Many languages in the world distinguish between plural and dual (and sometimes trial) pronouns (for instance, “you” specifically addressing many, two, or three people).
In Matt. 20:22 (“You do not know what you are asking…” in one English translation) it is left open whether “you” refers to James and John or James and John and their mother (who had asked the questions preceding Jesus’s answers).
While one Fijian translation uses a trial and the Wantoat uses a plural (both indicating that the mother is included), the Bislama translators (in the Nyutesteman long Bislama of 1980) and the Tok Pisin translators use a dual (indicating that the mother is not included).
One of the translators explains: “Here, because of differences between this Matthew passage and the parallel passage which begins at Mark 10:35, the translator must enter into the issues of the so-called ‘Synoptic Problem’ when deciding how many people Jesus is addressing. I suggest the following guidelines for making a decision here and in the passage considered below: a single real historical event is recounted by both Mark and Matthew, both without error, although each with their own selection of material and emphasis. So what do we make of the fact that Matthew has James and John’s mother asking the question, whereas Mark does not mention her at all, having the two men themselves ask it? We conclude that she must have been there, since Matthew says she was; but she was not important in Mark’s eyes, and so he abbreviates her out of his account. Now the answer Jesus gave to the question is identical in the Greek text of the two gospels; and it must have had only one intention, even though as it stands in Greek, it is ambiguous as to dual or trial reference. I suggest that although the mother asked the question, Jesus either perceived that she was merely a ‘front’ for the two men, or else his primary interest was in them anyway, and so he bypasses the mother and makes his answer directly to them. This is certainly the way Mark saw the situation.”
Source: Ross McKerras in Notes on Translation 2/1 1988, p. 53-56.
Many languages distinguish between inclusive and exclusive first-person plural pronouns (“we”). (Click or tap here to see more details)
The inclusive “we” specifically includes the addressee (“you and I and possibly others”), while the exclusive “we” specifically excludes the addressee (“he/she/they and I, but not you”). This grammatical distinction is called “clusivity.” While Semitic languages such as Hebrew or most Indo-European languages such as Greek or English do not make that distinction, translators of languages with that distinction have to make a choice every time they encounter “we” or a form thereof (in English: “we,” “our,” or “us”).
For this verse, translators typically select the exclusive form (excluding Jesus). In Tok Pisin this is further specified by the use of the dual mitupela — the “two of us.”
Source: Velma Pickett and Florence Cowan in Notes on Translation January 1962, p. 1ff.
Following are a number of back-translations of Matthew 20:22:
Uma: “Yesus said to them: ‘You [plural] don’t know what you are requesting. Will you be able to carry the suffering that I must carry?’ Those two disciples answered: ‘We are able!'” (Source: Uma Back Translation)
Yakan: “Isa answered he said, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you willing to be persecuted as I will soon be persecuted?’ ‘Yes, we are willing,’ they said.” (Source: Yakan Back Translation)
Western Bukidnon Manobo: “And Jesus said to the two, ‘You don’t know what you’re asking for. Can you endure the torment with which I will be tormented?’ ‘Yes,’ they said, ‘we can endure.'” (Source: Western Bukidnon Manobo Back Translation)
Kankanaey: “Whereupon Jesus said to those two disciples of his, ‘You don’t know what you are saying. Can you endure do-you-suppose the difficulty that I will suffer/undergo?’ ‘It-is-possible,’ they said.” (Source: Kankanaey Back Translation)
Tagbanwa: “‘It’s like you (pl.) don’t know what you are asking for,’ said Jesus to them. ‘Are you able to experience the hardship/suffering that I will experience?’ ‘Yes, we are able,’ was the reply of those two.” (Source: Tagbanwa Back Translation)
Tenango Otomi: “But Jesus said to the sons: ‘You do not know the significance of what you ask for. Are you able to go through the suffering which I go through? Because I will overflowingly be made to suffer by the people,’ he said. They said to him: ‘Yes, we are able to suffer.'” (Source: Tenango Otomi Back Translation)
About the translation of the Greek term that is usually transliterated with the terms “baptism” or “baptize” in English (for other English translations see below), Bratcher / Nida (1961) say this (click or tap for details):
“[It] has given rise not only to an immense amount of discussion in terms of its meaning within the Judaeo-Christian historical context, but also continues to introduce serious problems for translators today. In many instances the recommendation has been to transliterate, i.e. employing some indigenous equivalent of the sounds of the word in some more prestigious language spoken in the region, e.g. English, French, Spanish, or Portuguese. Though this solution tends to remove some theological controversies, it does not completely satisfy everyone, for not only does it avoid the problem of the mode of baptism, but it leaves the Scriptures with a zero word. Unfortunately, many of the controversies over the indigenous equivalent of baptism arise because of a false evaluation of a word’s so-called etymology. For example, in Yucateco the word for baptism means literally ‘to enter the water’, but this term is used freely by both Presbyterians and Roman Catholics, even though it might appear to be strictly ‘Baptist nomenclature.’ Similarly, in Kekchí, an even ‘stronger’ term ‘to put under the water’ is employed by Nazarenes and Roman Catholics. Obviously the meanings of these Yucateco and Kekchí words are not derivable from their literal significance but from the fact that they now designate a particular kind of Christian rite. To insist on changing such a well-established usage (and one to which immersionists could certainly not object) would seem quite unwarranted. The situation may, on the other hand, be reversed. There are instances in which immersionists are quite happy to use a term which though it means literally ‘to put water on the head’ [see below for the translation in Northern Emberá] has actually lost this etymological value and refers simply to the rite itself, regardless of the way in which it is performed. A translator should not, however, employ an already existing expression or construct a new phrase which will in its evident meaning rule out any major Christian constituency.
“There are, of course, a number of instances in which traditional terms for ‘baptism’ need modification. In some situations the word may mean only ‘to give a new name to’ (one aspect of christening) or ‘to be one who lights’ (referring to a custom in some traditions of lighting a candle at the time of baptism). However, in order to reproduce the core of significant meaning of the original Biblical term, it is important to explore the entire range of indigenous usage in order that whatever term is chosen may have at least some measure of cultural relevance. In Navajo, for example, there were four principal possibilities of choice: (1) borrowing some transliterated form of the English word, (2) constructing a phrase meaning ‘to touch with water’ (an expression which would have been acceptable with some groups in the field, but not with others), (3) using a phrase meaning ‘ceremonial washing’ (but this expression seemed to be too closely related to indigenous practices in healing ceremonies), and (4) devising an expression meaning ‘to dedicate (or consecrate) by water’, without specifying the amount of water employed. This last alternative was chosen as the most meaningful and the best basis for metaphorical extension and teaching.
“On the other hand, it would be wrong to think that the meaning of ‘washing’ must be rejected in all languages. For example, it is quite appropriate in Kpelle culture, since it ties in with male puberty rites, and in the San Blas Kuna society, since washing is a very important aspect of female puberty ceremonies, in some translations ‘water’ is introduced into the expression for baptism, but the quantity and means of administrating it are left quite ambiguous, e.g. ‘to get (take, receive) water’ (Tzeltal). Toraja-Sa’dan, Pamona and Batak Toba render the verb ‘to pour water over, give a bath’.” (Source: Bratcher / Nida)
Muna: kadiu sarani “Christian bathing” (source: René von den Berg)
Halh Mongolian: argon ochial (“holy washing”) (“The people in Mongolia are strictly religious and understand the meaning very well. They are familiar with the idea of water being used as a symbol of a new life and having received ‘holy washing’ means to have entered into a new sphere of life.”) (Source: A. Marthinson in The Bible Translator 1954, p. 74ff. ) (Note: In more recent Mongolian translations a transliteration of baptizo is used instead)
“The Yatzachi Zapotec know the practice of baptism and have a word to express it. There would thus seem to be no problem involved. Unfortunately, however, the word for ‘baptize’ is a compound, one part being a word nowhere else used and the other part being the word for ‘water.’ Perhaps ‘water-baptize’ is the closest equivalent in English. For most contexts this presents no problem, but if the word is used in Mark 1:8, it would say, ‘He will water-baptize you with the Holy Ghost.’ In Zapotec the idea is unintelligible. To meet the problem, the Spanish word ‘bautizar’ was introduced at this point though the Zapotec word is ordinarily used. The disadvantages of this substitution are obvious, but no better solution was found.”
Formerly in Uab Meto the word used for ’baptism” was ‘nasrami’ which actually came by way of Arabic from ‘Nazarene.’ Its meaning was ‘to make a Christian’ and the idea was that the one who baptized actually made Christians. Such an expression was obviously inadequate. We have used for ‘baptize’ the phrase in ‘antam oe’ which means ‘to enter into the water.’ This phrase can be used for sprinkling, for water is used as a symbol of the new life, and being baptized means for the Uab Meto to enter into a new sphere of life. Baptism is so frequently spoken of in connection with the giving of the Holy Spirit that the proper associations have arisen in the thinking of the people.”
Chinese: Catholic: 洗 xǐ (“washing”); non-Baptist Protestant 聖洗 shèngxǐ (“holy washing”); Baptist: 浸洗 jìnxǐ (“immerse and wash”) (In the history of Chinese Bible translation the translation of the Greek baptizo was a point of great contention, so much so that in the 19th Century Baptists had a completely different set of Bible translations and even today are using different editions with the different term of the same versions that other Protestants use.) (Source: Zetzsche 2008)
The Germandas Buch translation by Roland Werner (publ. 2009-2022) uses a variety of translations, including “immersed (in water)” (eintauchen or untertauchen) but also the traditional German term for “baptism (Taufe)” or in the combination “immersed in baptism”
The disagreement about whether the translation of the Greek baptizo needed to include “immersion” not only caused conflict in China, it also led to splits — and different translations — in English-speaking countries: “The influential British and Foreign Bible Society had been a major supporter of the [Baptist] Serampore mission, but it finally severed its support in 1836 because of the Baptist interpretation of the Bible translations produced there. This led to the formation of the separate Baptist Bible Translation Society in Great Britain in 1840. Almost concurrently, in 1837, the American and Foreign Bible Society was founded in the United States as an offspring of the American Bible Society, over a controversy about a Baptist Bengali Bible translation. The American and Foreign Bible Society itself experienced another split in 1850, when a sub-group rejected the transliteration of baptizo in the English Bible and formed the American Bible Union, which published its own English New Testament in 1862/63 that used the term “immerse” instead of baptize (see here ). (Source: Zetzsche 2008)
Click or tap here to see a short video clip showing how baptisms were done in biblical times (source: Bible Lands 2012)
“In Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus Christ, Joseph is told that when Mary gives birth to a son ‘you will name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins’ (1:21). This name is a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew name [Yeshua (יֵשׁוּעַ) which is a short form of a name meaning] ‘the Lord [Yahweh] saves.’ The name is very significant and is in itself especially dear to Christians around the world. (…) Unquestionably great importance is attached to the name of Jesus by Christians of all persuasions and backgrounds.”
While Iēsous (pronounced: /i.ɛː.suːs/) is transliterated as “Jesus” (pronounced /ˈdʒiːzəs/) in English (but was translated as “Hælend” [the “healing one”] in Old English — see Swain 2019) it is transliterated and pronounced in a large variety of other ways as well, following the different rules of different languages’ orthographies, writing systems and rules of pronunciation. The following is a (partial) list of forms of Jesus in Latin characters: aYeso, Azezi, Cecoc, Chesús, Chi̍i̍sū, Ciisahs, Ciise, Ciisusu, Djesu, Ɛisa, Ƹisa, Eyesu, Gesù, Gesû, Gesü, Ġesù, Ghjesù, Giêsu, ꞌGiê‑ꞌsu, Giê-xu, Gyisɛse, Hesu, Hesús, Hisuw, Ià-sŭ, Ié:sos, Iesu, Iesui, Iesusɨn, Iesusiva, Ié:sos, Ihu, Iisus, Ijeesu, iJisọsị, Iji̍sɔ̄ɔsi, Iosa, Íosa, Ìosa, İsa, I’sa, Isiso, Ísu, Isus, Isusa, Iisussa, Isuthi, Itota, Îtu, Isuva, Izesu, Izesuq, Jasus, Jeeju, Jeesus, Jeesus, Jeezas, Jehu, Jeisu, Jeju, Jejus, Jeso, Jesoe, Jesosa, Jesoshi, Jesosy, Jesu, Jesû, Jesua, Jesuh, Jesuhs, Jesús, Jésus, Jesúsu, Jethu, Jezed, Jezi, Jézi, Ježiš, Jezu, Jezus, Jézus, Jėzus, Jēzus, Jezusi, Jėzus, Jezuz, Jiijajju, Jíísas, Jiizas, Jíìzọ̀s, Jisas, Jisase, Jisasi, Jisasɨ, Jisasɨ, Jisaso, Jisesi, Jisɛ̀, Jisos, Jisọs, Jisɔs, Jisu, Jiszs, Jizọs, Jizɔs, Jizọsi, Jizọsu, Jòso, Jusu, Jweesus, Ketsutsi, Njises, Sesi, Sisa, Sísa, Sisas, Sīsū, Sizi, Txesusu, uJesu, Ujísɔ̄si, ŵaYesu, Xesosi, ´Xesús, Xesús, Yasu, Ya:su, Ɣaysa, Yecu, Yeeb Sub, Yeeh Suh, Yeesey, Yeeso, Yeesso, Yēēsu, Yēēsu, Yehsu, Yëësu, Yeisu, Yeisuw, Yeshu, Yeso, Yesò, Yëso, Yɛso, ye-su, Yésu, Yêsu, Yẹ́sụ̃, Yésʉs, Yeswa, Yet Sut, Yetut, Yexus, Yezo, Yezu, Yiisu, Yiitju, Yis, Yisɔs, Yisufa, Yitati, Yusu, ‑Yusu, :Yusu’, Zeezi, Zezi, Zezì, Zezwii, Ziizɛ, Zîsɛ, Zjezus, Zozi, Zozii, and this (much more incomplete) list with other writings systems: ᔩᓱᓯ, ᒋᓴᔅ, Հիսուս, ᏥᏌ, ኢየሱስ, ያሱስ, ܝܫܘܥ, Ісус, Їисъ, 耶稣, იესო, ईसा, イエス, イイスス, イエスス, 예수, येशू, येशो, ਈਸਾ, ພຣະເຢຊູ, ජේසුස්, যীশু, ଯୀଶୁ, ཡེ་ཤུ་, ‘ঈছা, இயேசு, ಯೇಸು, ພຣະເຢຊູ, ယေရှု, ઇસુ, जेजू, येसु, เยซู, យេស៊ូ, ᱡᱤᱥᱩ, ယေသှု, యేసు, ᤕᤧᤛᤢ᤺ᤴ, އީސާގެފާނު, ਯਿਸੂ, ꕉꖷ ꔤꕢ ꕞ, ⵏ⵿ⵗⵢⵙⴰ, ଜୀସୁ, يَسُوعَ,ㄧㄝㄙㄨ, YE-SU, ꓬꓰ꓿ꓢꓴ, 𖽃𖽡𖾐𖼺𖽹𖾏𖼽𖽔𖾏, ꑳꌠ, ᠶᠡᠰᠦᠰ (note that some of these might not display correctly if your device does not have the correct fonts installed).
Click or tap here to read more.
In some languages the different confessions have selected different transliterations, such as in Belarusian with Isus (Ісус) by the Orthodox and Protestant churches and Yezus (Езус) by the Catholic church, Bulgarian with Iisus (Иисус) by the Orthodox and Isus (Исус) by the Protestant church, Japanese with Iesu (イエス) (Protestant and Catholic) and Iisusu (イイスス) (Orthodox), or Lingala with Yesu (Protestant) or Yezu (Catholic). These differences have come to the forefront especially during the work on interconfessional translations such as one in Lingala where “many hours were spent on a single letter difference” (source: Ellington, p. 401).
In Chinese where transliterations of proper names between the Catholic and Protestant versions typically differ vastly, the Chinese name of Jesus (Yēsū 耶稣) remarkably was never brought into question between and by those two confessions, likely due to its ingenious choice. (Click or tap here to see more).
The proper name of God in the Old Testament, Yahweh (YHWH), is rendered in most Chinese Bible translations as Yēhéhuá 耶和華 — Jehovah. According to Chinese naming conventions, Yēhéhuá could be interpreted as Yē Héhuá, in which Yē would be the family name and Héhuá — “harmonic and radiant” — the given name. In the same manner, Yē 耶 would be the family name of Jesus and Sū 稣 would be his given name. Because in China the children inherit the family name from the father, the sonship of Jesus to God the Father, Jehovah, would be illustrated through this. Though this line of argumentation sounds theologically unsound, it is indeed used effectively in the Chinese church (see Wright 1953, p. 298).
Moreover, the “given name” of Sū 稣 carries the meaning ‘to revive, to rise again’ and seems to point to the resurrected Jesus. (Source: J. Zetzsche in Malek 2002, p. 141ff., see also tetragrammaton (YHWH))
There are different ways that Bible translators have chosen historically and today in how to translate the name of Jesus in predominantly Muslim areas: with a form of the Arabic Isa (عيسى) (which is used for “Jesus” in the Qur’an), the Greek Iēsous, or, like major 20th century Bible translations into Standard Arabic, the Aramaic Yēšūaʿ: Yasua (يَسُوعَ). (Click or tap here to see more.)
Following are languages and language groups that use a form of Isa include the following (note that this list is not complete):
Some languages have additional “TAZI” editions (TAZI stands for “Tawrat, Anbiya, Zabur, and Injil” the “Torah, Prophets, Psalms and Gospel”) of the New Testament that are geared towards Muslim readers where there is also a translation in the same language for non-Muslims. In those editions, Isa is typically used as well (for example, the Khmer TAZI edition uses Isa (អ៊ីសា) rather than the commonly used Yesaou (យេស៊ូ), the Thai edition uses Isa (อีซา) rather than Yesu (เยซู), the Chinese edition uses Ěrsā (尔撒) vs. Yēsū (耶稣), and the English edition also has Isa rather than Jesus.)
In German the name Jesus (pronounced: /ˈjeːzʊs/) is distinguished by its grammatical forms. Into the 20th century the grammatical rules prescribed a unique Greek-Latin declination: Jesus (nominative), Jesu (genitive, dative, vocative), Jesum (accusative), from which today only the genitive case “Jesu” is still in active use. Likewise, in Seediq (Taroko), the morphological treatment of “Jesus” also occupies a special category by not falling under the normal rule of experiencing a vowel reduction when the object-specific suffix an is added “since it was felt that the readers might resent that the name has been changed that drastically.” (Compare Msian for “Moses” (Mosi) as an object, but Yisuan for “Jesus” (Yisu).) (Source: Covell 1998. p. 249)
In Lamba the name ŵaYesu consists of a transliteration Yesu and the prefix ŵa, 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 Jesus, once the church was established it was felt that it was both “safe” and respectful to use the honorific (pl.) prefix. (Source C. M. Doke in The Bible Translator 1958, p. 57ff. )
The style of the following drawing of Jesus by Annie Vallotton is described by the artist as this: “By using few lines the readers fill in the outlines with their imagination and freedom. That is when the drawings begin to communicate.” (see here )
Illustration by Annie Vallotton, copyright by Donald and Patricia Griggs of Griggs Educational Service.
Following is the oldest remaining Ethiopian Orthodox icon of Jesus from the 14th or possibly 13th century (found in the Church of the Saviour of the World in Gurji, Ethiopia). As in many Orthodox icons, Jesus’ right hand forms the Greek letters I-C-X-C for IHCOYCXPICTOC or “Jesus Christ.”
Orthodox Icons are not drawings or creations of imagination. They are in fact writings of things not of this world. Icons can represent our Lord Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the Saints. They can also represent the Holy Trinity, Angels, the Heavenly hosts, and even events. Orthodox icons, unlike Western pictures, change the perspective and form of the image so that it is not naturalistic. This is done so that we can look beyond appearances of the world, and instead look to the spiritual truth of the holy person or event. (Source )
But Jesus answered is translated “Jesus answered the sons” by Good News Translation. It is important to mention specifically that Jesus is now addressing the sons (in Greek the plural form of the pronoun you is used); otherwise the readers will automatically assume that the words are addressed to the mother of the two men, since she is the one who made the request. At this point Matthew begins to follow more closely the Marcan form of the text.
You do not know what you are asking is a fairly literal rendering of the Greek text, and it is found in a number of English translations.
Are you able has sometimes been rendered “Are you willing” or “Are you prepared.”
Cup is qualified by Good News Translation and Die Bibel im heutigen Deutsch as “cup of suffering,” to show that the term is used figuratively. If translators retain the image of cup, they must be sure that readers do not think Jesus is referring literally to something he will drink. Rather he is referring to the bitter suffering he must experience. Barclay completely does away with the figure: “Can you pass through the bitter experience through which I must pass?” Others have had “Are you willing (or, able) to suffer as I am going to suffer?” In some languages it will be impossible to speak of “drinking a cup,” since one actually drinks from a cup. New American Bible resolves this dilemma by translating the question raised here as “Can you drink of the cup I am to drink of?” Then in verse 23 the response of Jesus is phrased as “… from the cup I drink of….” Phillips overcomes the difficulty by dropping the cup imagery altogether: “Can you two drink what I have to drink?”
We are able (Good News Translation “We can”) is the answer of the two sons of Zebedee. It is obvious that a first person exclusive form of the pronoun We should be used; moreover it should be a form which will refer only to two persons (the two sons) and not to three (the two sons plus their mother), if the receptor language requires such a distinction.
Quoted with permission from Newman, Barclay M. and Stine, Philip C. A Handbook on the Gospel of Matthew. (UBS Handbook Series). New York: UBS, 1988. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .