From Cameroon to Mexico: Translating Joy – A Global Christmas Narrative - United Bible Societies

Contribution from Jost Zetzsche (TIPs Project Coordinator in the GMT Bible Engagement Resources team).

At this time of year, we all have heard the Christmas story in bits and pieces, in sermons, liturgies, or homilies. We have read about it in newsletters, blogs, and articles, and maybe even watched it in plays, movies, or TV shows.

What we might not have done is to look at this familiar story through the eyes of the “other,” in this case another language. The Translation Insights & Perspectives tool (TIPs) has collected tens of thousands of perspectives into the biblical text via other languages, and it should not surprise anyone that the Christmas story is especially richly adorned with insights. Here are just a few.

Image taken with permission from the Sadao Hanga Catalogue at

When the magi— or as the Kwakum Christians in Cameroon carefully spell out: “guardians of religious rites who look up at the stars to see the things to come”—depart from Herod, they once again observe the star that had led them so far. When they then see it stop to mark the final point of the journey, they “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (Revised Standard Version). Strong words, but the UBS Translator’s Handbook on Matthew—which, along with all its companion volumes, is now part of TIPs—says that it is ”impossible to over-translate the reaction of the men in the seeing of the star.” That’s certainly the sense the translation into Miskito of northeastern Nicaragua conveys when it says “the liver is wide open to happily let the pleasures flood in upon it.” More quietly, but also sweetly, the Bambara translation, the national language of Mali, describes their joy as “the spirit is made sweet,” while Tzeltal, an ethnic group of Mexico, expresses it as “the good taste of one’s heart.”

Translation occurs through language but also through art, which has been one of the emphases this year within TIPs. Take this stencil print by the late Sadao Watanabe, a Japanese artist, depicting the angels’ announcement of the birth of the Savior or, according to Tagbanwa, one of the oldest ethnic groups in the Philippines, “the one who is the pledge of our assurance of salvation in the future,” to the adoring and awestruck shepherds.

May your Christmas this year be filled with the sweetest of joy and greatest of wonder.



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