Thursday, July 30, 2009

Translating Biblical Phrases part 1

Because of my interest in the language of scripture, I have been fascinated by the experiences of people who took it upon themselves to live in a variety of scary places, just so they could learn obscure dialects and translate the Bible and teach others about Jesus.

The Bible has been translated into 2,018 languages, with countless more partial translations, and audio translations (for unwritten languages). In trying to use the local dialect and metaphors, translators have come up with interesting concepts, not all of them accurate portrayals of the Word. The following examples have been collected from several different sources.

One translator considered himself fortunate when he found a member of his target language group who understood the phrase "What is this?" The translator proceeded to point to an item and ask the man for its identifying name. The language helper gave him a word, and the translator wrote it down. Then he pointed to a second item and asked again, but the helper gave him the same word as before. In fact, no matter what the translator pointed to, he always got the same answer. The translator had not yet discovered that members of this tribal group never used a single finger for pointing. So when the translator stuck out his finger and said, "What is this?" his patient helper told him again and again—a finger.

In an Indian language in Mexico, translators translate John 1:14 "The word was full of chicken and truth," as the only grace gift in their culture is the gift of a live chicken. The Mazatec of Mexico speak of miracles as "long necked things," They are so amazed that they stretch their necks to see what happened. The Cuicatec Indians of Mexico's word for worship comes from the same root word for tail. So worship becomes, "wagging the tail for God."


  1. Since God speaketh to men according to their understanding, in their own language, it seems to me that whoever is privileged to be the chosen people to which and through which He reveals scripture, that the rest of us have the responsibility of studying that people's language and culture so as to better understand His words. Of course, Isaiah is a perfect example, Nephi said himself that he understood Isaiah so well because he had lived among the Jews and knew the manner of their teaching, and he knew concerning the regions round about. Good thing we have this blog to help us understand those kinds of obscure idioms and symbols. But at least when we are ready to have Him speak directly to us, it will make perfect sense, even though others may not understand if told for their lack of experience with our own lives and experiences.

  2. As Spock would say..., "Fascinating."