done_all Peer Reviewed Article
Cultural Issues in Translation: The Thai Easy-to-Read Version
This article compares various Thai translations of the Bible and calls upon translators to pay closer attention to five aspects of culture. The author argues that not only the original meaning but also the original mood of passages should be translated. He illustrates the need to identify honor/shame passages and to translate them accordingly. He appeals to translators to avoid as much as possible insider vocabulary, including many of the specialized Thai divine/royal terms.
Easy to ready is hard to write, says Tanapon Saowatarnpong, the editor of the Thai Easy-to-Read Bible. The more literal translations are easier to produce. You just plug in the words and shift them around until the sentence is grammatically intelligible. Often a word is translated the same way throughout the text with little effort to capture nuances of its meaning in various contexts. The result of such an approach here in Thailand has been that Bible characters do not sound very Thai. Those of us on the translation team for the Easy-to-Read Thai version knew from the start that we were aiming for a translation that preserved the original meaning of the text and was also easy to read, both in terms of grammatical flow and vocabulary. In doing this we faced challenges regarding royal vocabulary, translating emotion, honor/shame language, and strong loyalties to insider lingo.
Until the twentieth century the king of Thailand was proclaimed to be the incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu (Pra Narai). Even though the king no longer claims to be a god, all the divine/royal terminology pertaining to the king remains. Earlier Bible translations used this large body of specialized vocabulary when referring to Jesus, who is both a king and divine.
For the sake of intelligibility, brevity, and historical accuracy we often chose to use normal human vocabulary when referring to Jesus and, occasionally, God. For instance, in John 11:34 the people say, “Come and see, Lord.” This phrase requires 27 spaces in the older Thai translation and Standard Thai translation (revised in 1998), in which the people address Jesus as if they already recognized his royal/divine status, which is unlikely. In general we do not have Jesus’ followers addressing him with divine/royal pronouns until after his resurrection.1 In the Common Language Bible (CL 1995) and our version (ERV 2001) these same words from the people require only 9 and 14 spaces respectively.
The next verse, John 11:35, says, “Jesus wept.” We use the common word for crying (rong-hai), rather than the divine/royal term (song pragansang). We corrected similar problems with obscure royal vocabulary in regard to Jesus sweating (sayto) in Luke 22:44, and God grieving (songglaphuanprataitomana) in Genesis 6:6. Few Thais know the name for God’s nose (pranasik) in Exodus 15:8. Only Thais who are already Christians would recognize the divine term for lamb (pramaysabodoke) that appears in John 1:29, 36 as well as 30 times in the Book of Revelation. Sometimes the other translations offer explanatory footnotes; sometimes they do not. When these verses appear in evangelistic tracts I have noticed that they are always explained. We reason that since God loves the common people, we are honoring God most when we use common language to communicate his word to common Thais.
Royal vocabulary can potentially obscure not only the original meaning, but also the original mood of the text. Consider the following scene in 2 Kings 9:30–37. Jehu charges off to Jezreel to kill Jezebel. After trying to make herself look pretty, Jezebel shouts down from her window, “Why did you come here, you murderer? To kill a king? You’re no better than Zimri!” Jehu looks up and calls upon anyone who wants to side with him to throw her down. Jezebel’s servants comply. Her blood is splattered on the wall, and her body is trampled by the horses. She is not given a proper burial. Later, those who would bury her manage to find only her skull, hands and feet, but the rest of her has been eaten by dogs, and she has become like dung in the field—in fact, very much like it. The point of this gory story is to highlight the shameful fate of Jezebel. The old version uses the royal vocabulary for face, hair, and window, so that it becomes unclear what Jezebel is doing in her tower (dtangpak wee gesa dtang suay yiam praglang ladoo). The translators honor Jezebel using royal vocabulary for her blood and boney parts when the point of the passage is to dishonor her.
Some Thai Christians welcomed the ERV version because it was easier for outsiders to understand. It was deemed useful for evangelism but not for teaching in the church. To our surprise, the point of contention for many Thai believers was the pronoun we used for Jesus’ references to himself. We reasoned that since Jesus was a teacher, he would refer to himself with the normal pronoun used by male teachers (pome). Many Thai Christians complained about this, so in the second printing we switched to an exalted pronoun (row). No Thai teacher or even the king of Thailand uses this for himself, but it is intelligible. Although our target audience is the 96% of Thais who are not Christian, we have tried, if possible, not to offend the 4% who are Christian.2 The Thai church is certainly part of the delivery system for the Scriptures to reach the Thai people.
Translators have a long history of altering Scripture to make it more acceptable or safer for their readers. In order to avoid misusing Yahweh’s name, the Greek-speaking Jews who translated the Bible into Greek in the second century BC (the Septuagint Version, LXX) substituted the word “Lord” (kurios) for the name Yahweh. Ulphilas (ca. AD 311–ca. 381) invented the Gothic script and became the first person to put an oral northern European language into writing. The Goths were an aggressive tribe, so he thought it best to omit the books of Samuel and Kings from the Gothic Bible because of their many stories of battle. The translators of the Geneva Bible (printed in 1560) were scandalized by the passage which says Adam and Eve sewed “aprons” out of leaves, so they had them make “breeches” which would be more modest. Consuming alcohol is a violation of one of Buddha’s five basic moral laws. Thus, to avoid implicating Jesus and his apostles in this sin, the translators of the old Thai version produced the only Bible, as far as I know, in which Jesus created and consumed grape juice.
Sometimes translators revise and tone down Scripture in more subtle ways, perhaps without even being aware they are doing so. Thais are surprised when they read for the first time about Jesus crying or getting angry. Jesus is referred to as a holy man or monk (pra), but in Buddhist thinking an enlightened holy man would not cry or get angry. The Greeks also regarded emotion as unbefitting of the Divine, and this view has been widely accepted throughout church history.3 This negative view of emotions explains why many portraits of Jesus and various church leaders lack emotion, like images of Buddha, and their portrayals in Scripture are often toned down emotionally.
For example, in most Thai translations John the Baptist calls the Pharisees and Sadducees “You (jow) brood of vipers” (Matt 3:7). We use an angrier form of “you” (ga). When Paul in anger says, “I wish those who are throwing you into confusion would castrate themselves!” (Gal 5:12), we use an angry third person pronoun (mun) rather than a neutral pronoun (kow). We also have Paul use this angry pronoun rather than a neutral one in referring to the “false apostles and servants of Satan” in 2 Cor 11:15.
Translators have even made those who oppose God more polite. When Jesus overturns the tables of the moneychangers and drives them out of the temple with a whip, the Jewish leaders address him quite respectfully as “you, sir” (taan). We use a more disrespectful form of “you” (ga; John 2:13–20). Similarly, the chief priest at the trial inquires of Jesus, “Will you not, sir, respond?” (Matt 26:62) before the leaders politely cast their votes for capital punishment. The crowds use a neutral pronoun when they shout, “Crucify him!” (Luke 23:21; John 19:15). The leaders use a neutral pronoun when they sneer and taunt him on the cross (Luke 23:35), while soldiers politely suggest, “If you, sir, are the King of the Jews, then deliver yourself” (Luke 23:37). In these angry, violent scenes we use angry pronouns. I could multiply examples from the Old and New Testaments of how emotion-laden dialogue has been made more temperate through such use of linguistic sedatives by Thai translators. In reading previous translations of the Old Testament, I noticed that not only do the prophets not sound very Thai but that they often do not sound very upset either.
My intention here is not to drum up support among Thai Christians for our translation and say that the other translations are inadequate. Those Thai Christians who have called our version gruff or rude (yapkai) will probably never read this English article. My point is that Bible translators should seek to convey not only the original meaning but also the original mood of a text. Emotions, whether they be negative or positive, should not be removed from biblical narratives and speeches.
For instance, at the baptism of Jesus, God says, “You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22; NRSV). In the older Thai, Standard Thai, Daughters of St. Paul, ISB, Thai King James, and CL versions, the Father addresses the Son with the formal and respectful “you” (taan) and does not use the usual spoken pronoun for addressing a son (luke). The CL version has even less feeling in using “with whom I am quite satisfied/content” (pawjai mak)” rather than “pleased” (chawbjai mak or chunchome). In all these versions the sentence is intelligible, but, because of the words chosen, it does not sound like a father talking to his son.
We asked a rather unusual question: “How is God the Father feeling at this point, and what is the feeling of these words he is communicating to his Son?” We came up with a somewhat different translation; “You are my dear son, and I am so proud of you.” Our pronouns are the intimate pronouns of a father speaking to his son, and our verb for “pleased with/proud of” is natural and full of feeling. I love my son like crazy, but I have never told him that I am “well pleased,” “content,” or “satisfied” with him. If we translators, though we are sinners, know how to express affection toward our children, how much more should we allow our Father in heaven to express deep-felt love toward his children?4
What issue is present in every book of the Bible and in nearly every chapter? Sin? Christ? God’s love? The answer is the issue of honor and shame. It is not always the content of the message, but it is frequently the context of the message. Most Westerners overlook this. Within the past several decades there has been an explosion in the number of books and articles that have addressed the honor/shame context in Scripture. However, lexicons have been slow to incorporate this research. English Bibles have been even less affected by it. Thai culture is very attuned to issues of honor and shame, but Bible translators working with Western tools have not always highlighted this issue in Scripture.
Here is but one example. The Greek word makarios which occurs in all its forms 55 times in the New Testament is related to honor.
It is a great honor to be citizens in God’s kingdom (Matt 5:3, 10; Luke 6:20), to inherit the world (Matt 5:5), to behold God (Matt 5:8), to be called God’s son or daughter (Matt 5:9), to suffer side by side with Christ and the prophets (Matt 5:11–12; Luke 6:22–23; 1 Pet 4:13-14), to receive a revelation from God himself (Matt 13:16–17; 16:17; Luke 10:23), to participate in the resurrection of the righteous (Luke 14:14); to speak to the king (Acts 26:2), to join the feast in the kingdom of God (Luke 14:15), to be invited to the royal wedding banquet (Rev 19:9); to be fed by the Master (Matt 5:6; Luke 6:21; 12:37, 38, 43); to be appointed to look after the Master’s estate (Matt 24:46–47), to receive the victor’s wreath (Jas 1:12), to die and receive the reward for one’s good deeds (Rev 14:13), to be one of God’s priests (Rev 20:6), and to reign with God and Christ (Rev 20:6), to be granted the right to eat the fruit of immortality and enter the New Jerusalem (Rev 22:14).
As is evident from this list, some honors begin now, but in many cases our honor will be vindicated and made evident to all only in the future when Jesus returns (Titus 2:13).5 Sometimes the specific reward or form of honor is not mentioned, but the person is honored just in being pronounced honored.
To whom does God extend honor? God honors especially those whom the world does not honor. God honors the poor, the hungry, the downcast, and the outcasts (Luke 6:20–21), not those who have got their act together but those who realize their desperate need for God (Matt 5:3), not those who have clawed their way to the top but those who refuse to join this world’s frenzied battle for power and prestige (Matt 5:5), not those with titles of status and positions of prominence but those who humbly serve fellow believers (John 13:13–17), not those brimming with righteousness but those who are hungering for it (Matt 5:6).
God honors those who grieve the present state of God-forsaking humanity (Matt 5:4), who faithfully serve their Master in his absence while being prepared for and eager for his return (Matt 24:46; Luke 12:37, 38, 43; Rev 16:15), who are merciful and compassionate (Matt 5:7; Luke 14:13–14), who are single-minded in their devotion to God (Matthew 5:8).6 God places in high regard those who are peace-makers (Matt 5:9), who are generous (Acts 20:35), who take God at his word (Luke 1:45; John 20:29), who endure and go the distance (Jas 1:12; 5:11; Rev 14:12–13), and who hear God’s word and obey it (Luke 11:28; Jas 1:25; Rev 1:3; 22:7).
The scripture declares as worthy of honor those who follow their conscience (Rom 14:22), who join Christ and the prophets in being disrespected, despised, slandered, and persecuted by society (Matt 5:10–12; Luke 6:22–23; 1 Pet 3:14; 4:13–14). Such people do not take affront or offense when Christ does not fit their preconceptions (Matt 11:6; Luke 7:23).
God’s honor is not reserved for the perfect, but is extended to those who, rather than boasting of their own good deeds, trust in his grace and receive his pardon and acceptance (Rom 4:2, 5–9; Matt 5:7). It is not reserved for those with spotless reputations, but is granted those who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb (Rev 22:14; 7:14). Of course, the Lamb and God himself are pronounced most honorable of all. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen (1 Tim 1:11; 6:15–16).
It is a mistake to translate makarios in these verses as “fortunate” or “lucky.” Those terms do not fit the context of the fifty-five instances we have just listed. The writers of Scripture did not even believe in a power called fortune or luck. Most English Bibles prefer to translate makarios as “happy” or “blessed,” failing to notice the role that honor plays in each context where this word is used.7 Sadly, the Thai Easy-to-Read version is the only Thai translation that brings this out.
The language of faith and worship is one of the most conservative elements of a culture. Thai Christians have been very resistant to any changes in sacred Christian vocabulary, and there is less variety in word choice among the nine Thai translations than among English translations.
Prior to our printing of the complete New Testament in 2001, the Thai Common Language Bible was the translation most likely to use the common vocabulary of those outside the church. We went even further in translating the Bible’s vocabulary into common Thai. We translated many terms that previous translations transliterated: baptism, sabbath, Pentecost, Passover, etc. In some passages we translated “Christ” as “great king.” I suggested we translate “Amen” as satoo, but several of the Thai Christians felt that term was too Buddhist.
We tried to speak as Thais speak. Thais rarely use the interjection “O,” except when they jokingly borrow the English phrase, “O my God” or invent the phrase, “O my Buddha.” We saw no reason to add this English interjection at Matt 23:17, 33, 37 or 1 Cor 15:55. It even sounds a bit hokey in English.
O ye translators, let us translate from Greek.
O ye translators, let us put common Greek into common Thai.
Thais generally use the English word “tent” when referring to tents, so we transliterated that. We transliterated the word “mustard” seed, which some earlier translations had translated as “chinese cabbage” seed. We used the word “gay” which Thais use when referring to male homosexuals. Years ago when I was teaching a Sunday morning Bible class on the Book of Galatians, a visitor in the back row raised her hand to ask what a sunat ceremony was. When I started describing circumcision, she blushed and didn’t ask any more questions. Our Bible now uses “clip ceremony,” the term used by most Thais in referring to circumcision. In keeping with common Thai practice we also used universal numbers rather than Thai numbers for numbering Bible verses.
If the Thai language did not have a word for some term in the Bible we could usually use a brief description. For instance, Thais are not familiar with aurochs (Job 39:9). This is not surprising since that animal never lived in this area and has been extinct since 1627. We used the term “giant wild bovine.” The rock badger (Prov 30:26; Lev 11:5) was more difficult to describe briefly, so we transliterated the Hebrew term chafan and described it in a footnote. Previous Thai translations said it was a type of small deer or a mole rat. These obscure verses are not likely to raise much attention or opposition within the Thai church.
Thai Buddhism uses a vast number of specialized terms, and many Buddhist ceremonies are still performed in the ancient Pali language. This may be part of the reason why Thai Christians feel justified in having an impressive body of specialized vocabulary. New Christians are taught to speak this arcane dialect. At the language school I attended there was an entire module devoted to teaching new missionaries how to speak Christianese.
Our translation is written for the 96% of Thais who are not yet Christians. If a term in the Thai Bible had little or no meaning for outsiders, such as the terms “pastor,” “priest,” or “prophet,” we searched for clearer options. The term other translations have been using for “priest” (burohit) refers to a Brahamin adviser to the king. We opted for a more general term for someone who has been religiously ordained (nakbuat).
We felt that some of the words that had been borrowed from Buddhism were too narrow in their meaning. We translated the word “deacon” as “special servant” rather than a “temple warden” (makanayoke). The word namasagan means “to invite the monks to perform a religious ceremony.” In most cases we used a different term for worship, like grabwaiboocha, which means to bow in reverence. I suspect this term would have been used more widely in earlier translations if early missionaries from the West had bowed down in worship. As it is, bowing down is still considered rather Buddhist or Islamic by Thai Christians.
The other Thai Bibles have five different terms for “saints” (witsootachone, sitichone, tumikachone, saksitchone, and banda pooborisoot), none of which is particularly easy or accurate. Our version translates this term as “people belonging to God” or “people belonging especially to God.” “Holy” is a difficult term to translate, but in most cases we thought we could find something better than the word “pure” (borisoot). We left “Pure Spirit” alone, the Thai Protestant term for “Holy Spirit,” because it seemed too late to change such a basic term. Plus, we did not have another term that we felt was much better.
Occasionally, our translation is more literal than previous translations. For the Greek word ecclesia we use a literal translation that means “assembly” rather than “kingdom of Christ” (kristajak). However, at other times our translation is less literal. Instead of saying “unclean spirit,” we say “evil spirit.”
On one occasion I was scolding a brother in Christ for sinful behavior, and received the excuse, “I am still in the flesh,” i.e. “I am still in a body. What do you expect?” There is nothing innately sinful about human flesh, so our translation does not woodenly translate the Greek word sarkos with a Thai word for flesh (nuanang). Our translation of this Greek term varies according to context. Sometimes we use terms referring to the physical body, and sometime we use a term for “bad character” (sandan). In deciding how literal our translation should be, we tried to be guided by the question, “What term will best communicate the original meaning to the average listener?”
The question of how and when to use royal vocabulary is more peculiar to the Thai context, but the other issues discussed in this article have wider applications.
In communicating the emotion of biblical texts translators should be careful that the medium not morph the message. The general tendency has been to gather all the authors of Scripture into a single book, and give this religious book a distinctive black cover with the word “Holy” written upon it in large, shiny gold letters. The Christians read from this book when they are all dressed up and on their best behavior, and they expect all the people in that book to likewise behave themselves in church. The Christians will not tolerate any snide comments or cutting sarcasm in their holy religious book. Bible characters have not been permitted to say anything that today’s believers might find crude or earthy. Anything that might come across as faithless despair, disrespectful bellyaching, unseemly ranting, or undignified pleading has been toned down. Translators should beware this tendency. Let God be God. Let him be who he has revealed himself to be. God is a real person with real feelings, and so are the other Bible characters. If translators truly believe that all Scripture is God-breathed (2 Tim 3:16), then they should stop trying to give God a breath mint scented according to their own standards of etiquette.
The problem of translating recent findings regarding honor/shame vocabulary points to a bigger question. When will Bible editors and publishers listen to the Bible scholars? I appeal to the former group as gatekeepers of knowledge. When there is general scholarly consensus about the meaning of a word, that knowledge should be passed on to the people. People may prefer to say “blessed” rather than “What an honor!” They may prefer the word “woe” to “How shameful!” New translations of words in areas not related to honor and shame may also not be initially popular. People may not like hearing about a land flowing with milk and fruit syrup. Some may want to keep calling God “Jehovah” or “LORD” rather than Yahweh. Some may want Naaman to have leprosy, rather than just some serious skin disease (2 Kgs 5). Some may be offended at passages where “feet” is actually a euphemism for male genitals. Nevertheless, the voice of the people is not the voice of God. Tell them what the Bible really says.
Finally, I appeal to translators and Christians in general to stop using quirky, churchy words. Do not, for instance, try to “evangelize” the “heathen” or “edify” the “saints” by “beseeching” them to receive “justification, sanctification, and redemption.” Invite them to be “set right with God, set apart for God, and set free by God.” As the Apostle Paul asks in 1 Cor 14:8, “If the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?”
Sean Todd received a BA in Bible and an MS in Doctrinal and Historical Studies from Abilene Christian University. He has lived and worked in Thailand for most of the time since 1987. In addition to his work in church-planting, Sean has served since 2000 as a language consultant and back translator for the Thai Easy-to-Read Version. He and his wife, Pat, presently live in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
1 Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Great King in Matthew 16:16 is one of the exceptions.
2 This government statistic includes Catholics, Protestants, and all who claim to follow the Christian religion. Many of them are not ethnically Thai, and some do not attend religious services weekly or even monthly.
3 Greek philosophy regarded passions and emotions as unenlightened and even evil. As a result Jesus’ passions were (and often still are) attributed to his humanity as opposed to his divinity. The Greek notion that God is incapable of suffering has persisted within Christianity. Many have refused to allow God other feelings such as anger. Note what is said about emotions in the following quotes:
4 Some might argue that the Father’s words to Jesus at his baptism is not an affectionate father-son moment but rather a divine proclamation of Jesus’ royal identity which requires high language. They would say that in constructing this scene the writer of Q combined a royal psalm (Psalm 2:6–7) with the Song of the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 42:1). Luke and Matthew later drew upon this material to bolster the faith of their respective communities.
Personally, I believe God actually said this about Jesus (Matt 3:17) and/or to Jesus (Luke 3:22). These words encouraged the faith of Christ as well as faith in Christ. The gospel events produced the Christ community even before that community produced gospels. Certainly in Luke’s Gospel this text is both a father-son moment and a christological claim. Yet even if the translator regards these scenes from the gospels as “cleverly invented stories” (2 Peter 1:16), the translator still has a responsibility to tell those stories well. Telling the story well involves communicating the feelings of the characters within the story.
5 To cover all 55 uses of the term makarios, we must mention a few that do not fit neatly into this list above. It was an honor for Mary to be raised from her lowly status to become the mother of the Messiah (Luke 1:45–48; 11:27). When the Galatians first met Paul, they did not despise him but rather honored him (Galatians 4:14–15). It is not immediately apparent how being comforted is an honor (Matt 5:4), but perhaps it is because God himself is the one who does the comforting (divine passive in Matt 5:4, see also Rev 7:17; 21:4). It is not clear how it is an honor to laugh (Luke 6:21) until we examine the meaning of laughter in the Scriptures. Laughter is not usually a response to something comical, but must be understood in terms of honor and shame. It is usually disrespectful, scornful, mocking or scoffing laughter, especially when some self-exalting person is brought low. A laughing person is usually showing disrespect for someone else, and a laughed at person is shamed. Sometimes laughter was joyful, especially when one’s honor, reputation, or status was vindicated or restored (Gen 21:6–7; Job 8:21–22; Ps 126:1–2). Probably both meanings are present in Luke 6. Those who are scoffing at and belittling others will grieve, while those who are grieving now will laugh at the complete reversal of roles (Luke 6:21, 25). For further discussion see K. C. Hanson, “How Honorable! How Shameful! A Cultural Analysis of Matthew’s Makarisms and Reproaches,” Semeia 68 (January 1994): 81–111. This article is also available online at the author’s website: .
6 Paul considered it more honorable for widows to remain single and serve the Lord with undivided attention than for them to remarry (1 Cor 7:40, 34).
7 Jesus’ statement that it would be an honor to be barren is, I think, to be understood as irony (Luke 23:29). It was considered a shame to be barren (Luke 1:25; Gen 30:23), but during the nightmare to come at the fall of Jerusalem being barren would actually become the preferred status among women.