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神学词汇—A Tool for Translators

A theological student I knew years ago was confused as to why the lives of 俄利根 and 奥利金, seemingly two different individuals, seemed so similar. Of course, it turned out that these were two different Chinese names for the same church father—Origen of Alexandria. This is just one example of why I got involved in developing—a tool to help standardize Chinese translations of theological terms and names.

I have been involved with proofreading and editing the translation of theological materials into Chinese for more than 12 years. One challenge I faced early on was the lack of standardization of theological terms, especially names from church history. By late 2012, I began to think about how to address this issue. At a conference held in January of 2013, I conferred with others, including Phil Remmers of the Robert Morrison project and Virginia Yip, about the idea of creating a free website designed to help translators of theological materials have a common resource from which to determine the best translation of theological terms and names. Ten years later, came online.

Lack of standardization of theological terms and names is a problem which has beset Christian writers and translators since Christianity came to China. In the 19th century, when Protestants began work in China, transportation and communication between mission posts in different parts of the country and publishers was slow. Sometimes mission posts in different areas ended up using different terms because communication between them was difficult, and there was no consortium for standardizing terminology, or because of regional differences in dialect. Adding to these complications was that Roman Catholic translators had their own translation traditions which often differed sharply from Protestants. For Protestants, publications such as the Chinese Recorder helped to some degree to bring some uniformity to translations and especially the Union Version of the Bible for names and terms in the Bible. However, once particular terms were ingrained in certain areas, it was often quite difficult to break with past tradition.

Added to this was the tumult of the Cultural Revolution, which isolated the church in the mainland from her brothers and sisters in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and elsewhere among the Chinese diaspora where translation and Christian scholarship flourished. Much of the earlier tradition of translation was preserved in these territories. In the mainland, the church was largely cut off from outside publications. As congregations of the TSPM began to open again in the early 1980s, and with them, a limited amount of Christian publication, new methods of translating theological terms developed, which were often at odds with earlier translation traditions.

Eventually, the government in Beijing established guidelines for the translation of foreign names in Xinhua’s Names of the World’s Peoples 《世界人名翻译大辞典》 which often broke with the earlier translation traditions. Free online translation tools such as Google Translate have been developed in more recent years which have generally followed these guidelines, but the experience of many translators is that these tools hampered as much as they helped the standardization of terms.

Although the guidelines give a standardized set of characters with which to translate foreign names based on the pronunciation of a given foreign name, translators and translation software often have different interpretations of the proper pronunciation of foreign names. For example, according to the normal English pronunciation, the proper translation of Nicaea is 奈西亚 (naixiya) and so generally in the mainland, Nicaea is translated this way; however, traditionally, this name was translated according to the original Greek pronunciation 尼西亚 (nixiya). In some cases, translation software will try to guess based on the context what the original pronunciation is, with the result that the same name sometimes is translated differently in different contexts of the same article. Added to this, translators and translation software are not always agreed as how to handle consonant clusters, or syllable endings besides a vowel, or ‘n’, ‘ng’ or ‘r’ which cannot be reproduced well with Chinese phonetics; translators are left with the question, “Should sounds be omitted or phoneticized by inserting vowel sounds not in the original word?”

The website was developed to assist Christian translators to find appropriate translations for English terms related to the subject of Bible, theology, church history, philosophy, ancient Near Eastern archeology, and other religions. It attempts to help translators and scholars in three ways.

First of all, the website tries to compile a list of as many translations which translators have used of any given term or name as possible. For example, Gregory the Great has been translated in at least these nine ways: 贵格利、葛利哥里、额我略、格雷戈里、格列高利、贵格烈、葛瑞格里、钩利、贵钩利. This is intended to help translators and scholars cross-reference different translations and help to determine what the original language term is for the Chinese when English is not listed.

Secondly, the website seeks to establish a standard translation; in this particular case for Gregory, 贵格利.

Thirdly, in many cases, entries include some very basic explanation of the meaning of the term or the identity of the individual, sometimes, though rarely, even giving some translation tips including cross-references to other English spellings or other language versions of the same term or name. It is hoped that over time, this last element of each entry can be expanded greatly.

Great lengths were taken to attempt to establish reasonable translations of names and terms which can be broadly embraced by translators both in mainland China and elsewhere. In the case of names and terms in the Bible, the Union Translation of the Bible is almost always taken as the standard. A complicated criteria was used to determine standards for names and terms outside the Bible. In addition to the translations found in several volumes of dictionaries and glossaries available to the compliers of the site’s database, Google was used for nearly every term in the database, which contains over 30,000 entries, in an attempt to find additional translations and used to determine which translations were most commonly employed.

Great respect in standardization was given to traditional translations as they were found in 《基督教圣经与神学词典》; however, especially for names which are not in wide use, translations which followed the mainland precedent represented in 《世界人名翻译大辞典》 were regularly accepted as standard unless it was clear that older translations are still consistently used today. Translations of terms and names not especially associated with the Christian tradition, for example the names of ancient Roman emperors, translations available from secular sources were preferred over translations only found in Christian dictionaries. Sometimes, it made sense to follow the translations in Baidu or Wikipedia. When the two of them disagreed, generally Baidu’s translations were preferred. Very rarely were any new translations accepted as standard unless there was genuinely nothing quite suitable or there was no known pre-existing translation for a term.

It is expected that many will disagree with the standards provided here, sometimes strongly and with good reason. Therefore, the website states, “We believe the Bible is inerrant and complete. This website is not. Although we have worked hard to make the entries on this website to be of the highest quality, we greatly value the opinions of our users in improving it. We hope to regularly update it with more entries, revised standard translations, and additions to both non-standard translations as well as definitions of existing entries.” It is hoped that with the input of many users, this website may continue to be improved and assist many theological translators and writers.

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Image credit: Priscilla du Preez via UnSplash.


Mike (pseudonym) has been worked cross-culturally in China for more than two decades, has been involved with Chinese translation of theological material for more than 12 years, and has helped to edit, author, and publish dozens of titles in Chinese. He currently is a candidate for a ThM and is …View Full Bio

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