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, e.g. “good story” (Navajo), “joyful telling” (Tausug), “joyful message” (Toraja-Sa’dan) (source for this and all above: Bratcher / Nida), or “message of God” (Shilluk) (source: Nida 1964, p. 237)

Vitaly Voinov tells this story about the translation into Rutul:

“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.”

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).

kingdom (of God / heaven) (God's finalized creation in the future)

In the German Gute Nachricht (Good News) translation of 1982, this occurrence of the Greek term which is translated in most English versions of “kingdom (of God or heaven)” is translated with a form of “once God finalizes his creation (or “work”) . . . ” (Wenn Gott sein Werk vollendet . . .). For an explanation of the differentiated translation in German as well as translation choices in a number of languages, see Kingdom (of God / heaven).

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 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)

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

  • 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)
  • 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)

complete verse (Matthew 4:23)

Following are a number of back-translations of Matthew 4:23:

  • Uma: “Yesus went/traveled all over the land of Galilea and taught in the prayer houses. He announced the Good News, he said: ‘The time has almost arrived for God to become King on earth.’ He also healed all the sick and handicapped people.” (Source: Uma Back Translation)
  • Yakan: “So-then Isa went (about) in the whole country/place of Jalil, preaching/teaching in the prayer-houses and preaching/proclaiming the good news about God’s ruling/kingdom of God. The sick were healed by him. Even whatever their sickness, they were healed by him.” (Source: Yakan Back Translation)
  • Western Bukidnon Manobo: “Then Jesus went through the province of Galilee teaching in their worshipping places. He caused people to understand the Good News about the way God rules, and he healed those afflicted with various kinds of sickness.” (Source: Western Bukidnon Manobo Back Translation)
  • Kankanaey: “Jesus was going-around the entire province Galilea. He was teaching in the synagogues preaching the good news concerning God’s ruling, and healing also ones-who-were-sick with all kinds of sickness and hardship/suffering of their bodies.” (Source: Kankanaey Back Translation)
  • Tagbanwa: “Well, since Jesus was now teaching, he went all over the district of Galilea. He was teaching in the worship-places, teaching the Good News concerning the kingdom of God. He was also healing the people of whatever was their illness.” (Source: Tagbanwa Back Translation)
  • Tenango Otomi: “Jesus went all over the land of Galilee. When he arrived at the churches where the Jews met in, he taught the people the word of God. He told the people the good news about how people enter the hand of God. And he cured people who were sick. Whatever sickness the people had, he cured them all.” (Source: Tenango Otomi Back Translation)

Jesus

The Greek Iēsous is “only” a proper name but one with great importance. The following quote by John Ellington (in The Bible Translator 1993, p. 401ff.) illustrates this:

“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 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 (very partial) list of forms of Jesus in Latin characters: Chesús, Ciisusu, Gesù, Gesû, Gesü, Ġesù, Giêsu, Hesu, Hesús, Iesu, Ihu, Íosa, Ìosa, Isus, Isus, Isus, Isuthi, Îtu, Jasus, Jeesus, Jeesus, Jehu, Jeso, Jesús, Jésus, Jezi, Jézi, Ježiš, Jezus, Jézus, Jėzus, Jēzus, Jezusi, Jėzus, Jezuz, Jisos, Jisọs, Jisas, Jisu, Sisa, uJesu, ŵaYesu, Xesosi, ´Xesús, Ya:su, Yēēsu, Yeso, Yésʉs, Yexus, Yezo, Yezu, Yiisu, Yiitju, Yisufa, Yusu, Zîsɛ, Zjezus, and this (equally incomplete) list with other writings systems: ᔩᓱᓯ, Յիսուս, ᏥᏌ, ኢየሱስ, ܝܫܘܥ, Ісус, 耶稣, იესო, ईसा, イエス, 예수, येशू, യേശു, ජේසුස්, যীশু, ‘ঈছা, இயேசு, ఏసు, เยซู, យេស៊ូ, يَسُوعَ (note that some of these might not display correctly if your computer 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, 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 would be the family name and Héhuá — “harmonic and radiant” — the given name. In the same manner, 耶 would be the family name of Jesus and 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 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):

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.

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 (plural) prefix. (Source C. M. Doke in The Bible Translator 1958, p. 57ff.)

Translation: German

Auf Deutsch wird der Name Jesus (ausgesprochen: /ˈjeːzʊs/) durch dessen grammatikalische Formen hervorgehoben. Bis ins 20. Jahrhundert schrieben die grammatikalischen Regeln eine nur hier verwendete Griechisch/Lateinsche Misch-Deklination vor: Jesus (Nominativ), Jesu (Genitiv, Dativ, Vokativ) und Jesum (Akkusativ), von welchen heute nur noch der Genitiv-Kasus „Jesu“ aktiv verwendet wird.

Translator: Jost Zetzsche