / Swellengrebel)
  • German das Buch translation by Roland Werner (publ. 2009-2022): “inner court of the temple” (Tempelinnenhof) vs. “temple”

Languages that, like English, German, Dutch, Danish, or Afrikaans don’t make that distinction include:

  • Mandarin Chinese: “聖殿 Shèng diàn” (“holy palace”)
  • Loma: “the holy place”
  • Pular: “the sacred house” (source for this and the one above: Bratcher / Nida)
  • Zarma: “God’s compound”
  • Eastern Highland Otomi: “big church of the Jews”
  • Yatzachi Zapotec: “big house on top (i.e. most important)”
  • Toraja-Sa’dan: “house that is looked upon as holy, that is sacred, that is taboo and where one may not set foot” (lit. “house where-the-belly-gets-swollen” — because taboo is violated — using a term that is also applied to a Muslim mosque) (source for this and the three above: Reiling / Swellengrebel)
  • Mairasi: Janav Enggwarjer Weso: “Great Above One’s (God’s) House” (source: Enggavoter 2004)
  • Noongar: Maya-maya-Kooranyi: “Sacred House” (source: Warda-Kwabba Luke-Ang)
  • Huehuetla Tepehua: “the big church of the Israelites”
  • Aguaruna: “the house for talking to God” (source for this and above: M. Larson / B. Moore in Notes on Translation February 1970, p. 1-125.)
  • Guhu-Samane: “festival longhouse of God” (“The biiri, ‘festival longhouse’, being the religious and social center of the community, is a possible term for ‘temple’. It is not the ‘poro house’ as such. That would be too closely identified with the cult of poro. The physical features of the building, huge and sub-divided, lend it further favor for this consideration. By qualifying it as ‘God’s biiri’ the term has become meaningful and appropriate in the context of the Scriptures.”) (Source: Ernest Richert in The Bible Translator, 1965, p. 81ff. )
  • Enga: “God’s restricted access house” (source: Adam Boyd on his blog)

Another distinction that tends to be overlooked in translations is that between hieron (“temple” in English) and sunagógé (“synagogue” in English). Euan Fry (in The Bible Translator 1987, p. 213ff. ) reports on this:

“Many older translations have simply used transliterations of ‘temple’ and ‘synagogue’ rather than trying to find equivalent terms or meaningful expressions in their own languages. This approach does keep the two terms separate; but it makes the readers depend on explanations given by pastors or teachers for their understanding of the text.

“Translators who have tried to find meaningful equivalents, for the two terms ‘temple’ and ‘synagogue’ have usually made a distinction between them in one of two ways (which focus on the contrasting components of meaning). One way takes the size and importance of the Temple to make a contrast, so that expressions such as ‘sacred meeting/ worship house of the Jews’ and ‘big sacred meeting/worship house of the Jews’ are used. The other way focuses on the different nature of the religious activity at each of the places, so that expressions such as ‘meeting/worship house of the Jews’ and ‘sacrifice/ceremony place of the Jews’ are used.

“It is not my purpose in this article to discuss how to arrive at the most precise equivalent to cover all the components of meaning of ‘temple’. That is something that each translator really has to work through for himself in the light of the present usage and possibilities in his own language. My chief concern here is that the basic term or terms chosen for ‘temple’ should give the reader of a translation a clear and correct picture of the location referred to in each passage. And I am afraid that in many cases where an equivalent like ‘house of God’ or ‘worship house’ has been chosen, the readers have quite the wrong picture of what going to the Temple or being in the Temple means. (This may be the case for the word ‘temple’ in English too, for many readers.)”

Here are some examples:

  • Bambara: “house of God” (or: “big house of worship”) vs. “worship house” (or: “small houses of worship”)
  • Toraja-Sa’dan: “house where-the-belly-gets-swollen” (see above) vs. “meeting house for discussing matters concerning religious customs” (and “church” is “house where one meets on Sunday”)
  • Navajo: “house in which worship is carried out” vs. “house of gathering” (source for all above: Bratcher / Nida)
Click or tap here to see a short video clip about Herod’s temple (source: Bible Lands 2012)

Click or tap here to see a short video clip showing synagogues in New Testament times (source: Bible Lands 2012)

See also this devotion on YouVersion .

complete verse (Luke 20:1)

Following are a number of back-translations of Luke 20:1:

  • Noongar: “When Jesus went to the Temple, teaching people and tell them the Good News, the Chief Priest and the Law Men and the elders, they came together” (Source: Warda-Kwabba Luke-Ang)
  • Uma: “One day Yesus was teaching and announcing the Good News to many people in the House of God. Suddenly the leading priests with the religion teachers and other Yahudi leaders arrived. They said saying to Yesus:” (Source: Uma Back Translation)
  • Yakan: “One day Isa was teaching the people in the temple and he was also proclaiming the good news to them. Then the chief priests and the teachers of the religious law and the elders came to him.” (Source: Yakan Back Translation)
  • Western Bukidnon Manobo: “On one of those days, Jesus returned to the big church called the house of God, and he taught the people and he caused them to understand the good news. And then the chief priests and the teachers of the Law, and the elders of the Jews went to him,” (Source: Western Bukidnon Manobo Back Translation)
  • Kankanaey: “One day when Jesus was teaching in the Temple and preaching the good news, the leaders of the priests, the teachers of the law and the elders went to him.” (Source: Kankanaey Back Translation)
  • Tagbanwa: “One day when Jesus was doing that teaching in the like-a-yard of the Templo, teaching the Good News to the people, he was approached by chiefs of the priests, together with explainers of law and important tribal-leaders.” (Source: Tagbanwa Back Translation)

Honorary are / rare constructs denoting God (“conveying”)

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 way Japanese show different degree of politeness is through the usage of an honorific construction where the morphemes rare (られ) or are (され) are affixed on the verb as shown here in the widely-used Japanese Shinkaiyaku (新改訳) Bible of 2017. This is particularly done with verbs that have God as the agent to show a deep sense of reverence. Here, tsutaeteo-rare-ru (伝えておられる) or “conveying” is used.

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