a prisoner, indefinite pronouns

Tongan uses, in addition to a definite article, two indefinite articles. The definite article consists of the particle e before a noun (phrase) with a definite accent on its final vowel, and corresponds almost exactly to the English ‘the.’ One indefinite article consists of the particle e before the noun (phrase) without a definite accent on its final vowel, and corresponds to the English ‘a’ when the emphasis of ‘a’ is on the singleness of the noun (such as in ‘a cat’ with the emphasis on the word ‘a’). The other indefinite article consists of the particle ha, and corresponds to English ‘a’ when the emphasis of ‘a’ is on substance of the noun (phrase) (such as in ‘a cat‘ with the emphasis on the word “cat”).

The Greek that is translated as “a prisoner” in English is translated in Tongan as ha nofo pilīsone: “a prisoner.” Ha here, with its focus on substance, indicates that Philemon did not know Paul’s current status but needed to be informed of it, which conveys an exegetical decision that may or may not be correct. Most Tongan readers feel that e is more appropriate here, Philemon almost certainly, in their view, being well aware that Paul was a prisoner.

indefinite pronouns, Timothy our brother

Tongan uses, in addition to a definite article, two indefinite articles. The definite article consists of the particle e before a noun (phrase) with a definite accent on its final vowel, and corresponds almost exactly to the English ‘the.’ One indefinite article consists of the particle e before the noun (phrase) without a definite accent on its final vowel, and corresponds to the English ‘a’ when the emphasis of ‘a’ is on the singleness of the noun (such as in ‘a cat’ with the emphasis on the word ‘a’). The other indefinite article consists of the particle ha, and corresponds to English ‘a’ when the emphasis of ‘a’ is on substance of the noun (phrase) (such as in ‘a cat‘ with the emphasis on the word “cat”).

The Greek that is translated as “Timothy our brother” in English is translated in Tongan as si‘i kāinga ko Tīmote. As the noun phrase stands without the definitive accent on its final vowel, it actually means ‘Timothy, a brother of ours’, which makes the relationship significantly remoter.

sending a message via a third person

All the letters by Paul start with the same expression in Wichí Lhamtés Güisnay with the same expression: Amtena ipuhfwas or “It has been time but now it is.”

Bill Mitchell (in Omanson 2001, p. 437) explains: “Languages have their own ways of marking different genres. When the Wichí of Argentina send a message by way of a third person it begins with a particular expression, which, if taken literally, would say: ‘it has been time but now it is.’ It may not communicate a whole lot in English, but it is indispensable in Wichí. In the Wichí New Testament the letters of Paul begin with this word.”

Christ Jesus

In the instances where the Greek New Testament says Christos Iēsous (Χριστὸς Ἰησοῦς) rather than the more common Iēsous Christos and English translations typically translate as “Christ Jesus,” the Bokyi translation says Jisos Karâs or “Jesus Christ.”

Paul Bruns explains (in The Bible Translator 1986, p. 234ff.):

“Bokyi is a rather small language in the Cross River State of Nigeria. In one Bokyi village named Bansan the oldest man’s name is Otu Obyi. There is another man in another Bokyi village named Obyi Otu. Even though these two men share the same names every Bokyi person knows that they are two different people because of the order in which their names are used.

“If you are a translator and your language uses this same method of naming people, you can not sometimes write Jesus Christ in your translation and sometimes write Christ Jesus, and still refer to the same person. It will refer to two different people. You should always write Jesus Christ or Christ Jesus, but not both. You will have to decide which order is the most natural in your language.”

inclusive vs. exclusive pronoun (Phlm. 1:1)

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 inclusive form (including Paul and Philemon) for the equivalent of “our brother” and either the exclusive or inclusive form for “our dear friend.”

In Huautla Mazatec, the translators selected the inclusive we, in Tok Pisin, the exclusive form is used for the second occurrence (“our dear friend”).

Source: Velma Pickett and Florence Cowan in Notes on Translation January 1962, p. 1ff. and SIL International Translation Department (1999).

brother (fellow believer)

The Greek that is translated in English as “brother” (in the sense of a fellow believer), is translated with a specifically coined word in Kachin: “There are two terms for brother in Kachin. One is used to refer to a Christian brother. This term combines ‘older and younger brother.’ The other term is used specifically for addressing siblings. When one uses this term, one must specify if the older or younger person is involved. A parallel system exists for ‘sister’ as well. In [these verses], the term for ‘a Christian brother’ is used.” (Source: Gam Seng Shae)

In Martu Wangka it is translated as “relative” (this is also the term that is used for “follower.”) (Source: Carl Gross)

See also brothers.

complete verse (Philemon 1:1)

Following are a number of back-translations of Philemon 1:1:

  • Uma: “This letter is from me, Paulus, who am imprisoned because of my work spreading the news of Kristus Yesus, and from Timotius, our one-faith relative, we (excl.) send to you, Filemon, our (excl.) relative whom we (excl.) love, and our (excl.) friend of one-work,” (Source: Uma Back Translation)
  • Yakan: “This letter is from me, Paul and from Timoteo our (incl.) brother who trusts in Isa Almasi. I am jailed here because I follow Isa Almasi. We (excl.) send this letter to you Pilemon. You are our (excl.) friend and our (excl.) companion working for God.” (Source: Yakan Back Translation)
  • Western Bukidnon Manobo: “Our dear friend and partner Philemon. As for me, Paul, the one in prison because of my faith in Jesus Christ, and as for Timothy, our (incl.) brother, we write to you and to Apphia, our sister because of believing, and to Archippus our fellow soldier of Christ, and we also write to the believers who worship in your house.” (Source: Western Bukidnon Manobo Back Translation)
  • Kankanaey: “I am Pablo who am-imprisoned because of my serving Cristo Jesus. My companion here, it is our sibling/cousin (henceforth brother) Timoteo. Here is our (excl.) letter to you (sing.) Filemon who are our (excl.) much-loved friend and fellow-worker.” (Source: Kankanaey Back Translation)
  • Tagbanwa: “Our(excl.) held-dear friend Filemon, who is our (excl.) fellow-worker of the work of the Lord, there-(with-you) is our (excl.) letter, I who am Pablo, who is being-imprisoned because of my service to Cristo Jesus, and our sibling in believing Timoteo.” (Source: Tagbanwa Back Translation)
  • Tenango Otomi: “Listen, our dear fellow worker Philemon. I, along with our brother Timothy, greet you. I, Paul, am in prison here because I speak the word about Jesus Christ.” (Source: Tenango Otomi Back Translation)

Christ, Messiah

The Greek Christos (Χρηστός) is typically transliterated when it appears together with Iésous (Ἰησοῦς) (Jesus). In English the transliteration is the Anglicized “Christ,” whereas in many other languages it is based on the Greek or Latin as “Kristus,” “Cristo,” or similar.

When used as a descriptive term in the New Testament — as it’s typically done in the gospels (with the possible exceptions of for instance John 1:17 and 17:3) — Christos is seen as the Greek translation of the Hebrew mashiaḥ (המשיח‎) (“anointed”). Accordingly, a transliteration of mashiaḥ is used, either as “Messiah” or based on the Greek or Latin as a form of “Messias.”

This transliteration is also used in the two instances where the Greek term Μεσσίας (Messias) is used in John 1:41 and 4:25.

In some languages and some translations, the term “Messiah” is supplemented with an explanation. Such as in the German Gute Nachricht with “the Messiah, the promised savior” (Wir haben den Messias gefunden, den versprochenen Retter) or in Muna with “Messiah, the Saving King” (Mesias, Omputo Fosalamatino) (source: René van den Berg).

In predominantly Muslim areas or for Bible translations for a Muslim target group, Christos is usually transliterated from the Arabic al-Masih (ٱلْمَسِيحِ) — “Messiah.” In most cases, this practice corresponds with languages that also use a form of the Arabic Isa (عيسى) for Jesus (see Jesus). There are some exceptions, though, including modern translations in Arabic which use Yasua (يَسُوعَ) (coming from the Aramaic Yēšūa’) alongside a transliteration of al-Masih, Hausa which uses Yesu but Almahisu, and some Fula languages (Adamawa Fulfulde, Nigerian Fulfulde, and Central-Eastern Niger Fulfulde) which also use a form of Iésous (Yeesu) but Almasiihu (or Almasiifu) for Christos.

Other solutions that are used by a number of languages include these:

  • Dobel: “The important one that God had appointed to come” (source: Jock Hughes)
  • Nyongar: Keny Mammarap or “The One Man” (source: Warda-Kwabba Luke-Ang)
  • Mairasi: “King of not dying for life all mashed out infinitely” (for “mashed out,” see salvation; source: Lloyd Peckham)
  • Bacama: Ma Pwa a Ngɨltən: “The one God has chosen” (source: David Frank in this blog post)
  • Binumarien: Anutuna: originally a term that was used for a man that was blessed by elders for a task by the laying on of hands (source: Desmond Oatridges, Holzhausen 1991, p. 49f.)
  • Nyongar: Keny Boolanga-Yira Waangki-Koorliny: “One God is Sending” (source: Warda-Kwabba Luke-Ang)
  • Uab Meto: Neno Anan: “Son of heaven” P. Middelkoop explains: “The idea of heavenly power bestowed on a Timorese king is rendered in the title Neno Anan. It is based on the historical fact that chiefs in general came from overseas and they who come thence are believed to have come down from heaven, from the land beyond the sea, that means the sphere of God and the ghosts of the dead. The symbolical act of anointing has been made subservient to the revelation of an eternal truth and when the term Neno Anan is used as a translation thereof, it also is made subservient to a new revelation of God in Jesus Christ. The very fact that Jesus came from heaven makes this translation hit the mark.” (source. P. Middelkoop in The Bible Translator 1953, p. 183ff.)
Law (2013, p. 97) writes about how the Ancient Greek Septuagint‘s translation of the Hebrew mashiah was used by the New Testament writers as a bridge between the Old and New Testaments (click or tap here to read more):

“Another important word in the New Testament that comes from the Septuagint is christos, ‘Christ.’ Christ is not part of the name of the man from Nazareth, as if ‘the Christs’ were written above the door of his family home. Rather, ‘Christ’ is an explicitly messianic title used by the writers of the New Testament who have learned this word from the Septuagint’s translation of the Hebrew mashiach, ‘anointed,’ which itself is often rendered in English as ‘Messiah.’ To be sure, one detects a messianic intent on the part of the Septuagint translator in some places. Amos 4:13 may have been one of these. In the Hebrew Bible, God ‘reveals his thoughts to mortals,’ but the Septuagint has ‘announcing his anointed to humans.’ A fine distinction must be made, however, between theology that was intended by the Septuagint translators and that developed by later Christian writers. In Amos 4:13 it is merely possible we have a messianic reading, but it is unquestionably the case that the New Testament writers exploit the Septuagint’s use of christos, in Amos and elsewhere, to messianic ends.”

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 (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, Ciisahs, Ciise, Ciisusu, Djesu, Gesù, Gesû, Gesü, Ġesù, Ghjesù, Giêsu, Giê-xu, Gyisɛse, Hesu, Hesús, Hisuw, Ià-sŭ, Ié:sos, Iesu, Iesui, Iesusɨn, Iesusiva, Ihu, Iisus, Ijeesu, iJisọsị, Iji̍sɔ̄ɔsi, Iosa, Íosa, Ìosa, Isiso, Ísu, Isus, Isuthi, Itota, Îtu, Isuva, Izesu, Izesuq, Jasus, Jeeju, Jeesus, Jeesus, Jeezas, Jehu, Jejus, Jeso, Jesoe, Jesosa, Jesosy, Jesua, Jesuh, Jesús, Jésus, Jesúsu, Jethu, Jezi, Jézi, Ježiš, Jezu, Jezus, Jézus, Jėzus, Jēzus, Jezusi, Jėzus, Jezuz, Jíísas, Jiizas, Jisas, Jisase, Jisasi, Jisasɨ, Jisesi, Jisos, Jisọs, Jisɔs, Jisu, Jizọs, Jizọsi, Jizọsu, Jweesus, Ketsutsi, Njises, Sisa, Sísa, Sisas, Sīsū, Txesusu, uJesu, ŵaYesu, Xesosi, ´Xesús, Xesús, Yasu, Ya:su, Ɣaysa, Yecu, Yeeb Sub, Yeeh Suh, Yeeso, Yeesso, Yēēsu, Yeisu, Yeisuw, Yeso, Yeshu, Yêsu, Yésʉs, Yet Sut, Yetut, Yexus, Yezo, Yezu, Yiisu, Yiitju, Yisɔs, Yisufa, Yitati, Yusu, Zezi, Zîsɛ, Zjezus, Zozii, and this (much more incomplete) list with other writings systems: ᔩᓱᓯ, Յիսուս, ᏥᏌ, ኢየሱስ, ܝܫܘܥ, Ісус, Їисъ, 耶稣, იესო, ईसा, イエス, イイスス, イエスス, 예수, येशू, येशो, ਈਸਾ, യേശു, ජේසුස්, যীশু, ଯୀଶୁ, ཡེ་ཤུ་, ‘ঈছা, இயேசு, ಯೇಸು, ယေရှု, ઇસુ, जेजू, เยซู, យេស៊ូ, เยซู, ᱡᱤᱥᱩ, ယေသှု, యేసు, އީސާގެފާނު, ㄧㄝㄙㄨ, YE-SU, ਯਿਸੂ, ꕉꖷ ꔤꕢ ꕞ, ⵏ⵿ⵗⵢⵙⴰ, يَسُوعَ, ꑳꌠ, ᠶᠡᠰᠦᠰ (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):

  • Indo-Iranian languages: Persian, Dari, Central Pashto, Southern Pashto all use Eysa (عيسی or عيسىٰ for Southern Pashto), Sindhi uses Eysey (عيسيٰ), Southern Balochi Issa (ایسّا), Central Kurdish (Sorani) and Northern Kurdish (Kurmanji) use Îsa (عیسای and Иса respectively), Turkmen has Isa, and Tajik Isoi (Исои — compare Iso/Исо in the Tajik Qur’an)
  • Turkic languages: Turkish uses İsa, Kazakh, Kumyk, Nogai, Crimean Tatar all have Isa (Иса), Kirghiz has Iysa (Ыйса), Uzbek has Iso (Исо — compare Iiso/Ийсо in the Uzbek Qur’an), Bashkir uses Aaisa (Ғайса), North Azerbaijani İsa, Uighur uses Eysa (ئەيسا), and Kara-Kalpak İysa (Ийса)
  • Caucasian languages: Bezhta and Lezghian use Isa (Иса), Avaric has Aisa (ГІиса), and Chechen Iza (Иза)
  • Various African languages: Somali, a Cushitic language, has Ciise, Kabyle has Ɛisa and Tahaggart Tamahaq has Yeswa (both Berber languages), the Saharan languages Central Kanuri, Manga Kanuri have Isa, the Atlantic-Congo languages Dagbani, Mampruli, and Bimoba use Yisa, and the Chadian Arabic Bible has Isa (عِيسَى)
  • 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.)

In sign languages, including American Sign Language, Costa Rican Sign Language, Spanish Sign Language, Auslan (Australian Sign Language) and German Sign Language “Jesus” is signed with the middle finger of each hand pointing to the palm (or wrist) of the other in succession (signing the nails of the cross). In the context of Bible translation this has been pointed out as theologically problematic since the “semantic connections of the original name Jesus do point towards ‘salvation,’ they do not naturally lead to crucifixion.” (Source: Phil King in Journal of Translation 1 (2020), p. 33ff)


“Jesus” in German Sign Language (source)

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.

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