The Greek that is translated as “all the gentiles” or “all nations” in English is translated as “all people” in Tzeltal, as “all mankind” in Highland Totonac, or “the peoples who are everywhere” in Chicahuaxtla Triqui. (Source: Waterhouse / Parrott in Notes on Translation October 1967, p. 1ff.)
The Hebrew and Greek that are translated as “fear (of God)” (or: “honor,” “worship,” or “respect”) is translated as “to have respect/reverence for” (Southern Subanen, Western Highland Purepecha, Navajo, Javanese, Tboli), “to make great before oneself” (Ngäbere), “fear-devotion” (Kannada — currently used as a description of the life of piety), “those-with-whom he-is-holy” (those who fear God) (Western Apache) (source for this and above: Reiling / Swellengrebel), “revere God” Lalana Chinantec, “worship God” (Palantla Chinantec) (source for this and one above: Viola Waterhouse in Notes on Translation August 1966, p. 86ff.), “obey” (Chichewa) (source: Ernst Wendland), or with a term that communicates awe (rather than fear of an evil source) (Chol) (source: Robert Bascom).
The Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek that is translated in English as “holy” has many translations that often only cover one aspect of its complex meaning. (Note that “holy” as well as related words in other Germanic languages originally meant “whole, uninjured)”
In an article from 2017, Andrew Case (in: The Bible Translator 2017, p. 269ff.) describes some of the problems of the concept of “holiness” in English as well as in translation in other languages and asks for “a creative effort to turn the tide toward a more biblical understanding. He challenges the standard understanding of God’s holiness as “separation,” “transcendence,” or “infinite purity,” and suggests that in certain contexts it also carries the meaning of “totally devoted.” (Click here to read more of his article.)
“For a long time there has been considerable confusion regarding the meaning of the word ‘holy’. For the limited scope of this paper, we will focus on this confusion and its development within the English-speaking world, which has a widespread influence in other countries. The word for holy in English can be traced back at least to the eleventh century (although there is evidence of its use in Old Norse around A.D. 825). The Oxford English Dictionary describes the use of holy as applied to deities, stating: ‘the development of meaning has probably been: held in religious regard or veneration, kept reverently sacred from human profanation or defilement; (hence) of a character that evokes human veneration and reverence; (and thus, in Christian use) free from all contamination of sin and evil, morally and spiritually perfect and unsullied, possessing the infinite moral perfection which Christianity attributes to the Divine character.’
“Thus ‘infinite moral perfection’ persists as an understood meaning by many in the English-speaking world today. Others gloss this as ‘purity’ or ‘cleanness,’ and the effects of this interpretation can be seen in residual missionary influence in different parts of the world. These effects manifest themselves in people groups who have long-standing traditions of referring to the Holy Spirit as the ‘clean’ Spirit or the ‘pure’ Spirit. And subsequently, their idea of what it means for God to be holy remains limited by a concept of high sinlessness or perfection. After years of this mentality embedding itself into a culture’s fabric, it turns out to be extremely difficult to translate the Bible into their language using any terminology that might differ from the ingrained tradition handed down to them by missionaries who had a faulty understanding of the word holy. One of the purposes of this paper is to offer persuasive biblical evidence that translations and traditions like those mentioned may be limited in what they convey and may often be unhelpful.
“The persistence of this confusion around the word ‘holy’ in our present day stems from various factors, of which two will be mentioned. First, English translations of the Bible have insisted on retaining the term ‘holy’ even though few modern people intuitively understand the meaning of the term. This phenomenon is similar to the use of the word hosts in phrases like ‘LORD of hosts’ or ‘heavenly hosts,’ which most modern people do not know refers to armies. Within much of the English-speaking church there is an assumption that Christians understand the word ‘holy’, yet at the same time authors continue to write books to help explain the term. These varied explanations have contributed to a conceptual muddiness, which is related to the second primary factor: the promotion and proliferation of an etymological fallacy. This etymological fallacy’s roots can be traced back to the influence of W. W. Baudissin, who published The Concept of Holiness in the Old Testament in 1878. In this work he proposed that the Hebrew קדשׁ originally came from קד, which meant ‘to cut’ (Baudissin 1878). This led to the widespread notion that the primary or essential meaning of ‘holy’ is ‘apart, separate.’ This meaning of holy has been further engrafted into the culture and tradition (….) by influential authors and speakers like R. C. Sproul. His book The Holiness of God, which has sold almost 200,000 copies since it was first released in the 1980s, tends to be a staple volume on every pastor’s shelf, and became an immensely popular video series. In it he writes,
“‘The primary meaning of holy is ‘separate.’ It comes from an ancient word meaning ‘to cut,’ or ‘to separate.’ To translate this basic meaning into contemporary language would be to use the phrase ‘a cut apart.’ . . . God’s holiness is more than just separateness. His holiness is also transcendent. . . . When we speak of the transcendence of God, we are talking about that sense in which God is above and beyond us. Transcendence describes His supreme and absolute greatness. . . . Transcendence describes God in His consuming majesty, His exalted loftiness. It points to the infinite distance that separates Him from every creature.’ (Sproul 1985, 37)
“J. I. Packer also contributes to the spread of this idea in his book Rediscovering Holiness: ‘Holy in both biblical languages means separated and set apart for God, consecrated and made over to Him’ (Packer 2009, 18).
“Widely influential author A. W. Tozer also offers a definition:
“‘What does this word holiness really mean? . . . Holiness in the Bible means moral wholeness — a positive quality which actually includes kindness, mercy, purity, moral blamelessness and godliness. It is always to be thought of in a positive, white intensity of degree.’ (Tozer 1991, 34)
“Thus one can imagine the average Christian trying to juggle this hazy collection of abstractions: infinite moral purity and wholeness, kindness, mercy, blamelessness, godliness, transcendence, exalted loftiness, and separateness. Trying to apply such a vast definition to one’s reading of Scripture can be baffling. (. . .)
“In the levitical and priestly tradition of the Pentateuch, the term ‘holy’ is applied to people (priests, Nazirites, the congregation), places (especially the sanctuary), gifts and offerings, occasions (all the feasts), as well as to Yahweh. While we cannot assume that the meaning is totally different when applied to these different categories, neither should we assume that it is the same. This paper does not propose to address the meaning of holy when referring to things. The purpose is to explore how holy should be understood when applied mainly to persons. It is common for a word to carry a different meaning when applied to a human being than when applied to a thing. In English, for example, a person can be ‘tender’ in a way a steak cannot. Context is king. Also, it should be understood that the semantic range of a word is not permanently fixed and may shift considerably over time. It would be linguistically disingenuous to say that a word always means ‘such and such.’ As Nida explains, a word’s meaning is a ‘set of relations for which a verbal symbol is a sign’ (Nida 1975, 14). Words are not infinitely malleable, but they are also not completely static or inextricably bound by their root or history. Thus this paper acknowledges that ‘holy’ may connote other things such as ‘purity, separate, set apart,’ depending on the context. In summary, this paper should be considered a simple beginning to a discussion that may help stir up others to develop the idea further. (…)
“As mentioned at the beginning of this paper, translations that gloss ‘holy’ as ‘pure’ or ‘clean’ in reference to God or the Spirit are limited and potentially misleading. Therefore, what is the alternative way forward? Obviously, when considering the issue of perceived authenticity, many will not be able to change decades or even centuries of tradition within their communities. Once the translation of a name is established, especially a name so pervasive and primal as Holy Spirit, it is exceedingly difficult to reverse the decision. As in all cases with translation of key terms, best practice involves letting the community make an informed decision and test it amongst themselves.
“In all probability, communities who already use terms such as ‘Clean/Pure Spirit’ will opt to maintain them, even after gaining a better understanding as presented in this paper. In those cases it may be helpful to encourage them to include a clarifying discussion of what it means for God to be holy, in a glossary or a footnote.
“In cultures that have assimilated a loan word from English or some other language, there must be corrective teaching on the term, since it will be impossible to change. We are forever stuck with holy in the English-speaking world, but pastors, leaders, and writers can begin to turn the tide towards a better understanding of the term. Likewise, other cultures can begin to resurrect the biblical meaning through offering wise guidance to their congregations.
“In pioneering contexts where no church or Christian terminology has been established, translators have a unique opportunity to create translations that communicate more accurately what Scripture says about God’s holiness. The equivalent of a single abstract term ‘devoted’ or ‘dedicated’ may often be lacking in other languages, but there are always creative and compelling ways to communicate the concept. Even the translation ‘Faithful Spirit’ would be closer to the meaning than ‘pure.’ ‘Committed’ would be better than ‘separate’ or ‘blameless.’ Nevertheless, it should be clearly understood that finding a viable alternative for translation will be a difficult challenge in many languages.
“Although our devotion to God will involve separating ourselves from certain things and striving to be blameless, they are not equal concepts, just as loving one’s wife is not the same as avoiding pornography (even though it should include that). The one is positive and the other negative. What we want to communicate is the positive and fundamental aspect of holiness, wherein God pours himself out for the good of his people, and people offer their hands and hearts to God and his glory.
“A helpful tool for eliciting a proper translation would be to tell a story of a father (or a mother in some cultures) who was totally devoted to the well-being of his children, or of a husband who was totally devoted to the welfare of his wife. After choosing culturally appropriate examples of how the man went above and beyond the normal call of duty because of his devotion, ask, ‘What would you call this man? What was he like?’ This would open up a potentially valuable discussion that may unveil the right word or phrase.
“Ultimately God’s manifestation of his covenantal character in action towards humanity (his people in particular) and his people manifesting the covenantal character of God in their lives — that is, holiness — complements our understanding of the gospel. God poured out the life of his Son as a demonstration not only of his righteousness (Rom 3:25), but also to show his holiness. Jesus himself was obedient unto death for his Father’s chosen ones, and thus it is no surprise that he is referred to by the quaking demons as ‘the Holy One of God’ (Mark 1:24). And it is the Holy Spirit who manifests God’s holiness through the gospel, enabling people to understand it, bringing them to embrace it, and empowering them to live it.
In the 1960s Bratcher / Nida described the difficulty of translation the concept (in connection with “Holy Spirit”) like this:
“An almost equally difficult element in the phrase Holy Spirit is the unit meaning ‘holy,’ which in the Biblical languages involves a concept of separation (i.e. unto God or for His service). In general, however, it is difficult to employ a term meaning primarily ‘separated’, for this often leads to the idea of ‘cast out’. One must make sure that the concept of ‘separated’ implies not merely ‘separated from’ (hence, often culturally ostracized), but ‘separated to’ (in the idea of consecrated, dedicated, or ‘taboo’ — in its proper technical sense). Perhaps the most naive mistakes in rendering Holy have been to assume that this word can be translated as ‘white’ or ‘clean’, for we assume that “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” a belief which is quite foreign to most peoples in the world. Holy may, however, be rendered in some languages as ‘clear’, ‘pure’ (in Toraja-Sa’dan, Pamona and Javanese ‘clean’ or ‘pure’), ‘shining’, or ‘brilliant’ (with the connotation of awesomeness), concepts which are generally much more closely related to ‘holiness’ than is ‘whiteness’ or ‘cleanness’.”
Other translations include:
- Southern Bobo Madaré: “good”
- Huichol: “without sin”
- Vai: “uncontaminated” (source for this and two above: Bratcher / Nida)
- Balinese: “pure”
- Tae’ (1933 translation): “roundness of heart” (=”perfection”)
- Kituba: “being-sufficient” (=”complete, perfect, acceptable”)
- Tboli: “unreserved obedience” (“using a noun built on the expression ‘his breath/soul is conformed'”) (source for this and three above: Reiling / Swellengrebel)
- Folopa: “separate (from sin) / pure / distinct” (source: Anderson / Moore 2006, p. 202)
- Khmer: visoth — “unmixed, exceptional” (rather than Buddhist concept of purity) (source: Joseph Hong in The Bible Translator 1996, p. 233ff.)
- Warlpiri: “God-possessed” (in connection with “Holy Spirit) (source: Stephen Swartz in The Bible Translator 1985, p. 415ff.)
- Pass Valley Yali: “great and shiny” (source: Daud Soesilo)
- Lama: “belonging especially to God” or “set apart for God’s purposes” (source: Joshua Ham)
- Naro: tcom-tcomsam — “lucky” (“the concept of holiness is unknown”) (source: van Steenbergen)
- Aguaruna: “blameless” (Source: M. Larson / B. Moore in Notes on Translation 1970, p. 1ff.)
- Highland Totonac: “that which belongs to God” (source: Waterhouse / Parrott in Notes on Translation October 1967, p. 1ff.)
“Ngcwele is originally a noun from the Xhosa language, meaning ‘smoothness,’ ‘beauty,’ ’brightness.’ But it is also related to other words of the same stem, some used in Zulu, like cwala, ‘to polish.’ and gcwala, ‘to become full.’ The quality of being exalted and therefore being object for fear is well brought out in ngcwele, the side of brightness expressing the glory, and the fullness expressing the perfection which inspires reverential fear. The moral equality implied in ‘holy’ is then derived from these two meanings. What is full of glory and awe-inspiring also becomes moral perfection.” (Source: O. Sarndal in The Bible Translator 1955, p. 173ff.)
- Mandara: tamat (“In the Mandara culture, there is a place where only the traditional leaders of high standing can enter, and only during special feasts. This place is tamat, meaning set apart, sacred.” (source: Karen Weaver)
- Awabakal: yirri yirri — Lake (2018, p. 71) describes that choice: “As language historian Anne Keary has explained, yirri yirri meant ‘sacred, reverend, holy, not to be regarded but with awe’. It also had the more concrete meaning of an initiation site, ‘the place marked out for mystic rites, not to be profaned by common use’. As such, yirri yirri was not a generic term for ‘holy’: it invoked a specifically male spiritual domain.”
The use of the word tapu (from which the English word “taboo” derives) in translations of various languages in the South Pacific is noteworthy. The English term “taboo” was first used by Captain Cook in 1785. It does not only mean “forbidden, prohibited, untouchable,” but also “sacred, holy.” This concept is attested in almost all South Pacific islands (see this listing for the use of forms of tapu in many of the languages — for a modern-day definition of tapu, according to Māori usage, see here).
While some Bible translators working in South Pacific languages did not use tapu for the Hebrew Old Testament term qôdesh/קֹדֶשׁ (“holy” in English translation), many did, including in Tongan (tapuha), Gilbertese (tabu), Tuvalu (tapu), Rarotongan (tapu), and Māori (tapu). (See: Joseph Hong, The Bible Translator 1994, p. 329.)
In some of those languages, for instance in the Kiribati (Gilbertese) New Version Bible of 2016, other Old (and New) Testament terms that don’t contain a “Holy” marker in the source language, use tabu as a modifier for terms that are rendered in English as “Bread of Presence (shewbread),” “Sabbath,” or “Temple.”
Some South Pacific languages also use forms of tapu in translation of the “Holy” (Hagios/Ἅγιον) in “Holy Spirit.”
The Hebraist Franz Steiner gave a series of lectures on the topic of “taboo” and the Old Testament idea of “holy” or “sacred” that are now considered classic. Steiner died shortly after giving the lectures and they were published posthumously. While he never actually arrives at an actual definition of “taboo” in his lectures the following excerpts show something of the difficult relationship between “taboo” and “qôdesh/קֹדֶשׁ” (Click or tap here):
“The most common form of the word is tapu. That is the Maori, Tahitian, Marquesan, Rarotongan, Mangarevan and Paumotan pronunciation, which in some cases sounds more like tafu. The Hawaiian form is kapu [today: hoʻāno], the Tongan tabu. Forms like tambu and tampu are not unknown, particularly in the mixed linguistic area or in the Polynesian periphery. The word is used extensively outside Polynesia proper. Thus in Fiji tabu means unlawful, sacred, and superlatively good; in Malagassy, tabaka, profaned, polluted.
“Up to this point my report is straightforward, and I only wish I could continue, as so many have done, with the following words: ‘A brief glance at any compilation of the forms and meanings of this word in the various Polynesian languages shows that in all of them the word has two main meanings from which the others derive, and these meanings are: prohibited and sacred.’ The comparison of these data, however, suggests something rather different to me; namely, (i) that the same kind of people have compiled all these dictionaries, assessing the meaning of words in European terms, and (a) that, with few exceptions, there are no Polynesian words meaning approximately what the word ‘holy’ means in contemporary usage without concomitantly meaning ‘forbidden’. The distinction between prohibition and sacredness cannot be expressed in Polynesian terms. Modern European languages on the other hand lack a word with the Polynesian range of meaning; hence Europeans discovered that taboo means both prohibition and sacredness. Once this distinction has been discovered, it can be conveyed within the Polynesian cultural idiom by the citation of examples in which only one of the two European translations would be appropriate. I have no wish to labor this point, but I do want to stress a difficulty all too seldom realized. It is for this reason that it is so hard to accept uncritically the vocabulary-list classifications of meanings on which so much of the interpretation of taboo has been based. Tregear’s (Tregear Edward: ‘The Maoris of New Zealand,’ 1890) definition of the Maori tapu is an example: ‘Under restriction, prohibited. Used in two senses: (i) sacred, holy, hedged with religious sanctity; (2) to be defiled, as a common person who touches some chief or tapued property; entering a prohibited dwelling; handling a corpse or human bones . . .’ and so forth.
“This sort of classification almost suggests that there was in Polynesian life a time in which, or a group of objects and situations in relation to which, the notion of prohibition was employed while the society did not yet know, or related to a different group of objects and situations, the notion of sacredness. This is not so. Taboo is a single, not an ‘undifferentiated’, concept. The distinction between prohibition and sacredness is artificially introduced by us and has no bearing on the concept we are discussing. (…)
“Before we go on to the meaning of impurity in taboo, I should like to mention the exceptions I alluded to before: when, according to dictionary evidence, taboo means only ‘sacred’ and not ‘prohibited’. As translations of tapu Tregear gives for the island of Fotuna ‘sacred’, and for the island of Aniwan, ‘sacred, hallowed’. There they are, but I think one is entitled to be suspicious of such cases, since they are not accompanied by any examples of non-Christian, non-translatory use, for the word taboo was widely used by missionaries in the translation of the Bible: in the Lord’s Prayer for ‘hallowed’, ‘sacred’, and as an adjective for words like Sabbath. On the other hand, Tregear’s second point is plausible: that the notion of impurity is derived from that of prohibition (or, as one should rather say, prohibition and sacredness). A mere glance into Polynesian dictionaries reaffirms this statement, for while there is no use of a word — with, as I said, a few exceptions — which connotes sacredness without implying prohibition, there are many words meaning dirty, filthy, not nice, putrid, impure, defiled, etc. Thus it was possible to convey a notion of an object’s unfitness for consumption, or unsatisfactory surface or state of preservation, without any reference to sacredness and prohibition. Only some of the notions of impurity were connected with taboo notions. (p. 33-34) (…)
“Qodesh [קדש] is, for the man of the Pentateuch, unthinkable without manifestation. Furthermore, it is a relation, and what is related to God becomes separated from other things, and separation implies taboo behavior. According to taboo concepts, man must behave in a certain way once the relationship has been established, whether or not he is part of the qodesh relationship. For it does not follow from either the behavioral or the doctrinal element of qodesh that (1) in the establishment of the relationship the incipient part must be God, or that (2) man must be the other part.
“The full relationship, including the ritual behavior which it to some extent explains, is basically a triangular one, but two corners of the triangle may coincide. Thus the Pentateuch tells us of qodesh, holiness: (1) when God manifests Himself, then the spot is qodesh for it has been related to Him. Here the notion of contagion operates. (2) When some thing, animal, or human being has been dedicated to Him, then it is qodesh and hence taboo. Contagion, however, is in no way involved in this case. (3) The baruch relationship, the so-called blessing, also establishes holiness. God himself — this comes as a shock to most superficial Bible readers — is never called holy, qodesh, unless and in so far as He is related to something else. He is holy in His capacity as Lord of Hosts, though He is not here related to man. Very often the Bible says. The Holy One, blessed be He, or blessed be His name. The name is, in the framework of the doctrinal logic of the Pentateuch, always qodesh because it establishes a relationship: it has, so we primitives think, to be pronounced in order to exist.” (p. 85-86)
The Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek terms that are often translated as “worship” (also, “kneel down” or “bow down”) are likewise translated in other languages in certain categories, including those based on physical activity, those which incorporate some element of “speaking” or “declaring,” and those which specify some type of mental activity.
Following is a list of (back-) translations (click or tap for details):
- Javanese: “prostrate oneself before”
- Malay: “kneel and bow the head”
- Kaqchikel: “kneel before”
- Loma (Liberia): “drop oneself beneath God’s foot”
- Tepeuxila Cuicatec: “wag the tail before God” (using a verb which with an animal subject means “to wag the tail,” but with a human subject)
- Tzotzil: “join to”
- Kpelle: “raise up a blessing to God”
- Kekchí: “praise as your God”
- Cashibo-Cacataibo: “say one is important”
- San Blas Kuna: “think of God with the heart”
- Rincón Zapotec: “have one’s heart go out to God”
- Tabasco Chontal: “holy-remember” (source of this and all above: Bratcher / Nida)
- Q’anjob’al: “humble oneself before” (source: Newberry and Kittie Cox in The Bible Translator 1950, p. 91ff.)
- Alur: rwo: “complete submission, adoration, consecration” (source: F. G. Lasse in The Bible Translator 1956, p. 22ff.)
- Obolo: itọtọbọ ebum: “express reverence and devotion” (source: Enene Enene)
- Ngäbere: “cut oneself down before” (“This figure of speech comes from the picture of towering mahoganies in the forest which, under the woodman’s ax, quiver, waver, and then in solemn, thunderous crashing bury their lofty heads in the upstretched arms of the surrounding forest. This is the experience of every true worshiper who sees ‘the Lord, high and lifted up.’ Our own unworthiness brings us low. As the Valientes say, ‘we cut ourselves down before’ His presence. Our heads, which have been carried high in self-confidence, sink lower and lower in worship.)
- Tzeltal: “end oneself before God.” (“Only by coming to the end of oneself can one truly worship. The animist worships his deities in the hope of receiving corresponding benefits, and some pagans in Christendom think that church attendance is a guarantee of success in this life and good luck in the future. But God has never set a price on worship except the price that we must pay, namely, ‘coming to the end of ourselves.'”) (Source of this and the one above: Nida 1952, p. 163)
- Folopa: “die under God” (“an idiom that roughly back-translates “dying under God” which means lifting up his name and praising him and to acknowledge by everything one does and thanks that God is superior.”) (Source: Anderson / Moore, p. 202)
- Chokwe: kuivayila — “rub something on” (“When anyone goes into the presence of a king or other superior, according to native law and custom the inferior gets down on the ground, takes a little earth in the fingers of his right hand, rubs it on his own body, and then claps his hands in homage and the greeting of friendship. It is a token of veneration, of homage, of extreme gratitude for some favor received. It is also a recognition of kingship, lordship, and a prostrating of oneself in its presence. Yet it simply is the applicative form of ‘to rub something on oneself’, this form of the verb giving the value of ‘because of.’ Thus in God’s presence as king and Lord we metaphorically rub dirt on ourselves, thus acknowledging Him for what He really is and what He has done for us.”) (Source: D. B. Long in The Bible Translator 1952, p. 87ff.)
In Luang it is translated with different shades of meaning:
- For Mark 15:19 and Matt. 2:8 and 2:11: “uh’idma-rrama llia’ara” — “to kiss the fingernail and lick the heel”
- For Acts 16:14: ra’uli-rawedi — “to praise-talk about”
- For Acts 14:15, 15:20, 17:16, 17:25: hoi-tani — “serve right hand – serve left”
- For Acts 13:16 and 13:26: una-umta’ata — “respect-fear”
- For 2 Thess. 2:4: kola tieru awur nehla — “hold waist – hug neck”
Source: Kathy Taber in Notes on Translation 1/1999, p. 9-16.
Following are a number of back-translations of Revelation 15:4:
- Uma: “Who does not submit to you (sing.) Lord! Who does not admit/confess the bigness of your (sing.) life [i.e.,your glory]! Because only you (sing.) are holy. All people definitely must come to worship you (sing.), Because they know that your (sing.) decisions inall things/cases are straight/just.'” (Source: Uma Back Translation)
- Yakan: “Who does not fear you, God? Who does not honor you? You are the only holy one. All tribes will gather praising you because your straight/righteous deeds are clear to all people.'” (Source: Yakan Back Translation)
- Western Bukidnon Manobo: “You are respected by all people, and they honor Your name, Lord, for You alone are the holy God. All people of every kingdom come to You, and they worship You because Your righteous works are well known.'” (Source: Western Bukidnon Manobo Back Translation)
- Kankanaey: “There is absolutely no one who doesn’t acknowledge you (sing.) as Lord. There is no one who doesn’t praise your (sing.) name. Because you (sing.) alone are totally holy. People from all towns/countries will gather before you (sing.) in order to worship/praise you (sing.), because they have seen all the righteous-things that you (sing.) have done.'” (Source: Kankanaey Back Translation)
- Tagbanwa: “Who wouldn’t fear you, God? Who would not testify to your praiseworthiness/glory? For you alone are far from sin. Really as for all the nations, they will be assembled and will worship you. Because all can see the righteous things you determined.'” (Source: Tagbanwa Back Translation)
- Tenango Otomi: “Who can arise to say that he will not reverence you, Lord? Who can arise who can say that he will not praise you? Because you only do what all is good. Now all the people all over the world will come to worship you. For the people have seen what you do, all is right in what you do,’ they said.” (Source: Tenango Otomi Back Translation)
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 [מָרֵא]) is also used to refer to God but more often for concepts like “master,” “owner,” etc. In English Bible translations all of those ayanre 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).
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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)
Law (2013, p. 97) writes about how the Ancient Greek Septuagint‘s translation of the Hebrew adonai was used by the New Testament writers as a bridge between the Old and New Testaments: “Another case is the use of kurios referring to Jesus. For Yahweh (in English Bibles: ‘the Lord‘), the Septuagint uses kurios. Although the term kurios usually has to do with one’s authority over others, when the New Testament authors use this word from the Septuagint to refer to Jesus, they are making an extraordinary claim: Jesus of Nazareth is to be identified with Yahweh.”
See also Father / Lord.
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.
Click or tap here to see the rest of this insight
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.