You’ve probably read the articles about foreign-language words that don’t have an immediate counterpart in English. As a German, I immediately think of schadenfreude, that apparently untranslatable term for, well, schadenfreude—the guilty joy you feel in someone else’s misfortune. Kudos to you virtuous native English speakers for not having your own word for that smug feeling.
Other foreign words are also woven seamlessly into daily life, like the Swedish ombudsman, the Finnish sauna, or the Italian pizza. There are many others, of course, especially in a language like English that derived its uncommonly large dictionary from the treasure chests of many languages.
Then there are the words that haven’t made it into the English dictionary yet, though they’ve achieved notoriety as beautiful but untranslatable terms. (As a translator, I’ll add that “untranslatable” isn’t exactly true. It’s just that we don’t have a word-to-word equivalent.) This includes terms like Danish hygge, which alludes to a sense of cozy comfort in the company of others, or the Finnish sisu, the concept of hidden inner strength in times of adversity. These words enrich how we view the world and offer insights about their cultures of origin. (Again, I apologize for schadenfreude!)
What if we could similarly peel back linguistic barriers to see how other languages and cultures view God through the language they use? For almost five years I’ve been collecting and curating data about how languages around the world translate the Bible in different and often insightful ways. Here are a few examples of words I wish we had in English to understand and communicate with God more deeply:
1. Mär: pick one thing and one thing only (Teribe)
English has a richer vocabulary than most when it comes to translating the Greek word pistis as both “faith” and “belief.” But these words’ power as a testimony of faith are weakened by their non-Christian usages in English (“I believe that it’s going to rain tomorrow” or “I have faith in you, young man!”). I wish we could introduce a powerful term for faith like “mär,” used in Teribe, an indigenous language spoken in Panama. It means “pick one thing and one thing only.” That’s radical Christian faith.
2. Dao / 道: reason; path toward right living; speech (Chinese)
When John refers in his Gospel to Jesus as the Word, it’s a powerful echo of the act of creation in Genesis where God speaks the universe into being. John probably intended us to make this correlation, but it’s only one of many. In fact, his original Greek term, Logos, is a central concept of Greek philosophy, encompassing a large spectrum of meanings that through the centuries has included reasoning, the principle that permeates all reality, and the intermediary between God and the cosmos.
It’s easy to see how potently this term expressed the truth about Jesus Christ, building a meaningful bridge to the broader culture to which he was communicating. It’s possible that no language has ever found a perfect translation for Logos, but Chinese Bible readers encounter a translation that might be equally robust. Most Chinese Bibles translate Logos as Dao, the central term in every Chinese religious and philosophical tradition to describe reason and a path toward living right. Amazingly enough, it also means “speech.” In a remarkable overlay of two different but very rich and ancient cultures, Dao paves the way for us to understand John’s original message more deeply.
3. Yumi: we and you (Tok Pisin)
Some languages have a distinct advantage over English (and Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic) in their pronouns. English speakers use an ambiguous we, but many languages distinguish between an inclusive we (“you and I and possibly others”) and an exclusive we (“he/she/they and I, but not you”).
For example, the disciples ask Jesus on the boat during a storm, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38, ESV). But who is included in that “we” who are perishing? Speakers of Fijian, Tok Pisin, and hundreds of other languages are forced to make an inference in this case (and in 2,352 other cases in the Bible), with deep theological implications.
Do the disciples believe that Jesus could also die? Is his sharp rebuke that follows based on their belief that he actually could die? Translation teams have differed in their interpretation, but the Tok Pisin translators chose the inclusive yumi to include Jesus among those who could perish. They noted that the disciples had waited against their better judgment and existential fears until they felt the danger to Jesus (and themselves) was too great not to wake him.
4. Dios y’ayucnajtzcapxɨɨybɨ: God’s word-thrower (Coatlán Mixe)
In secular use, a prophet is someone who foretells the future. In the Bible, though, prophets go beyond predicting the future to proclaim the words of God now. Readers of the Bible in Kuna, a language in Panama and Colombia, understand this broader meaning when they read about a prophet as “one who speaks the voice of God.” Papua New Guinean Ekari Christians call a prophet “one who speaks under divine impulse” (gokobaki tijawiidaiga wega-tai). And readers of the Coatlán Mixe Bible in Mexico are privileged to encounter a particularly vivid term in “God’s word-thrower.”
5. Ña̱ kúꞌu̱ ini yo̱ sa̱ꞌá ña̱yuu xi̱ꞌín yó: us loving others (Tezoatlán Mixtec)
Love is an abstract noun; it doesn’t denote an object (like table or tree) but refers to a quality or an idea. Greek and English are full of abstract concepts like love, but many other languages can’t support abstract nouns with no person or thing attached to them. What then do you do with a central text like “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant” (1 Cor. 13:4, NRSV)?
When Tezoatlán Mixtec Bible translators in southern Mexico were forced to try to understand the context of this passage, they realized that the text is not talking about some intangible, nondemanding quality but the nuts-and-bolts love of people loving people. Translation consultant John Williams said that the context “led [them] to conclude that 1 Corinthians 13 is not a love poem, but more of a rebuke to the Corinthians, showing how they were not loving one another.” As a result, the familiar English translation of “Love is patient” sounds very different when back-translated from Tezoatlán Mixtec: “That we love other people is that we give strength inside for them.” I wonder whether Tezoatlán Mixtec pastors are less likely to use this gritty passage in weddings than officiants who read our more abstract, romanticized English version?
6. Sen: intimate form of “you” (Tuvan)
You may have a murky memory from your high school French, Spanish, or German class about two different ways to address people—with a formal or an informal form of you (tu versus vous, tú versus usted, du versus Sie). English used to have this, too (you versus thou), but it was discarded some time ago from active vocabulary. French, Spanish, and German Bible translations all use the informal you throughout. But translators of other languages felt it was unnatural and confusing to omit a distinction used in their everyday speech.
Since the Greek text itself does not provide any immediate clues as to which form of address should be used, translators have to analyze the social standing of the main characters in each situation, especially in the Gospels and the Book of Acts, to make decisions about how to translate.
In Tuvan, a language in south-central Siberia, Jesus’ disciples speak to him during his ministry with the formal address. This is understandable because Jesus is their teacher, and we expect disciples to address their teacher with respect. But this might be surprising: After the resurrection, his followers speak to Jesus with the informal you, indicating a new intimacy to their risen Lord and Savior: “Lord, you know that I love you” (John 21:16).
7. Bideezhí: her younger sister (Navajo)
Jesus’ friends Martha and Mary were siblings. That’s what the Greek text tells us. What neither the Greek nor the English tells us is who was older and who was younger. For hundreds of languages, that’s a vitally important detail because they don’t have words for “just” brother or sister; their words need to indicate the birth order.
Overwhelmingly, the translators for these languages designate Mary as the younger sister of Martha. Why? Because Martha is typically named first, and she’s the one doing the housework. Are these irrefutable facts? Not necessarily, but they are the results of a careful analysis of the text and a detail that heightens our understanding of Jesus and his ministry.
8. Ambum: turtle (Aekyom)
Remember the story in the Gospel of Luke where Jesus had 12 turtles? It’s unlikely, unless you’ve read the Bible in Aekyom, a language in Papua New Guinea. People who speak this language count their age according to the number of times river turtles come up on the banks to lay their eggs. So when Jesus went to Jerusalem with his parents, he had 12 turtles. Imagine the turtle wealth of Methuselah!
9. P’ijil-o’tanil: heart wisdom; p’ijil c’op: word wisdom; p’ijil jol: head wisdom (Highland Tzeltal)
The Hebrew word chakam that is translated as wisdom in English is the heart of the book of Proverbs. But its wisdom isn’t just intellectual and philosophical; at times, it’s also practical, ethical, or religious. Most people can’t adequately express the rich range of meanings encompassed in that single term wisdom, but the approximately 40,000 speakers of Highland Tzeltal in southern Mexico can. They use three different terms to refer to the different kinds of wisdom in the book of Proverbs: P’ijil-o’tanil is “heart wisdom,” p’ijil c’op stands for “word wisdom” (also used for knowledge), and p’ijil jol is “head wisdom” (also used for insight or understanding).
10. Diri: engrave your mind (Ngäbere)
Human language is a marvel, one that opens pathways to remarkable spiritual insights. Each successive insight in the global conversation between speakers of thousands of languages and God can enrich our understanding of who God is and how he works in our lives today. As Ngäbere speakers in Panama and Costa Rica might say, may the Holy Spirit use these new teachings to “engrave your mind” with God’s heart wisdom, word wisdom, and head wisdom as you do the hard work of loving other people.
You can find all of these and thousands more examples at the United Bible Societies (UBS) Translation Insights & Perspectives tool at tips.translation.bible.
Jost Zetzsche is a professional translator who lives on the Oregon coast. Since 2016 he has been curating UBS’s Translation Insights and Perspectives (TIPs) tool. His latest book is Encountering Bare-Bones Christianity.