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.”
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.
The translation of the tetragrammaton (YHWH or יהוה) is easily the most often discussed issue in Bible translation. This is exemplified by the fact that there is virtually no translation of the Bible — regardless of language — where the position of the respective translator or translation team on how to translate the name of God into the respective language is not clearly stated in the preface or introduction.
Click or tap here to read about the different ways the tetragrammaton is and has been translated
The literature on this topic is overwhelming, both as far as the meaning of YHWH and the translation of it by itself and in combination with other terms (including Elohim and Adonai). There is no reason or room to rehash those discussions. Aside from various insightful translations of YHWH into various languages (see below), what’s of interest in the context of the TIPs project are official and semi-official statements regarding the translation by Bible translation agencies and churches. These include the 1992 statement by United Bible Societies’ “Names of God” Study Group (see The Bible Translator 1992, p. 403-407) or the “Letter to the Bishops’ Conference on ‘The Name of God'” by the Congregatio de Cultu Divino et Discriplina Sacramentorum of 2008 (see here et al.).
In summary, the UBS study group gives six different options on how to translate YHWH: 1) transliterate (some form of “Yahweh” or “Jehovah” if this is an already established term); 2) translate (along the lines of kurios — κύριος in the Septuagint); 3) translate the meaning of YHWH; 4) use a culture-specific name; 5) translate Elohim and YHWH in the same way; or 6) use a combination of any of these options.
The official Catholic directive states that for liturgical purposes YHWH is to be translated as an equivalent of Kurios (“Lord”) unless when appearing in combination with Elohim (“God”) or Adonai (“lord”), in which case it’s to be translated with “God.”
In the following collection of examples, any of the above-mentioned strategies are used.
Use of Typographical Means to Offset the Name of God
A large number of Bible translations in many Western European languages have used a similar strategy to translate YHWH as an equivalent of Kurios or Adonai (“lord” in Greek in Hebrew) but have used either small caps or all caps to denote these occurrences as an equivalent to a proper name. Here are some examples:
None of the European languages have found a “cultural-linguistic equivalent” with the possible exception of Eternal or l’Éternel (see below).
The rendering of the translation of YHWH in bold (and uppercase) characters is for instance used in Guhu-Samane: QOBEROBA (a term of address for a respected person and also connotes “forever”) (for “forever”, see below under Translations of the Name of God) and the upper-casing in Bible translations in several other languages in Papua New Guinea:
Mailu: GUBINA (“MASTER”) (Source: Phil King in The Bible Translator 2014, p. 194ff.)
In Cebuano (Ang Pulong sa Dios edition, 2010) and Hiligaynon (all versions), Ginoo, a typographical variant of Ginoo (“Lord”) is used. Bible translation consultant Kermit Titrud (SIL): “‘Yahweh’ is too close to Yahwa, their word for ‘Satan.’ We were afraid that in the pulpits readers might misread ‘Yahweh’ and say ‘Yahwa.’ So we went with the tradition found in most English translations. Ginoo for ‘Yahweh’ and Ginoo for ‘adonai.'”
In languages where capitalization is not a typographical option, other options are available and used, such as in Japanese, where the generic term shu 主 for “Lord” is bolded in some translations to offset its meaning (Source: Omanson, p. 17).
A graphical way of representation beyond typography was used by André Chouraqui in his French La Bible hebraique et le Nouveau Testament (publ. 1974-1977) for which he superimposed adonai and Elohim over (the French rendition) of the tetragrammaton:
(Source: Andy Warren-Rothlin in Noss / Houser, p. 618ff.)
Translations of the Name of God
A translation of YHWH with a rendering of the meaning of “Eternal” was done in English by James Moffatt (between 1926 and 1935) with Eternal, The Voice translation with Eternal One (2012), in French versions as L’ÉTERNEL by J. F. Ostervald in 1904 or l’Éternel by L. Segond (1910-1938) and Zadoc Kahn (1964), or in Obolo as Okumugwem: “The Ever-Living” (source: Enene Enene).
Similarly and at the same time expanding its meaning, the Nzima translation of 1998 translated YHWH as Ɛdεnkεma, the “Eternal All-Powerful Creator and Sustainer” (Source: David Ekem, The Bible Translator 2005, p. 72).
Nepali, Bengali, and Hindi are all derived from Sanskrit and have (eventually) all found similar translations of YHWH. In Bengali “God” is translated as Ishwar (ঈশ্বর) (widely used in Hindu scriptures, where it’s used as a title, usually associated with “Siva”) and YHWH as Shodaphrobhu (সদাপ্রভু) — “Eternal Lord”; in NepaliYHWH is translated as Paramaprabhu (परमप्रभु)– “Supreme Lord”; and Hindi translates YHWH as Phrabu (प्रभु) — “Lord.”. In earlier translations all three languages used transliterations of Jehovah or Yahweh. (Source: B. Rai in The Bible Translator 1992, p. 443ff. and Barrick, p. 124).
The influential German Jewish translation of Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig (between 1925 and 1961) translates YHWH in Exodus 3:15 with “Ich bin da” (“I exist” or “I am”) and in all other instances with pronouns in small caps (Er, Ihm, Ihn, Ich — “he,” “him,” “his,” “I”).
The translation of YHWH into Weri with Aniak Tupup or “man of the holy house” intends “to maintain the Jewish practice of not uttering God’s name [with] the use of another vernacular phrase that signals that a ‘taboo’ name is being referred [which] could give a cue that would be recognisable in written or oral communication” (Source: P. King, The Bible Translator 2014, p. 195ff.).
The Uzbek Bible uses the term Ega (Эга) — “master, owner” in various forms (including Egam / Эгам for “my Owner” or Egamiz / Эгамиз for “our Owner.” (Click or tap to see an explanation):
Jim Zvara (2019, p. 6) explains: “The Uzbek term ega means owner or master (‘master,’ in the historical context of an owner-slave relationship). By extension, it is natural for an Uzbek to speak to or refer to God as Egam (‘my owner’/’master’). In the Uzbek context to be God’s slave is a positive way of understanding one’s relation to him. It suggests that one is in a dependent and obedient relationship to God. The team felt that this relational connection and what it implies fits well with the concept of YHWH as the God who is in a covenant relationship with his people. In the Uzbek context, the choice of Ega was deemed to be the best balance of natural language with meaningful translation.”
The Seediq Bible translation team chose Utux Tmninun (“the weaving god”) for their translation of YHWH. (Click or tap to see a retelling of the process of how that decision was reached):
“(…) The Seediq team requested that we spend time with them on key terms. They had compiled a list of key terms that they wanted input on, and we went through the list item by item. The most important item was how to deal with the divine name. They had tentatively translated it as Yehoba, transliterated from Jehovah, but they were also aware that this transliteration may not be accurate, and they were keen to explore other options.
“We explored various alternatives. Were they interested in following the ancient Jewish practice of substituting ‘Lord’ for the divine name? Would capitalising the letters help? Would they be bold enough to use ‘Yahweh,’ following the opinion of most Old Testament scholars who regard this as the correct pronunciation? Was it feasible to adopt a mixed approach in dealing with the divine name (…)? Each option had its advantages as well as disadvantages.
“In the midst of the discussion, a participant said, ‘Our ancestors, as well as we today, always call God by the term Utux Tmninun. I suggest we use this term.’ The term Utux Tmninun in the Seediq culture means ‘the weaving God.’ In their culture, God is the weaver, the one who weaves life together. All the participants were excited about this proposal. They tried this term with all the composite terms that involve the divine name, and it seemed to work well, so they decided tentatively to adopt this term. After the workshop, the participants went back to their villages and sought feedback from the wider community, and eventually they confirmed the use of the term Utux Tmninun as the rendering of the divine name.
Translating the divine name as Utux Tmninun, the weaving God, is a creative solution. This term is viewed very positively in the Seediq community. It also correlates well with the concept of God as the creator (Gen. 1-2) and as the weaver who formed our inward parts and knit us together in our mothers’ wombs (Ps. 139:13). It also has the advantage of portraying God beyond the traditional masculine form.
“Some may argue that since names are usually transliterated, we should do the same with YHWH, most likely pronounced ‘Yahweh.’ Unfortunately, due to the influence of Chinese Union Version for almost one hundred years now, Chinese Christians only know God as Yehehua. Attempts to change the term Yehehua to Yahweh have not been successful. This is a reality that the Seediq Christians have to live with.
“Others may argue on theological grounds that YHWH is not only the creator, but also the God of the covenant, hence any attempt to substitute another term for YHWH will not do justice to the Hebrew text. In the case of the Seediq translation, there are significant similarities between Utux Tmninun and YHWH, though the terms are not identical. This is a reality translators often have to struggle with. Exact correspondence is hard to come by. Often it is a matter of approximation, give and take. Besides theological considerations, one has to deal with the constraints of past traditions (‘Jehovah,’ in this instance), the biblical cultures and one’s own culture, and audience acceptance. Hopefully, by using Utux Tmninun for YHWH, the Seediq term will be transformed and take on the aspect of the covenant God as well.” (Source: Yu Suee Yan, The Bible Translator 2015, p. 316ff.)
For a major new translation into Chichewa, we have a detailed retelling of why the term Chauta (“Great-One-of-the-Bow”) was chosen for YHWH (Click or tap to see the detailed story):
“The name Chauta, literally ‘Great-One-of-the-Bow’, i.e. [is] either the rainbow (descriptively termed uta-wa-Leza ‘the-bow-of-God’) or, less likely, the hunter’s bow. And yet Chauta was also distinct from Mulungu [“God”] in that it has reference to the specific tribal deity of the Chewa people – the God who ‘owns’ yet also ‘belongs to’ them — and hence it carries additional positive emotive overtones. Although research indicated that in an ancient traditional setting, Chauta too was probably associated with the indigenous ancestral rain cult, in the Christian era it has been progressively generalized to encompass virtually all religious contexts in which God may be either appealed to, proclaimed, or praised. After prolonged deliberation, therefore, the translation committee determined Chauta to be the closest functional equivalent to YHWH of the Hebrew Scriptures. The choice of this name is not without its difficulties, however, and these were carefully considered by the Chewa committee. For example, the use of a more specific local term, as opposed to the generic Mulungu, carries a greater likelihood of bringing along with it certain senses, connotations, and situations that were (and no doubt still are) associated with the indigenous, pre-Christian system of worship. If these happened to remain strong in any contemporary sacred setting, then of course the dangers connected with conceptual syncretism might well arise. In the case of Chauta, however, it appeared that the process of positive Christian contextualization had already reached an advanced stage, that is, judging from the widespread use of this name in all aspects of religious life and practice. A more scholarly argument against Chauta takes the position that there is too great a female component associated with this term because it was traditionally applied (by figurative metonymy) to refer also to the ritual ‘wife of God’, i.e. the chief officiant at a traditional rain shrine and worship sanctuary. However, this usage seems to be quite remote, and most people questioned do not even recognize the connection anymore. Besides, in a matrilineal society such as the Chewa, it does not seem inappropriate to have this aspect of meaning lying in the background, particularly since it is not completely foreign to the notion of God in the Bible (cf. Ps. 36:7; 73:15; Isa. 49:14-15; Mt. 23:37). In terms of ‘connotative fit’ or emotive identification and appeal, there can be little doubt that the name Chauta is by far the closest natural equivalent to YHWH in the contemporary Chewa cultural and religious environment. This aspect of meaning was probably also utmost from the ancient Jewish perspective as well; in other words, “for them the associated meaning of this special name [YHWH], in terms of their history and culture, far outweighed any meaning it may have suggested because of its form or derivation”. To be sure, this ‘new’ divine name — that is, new as far as the Scriptures are concerned — may take some getting used to, especially in the formal setting of public worship. But this is not a foreign god whom we are talking about; rather, he is certainly by now regarded as the national deity of the Chewa nation. Chauta is the great God who for one reason or another ‘did not make himself known to them by his holy name, the LORD’ (Exod. 6:3), that is, in the prior translations of his Word into Chewa. He is, however, and always has been “a God who saves … the LORD (Chauta), our Lord, who rescues us from death” (Ps. 68:20, Good News Bible)!” (Source: Wendland 1998, 120f.; see also The Bible Translator 1992, 430ff.)
Transliteration of YHWH
A 12th century reading of the Masoretic vowel points around יהוה (יְהֹוָה) was interpreted to be pronounced as Yehowah from which Iehouah and Jehovah were derived. This was reflected in the English versions of Tyndale (publ. 1530) and the Geneva Bible (significantly based on Tyndale and publ. in 1560) and again the King James Version (Authorized Version) (publ. 1611) which all used Iehouah or Jehovah in 7 different verses in the Old Testament. The translators and editors of the American Standard Version (publ. 1901), a review of the King James Version used Jehovah for all appearances of the tetragrammaton something that the Spanish Reina-Valera (publ. 1602) had already done as well.
In English versions, Yahweh as a transliteration of the tetragrammaton is used by the Catholic Jerusalem Bible (publ. 1966), the Protestant Holman Christian Standard Bible (publ. 2004) and the Legacy Standard Bible (to be publ. 2021).
Mandinka for instance uses Yawe for YHWH. “The use of Yawe for YHWH is good and may be a trendsetter in this part of Africa.” (Source: Rob Koops)
In a group of related languages in another part of Africa an interesting development from a transliteration to a indigenous translation can be shown: In the Nandi Bible (1938) Jehovah was used as a translation for YHWH. Kamuktaindet (“The Powerful One”) was used as a translation for Elohim (“God”). This was taken over by a translation into the macrolanguage Kalenjin (1969) (intended to include the closely related Keiyo, Kipsigis, Markweeta, Nandi, Okiek, Sabaot, Terik, and Tugen). Sabaot, Markweeta, Tugen and Okiek later wanted there own translations. Both Sabaot and Markweeta use the indigenous word for “Creator” (Yēyiin in Sabaot and Iriin in Markweeta) to translate Elohim and YHWH of the Old Testament and Theos of the New Testament. The Kalenjin Bible has recently been revised to cater to Keiyo, Kipsigis, Nandi and Terik, and this revision has completely dropped Jehovah in favour of Kamuktaindet. (Source: Iver Larsen)
Early translations into Gilbertese faced a problem when transliterating “Jehovah” (a form of “Jehovah” was first used in Spanish Bible translations in 1569 and 1602): “There are only thirteen letters in the Kiribati alphabet: A, E, I, O, U, M, N, NG, B, K, R, T (pronounced [s] when followed by ‘i’), W For instance, ‘Jehovah’ is rendered Iehova, but Kiribati speakers can only pronounce it as ‘Iowa,’ since the phonemes [h] and [v] do not exist in Kiribati.” (source: Joseph Hong, The Bible Translator 1994, p. 329.)
In a recent edition of a Thai translation (Thai Standard Version, publ. 2011) a combination of translation and transliteration is used: phra’ ya(h)we (h) (พระยาห์เวห์) (“Divine Yawe”). (Source: Stephen Pattemore)
In Nyarafolo Senoufo the transliteration is Yewe which also means “the being one” or “he that is.” David DeGraaf (in: Notes on Translation 3/1999, p. 34ff.) explains: “Since it is widely recognized that the vowels of the name are uncertain, another possible transliteration is Yewe. This proposal is in accord with the Nyarafolo rules of vowel harmony and is thus open to being understood as a normal nominalization in the language. Second, Yewe is exactly the word that would be formed by nominalizing the verb ‘to be’ in the class that includes sentient beings. Thus, Yewe can be understood as ‘the being one’ or ‘he that is’. This solution accords well with YHWH’s self-revelation to Moses in Exodus 3:14, ‘I am who I am.'”
In the Chinese (Protestant) tradition the transliteration of “Jehovah” is historically deeply rooted, even though there are also some historical burdens (Click or tap to see more details):
“YHWH” is rendered in the Chinese Union Version—the most widely used Bible translation in China—as well as most other Chinese Bible translations as yehehua 耶和華. According to Chinese naming conventions, yehehua could be interpreted as Ye Hehua, in which Ye would be the family name and Hehua — “harmonic and radiant” — the given name. In the same manner, Ye would be the family name of Jesus (transliterated as yesu 耶穌) and Su would be the given name. Because in China the children inherit the family name from the father, the sonship of Jesus to God the Father, yehehua, 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, see also Jesus).
“Ye 耶, an interrogative particle in classical Chinese, is part of the same phonetic series as ye 爺, which gives it a certain exchangeability. Ye 爺 carries the meaning “father” or is used as an honorable form of address. The choice of the first Bible translators to use the transliteration yehehua 爺火華 for Jehovah had a remarkable and sobering influence on the history of the 19th century in China by possibly helping to shape the fatal Taiping ideology, a rebellion that ended up costing an estimated 20 million lives.
“The founder of the Taiping rebellion, Hong Xiuquan, was given a tract (…) [that he used to] interpret a nervous breakdown he had had in 1837 as his “call” to be the “Messiah.” This “vision” that Hong experienced is likely to have had a direct correlation with the name of “God” in that tract. Shen yehuohua 神爺火華 (directly translated: ‘God (or: spirit); old man (or: father); fire; bright)” was the term that was used in that tract for ‘God Jehovah,’ but this was not indicated as a (in its second part) transliteration of a proper name. In his vision, Hong saw ‘a man venerable in years (corresponding with ye), with golden (corresponding with huo and hua) beard and dressed in a black robe,’ an image likely to have been inspired by a direct translation from that name for ‘God,’ especially as it appeared at the beginning of the tract. That this term was considered to be a term of some relevance to the Taiping ideology is demonstrated by the fact that both yehuohua 爺火華 as the personal name of God and ye 爺 as “God the Father” later appeared in Taiping writings.” (Source: Zetzsche in Malek 2002, p. 141ff.)
For further reading on the translation of YHWH, see Rosin 1956, p. 89-125 and Andy Warren-Rothlin in Noss / Houser, p. 618ff.
Like many languages (but unlike Greek or Hebrew or English), Tuvan uses a formal vs. informal 2nd person pronoun (a familiar vs. a respectful “you”). Unlike other languages that have this feature, however, the translators of the Tuvan Bible have attempted to be very consistent in using the different forms of address in every case a 2nd person pronoun has to be used in the translation of the biblical text.
As Voinov shows in Pronominal Theology in Translating the Gospels (in: The Bible Translator 2002, p. 210ff.), the choice to use either of the pronouns many times involved theo-logical judgment. While the formal pronoun can signal personal distance or a social/power distance between the speaker and addressee, the informal pronoun can indicate familiarity or social/power equality between speaker and addressee.
In these verses, in which humans address God, the informal, familiar pronoun is used that communicates closeness.
Voinov notes that “in the Tuvan Bible, God is only addressed with the informal pronoun. No exceptions. An interesting thing about this is that I’ve heard new Tuvan believers praying with the formal form to God until they are corrected by other Christians who tell them that God is close to us so we should address him with the informal pronoun. As a result, the informal pronoun is the only one that is used in praying to God among the Tuvan church.”
In Dutch translations, however, God is always addressed with the formal pronoun.