Satan

The Greek that is typically transliterated in English as “Satan” is transliterated in Kipsigis as “Setani.” This is interesting because it is not only a transliteration that approximates the Greek sound but it is also an existing Kipsigis word with the meaning of “ugly” and “sneaking.” (Source: Earl Anderson in The Bible Translator 1950, p. 85ff. )

In Morelos Nahuatl it is translated as “envious one”. (Source: Viola Waterhouse in Notes on Translation August 1966, p. 86ff.)

dragon

For the Greek that is translated as “dragon” in English, the Bawm Chin translation uses a term referring to a mythical serpent (source: David Clark), Sranan Tongo uses the local bigi kaiman or “big Caiman” (source: Jabini 2015, p. 33) and Chinese translations typically use lóng 龙/龍 which brings it in conflict with Chinese culture where lóng 龙/龍 has a highly positive connotation.

Simon Wong explains:

“The translation process often involves finding the lexical equivalent in the receptor language for words or expressions in the source language. If finding the equivalent of concrete objects from ancient times is challenging, identifying the equivalent for mythical (or legendary) figures is nearly unimaginable. In the English-speaking world (or perhaps in most European contexts), what is represented by the English word ‘dragon’ is often portrayed as monsters to be tamed or overcome, but in Chinese culture, lóng 龙 (traditional script: 龍), the commonly accepted Chinese equivalent of ‘dragon’ always represents a cultural mascot of good fortune. It is the highest-ranking animal in the Chinese animal hierarchy; it is even surmised that the pronunciation represents the sound of thunder. Dragons were also identified with the emperors of China in the old days; ordinary people were not allowed to use any portrait of the dragon. It is only a relatively recent expression that the Chinese are called ‘people of the dragon’ and that its portrait is popularized. Many East Asian deities and demigods have dragons as their personal mounts or companions.

“The author of Revelation used the Greek δράκων (which is translated into English as ‘dragon’) to represent the mythical Satanic incarnation coming down from heaven. The most popular Protestant Chinese version (Chinese Union Version published in 1919) renders this Greek word δράκων as lóng 龙/龍. This rendering represents a long tradition that can be traced back to the earliest Protestant translations of the 1820s. Since then, almost all Protestant Chinese versions have followed this tradition of using lóng 龙/龍, a rendering that inevitably creates a cultural crash with Chinese culture. Many new converts are asked to demolish all vases or artefacts portraying this mythical figure, and some people are even asked to have their name changed if the character lóng 龙/龍 is found in their names. While modern Catholic Chinese translations also use the same rendering, the first Catholic Chinese version (unpublished) which included the Book of Revelation (1813, by the French Jesuit Loui Antoine de Poirot) used the term mǎng 蟒 (meaning ‘python’). The python’s fierce nature carries a negative connotation that is far more appropriate and indeed conveys the meaning of the Greek word far more adequately than lóng 龙/龍. In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible with the Pentateuch completed in mid-3rd century B.C.), it was said that, when Moses and Pharoah’s priests threw their staffs on the ground, the staffs became δράκων (Exod 7:9, 10, 12). This Greek word was used to translate the Hebrew word ‘tanin‎,’ unmistakenly understood to be ‘serpent.’ Some recent Chinese translations rightly render it as móshé 魔蛇 (‘evil serpent’). As a translation strategy, it could also render δράκων phonetically dùlāgēn 杜拉根 (see Rev 12:3 footnote in the Revised Chinese Union Version).

“The different translation strategies that Protestant and Catholics employ shows the greater Protestant emphasis on the conversion experience. By using lóng 龙/龍 for δράκων, Protestant translators emphasized the separation from the ‘old self’ (old lives), which in this case encompassed an element of Chinese culture that was often idolatrized. Catholic missionaries (especially the Jesuits), on the other hand, had a far more positive appreciation of Chinese culture that enabled them to see no such necessary point of demarcation from the recipient’s cultural context.”

Translation: Chinese

很多时候,翻译者需要为原语言中的词语或表达找出对等译词。寻找与古时实体事物对等的译词已经颇具挑战,要确定神话(或传说)中实体事物的对等词更是难上加难。在英语世界中,或者说在大多数欧洲语言中,与英文dragon类似的形象通常指有待驯服或战胜的悪兽。一般来说,这个英文词在中文里面的对等词是"龙"(拼音lóng),但是在中国文化中,龙是一个代表吉祥的形象。龙在中国文化中是最高等的动物;也有说法指"龙"这字的发音仿似雷声。在中国古代,皇帝都被称为"龙",一般人不能采用龙的肖象。中国人被称为"龙的传人"可能是比较晚期的民间说法,同时使用龙的肖象也普遍起来。东亚地区的许多神明和半神都以龙为坐骑或侍从。

《启示录》作者用希腊文δράκων一词来描述撒但成为肉身,从天上坠落下来(启12:3,4,7,9,13,16,17,13:2,4)。最重要的新教中文圣经译本《和合本》(1919年出版)将这个希腊文词语译作"龙"。事实上,这个译法由来已久,可以追溯到马礼逊(Robert Morrison)在1823年发行的译本,或者馬殊曼和拉瑟(Marshman-Lassar)在1822年完成的译本。几乎所有新教中文圣经译本都沿用了"龙"的译法,这不可避免地与中国文化产生了冲突。有保守的传道人会要求初归信的人丢掉所有以这个神秘形象为图案的花瓶或艺术品,如果他们的名字中有"龙"字,传道人甚至会要求他们改名。第一本包含《启示录》的天主教中文圣经译本由法国耶稣会会士賀清泰神父(Louis Antoine de Poirot)在1813年译成,他采用了"蟒"的译法(并非完整,亦未有出版),然而现代的天主教中文圣经译本仍译作"龙"。"蟒"的凶猛体现出原词带负面形象的涵义。这种译法确实比"龙"合适的多,更加全面地表达出希腊文的意思。《七十士译本》是《希伯来圣经》的希腊文译本,其中的摩西五经于主前三世纪中翻译完成;这个译本叙述摩西与埃及术士争斗的故事时,说他们的杖变成了δράκων(出7:9,10,12)。《七十士译本》用这个希腊文词语来翻译希伯来文tanin,而tanin毫无疑问是指"蛇"。近期有中文译本将希腊文δράκων译作"魔蛇",这是很好的翻译。另外,δράκων也可以音译为"杜拉根"。参《和合本修订版》关于《启示录》12:3的脚注。

基督新教非常强调人的归正经验,弃绝"老我"(旧的生命)是人重生的一个记号。马礼逊(或马殊曼)和后来的所有中文译本将δράκων译作"龙",可能反映这个观念,另外中国文化中的要素经常会被偶像化也是一个考虑。然而,天主教传教士(特别是耶稣会会士)对于中国文化的认识要正面得多,他们认为把"龙"与中国文化语境相隔离是毫无必要的。

Translator: Simon Wong

devil

The Greek that is translated in English as “devil” is sometimes translated with indigenous specific names, such as “the avaricious one” in Tetelcingo Nahuatl or “the malicious deity” in Toraja-Sa’dan. (Source: Reiling / Swellengrebel)

In Yoruba it is translated as èṣù. “Èṣù is thought of as bringing evil, but also as giving protection. The birth of a child may be attributed to him, as the names given to some babies show, Èṣùbiyi (Èṣù brought this forth), and Èṣùtoyin (Èṣù is worthy of praise).” (Source: John Hargreaves in The Bible Translator 1965, p. 39ff. )

In Muna, it is translated as Kafeompu’ando seetani: “Master of the evil-spirits” (source: René van den Berg) and in Mairasi as owe er epar nan: “headman of malevolent spirits” (source: Enggavoter 2004), in Huehuetla Tepehua as “chief of demons,” and in Ojitlán Chinantec as “head of the worldlings” (source for the last two: M. Larson / B. Moore in Notes on Translation February 1970, p. 1-125).

In Chinese móguǐ (魔鬼), literally “magical ghost,” is used. This is a term that was adopted from Buddhist sources into early Catholic writings and later also by Protestant translators. (Source: Zetzsche 1996, p. 32)

In Lak and Shughni it is translated with terms of feminine gender. Vitaly Voinov tells this story (click or tap here to see the rest of this insight):

“In the Lak language of Dagestan, the names ‘Iblis’ and ‘sheytan’ (referring to Satan and his minions, respectively) in this language were borrowed from the Arabic Islamic tradition, but they entered Lak as feminine nouns, not masculine nouns. This means that they grammatically function like nouns referring to females in Lak; in other words, Laks are likely to think of Iblis as a woman, not a man, because of the obligatory grammatical patterning of Lak noun classes. Thus, when the team explained (in Russian) what the Lak translation of Jesus’ wilderness temptation narrative at the beginning of Matthew 4 said, it sounded something like the following: ‘After this, the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by Iblis… .The temptress came to Jesus, and she said to Him…’

“Since this information (that the devil is a female spirit) is part of the very name used for Satan in Lak, nothing can really be done about this in the translation. The Lak translator did not think that the feminine gender of Iblis should cause any serious misunderstandings among readers, so we agreed to leave it in the translation. Prior to this, I had never heard about languages in which the devil is pictured as a woman, but recently I was told by a speaker of the Shughni language that in their language Sheytan is also feminine. This puts an interesting spin on things. The devil is of course a spirit, neither male nor female in a biologically-meaningful sense. But Bible translators are by nature very risk-aversive and, where possible, want to avoid any translation that might feed misleading information to readers. So what can a translator do about this? In many cases, such as the present one, one has to just accept the existing language structure and go on.”

complete verse (Revelation 12:9)

Following are a number of back-translations of Revelation 12:9:

  • Uma: “So, that big dragon, he was thrown out of heaven. His name is the Snake of Old, who is also named the King of Evil-ones and Seta [‘seta’ means ‘demon’ in Uma], who deceives people who live in the whole world. He was thrown out of heaven to earth with his companion angels.” (Source: Uma Back Translation)
  • Yakan: “The big dragon was thrown out of heaven. He is the one called the snake of old times. There is yet another name for him, hibilis or the leader of demons. He is the one who deceived all mankind. He was thrown onto the earth together with all his followers.” (Source: Yakan Back Translation)
  • Western Bukidnon Manobo: “Therefore the big snake which is a dragon was driven out of heaven. That snake is Satan, the demon who deceived all mankind. He and all of his angels were thrown down to the earth.” (Source: Western Bukidnon Manobo Back Translation)
  • Kankanaey: “So he and his angels were thrown to the earth. That large dragon, he is the same one who appeared as a snake long ago who is also named Satanas or the Devil. He is the one who has been deceiving people in this world.” (Source: Kankanaey Back Translation)
  • Tagbanwa: “Without anything further, that big dragon was thrown down. Well, as for that dragon, he was that one who disguised himself as a snake long ago and from then on, he has continued his deceiving of all people here under the heavens. One of his names is Accuser (implies the one accusing is also at fault but denying his part), and another is Satanas. He was thrown down here to the ground together with those angels who sided with him.” (Source: Tagbanwa Back Translation)
  • Tenango Otomi: “The terrible animal was thrown to earth and with him went all the angels he commanded. This one is the old snake who is named the devil and Satan. And he deceives the people who live all over the earth.” (Source: Tenango Otomi Back Translation)

angel

The Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic that is translated as “angel” in English versions is translated in many ways:

  • Pintupi-Luritja: ngaṉka ngurrara: “one who belongs in the sky” (source: Ken Hansen quoted in Steven 1984a, p. 116.)
  • Shipibo-Conibo: “word-carrier from heaven”
  • Tetela, Kpelle, Balinese, and Chinese: “heavenly messenger”
  • Shilluk: “spirit messenger”
  • Mashco Piro: “messenger of God”
  • Batak Toba: “envoy, messenger”
  • Navajo: “holy servant” (source for this and above: Bratcher / Nida 1961)
  • Central Mazahua: “God’s worker” (source: Ronald D. Olson in Notes on Translation January, 1968, p. 15ff.)
  • Saramaccan: basia u Masa Gaangadu köndë or “messenger from God’s country” (source: Jabini 2015, p. 86)
  • Mairasi: atatnyev nyaa or “sent-one” (source: Enggavoter 2004)
  • Shipibo-Conibo: “word bringer” (source: James Lauriault in The Bible Translator 1951, p. 32ff. )
  • Apali: “God’s one with talk from the head” (“basically God’s messenger since head refers to any leader’s talk”) (source: Martha Wade)
  • Michoacán Nahuatl: “clean helper of God” (source: B. Moore / G. Turner in Notes on Translation 1967, p. 1ff.)
  • Nyongar: Hdjin-djin-kwabba or “spirit good” (source: Warda-Kwabba Luke-Ang)
  • Iwaidja: “a man sent with a message” (Sam Freney explains the genesis of this term [in this article): “For example, in Darwin last year, as we were working on a new translation of Luke 2:6–12 in Iwaidja, a Northern Territory language, the translators had written ‘angel’ as ‘a man with eagle wings’. Even before getting to the question of whether this was an accurate term (or one that imported some other information in), the word for ‘eagle’ started getting discussed. One of the translators had her teenage granddaughter with her, and this word didn’t mean anything to her at all. She’d never heard of it, as it was an archaic term that younger people didn’t use anymore. They ended up changing the translation of ‘angel’ to something like ‘a man sent with a message’, which is both more accurate and clear.”)

See also angel (Acts 12:15).

heaven

Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic all have one term only that refers to what can be expressed in English as “sky” or “heaven(s)” (as a physical and spiritual entity). While there is a slight overlap between the meaning of the two English terms, “sky” (from Old Norse sky meaning “cloud”) typically refers to the physical entity, and “heaven” (from Old English heofon meaning “home of God”) typically refers to the spiritual entity. While this enriches the English lexicon, it also forces English Bible translators to make decisions that can be found only in the context in the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic texts. Most versions tend to use “heaven(s)” even if the meaning is likely “sky,” but the Contemporary English Version (NT: 1991, OT: 1995, DC: 1999) is an English translation that attempted to be more specific in the separation of the two meanings and was used as the basis for the links to verses used for this and this story (“sky”).

Norm Mundhenk (in The Bible Translator 2006, pp. 92-95) describes the difficulty that English translations face (click here to see more):

“A number of years ago an old lady asked me a question. What did Jesus mean when he said, ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away’? I do not remember what answer I gave, but I was surprised at how concerned she seemed to be about the verse. It was only later, after I had left her, that I suddenly realized what it was that she was so concerned about. She knew that death could not be far away, and all her life she had looked forward to being with God in heaven. But this verse said that ‘heaven will pass away’! What did that mean for her hopes? In fact, of course, in this verse Jesus was talking about the skies or the heavens, not about Heaven as the place of God’s presence. If I had realized the problem in time, I could easily have set the lady’s mind at rest on this question that was troubling her so much. However, I suspect that she is not the only person to be misled by the wording of this verse. Therefore, it is very surprising to find that even today many English versions (including the New International Version, New Revised Standard Version, Revised English Bible, Good News Translation) still say ‘heaven and earth’ in verses like Matt 24:35 and its parallels (Mark 13:31 and Luke 21:33). The Contemporary English Version (CEV) and Phillips’ translation seem to be aware of the problem, and in Mark 13:31 both of these have ‘earth and sky’ instead of ‘heaven and earth.’ But in some other passages (such as Matt 5:18) the traditional wording is still found in both of those translations. The New Century Version (NCV) does have ‘earth and sky’ more consistently, and the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB) has ‘sky and earth’ in these passages. (Although ‘sky and earth’ is closer to the Greek, it seems more natural in English to say ‘earth and sky’; but either way, at least the meaning is correct.)

“Louw and Nida’s Lexical Semantics of the Greek New Testament (publ. 1992) suggests that the Greek expression being translated here, ho ouranos kai he ge is ‘a more or less fixed phrase equivalent to a single lexical unit’ and that it means everything that God created, that is, the universe. They then quote Mark 13:31 as an example, using ‘heaven and earth’ in their translation of it. However, they go on to say that there ‘may be certain complications involved in rendering ho ouranos kai he ge as ‘heaven and earth,’ since ‘heaven’ might be interpreted in some languages as referring only to the dwelling place of God himself. The referents in this passage are ‘the sky and the earth,’ in other words, all of physical existence, but not the dwelling place of God, for the latter would not be included in what is destined to pass away.’ In my opinion, English itself is one of the languages where the word ‘heaven’ will be interpreted as referring only to the dwelling place of God himself, and translations into English should not use ‘heaven’ in these passages. It is probably because these passages are so very familiar that translators do not realize the meaning they are giving their readers when they use the expression ‘heaven and earth’ here. In modern English we might talk about a rocket ‘soaring into the heavens,’ but we would certainly not describe it as ‘soaring into heaven,’ because ‘heaven’ is not another way of referring to the sky or to outer space.

“In fact, it is surely important in all languages to have some way of distinguishing the concept of ‘sky’ from the concept of ‘dwelling place of God.’ In these passages translators should never use a term meaning ‘the dwelling place of God.’ It may not be necessary to use a term meaning ‘sky’ either, if there is some other expression in the language which gives the correct meaning of ‘everything that has been created’ or ‘the universe.’ There are of course places in the New Testament where Heaven, as the place where God lives, is contrasted with the earth. In these passages, translators should be careful to give the correct meaning. A good example of this is in the Lord’s Prayer, in Matt 6:10: ‘Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’ Similarly, 1 Cor 15:47 says that ‘the first man [a reference to Adam] was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven.’ Passages like these are referring to Heaven, not to the sky. Other NT passages where heaven refers to God’s dwelling place, in contrast with earth, are Matt 5:34-35, 16:19, 18:18, Acts 7:49, James 5:12, and Rev 5:3.
“Sometimes in the New Testament, the word ‘heaven’ is used because of the Jewish reluctance to use the name of God. ‘Heaven’ in these cases is used in place of ‘God’ and refers to God himself. This is the case in the many references in Matthew to ‘the kingdom of heaven’ where other gospels have ‘the kingdom of God’ (e.g., compare Matt 4:17 with its parallels in Mark 1:15 and Luke 10:9). It is also most likely the case in references like Matt 16:1, Luke 20:4, 5, John 3:27, and even perhaps Col 1:5.

“There are some places, such as Matt 11:25, where God is called ‘Lord of heaven and earth.’ Since God is of course the Lord of Heaven as well as of the universe, it may not matter so much which interpretation is given in these passages (others are Luke 10:21 and Acts 17:24). Nevertheless, the intended meaning here is likely to be ‘the universe.’ This is because this expression in Greek, as Louw and Nida say, is a set expression referring to everything that has been created. Acts 17:24 in fact combines the idea of the creation of the universe with the idea of God as Master or Lord of the universe. (…)

“Old Testament background The use of ‘heaven and earth’ in the New Testament is very similar to what we find in the Old Testament, because it is largely based on the Old Testament.

“The Old Testament begins with the story of creation, which is presented as the creation of the heavens and the earth, with lights to shine in the heavens and give light to the earth. Birds are created to live in the heavens, animals to live on earth, and fish to live in the sea (Gen 1:1-2:4).

“As we can see from the way the creation story is told, it is meant to be understood as the creation of the universe. Although in English the regions above the earth have traditionally been called ‘the heavens’ in the story of creation, they cannot be called ‘Heaven,’ in the sense of the place where God dwells. In terms of modern English, it would probably be better to say ‘the sky and the earth’ or ‘the earth and the sky.’ The story of creation then becomes an important theme throughout the Old Testament. (…)

“In most passages, whether in the Old Testament or the New Testament, when ‘heaven and earth’ or ‘the heavens and the earth’ are mentioned, the meaning is the created universe. It is not a reference to Heaven, as the dwelling place of God. In English, translators have not been careful to keep this distinction clear, and this is probably true in many other languages as well. However, as we have seen, this can lead to real confusion for ordinary Bible readers. It is better if translators find ways to make the meaning clear in these passages. ‘Heaven’ should be mentioned only in passages which clearly mean the dwelling place of God. In other passages, an expression should be used which means only ‘sky.’ Or else, the whole expression ‘heaven and earth’ can be translated in a way to show that the whole universe is meant.”

Other languages that have a semantic distinction similar to English include (click here to see more):

  • Hungarian: ég — “sky”; menny — “heaven”
  • Tagalog: kalawakan — “sky”; langit/kalangitan — “heaven”
  • Swedish: sky — “sky”; Himmel — “heaven”
  • Loma: “up” — “sky”; “God’s place” — heaven”
  • Mossi: saase — “sky”; nyingeri — “the up above”(source for Loma and Mossi: Bratcher/Nida)
  • Roviana: mamaṉa — “sly”; maṉauru — “heaven” (an old word, meaning “empty, open space of the sky”) (source: Carl Gross)
  • Kayaw: mô̄la or “canopy-under”/mô̄khû̄la or “canopy-above-under” — “sky” (atmosphere where there is just air); mô̄khû̄ or “canopy-on/above” — “heaven” (invisible abode of God and angels)
  • Burmese: မိုး ကောင်း ကင်/moe kaungg kain — “sky”; ကောင်း ကင်/kaungg kain — “sky” or “heaven”; ကောင်း ကင်ဗုံ/kaungg kain bone — “heaven”
  • Mairasi: Sinyavi — an indigenous term that is used for both “sky” and heaven”; Surga — loanword from Sanskrit via Indonesian referring to “heaven” (source: Enggavoter 2004)
  • Nyongar: worl — “sky”; Boolanga-Yirakang Boodjer — “Country of God” (source: Warda-Kwabba Luke-Ang)

Many languages follow the original biblical languages in not making that distinction, such as (click here to see more):

In some languages, such as Wandala, the vocabulary for terms for either “heaven” or “sky” is much richer than just to include those two distinction. While zhegela, the term that is specifically used for the physical sky was only used in early translations of the New Testament for “sky,” other terms such as samaya (used for both “sky” and “heaven”), zlanna (specifically used for the perfect abode of God and the goal of the faithful, as in Matthew 8:11), kwárá (a locational term used to speak of a chief’s rule [lit., “voice”] such as Matthew 3:2), or sleksire (“chieftaincy,” “kingship,” or “royalty” [originally from slekse “chief”] and used where there are no locational overtones, such as in Matthew 16:28) are used. (Source: Mona Perrin in Notes on Translation 1/1999, p. 51ff.)

The English translation by Sarah Ruden (2021) uses “sky” throughout. Ruden explains (p. li): “The Greek word ouranos refers evenhandedly to the physical sky and the place—often pictured as a royal court — where supreme divinity resides. ‘Sky’ seems generally better, first of all in avoiding the wackier modern imagery that comes with the English ‘heaven.’ And even when a supernatural realm is meant, ‘sky’ will often do, because the divine realm was thought to be located there, in addition to the weather and the heavenly bodies, whereas ‘heaven’ to us is fundamentally a religious term, and the ancients did not tend to separate linguistic domains in this way. I have retained the plural ‘skies’ where I see it in the Greek, because it is a Hebraism familiar in English translations of scripture and (I hope) not too archaic or jarring.”