Translation of Proper Names in the Bible
Updated: Oct 23, 2020
What's in a Name?
Abraham, Belshazzar, Cyrus, David, Elisha, Festus, Gilead, Hagar, Isaac, Jesus... there are a lot of names in the Bible. Some of them are familiar and still given to babies born today. Others sound downright strange to us (looking at you, Nebuchadnezzar), insulting (sorry, Dorcas), or infamous (I don't know many baby Jezebels or Satans).
When translating proper names into other languages, there is a lot to consider. And the discussion isn't limited to people's names. Bible translators also encounter the names of locations, celebrations, key biblical terms and perhaps most importantly (and most difficult) the name of God himself.
Meanings of Biblical Names
Many biblical names have meaning both in their original languages and within the narratives they occupy. Starting with the first name in Genesis, Adam is simply the Hebrew word for "man." The first recorded instance of one human naming another is when Adam names his wife with a meaningful reason: "The man (Adam) called his wife's name Eve, because she was the mother of all living" (Gen 3:20). Eve in turn names her children with particular semantic values in mind (Gen 4:1, 4:25).
Notice that the names we are familiar with in English don't correspond to any English meanings. We now think of these biblical characters as "Adam and Eve" rather than "Man and Mother-of-Life."
The first English translators decided to translate the form of the name rather than its meaning. We have to rely on the explanations of the names' meanings in the text. It's more natural and we can still grasp the significance of the name through its explanation. (It's also a good reminder that we are reading a translation of the original.)
Most of the translation projects I have worked with used on a similar tactic, maintaining the form of the proper name and giving an explanation of the meaning (where applicable) either in the verse or a footnote.
Forms of Biblical Names
Let's go back to the angel Gabriel appearing before Mary to say, "You shall call his name Jesus."
We are so familiar with this scene from Christmas pageants and picture books that we might forget: he didn't really say "Jesus." That's our English transliteration of the Greek Ἰησοῦς (Iesous) which is the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew יְהוֹשֻׁ֙עַ֙ - in our alphabet, more like Yehoshuah. The name in Hebrew, if you're curious, means "Yahweh Saves."
In other bible translations, Gabriel pronounces the name of the Christmas child as:
Isa (Arabic, Azerbaijani, Hindu, Turkish)
Yesu (Hausa, Ghanian, Cornish, Luganda, Swahili, Tamil)
Jeso, Jesosy (Malagasy)
You can see that though this (incomplete) list is varied, the name hovers around similar phonetic forms. Each language has rendered it into phonemes that sound natural in that language so that readers and hearers will be able to pronounce and recognize the name more easily. Even so, you can see the commonality throughout these forms.
This is a tricky task for translators who need to consider whether the name sounds male (if there is a gender distinction in the language) and doesn't have any unwanted semantic connotations. That is to say, the proper name should not sound like any other words in the language that might grant it an unwanted meaning.
I found an example of this unwanted connotation in a translation project working on the genealogies in Genesis. There are chapters full of foreign-sounding Hebrew names that the translators did a great job of rendering into more familiar phonemes. But one of those names had to be spelled differently to avoid sounding like another word for an indecent body part!
Some languages have certain morphemes that distinguish a person from a place or object, and these also must be added to name transliterations.
Names in Context
Finally, translators need to work with their communities to make sure that the names are not only understood, but also accepted. If there is already an active church in the language community, it's probable that Christian believers already have familiar forms for the names of biblical people and places. Often these forms will come from the language of wider communication rather than the heart language. This is likely because churches have been using resources in that language due to the absence of bibles or other study materials in their heart language.
If a group of believers has been calling Jesus "Yesu" for years, they are going to be hesitant to switch to another form, even if that form is more familiar, pronounceable, or semantically relevant for their language. Translation teams need to understand and respect the history of the church in the area, including the songs, prayers, and worship materials that have been used before a bible translation became available.
The name of God itself (also known as the Hebrew tetragrammaton) is one of the most difficult bible translation issues today. In an effort to better address those issues, I have moved the discussion of God's own name to a subsequent post. Check it out!