Translating the divine name YHWH

To illustrate simply by way of bibliography that translation of the divine name YHWH is not a simple matter, here is a quick chronological list of translation references readily available to me from four journals: The Bible Translator, Notes On Translation, Jerusalem Perspective, and Journal of Translation (IOW, this is in no way a comprehensive list, nor does it necessarily represent the best scholarship on the issue)…

J.L. Sweelengrebel, “Translating the Divine Names,” The Bible Translator. Vol 3:4 (October 1952): 171–196.

J.L Sweelengrebel, “Discussion of Translating the Divine Names,” The Bible Translator, Vol. 3:4 (October 1952): 196–199.

Noel D. Osborn, “This Is My Name Forever: ‘I AM’ or ‘YAHWEH’? The Bible Translator, Vol. 39:4 (October, 1988): 410-415.

Robert E. Smith, “By My Name YHWH, I Did Not Make Myself Known,” Notes on Translation, Vol. 4:4 (1990): 51-52.

Ray Pritz, “The Divine Name in the Hebrew New Testament,” Jerusalem Perspective, Vol. 4:2 (March/April, 1991).

David Bivin, “‘Jehovah’—A Christian Misunderstanding,” Jerusalem Perspective Vol. 4:6 (Nov./Dec., 1991).

David Bivin, “The Fallacy of Sacred Name Bibles,” Jerusalem Perspective, Vol. 4:6 (Nov./Dec., 1991).

Euan Fry, “Editorial – A special issue,” The Bible Translator. Vol 43:4 (October, 1992): 401-402

Since the above reference introduces many others that follow, I reproduce the text here and below each of the articles he introduces…

This is a special issue of Practical Papers devoted to a single topic. We visit again the topic of translating the names of God, especially in the Old Testament; and all of the articles and other contents of this issue will be on that topic.

Over all the years The Bible Translator has been published (since 1950) there have been many articles written from various perspectives about translating the names of God. Besides articles there have also been some books written about the names of God. One book which was made available to Bible translators for a time was The Lord is God by Hellmut Rosin. A more recent study is the book entitled In Search of God by Tryggve Mattinger.

Translating the names of God is a matter of great concern to many Bible translators. All translators have to deal with it almost as soon as they start translating seriously. It can be both a difficult issue and a divisive issue for a translation team. It is also an issue on which readers and hearers of the Scriptures have strong feelings. In my own experience as a Bible translator it was the hardest issue of all to work through in bringing together two different large churches in a single translation project.

It has become clear in recent years, if it wasn’t clear earlier, that no one solution to the problems we face in translating the names of God will meet all situations. There are variations and differences in the way names are used in different languages and cultures around the world; there are also wide differences in the existing names and ways of referring to deity. For this reason different approaches to translating the names of God in the Bible are necessary in different situations. And this is not to mention the variety of church usage and church teaching in different places and different Christian traditions!

It is not my place to go into the topic at length. This is just an introduction to what you will find in reading this issue of Practical Papers. However I must refer in this introduction to an important gathering which was held in May last year, which was an occasion for a number of papers and discussions on the topic of translating the names of God. This was a UBS Translations Workshop at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe; and the first item in this special issue is a statement entitled “How to Translate the Name” from the group of UBS consultants and advisers meeting there.

Following the important statement from the UBS Workshop are a number of articles, which are mostly papers or parts of papers presented during the meetings. In all cases they have been edited for publication in Practical Papers. My special thanks in this connection go to my colleague Kees de Blois who was responsible for the selection and first editing of the material which makes up this special issue. He also prepared the bibliography which is the final item.
The first of the articles is in fact written by Kees de Blois.

“How To Translate The Name,” The Bible Translator, Vol. 43:4 (October, 1992): 403-406.
[Statement by the "Names of God" Study Group, UBS Triennial Translation Workshop, Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, 8-21 May 1991]

Kees F. De Blois, “Translating the Names Of God: Tryggve Mettinger’s analyses applied to Bible translation,” The Bible Translator, Vol. 43:4 (October, 1992): 406-414.

Starting from Tryggve Mattinger’s study on the names of God, he discusses its consequences for translation. He underlines the importance of the associated meaning of the “tetragrammaton” yhwh, while still recognising its function as a proper name. He then summarises the three most widely adopted approaches to the translation of yhwh hyh with arguments for and against each.

Noel D. Osborn, “The Name: When Does It Make A Difference?” The Bible Translator, Vol. 43:4 (October, 1992): 415-422.

Noel Osborn writes of his conviction that choosing just one option to deal with all occurrences of yhwh is not the best we can do in translation. He discusses a number of references where understanding yhwh as a name makes a great deal of difference to our understanding of the passage; and he then makes a good case for transliterating yhwh in those passages. An important part of his article is a classification of 129 sample references in twelve different categories, with a recommendation as to how the name yhwh should be handled in each type of context.

Donald J. Slager, “The Use Of Divine Names In Genesis,” The Bible Translator, Vol. 43:4 (October, 1992): 423-429.

In the next article Donald Slager studies the occurrence and use of the two terms yhwh and ‘élOhîm ‘lh in Genesis from a literary perspective. He compares the source critical approach with that of more recent literary analysts; and he presents some explanations from a literary perspective for the name switching that is found in some well-known stories.

Ernst R. Wendland, “yhwh- The Case For Chauta ‘Great-[God]-of-the-Bow’,” The Bible Translator, Vol. 43:4 (October, 1992): 430-438.

Ernst Wendland gives a very revealing discussion of the translation of the term yhwh in the Chichewa Bible. He refers to the way the name was transliterated in the older translations, and then describes the approach of the most recent Chewa translation team to the problems of rendering it meaningfully.

Nitoy Achumi, “Translation of ‘God’ and ‘Lord’ in Some Naga Bibles,” The Bible Translator, Vol. 43:4 (October, 1992): 438-443.

The two final articles are both studies of the way the terms yhwh and ‘élOhîm have been translated in some of the languages of North India. Nitoy Achumi presents a study of translation in three of the Naga languages. He studies in particular the key terms in those languages for spirits or deities, and discusses how some of those terms have been taken and used in Bible translation. He notes a wide variation between the three languages studied in the way the name yhwh has been treated.

Benjamin Rai, “What Is His Name? Translation of Divine Names in Some Major North Indian Languages,” The Bible Translator, Vol. 43:4 (October, 1992): 443-446.

Benjamin Rai focuses on four major languages which are all derived from Sanskrit: Bengali, Hindi, Nepali, and Assamese. At the end of his discussion he concludes “that the last word has not been said on the question of rendering … yhwh in North Indian (and other) languages.”

On that note I will end my comments. We hope that the contents of the statement “How to Translate the Name” and the articles, along with the bibliography of previous TBT articles and other references, will be a useful resource for translators who face the issue of translating the names of God now and in the future.

Howard Hatton, “Notes: Translating yhwh: Experience In Thailand And Micronesia,” The Bible Translator, Vol. 43:4 (October, 1992): 446-448.

David Thomas, “A Further Note on YHWH,” The Bible Translator, Vol. 44:4 (October, 1993): 444-445.

Jørgen Larsen, “Still More on YHWH,” The Bible Translator, Vol. 45:2 (April, 1994): 243-244.

Marcelo Epstein, “On The “Original” Septuagint,” The Bible Translator, Vol. 45:3 (July, 1995): 322-329.

Daud H. Soesilo, “Sir, Teacher, Master, Lord,” The Bible Translator, Vol. 47:3 (July, 1996): 335-340.

Mary Steele, “Translating the Tetragrammaton YHWH In Konkomba,” Notes on Translation, Vol. 11:4 (1997): 28-31.

Katharine Barnwell, “Translating the Tetragrammaton YHWH,” Notes on Translation, Vol. 11:4 (1997): 24-27.

David DeGraaf, “Translating ‘God’ and ‘Sacrifice’ into Nyarafolo,” Notes on Translation, Vol. 13:3 (1999): 34–49.

Daud Soesilo, “Translating the Names of God: recent experience from Indonesia and Malaysia,” The Bible Translator, Vol. 52:4 (October, 2001): 414-423.

Norm Mundhenk, “Who is God in Papua New Guinea?” The Bible Translator, Vol. 55:2 (April, 2004): 215-227.

John David K. Ekem, “The Rendering of the Divine Name YHWH in Some Ghanaian Bible Translation Projects,”
The Bible Translator, Vol. 56:2 (April, 2005): 71-76.

Vitaly Voinov, “Pronominal Apostasy? Or: Whose God Do You Mean?” The Bible Translator, Vol. 56:4 (October, 2005): 239-245.

Nico Daams, “Translating YHWH,” Journal of Translation, Vol. 1:1 (2005): 47-55.

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2 Responses to “Translating the divine name YHWH”

  1. Jane Goody Says:

    I can tell that this is not the first time you write about the topic. Why have you decided to touch it again?


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