gospel

In choosing a word for the Greek that is typically translated as “gospel” in English, a number of languages construct a phrase meaning “good news,” “joyful report” or “happiness-bringing words.” In some instances such a phrase may be slightly expanded in order to convey the proper meaning, e.g. “new good word” (Tzotzil), or it may involve some special local usage, e.g. “good story” (Navajo), “joyful telling” (Tausug), “joyful message” (Toraja-Sa’dan) (source for this and all above: Bratcher / Nida), “message of God” (Shilluk) (source: Nida 1964, p. 237), cohuen ñoñets or “good news” in Yanesha’ (source: Martha Duff in Holzhausen 1991, p. 11), or “voice of good spirit” in San Blas Kuna (source: Claudio Iglesias [Mr. and Mrs.] in The Bible Translator 1951, p. 85ff.).

Vitaly Voinov tells this story about the translation into Rutul:

“In Rutul, it was only during the most recent consultant checking session that I realized that the Rutul word for Gospel – Incir (from Arabic إنجيل — Injil) — sounds and looks exactly like the word that means ‘fig’ in Rutul. This is a case of homonymy, in which two completely non-related words from differing historical sources have come to sound exactly alike. Most Rutul speakers know that incir means ‘fig’ because they grow this fruit in their yard or buy it at the market every week. However, because the religious sphere of discourse was heavily disparaged during the Soviet era, most people simply never encountered Incir with the meaning of ‘Gospel.’ This meaning of the word, which Rutuls of the pre-Soviet era knew from the Koran, simply fell into disuse and never had much reason for returning into contemporary Rutul since there is no Christian church established among the people. So if the translator continues to use the term Incir as the rendering for ‘Gospel,’ he runs the risk that most readers will, at best, read the word with a smile because they know that it also means ‘fig,’ and, at worst, will completely misunderstand the word. The seemingly ‘easy’ solution in this case is for the translator to use a Rutul neologism meaning ‘Joyful Message’ or ‘Good News,’ [see above] instead of Incir; but in fact it is not all that easy to make this change if the translator himself insists on using the historical word because at least some Rutuls still understand it as meaning ‘Gospel.’ This is a situation in which the translation team has to gradually grow into the understanding that a fully intelligible translation of Scripture is preferable to one that maintains old words at the cost of alienating much of the readership.”

eternity, forever, forever and ever

The Greek that is typically translated as “eternity,” “forever,” or “forever and ever” in English are translated in Mairasi as “mashed out infinitely.” Lloyd Peckham explains: “Bark cloth required pounding. It got longer and wider as it got pounded. Similarly, life gets pounded or mashed to lengthen it into infinity. Tubers also get mashed into the standard way of serving the staple food, like the fufu of Uganda, or like poi of Hawaii. It spreads out into infinity.” (Source: Lloyd Peckham)

In Lisu the phrase “forever and ever” is translated as ꓕꓲꓽ ꓞꓲꓼ ꓕꓲ ꓑ — thi tsi thi pa, verbatim translated as “one – lifetime – one – world.” This construction follows a traditional four-couplet construct in oral Lisu poetry that is usually in the form ABAC or ABCB. (Source: Arrington 2020, p. 57f.)

See also eternal life and salvation.

angel

The Greek that is translated as “angel” in English versions is translated as ngaṉka ngurrara (“one who belongs in the sky”) in Pintupi-Luritja. (Source: Ken Hansen quoted in Steven 1984a, p. 116.)

In Shipibo-Conibo it is translated as “word-carriers from heaven,” in Tetela, Kpelle, Balinese, and Chinese as “heavenly messengers,” in Shilluk “spirit messengers,” in Mashco Piro as “messengers of God,” in Batak Toba as “envoys, messengers,” in Navajo as “holy servants,” (source for this and above: Bratcher / Nida 1961), in Central Mazahua “one of God’s workers” (source: Ronald D. Olson in Notes on Translation January, 1968, p. 15ff.), in Tonga (Zambia) as “messenger from heaven” (source: Loewen 1980, p. 107), in Saramaccan as basia u Masa Gaangadu köndë or “messenger from God’s country” (source: Jabini 2015, p. 86), in Mairasi as atatnyev nyaa or “sent-one” (source: Enggavoter 2004), in Shipibo-Conibo as “word bringer” (source: James Lauriault in The Bible Translator 1951, p. 32ff.), and in Apali as “God’s one with talk from the head” (“basically God’s messenger since head refers to any leader’s talk”) (source: Martha Wade).

See also angel (Acts 12:15).

complete verse (Revelation 14:6)

Following are a number of back-translations of Revelation 14:6:

  • Uma: “And I also saw another angel flying in the air. That angel carried the Good News that does not change forever, he announced to people who live in the world, in every country, every tribe and every kind of language.” (Source: Uma Back Translation)
  • Yakan: “So-then, I saw another/a different angel flying very high up in the air. He carried the good news that does not change forever. He spread this to all people on earth from all kingdoms and tribes and languages and places.” (Source: Yakan Back Translation)
  • Western Bukidnon Manobo: “And then I saw a different angel flying very high. He was preaching at that time Good News which can never go out of existence forever. He was preaching it to all mankind, to people of every language, and kingdom, and tribe, and race.” (Source: Western Bukidnon Manobo Back Translation)
  • Kankanaey: “Then I saw another angel flying overhead. There was good news that remains-unchanged forever that he was going to tell to the collective-people in all nations and groups whose languages and skin were mutually-different.” (Source: Kankanaey Back Translation)
  • Tagbanwa: “I saw next an angel who was flying in the air. He was bringing the Good News concerning salvation/freedom which is changeless, to teach it here in the world to all nations, no matter who they were descended from or what language they spoke.” (Source: Tagbanwa Back Translation)
  • Tenango Otomi: “I saw another angel flying above. He spoke the good news which has strength forever. He spoke the word to the people who live all over the world, the people who speak all the different languages.” (Source: Tenango Otomi Back Translation)

sky

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 (“heaven”).

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:

  • 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)

Many languages follow the original biblical languages in not making that distinction, such as: