Many languages distinguish between inclusive and exclusive first-person plural pronouns (“we”). 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”).
God transcends gender, but most languages are limited to grammatical gender expressed in pronouns. In the case of English, this is traditionally confined to “he” (or in the forms “his,” “him,” and “himself” in many English Bible translations when referring to the persons of the Trinity with the capitalized “He,” “His,” “Him,” or “Himself”), “she” (and “her,” “hers,” and “herself”), and “it” (and “its” and “itself”).
Modern Chinese, however, offers another possibility (click or tap here to read more):
In modern Chinese, the third-person singular pronoun is always pronounced the same (tā), but it is written differently according to its gender (他 is “he,” 她 is “she,” and 它/牠 is “it” and their respective derivative forms). In each of these characters, the first (or upper) part defines the gender (man, woman, or thing/animal), while the second element gives the clue to its pronunciation.
In 1930, after a full century with dozens of Chinese translations, Bible translator Wang Yuande (王元德) coined a new “godly” pronoun: 祂. Chinese readers immediately knew how to pronounce it: tā. But they also recognized that the first part of that character, signifying something spiritual, clarified that each person of the Trinity has no gender aside from being God.
While the most important Protestant and Catholic Chinese versions respectively have opted not to use 祂, many other Bible translations do and it is widely used in hymnals and other Christian materials. (Source: Zetzsche)
Early versions of Lü Zhenzhong’s (呂振中) version (New Testament: 1946, complete Bible: 1970) also used 祂 to refer to “God.” Kramers points out: “This new way of writing ‘He,’ however, has created a minor problem of its own: must this polite form be used whenever Jesus is referred to? Lü follows the rule that, wherever Jesus is referred to as a human being, the normal ta (他) is written; where he is referred to as divine, especially after the ascension, the reverential ta (祂) is used.”
Source: R. P. Kramers in The Bible Translator 1956, p. 152ff.
In Kouya, Godié, Northern Grebo, Eastern Krahn, Western Krahn, and Guiberoua Béte, all languages of the Kru family in Western Africa, a different kind of systems of pronouns is used (click or tap here to read more):
In that system one kind of pronoun is used for humans (male and female alike) and one for natural elements, non-liquid masses, and some spiritual entities (one other is used for large animals and another one for miscellaneous items). While in these languages the pronoun for spiritual entities used to be employed when referring to God, this has changed into the use of the human pronoun.
Lynell Zogbo (in The Bible Translator 1989, p. 401ff) explains in the following way: “From informal discussions with young Christians especially, it would appear that, at least for some people, the experience and/or concepts of Christianity are affecting the choice of pronoun for God. Some people explain that God is no longer ‘far away,’ but is somehow tangible and personal. For these speakers God has shifted over into the human category.”
In Kouya, God (the Father) and Jesus are referred to with the human pronoun ɔ, whereas the Holy Spirit is referred to with a non-human pronoun. (Northern Grebo and Western Krahn make a similar distinction.)
Eddie Arthur, a former Kouya Bible translation consultant, says the following: “We tried to insist that this shouldn’t happen, but the Kouya team members were insistent that the human pronoun for the Spirit would not work.”
In Burmese, the pronoun ko taw (ကိုယ်တော်) is used either as 2nd person (you) or 3rd person (he, him, his) reference. “This term clearly has its root in the religious language in Burmese. No ordinary persons are addressed or known by this pronoun because it is reserved for Buddhist monks, famous religious teachers, and in the case of Christianity, the Trinity.” (Source: Gam Seng Shae in The Bible Translator 2002, p. 202ff.)
The English “Contemporary Torah” addresses the question of God and gendered pronouns by mostly avoiding pronouns in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (unless God is referred to as “lord,” “father,” “kind,” or “warrior”). It does that by either using passive constructs (“He gave us” vs “we were given”), by using the adjective “divine” or by using “God” rather than a pronoun.
Translator: Simon Wong
The Hebrew adonai in the Old Testament typically refers to God. The shorter adon (and in two cases in the book of Daniel the Aramaic mare) is also used to refer to God but more often for concepts like “master,” “owner,” etc. In English Bible translations all of those are translated with “Lord” if they refer to God.
In English Old Testament translations, as in Old Testament translations in many other languages, the use of Lord (or an equivalent term in other languages) is not to be confused with Lord (or the equivalent term with a different typographical display for other languages). While the former translates adonai, adon and mare, the latter is a translation for the tetragrammaton (YHWH) or the Name of God. See tetragrammaton (YHWH) and the article by Andy Warren-Rothlin in Noss / Houser, p. 618ff. for more information.
In the New Testament, the Greek term kurios has at least four different kinds of use:
- referring to “God,” especially in Old Testament quotations,
- meaning “master” or “owner,” especially in parables, etc.,
- as a form of address (see for instance John 4:11: “Sir, you have no bucket”),
- or, most often, referring to Jesus
In the first and fourth case, it is also translated as “Lord” in English.
Most languages naturally don’t have one word that covers all these meanings. According to Bratcher / Nida, “the alternatives are usually (1) a term which is an honorific title of respect for a high-ranking person and (2) a word meaning ‘boss’, ‘master’, or ‘chief.’ (…) and on the whole it has generally seemed better to employ a word of the second category, in order to emphasize the immediate personal relationship, and then by context to build into the word the prestigeful character, since its very association with Jesus Christ will tend to accomplish this purpose.”
When looking at the following list of back-translations of the terms that translators in the different languages have used for both kurios and adonai to refer to God and Jesus respectively, it might be helpful for English readers to recall the etymology of the English “Lord.” While this term might have gained an exalted meaning in the understanding of many, it actually comes from hlaford or “loaf-ward,” referring to the lord of the castle who was the keeper of the bread (source: Rosin 1956, p. 121).
Following are some of the solutions that don’t rely on a different typographical display (see above):
- Navajo: “the one who has charge”
- Mossi: “the one who has the head” (the leader)
- Uduk: “chief”
- Guerrero Amuzgo: “the one who commands”
- Kpelle: “person-owner” (a term which may be applied to a chief)
- Central Pame: “the one who owns us” (or “commands us”)
- Piro: “the big one” (used commonly of one in authority)
- San Blas Kuna: “the great one over all” (source for this and above: Bratcher / Nida)
- Guhu-Samane: Soopara (“our Supervisor”) (source: Ellis Deibler in Notes on Translation July, 1967, p. 5ff.)
- Balinese: “Venerated-one” (source: Reiling / Swellengrebel)
- Yanesha’: “one who carries us” (source: Nida 1952, p. 159)
- Northern Emberá: Dadjirã Boro (“our Head”)
- Rarotongan: Atu (“master or owner of a property”)
- Gilbertese: Uea (“a person of high status invested with authority to rule the people”)
- Rotuman: Gagaja (“village chief”)
- Samoan: Ali’i (“an important word in the native culture, it derives from the Samoan understanding of lordship based on the local traditions”)
- Tahitian: Fatu (“owner,” “master”)
- Tuvalu: Te Aliki (“chief”)
- Fijian: Liuliu (“leader”) (source for this and six above: Joseph Hong in The Bible Translator 1994, p. 329ff.)
- Bacama: Həmə miye: “owner of people” (source: David Frank in this blog post)
- Hopi: “Controller” (source: Walls 2000, p. 139)
- Ghomala’: Cyəpɔ (“he who is above everyone,” consisting of the verb cyə — to surpass or go beyond — and pɔ — referring to people. No human can claim this attribute, no matter what his or her social status or prestige.” (Source: Michel Kenmogne in Theologizing in Context: An Example from the Study of a Ghomala’ Christian Hymn)
- Binumarien: Karaambaia: “fight-leader” (Source: Oates 1995, p. 255)
Warlpiri: Warlaljamarri (owner or possessor of something — for more information tap or click here)
We have come to rely on another term which emphasizes God’s essential nature as YHWH, namely jukurrarnu (see tetragrammaton (YHWH)). This word is built on the same root jukurr– as is jukurrpa, ‘dreaming.’ Its basic meaning is ‘timelessness’ and it is used to describe physical features of the land which are viewed as always being there. Some speakers view jukurrarnu in terms of ‘history.’ In all Genesis references to YHWH we have used Kaatu Jukurrarnu. In all Mark passages where kurios refers to God and not specifically to Christ we have also used Kaatu Jukurrarnu.
New Testament references to Christ as kurios are handled differently. At one stage we experimented with the term Watirirririrri which refers to a ceremonial boss of highest rank who has the authority to instigate ceremonies. While adequately conveying the sense of Christ’s authority, there remained potential negative connotations relating to Warlpiri ceremonial life of which we might be unaware.
Here it is that the Holy Spirit led us to make a chance discovery. Transcribing the personal testimony of the local Warlpiri pastor, I noticed that he described how ‘my Warlaljamarri called and embraced me (to the faith)’. Warlaljamarri is based on the root warlalja which means variously ‘family, possessions, belongingness’. A warlaljamarri is the ‘owner’ or ‘possessor’ of something. While previously being aware of the ‘ownership’ aspect of warlaljamarri, this was the first time I had heard it applied spontaneously and naturally in a fashion which did justice to the entire concept of ‘Lordship’. Thus references to Christ as kurios are now being handled by Warlaljamarri.” (Source: Stephen Swartz, The Bible Translator 1985, p. 415ff.)
- Mairasi: Onggoao Nem (“Throated One” — “Leader,” “Elder”) or Enggavot Nan (“Above-One”) (source: Enggavoter 2004)
- Obolo: Okaan̄-ene (“Owner of person(s)”) (source: Enene Enene)
- Angami Naga: Niepu (“master,” “owner”)
- Lotha Naga: Opvui (“owner of house / field / cattle”) — since both “Lord” and YHWH are translated as Opvui there is an understanding that “Opvui Jesus is the same as the Opvui of the Old Testament”
- Ao Naga: Kibuba (“human master,” “teacher,” “owner of property,” etc.) (source for this and two above: Nitoy Achumi in The Bible Translator 1992 p. 438ff.)
- Seediq: Tholang, loan word from Min Nan Chinese (the majority language in Taiwan) thâu-lâng (頭儂): “Master” (source: Covell 1998, p. 248)
- Thai: phra’ phu pen cao (พระผู้เป็นเจ้า) (divine person who is lord) or ong(kh) cao nay (องค์เจ้านาย) (<divine classifier>-lord-boss) (source: Stephen Pattemore)
- Arabic often uses different terms for adonai or kurios referring to God (al-rabb الرب) and kurios referring to Jesus (al-sayyid الـسـيـد). Al-rabb is also the term traditionally used in Arabic Christian-idiom translations for YHWH, and al-sayyid is an honorary term, similar to English “lord” or “sir” (source: Andy Warren-Rothlin).
- Tamil also uses different terms for adonai/kurios when referring to God and kurios when referring to Jesus. The former is Karttar கர்த்தர், a Sanskrit-derived term with the original meaning of “creator,” and the latter in Āṇṭavar ஆண்டவர், a Tamil term originally meaning “govern” or “reign” (source: Natarajan Subramani).
- Burunge: Looimoo: “owner who owns everything” (in the Burunge Bible translation, this term is only used as a reference to Jesus and was originally used to refer to the traditional highest deity — source: Michael Endl in Holzhausen / Riderer 2010, p. 48)
- Aguacateco: Ajcaw ske’j: “the one to whom we belong and who is above us” (source: Rita Peterson in Holzhausen / Riderer 2010, p. 49)
- Konkomba: Tidindaan: “He who is the owner of the land and reigns over the people” (source: Lidorio 2007, p. 66)
See also Father / Lord.