God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

How do You Say Hosanna in English?

The Greek word hosanna appears six times in the NT: three times in Matthew, twice in Mark, and twice in John. The context is each case includes the quotation, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” from Psalm 118:26. Because Psalm 118:25 contains the Hebrew words hoshi’a na, the Greek hosanna is widely (and I think correctly) assumed to be a Greek spelling of those Hebrew words, or perhaps an Aramaic equivalent.

In Psalm 118, hoshi’a means “save,” presumably, “save us.” (The direct object is optional in Hebrew, and can be inferred from context.) And na is a word that’s hard to translate — it may indicate politeness (“please”) or, more likely, formality or elegance.

There’s a persistent rumor that hosanna literally means “save now,” as in the NLT footnote that explains the word this way. But even the NLT translates hoshi’a na as “please save us,” not “save now.” The NAB says hosanna means “(O Lord) grant salvation,” and the NIV’s footnote explains the phrase as “A Hebrew expression meaning ‘Save!’ which became an exclamation of praise.” The rumor about “save now” probably comes from the KJV rendering of Psalm 118, “Save now, I beseech thee…”

In English, hosanna becomes “hosanna,” because the English spelling is taken directly from the Greek, (h)osanna. But the Greek is — again, widely and probably accurately — assumed to be a simplification of the Hebrew. The word should be hoshana, with the “sh” that is consistently lacking from Greek transliterations of Hebrew.

So should we put the “sh” back in to the English? By comparison, what if a French publication took the English “North Carolina” and turned it into norskarolina. Should a transliteration of that transliteration perpetuate the mistake?

For that matter, is transliterating the word the best way to go? And if it is, should “hosanna” be italicized?

Compounding the confusion, in Matthew and Mark “hosanna” appears in a phrase that gets translated as the barely intelligable “hosanna in the highest.” It apparently is supposed to mean “praise God on high.”

I think the case of hosanna is interesting not just in its own right, but also because it highlights the question of how much a translation into English has to be written in English. If we allow the word “hosanna,” and assume that it means “praise God” (but only here) can we use “in the highest” for “(God) on high” (but only here)? Or “man” for “people” (but only here)? Or allow any of the other seemingly wrong translations to be “one time exceptions”?

What do you think?


November 24, 2009 - Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Perhaps of relevance is the difficulty people have in pronouncing Semitic expressions. Really and truly, something like “Beer LaHai Roi” or “Lo Rachumah” are just too foreign. As to the few occurrences of Hosanna, this is a difficult question. It seems to me that following the traditional rendering results in 1. keeping the traditional flavor, and 2. causing a moderate amount of confusion. If were were to translate it as “Save!” or paraphrase it as “Praise God,” we would kill the tradition and introduce a small amount of confusion (alleviating more confusion than we sow). If we amend it to Hoshianna, then we introduce more confusion than was there in the first place. I’m undecided as to how re-Semitizing this would affect the tradition, but it would definitely introduce further confusion (for most Gentiles, at least).

    On a related note, what are your thoughts on marana tha (“Our Lord, come!”) or maran atha (“our Lord has come”)? Do English translations ever simply transliterate this Aramaic expression?

    … and what to do about Iscariot? Would he be Judah “the dyer,” or Judah “from Kerioth?” I would prefer either of those two renderings to simply “Iscariot.” That is so Septuagint to just transliterate an awkward phrasing. [And we could leave “Judah” and “Jacob” out of this, I suppose]

    Comment by Gary Simmons | November 25, 2009

  2. Fascinating post! Why the Greek transliteration by Mark (then Matthew and John)?1

    The LXX translators actually do a good job with Psalm 118:25 –

    ὦ κύριε σῶσον δή ὦ κύριε εὐόδωσον δή

    ho kurie soson de / ho kurie eudoson de

    compared with

    אָנָּא יְהוָה הֹושִׁיעָה נָּא אָֽנָּא יְהוָה הַצְלִיחָה נָּֽא׃

    ana —- hoshi’a na / ana —- tsalach’a na

    JPS (with similarities to KJV) seems to do well with the following:

    “We beseech Thee, O LORD, save now! / We beseech Thee, O LORD, make us now to prosper!”

    I like your questions here too, Gary. Willis Barnstone, who has retransliterated some of the English transliterations of Greek transliterations of the Hebrew, actually addresses the problems of “Judas.” (He also addresses the problems of “Jesus”). Barnstone “re-Semiticizes,” as you say, Gary. Interestingly, he keeps “hosanna” without a footnote to explain anything but the reference back to Psalms. See his Restored New Testament.

    Comment by J. K. Gayle | November 25, 2009

    • Ooh, thank you for the information, Kurk!

      I would like the flavor of re-Semitizing, but breaking the tradition would be more confusing that following it, just as swimming against the tide is always more tiring. However, if following the tide is something that would lead to drowning, then by all means fight the tide.

      So, my question: is this a drowning issue? Not with explanatory footnotes. Footnotes are floatie-pads.

      I hope this is an amusing metaphor.

      Comment by Gary Simmons | November 26, 2009

  3. Simile, rather. I use metaphor generically.

    Comment by Gary Simmons | November 26, 2009

  4. I like the JPS:

    “We beseech Thee, O LORD, save now! / We beseech Thee, O LORD, make us now to prosper!”

    Comment by bibleshockers | December 4, 2009

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