cardinal directions

The cardinal directions “east” and “west” are easy to translate into Maan here since the language uses “where the sun comes up” and “where the sun goes down.” For “north” the translator had “facing toward the sun rising to the left,” and for “south” she had “facing toward the sun rising to the right.” So the listener had to think hard before knowing what direction was in view when translating “to the north and south, to the east and west.” So, in case all four directions are mentioned, it was shortened by saying simply “all directions.” (Source: Don Slager) Likewise, Yakan has “from the four corners of the earth” (source: Yakan back-translation) or Western Bukidnon Manobo “from the four directions here on the earth” (source: Western Bukidnon Manobo back-translation).

Kankanaey is “from the coming-out and the going-away of the sun and the north and the south” (source: Kankanaey back-translation), Northern Emberá “from where the sun comes up, from where it falls, from the looking [left] hand, from the real [right] hand” (source: Charles Mortensen), Amele “from the direction of the sun going up, from the direction of the sun going down, from the north and from the south” (source: John Roberts), Ejamat “look up to see the side where the sun comes from, and the side where it sets, and look on your right side, and on your left” (source: David Frank in this blog post).

In Lamba, only umutulesuŵa, “where the sun rises” and imbonsi, “where the sun sets” were available as cardinal directions that were not tied to the local area of language speakers (“north” is kumausi — “to the Aushi country” — and “south” kumalenje — “to the Lenje country”). So “north” and “south” were introduced as loanwords, nofu and saufu respectively. The whole phrase is kunofu nakusaufu nakumutulesuŵa nakumbonsi. (Source C. M. Doke in The Bible Translator 1958, p. 57ff.)

“West” is translated in Tzeltal as “where the sun pours-out” and in Kele as “down-river” (source: Reiling / Swellengrebel).

In Morelos Nahuatl, “north” is translated as “from above” and “south” as “from below.” (Source: Viola Waterhouse in Notes on Translation August 1966, p. 86ff.)

The Hebrew text that gives instructions where to place items in the tabernacle with the help of cardinal directions (north and south) had to be approached in the Bambam translation specific to spacial concepts of that culture.

Phil Campbell explains: “There are no words in Bambam for north and south. In Exodus 26:35, God instructs that the table is to be placed on the north side and the lamp on the south side inside the tabernacle. The team wants to use right and left to tell where the lamp and table are located. In many languages we would say that the table is on the right and the lampstand is on the left based on the view of someone entering the tabernacle. However, that is not how Bambam people view it. They view the placement of things and rooms in a building according to the orientation of someone standing inside the building facing the front of the building. So that means the table is on the left side and the lampstand is on the right side.”

See also cardinal directions / left and right.

desert, wilderness

The Greek that is translated as “desert” or “wilderness” in English is translated in a number of ways:

Note that in Luke 15:4, usually a term is used that denotes pastoral land, such as “eating/grazing-place” in Tagbanwa (source: Tagbanwa Back Translation).

See also wilderness and desolate wilderness.

pronoun for "God"

God transcends gender, but most languages are limited to grammatical gender expressed in pronouns. In the case of English, this is traditionally confined to “he” (or in the forms “his,” “him,” and “himself”), “she” (and “her,” “hers,” and “herself”), and “it” (and “its” and “itself”).

Modern Mandarin Chinese, however, offers another possibility. Here, the third-person singular pronoun is always pronounced the same (tā), but it is written differently according to its gender (他 is “he,” 她 is “she,” and 它/牠 is “it” and their respective derivative forms). In each of these characters, the first (or upper) part defines the gender (man, woman, or thing/animal), while the second element gives the clue to its pronunciation.

In 1930, after a full century with dozens of Chinese translations, Bible translator Wang Yuande (王元德) coined a new “godly” pronoun: 祂. Chinese readers immediately knew how to pronounce it: tā. But they also recognized that the first part of that character, signifying something spiritual, clarified that each person of the Trinity has no gender aside from being God.

While the most important Protestant and Catholic Chinese versions respectively have opted not to use 祂, some Bible translations do and it is widely used in hymnals and other Christian materials. Among the translations that use 祂 to refer to “God” were early versions of Lü Zhenzhong’s (呂振中) version (New Testament: 1946, complete Bible: 1970). R.P. Kramers (in The Bible Translator 1956, p. 152ff.) explains why later versions of Lü’s translation did not continue with this practice: “This new way of writing ‘He,’ however, has created a minor problem of its own: must this polite form be used whenever Jesus is referred to? Lü follows the rule that, wherever Jesus is referred to as a human being, the normal ta (他) is written; where he is referred to as divine, especially after the ascension, the reverential ta (祂) is used.”

In Kouya, Godié, Northern Grebo, Eastern Krahn, Western Krahn, and Guiberoua Béte, all languages of the Kru family in Western Africa, a different kind of systems of pronouns is used (click or tap here to read more):

In that system one kind of pronoun is used for humans (male and female alike) and one for natural elements, non-liquid masses, and some spiritual entities (one other is used for large animals and another one for miscellaneous items). While in these languages the pronoun for spiritual entities used to be employed when referring to God, this has changed into the use of the human pronoun.

Lynell Zogbo (in The Bible Translator 1989, p. 401ff) explains in the following way: “From informal discussions with young Christians especially, it would appear that, at least for some people, the experience and/or concepts of Christianity are affecting the choice of pronoun for God. Some people explain that God is no longer ‘far away,’ but is somehow tangible and personal. For these speakers God has shifted over into the human category.”

In Kouya, God (the Father) and Jesus are referred to with the human pronoun ɔ, whereas the Holy Spirit is referred to with a non-human pronoun. (Northern Grebo and Western Krahn make a similar distinction.)

Eddie Arthur, a former Kouya Bible translation consultant, says the following: “We tried to insist that this shouldn’t happen, but the Kouya team members were insistent that the human pronoun for the Spirit would not work.”

In Burmese, the pronoun ko taw (ကိုယ်တော်) is used either as 2nd person (you) or 3rd person (he, him, his) reference. “This term clearly has its root in the religious language in Burmese. No ordinary persons are addressed or known by this pronoun because it is reserved for Buddhist monks, famous religious teachers, and in the case of Christianity, the Trinity.” (Source: Gam Seng Shae in The Bible Translator 2002, p. 202ff.)

In Thai, the pronoun phra`ong (พระองค์) is used, a gender-neutral pronoun which must refer to a previously introduced royal or divine being. Similarly, in Northern Khmer, which is spoken in Thailand, “an honorific divine pronoun” is used for the pronoun referring to the persons of the Trinity (source: David Thomas in The Bible Translator 1993, p. 445). In Urak Lawoi’, another language spoken in Thailand, the translation often uses tuhat (ตูฮัด) — “God” — ”as a divine pronoun where Thai has phra’ong even though it’s actually a noun.” (Source for Thai and Urak Lawoi’: Stephen Pattemore)

The English “Contemporary Torah” addresses the question of God and gendered pronouns by mostly avoiding pronouns in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (unless God is referred to as “lord,” “father,” “king,” or “warrior”). It does that by either using passive constructs (“He gave us” vs. “we were given”), by using the adjective “divine” or by using “God” rather than a pronoun.

Some Protestant English Bibles use a referential capitalized spelling when referring to the persons of the Trinity with “He,” “His,” “Him,” or “Himself.” This includes for instance the New American Standard Bible, but most translations, especially those published in the 21st century, do not. Two other languages where this is also done (in most Bible translations) are the closely related Indonesian and Malay. In both languages this follows the language usage according to the Qur’an, which in turn predicts that usage (see Soesilo in The Bible Translator 1991, p. 442ff. and The Bible Translator 1997, p. 433ff. ).

See also first person pronoun referring to God.

Translation: Chinese





Translator: Simon Wong

Translation commentary on Zephaniah 2:13

After dealing with nations to the west, east, and south, the prophet turns finally to Assyria, the enemy to the north. Actually, Assyria was northeast of Judah, but the roads did not run direct between the two places, and so Assyrian invaders always approached from the north along the easiest route. For this reason the Assyrians were considered fit to represent the northern direction.

Assyria had been the major power in the Near East for over a century. Its armies were well known, greatly feared, and bitterly hated by the smaller nations for their savage cruelty. In a sense the Assyrians stand for every enemy of God’s people, and thus it was very appropriate for the prophet to mention them at the climax of his list of enemy nations.

In the first part of the verse, the Hebrew uses a figure of speech which is translated literally in Revised Standard Version as he will stretch out his hand against the north, and destroy Assyria (compare 1.4). The pronoun he refers to the LORD, last mentioned in the Hebrew in verse 11, and so Good News Translation makes this explicit by repeating “The LORD.” The meaning of the metaphor stretch out his hand against is expressed in nonfigurative language in Good News Translation as “use his power.” Some translators will wish to follow Good News Translation‘s example, but many will be able to retain the Hebrew figure of speech in their own language at this point. Another translation model is “The LORD will take action to destroy Assyria.” The terms north and Assyria really both refer to the same place, and to avoid any confusion Good News Translation has translated both terms by the one word “Assyria.” It is quite possible for many translators to keep both terms but avoid ambiguity, by saying “Assyria in the north” or “the people who live in the north, namely, the Assyrians.” It may be helpful also to be more specific and say “the country of Assyria in the north.”

In the second part of the verse, the prophet turns to Assyria’s capital, Nineveh. Good News Translation adds a generic term to identify the name and says “the city of Nineveh.” It was situated on the river Tigris and had been founded by Nimrod, according to the tradition of Genesis 10.8-11. In Zephaniah’s day it was a large and famous city (compare Jonah 1.2; 3.2; 4.11) and the center of a vast empire. Zephaniah proclaims that it will become a desolation (Revised Standard Version), which is expressed more concretely in Good News Translation as “a deserted ruin.” A desolation or “a deserted ruin” may also be expressed as “a ruin where no humans live.” In the days of its greatness, Nineveh was well supplied with water from the river Tigris by a series of canals, but the prophet declares that it will become a dry waste like the desert, or as Good News Translation puts it more briefly, “a waterless desert.”

In point of historical fact, Nineveh was captured by the Medes and Babylonians in 612 B.C., so Zephaniah probably lived to see his prophecy fulfilled. The Book of Nahum records the joy shown by those who had suffered from Assyrian imperialism at the news of the fall of Nineveh. The city was destroyed so completely that, when the Greek traveler Xenophon visited its site in 401 B.C., he could find no trace of it.

Quoted with permission from Clark, David J. & Hatton, Howard A. A Handbook on the Book of Zephaniah. (UBS Helps for Translators). New York: UBS, 1989. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .