Directions in English tend to be a mix of very individualistic, and very global. They’re individualistic in that they’re centered on an individual: ‘turn left’ means you, based on where you’re standing and the direction that you yourself are facing, need to turn to your left. They’re global in that North/South/East/West are directions that are fixed by a compass, independent of your local geography.
It’s not always the case in other languages.
Some languages, including the biblical languages, have words for cardinal directions (N/S/E/W) that are much more localised than the English terms. The biblical Greek word for East, ἀνατολή (anatolē) means ‘rising’ or ‘upward movement’ of celestial bodies. West, δυσμή (dusmē) means ‘sinking, going down, setting’.
These cardinal directions are based on the movement of the sun. Our English terms are actually derived similarly, but they’re so far back in the mists of etymology that we don’t recognise it. They don’t sound like rising or setting or dawn or evening any more.
The biblical Hebrew word for West is ‘ocean’. That’s because of the geography of Israel: the Mediterranean sea is to the west. The biblical Hebrew term for South is ‘wilderness’ for similar reasons.
There are alternatives too: East is a word that means ‘in front’ because you orient yourself towards the rising sun, which makes South ‘the right hand’.
What does this mean for translation? Cultural context is important when we talk about directions. ‘Turn right’ might not mean the same thing across languages.
This is true even in different cultural settings in English. I’ve noticed that many Americans, because cities are often laid out in more of a grid than many Australian cities, use cardinal directions more than we do. For example, I would say I lived ‘just east of the I-95’ in Chicago, but I would be unlikely to say I now live ‘on the east side of the train line’ in Eastwood.
Even more localised, you might get directions in Manhattan to ‘walk uptown’, which if you’re already lost won’t help you much.
Local geography can impact on how you speak.
A language of northern Queensland, Guugu-Yimithirr, uses cardinal directions all the time. Rather than saying ‘to your left’ they’ll say ‘north of you’ (assuming you’re facing East). There are special marker words that tell you the direction of travel, whether it’s ‘from the easterly direction’ (naga-almu-nganh) or ‘from here, through some other point or obstacle, quite a long way, towards the east’ (naga-alu).
There’s one example of a Guugu Yimithirr speaker describing the location of a lagoon as ‘west of the Cooktown airport’… But white fellows wouldn’t understand that. In English we’d better say, ‘to the right as you drive to the airport [from Hopevale].’
For Bible translation there’s a couple of implications. Like so often, we need to have a lot of research at our fingertips in order to be sensitive to descriptions and imagery. We might need to work out a whole lot more information about Bible texts to supply to languages that need additional markers.
In Hebrew, Samson ‘went down’ to the Philistine towns because he started up in the hills. In Guugu Yimithirr, he’d be travelling west, quite a long way, and not directly.
A little harder now: from which direction did Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem?
Having an ear for geography also helps to translate imagery well. In Joel 2:20 we read of God driving away the ‘northerner’ (i.e. the invading army that comes into Israel from the North), with the army’s front ranks in the ‘former/eastern sea’ and the rearguard in the ‘last sea’.
The picture here is from East to West all across the land, from the Dead Sea to the Mediterranean, the enemies of Israel will be destroyed.
Sam Freney is translation consultant with Bible Society Australia. Sam works with heart language translators across Australia with the collective goal to translate the Bible in the most accurate, clear and natural way possible.
Join as we look at all things clarity, accuracy, acceptability, and more in a general series of Bible translation tidbits from around our region.