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On jisho.org, 使い is translated with words such as "errand", and the same holds true on translate.google.com. Neither site is offering "angel" as a suggestion. Yet in Matthew 1:20, the phrase:


is found in English as:

...an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said...

Does it mean "angel" or not? Is the Japanese saying something slightly different than "God no angel"? Thanks!

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2 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

使い doesn't mean angel in all contexts, but does mean "messenger/bearer/...". In particular, the usual word for "angel" is [天使]{てんし} or [天]{てん}の使い = "messenger from heaven". Here you don't have 天, but 主 "Lord/God".

As snailplane points out in the comments, the phrase "Angel of the Lord" should appear frequently. Wikipedia writes:

The Angel of the Lord (or the Angel of God) is one of many terms in the Hebrew Bible (also: Old Testament) used for an angel. The Biblical name for angel, מלאך malak, which translates simply as "messenger," obtained the further signification of "angel" only through the addition of God's name, as ("angel of the Lord," or "angel of God", Zech. 12:8).

The same in Japanese. 使い translates simply as "messenger" and only obtains the further signification of "angel" only through the addition of God's name (or through the honorific prefix [御]{み}, as in ssb's answer). In that sense, the Japanese 主の使い seems to be faithful to the original Hebrew.

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English angel comes from Greek ἄγγελος (angelos) "messenger", which was used to translate the Hebrew מלאך (mal'akh) "messenger". So it seems that etymologically speaking it's messengers all around. –  snailboat Jan 27 at 0:10
@snailplane So you're saying that the Greek/Hebrew version, whichever was the original text for this translation, most likely had "messenger of the Lord"? –  Earthliŋ Jan 27 at 0:12
Yes, that appears to be correct. I edited references into my first comment :-) –  snailboat Jan 27 at 0:13
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使い refers to someone sent to a specific place to fulfill a certain objective for someone else. In this purely semantic sense 主の使い would be an angel just because that's the role it is describing.

御{み}使い seems to be the "right" (or at least most direct) translation for angels in a Christian/biblical sense:

御使い(みつかい、 ヘブライ語: מלאך‎、ギリシア語: ἄγγελος)は、使者を意味する語であり、キリスト教で主の使いである

Notice that the definition above uses the term 主の使い itself. It appears that it is also a standard way to phrase things in a Christian context.

天使{てんし} applies more broadly to the concept of an angel in a faith-agnostic sort of way. 使い on its own also seems to have roots in Japanese traditional religions as a term for beings/animals acting as representatives of gods.

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I don't know why, but somehow I don't expect 御使い to be used in a translation of the bible. Maybe because it somewhat conflicts with the plain style I expect (i.e. plain style of verbs and no honorifics). –  Earthliŋ Jan 27 at 0:39
I throw out all expectations when it comes to biblical translations. Says plain as day, though: "御使い(みつかい、 ヘブライ語: מלאך‎、ギリシア語: ἄγγελος)は、使者を意味する語であり、キリスト教で主の使いである" –  ssb Jan 27 at 0:40
I guess I was wrong: Both the modern and literary translations on Wikisource use 御使. –  Earthliŋ Jan 27 at 0:46
@Earthling: What part don't you expect, the 御 or the 使い? In the case of the former, 御 is used on many things related to God in Japanese Christianity: 御父【おん・ちち】 (the Father), 御子【み・こ】 (the Son), 御霊【み・たま】 (the Spirit), [御使]{み・つ}い (angels, messenger), 御言葉【み・こと・ば】 (God's word / the scriptures), etc... –  istrasci Jan 27 at 1:25
@istrasci I didn't expect the 御, but I've never read a Japanese bible, so I guess I'm not acquainted with "bible speak". I guess it makes for better recitation, when the 御 is already added into the text. –  Earthliŋ Jan 27 at 1:32
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