The Greek and Hebrew that is translated as “tribe” in English when referring to the “12 tribes of Israel” is translated in some East African languages, including Taita and Pökoot use the equivalent of “clan” instead.

Aloo Mojola explains (in The Bible Translator 1989, p. 208ff.) (click or tap here to see the rest of this insight):

“A number of Bible translation teams in East Africa have been baffled and intrigued by the use of the term ‘tribe’ in the English translations of the Bible. The usage employed in these translations does not reflect any of the popular meanings associated with the term ‘tribe’ in present-day English. Neither does it reflect popular conceptions of the meaning of this term in East Africa or in other parts of Africa and elsewhere. This raises the question: is the term tribe the best translation of the Hebrew terms shebeth and matteh or the Greek term phyle? What is a tribe anyway? Are the twelve tribes of Israel tribes in the sense this term is currently understood? How can this term be translated in East African languages?

“It is easy to see that there is no consistent definition of the term tribe which applies exclusively and consistently to the communities to which it is currently applied. Why, for example, are the Somali or the Baganda called a tribe, but not the Irish or the Italians? Why do the Yoruba or Hausa qualify, but not the Portuguese or the Russians? Why the Bakongo and the Oromo, but not the Germans or the Scots? Why the Eritreans, but not the French or Dutch-speaking Belgians? Why the Zulu or the Xhosa, but not the South African Boers (Afrikaners) or the South African English? The reason for the current prejudices, it would seem, has nothing to do with language, physical type, common territory, common cultural values, type of political and social organization or even population size. Ingrained prejudices and preconceived ideas about so-called “primitive” peoples have everything to do with it.

“The term ‘tribe’ is used to refer to a universal and world-wide phenomenon of ethnic identification which may draw on any of the following bases: identification in terms of one’s first or dominant language of communication (linguistic), in terms of one’s place of origin (regional), in terms of one’s presumed racial, biological or genetic type (racial), or in terms of one’s ideological or political commitments (ideological), and so on. Communities may choose one or more of these bases as criteria for membership. Any of these may change over time. Moreover forms of ethnic identification are dynamic or in a state of flux, changing in response to new environments and circumstances. Essentially forms of ethnic association reflect a people’s struggle for survival through adaptation to changing times. This is inextricably intertwined with the production and distribution of vital resources, goods and services as well as the distribution of power, class and status in society.

“At the base of any ethnic group is the nuclear family which expands to include the extended family. The extended family consists of more than two families related vertically and horizontally: parents and their offspring, cousins, uncles, aunts, nephews, and others, extending to more than two generations. A lineage is usually a larger group than an extended family. It includes a number of such families who trace descent through the male or female line to a common ancestor. A clan may be equivalent to or larger than a lineage. Where it is larger than a lineage, it brings together several lineages which may or may not know the precise nature of their relationships, but which nevertheless claim descent from a common ancestor. A clan is best thought of as a kind of sub-ethnic unit whose members have some unifying symbol such as totem, label, or myth. In most cases the clan is used to determine correct marriage lines, but this is not universally so. Above the clan is the ethnic group, usually referred to inconsistently as the tribe. Members of an ethnic group share feelings of belonging to a common group. The basis of ethnic identity is not always derived from a common descent, real or fictional; it may draw on any of the bases mentioned above.

“The Israelites identified themselves as one people sharing a common descent, a common religious and cultural heritage, a common language and history. There is no doubt that they constitute what would nowadays be called an ethnic group, or by some people a tribe. The twelve subunits of the Israelite ethnic group or tribe, (Hebrew shebeth or matteh, or Greek phyle) are clearly equivalent to clans. In fact this is what seems to make sense to most African Bible translators in the light of their understanding of these terms and the biblical account. Referring to a shebeth as a tribe or an ethnic group and to Israel as a collection of twelve tribes creates unnecessary confusion. Translating each of the terms shebeth, matteh, and phyle as clan seems to solve this problem and to be consistent with current usage in African languages.”

redeem, redemption

The Greek and Hebrew terms that are translated as “redeem” or “redemption” in most English translations (see more on that below) are translated in Kissi as “buying back.” “Ownership of some object may be forfeited or lost, but the original owner may redeem his possession by buying it back. So God, who made us for Himself, permitted us to accept or reject Him. In order to reconcile rebellious mankind He demonstrated His redemptive love in the death of His Son on our behalf.

“The San Blas Kuna describe redemption in a more spiritual sense. They say that it consists of ‘recapturing the spirit.’ A sinful person is one in rebellion against God, and he must be recaptured by God or he will destroy himself. The need of the spirit is to be captured by God. The tragedy is that too many people find their greatest pleasure in secretly trying to elude God, as though they could find some place in the universe where He could not find them. They regard life as a purely private affair, and they object to the claims of God as presented by the church. They accuse the pastor of interfering with the privacy of their own iniquity. Such souls, if they are to be redeemed, must be ‘recaptured.'” (Source: Nida 1952, p. 138)

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In Ajië a term is used, “nawi,” that refers to the “custom of planting a small tree on land cursed either by the blood of battle or some calamity.” Clifford (1992, p. 83ff.) retells the story: “Maurice Leenhardt tells how he finally arrived at a term that would express ‘redemption.’ Previous missionaries had interpreted it as an exchange — an exchange of life, that of Jesus for ours. But in Melanesian thinking more strict equivalents were demanded in the exchanges structuring social life. It remained unclear to them how Jesus’ sacrifice could possibly redeem mankind. So unclear was it that even the natas [Melanesians pastors] gave up trying to explain a concept they did not understand very well themselves and simply employed the term “release.” So the matter stood, with the missionary driven to the use of cumbersome circumlocutions, until one day during a conversation on 1 Corinthians 1:30, [Melanesian pastor and Leenhardt’s co-worker] Boesoou Erijisi used a surprising expression: nawi. The term referred to the custom of planting a small tree on land cursed either by the blood of battle or some calamity. ‘Jesus was thus the one who has accomplished the sacrifice and has planted himself like a tree, as though to absorb all the misfortunes of men and to free the world from its taboos.’ Here at last was a concept that seemed to render the principle of ‘redemption’ and could reach deeply enough into living modes of thought. ‘The idea was a rich one, but how could I be sure I understood it right?’ The key test was in the reaction of students and natas to his provisional version. They were, he reports, overjoyed with the ‘deep’ translation.”

In Folopa, the translation team also found a deeply indigenous term. Neil Anderson (in Holzhausen 1991, p. 51) explains: “While I was explaining the meaning of the [concept] to the Folopa men, I could see their faces brighten. They said that this was a common thing among them: ‘If someone falls a tree and it tips to the wrong side, killing someone, the relatives of the injured party claim the life of the guilty party. But in order to save his life, his relatives make amends. Pigs, shells (which are still used as currency here) and other valuables are given to the relatives of the deceased as payment for the life of the guilty party. In this way he can live because others stand up for him.’ Full of joy, I began to utilize this thought to the difficult translation of the word ‘redemption.’ Mark 10:45 reads now, translated back from the Folopa: ‘Jesus came to make an atonement, by which he takes upon himself the punishment for the evil deeds of many. He came so that through his death many might be liberated.’ After working on this verse for half an hour, I read it to my friends. They became silent and moved their slightly bowed heads thoughtfully back and forth. Finally, one of them took the floor, ‘We give a lot to right a wrong. But we have never given a human being as a price of atonement. Jesus did a great work for us when he made restitution. Because he died, all of us now don’t have to bear the punishment we deserve. We are liberated.'”

In Samoan the translation is togiola which originally refers to a fine mat. John Bradshaw (in The Bible Translator 1967, p. 75ff.) explains: “The rite of submission applies in cases of grave sin which demands an extreme punishment: offenses such as murder, adultery or disrespectful behavior towards a chief. Submission is made in expectation of forgiveness. The rite is normally enacted at dawn. The prisoner and his family, or even his whole village bow down in silence before the house of the chief or other offended party. The prisoner heads the group and is covered with a fine mat, offered as his ransom. In other words, he submits himself completely to the authority of those whom he has offended. Many such submissions have been successfully offered and received. Those inside the house will come out, and bring into it those offering submission. The priestly orators speak sweetly and all join in a meal. The fine mat is accepted, while the prisoner is set free and forgiven. He no longer goes in fear of retribution for his sin. (…) If now we turn to the relation between the believer and the Redeemer, we notice at once that the word togiola, literally the price of one’s life, was the word used to denote the fine mat with which the sinner covered himself in the rite of Submission. The acceptance of the togiola set free the prisoner. It was inevitable that togiola should render lutron, ransom, as in Matt. 20: 28.”

The translation into English also is noteworthy:

“In Hebrew there are two terms, ga’al and padah, usually rendered ‘to redeem,’ which have likewise undergone significant changes in meaning with resulting obscurity and misunderstanding. Both terms are used in the Old Testament for a person being redeemed from slavery. In the case of padah, the primary emphasis is upon the redemption by means of payment, and in ga’al the redemption of an individual, usually by payment, is made by some relative or an individual of the same clan or society. These two words, however, are used in the Old Testament in circumstances in which there is no payment at all. For example, the redemption of Jews from Egypt is referred to by these two terms, but clearly there was no payment made to the Egyptians or to Pharaoh.

“In the New Testament a related problem occurs, for the words agorázō and exagorazó, meaning literally ‘to buy’ or ‘to buy back’ and ‘to buy out,’ were translated into Latin as redimo and into English normally as ‘redeem.’ The almost exclusive association of Latin redimo with payment became such a focal element of meaning that during the Middle Ages a theory developed that God had to pay the Devil in order to get believers out of hell and into heaven.

“As in the case of the Old Testament, New Testament contexts employing the Greek verb lutroó, literally ‘to redeem’ or ‘to ransom,’ do not refer primarily to payment but focus upon deliverance and being set free. But even today there is such a heavy tradition of the theological concept of payment that any attempt to translate lutroó as ‘to deliver’ or ‘to set free’ is misjudged by some as being heretical.” (Source: Nida 1984, p. 114f.)

See also redeemer and next-of-kin / kinsman-redeemer / close relative.

addressing God

Translators of different languages have found different ways with what kind of formality God is addressed. The first example is from a language where God is always addressed distinctly formal whereas the second is one where the opposite choice was made.

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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 theological 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 Gbaya, “a superior, whether father, uncle, or older brother, mother, aunt, or older sister, president, governor, or chief, is never addressed in the singular unless the speaker intends a deliberate insult. When addressing the superior face to face, the second person plural pronoun ɛ́nɛ́ or ‘you (pl.)’ is used, similar to the French usage of vous.

Accordingly, the translators of the current version of the Gbaya Bible chose to use the plural ɛ́nɛ́ to address God. There are a few exceptions. In Psalms 86:8, 97:9, and 138:1, God is addressed alongside other “gods,” and here the third person pronoun o is used to avoid confusion about who is being addressed. In several New Testament passages (Matthew 21:23, 26:68, 27:40, Mark 11:28, Luke 20:2, 23:37, as well as in Jesus’ interaction with Pilate and Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman at the well) the less courteous form for Jesus is used to indicate ignorance of his position or mocking (source Philip Noss).

In Dutch translations, however, God is always addressed with the formal pronoun.