Head Hunting & Pumpkin Heads

There are quite a few steps involved in getting the Bible translated into another language. In between making a rough draft translation and the publication of Scripture are quite a few levels of checking and revising that are needed to be done. As we work with the people who are native speakers of the language, misunderstandings and mistakes can be made.

For this very reason, we must sit down with the national translators and go over the text verse-by-verse. In this checking process, some rather strange and funny translation stories can emerge. Below is one account by one of my colleagues in Papua New Guinea. She was working through the story of the beheading of John the Baptist in the book of Matthew.

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“This is just a general term for cutting. Can we use the special term that we have for cutting around the base of the skull to remove the head?” asked the national translator of the project. I thought about it for a second and didn’t see any major problem with using their special term for the decapitation of John the Baptist – it would definitely make it more vivid.

After I gave a slightly hesitant “yes” answer, he went on to explain that their ancestors along with the folks from a neighboring language group used to go up the Ramu River on regular raids taking captives and collecting heads. I had heard about the reputation of this group from another source, but I didn’t realize that the raiding included head-hunting. I think the national translator was a bit tickled by my obvious discomfort.

When I questioned them some more, they assured me that the head-hunting had all ended before World War II. They had just grown up hearing all of the stories and enjoying the notoriety that this had given to their language group. For over four weeks, the translation team and I were cloistered away in the conference room during the work week as we worked our way verse by verse through the book of Matthew.

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On the days in which we ran into major problems and only completed 20 verses, I despaired of ever getting done, but then there were days when we were able to complete 2 chapters. In the process we found lots of “bloopers” both big and small. Here is one of my favorite ones.

When we reached Mat 5.29 — “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also,” — I asked the checkers to demonstrate the verse and they got it right, but they really struggled and kept saying that something was wrong with the translation. Finally, one of the checkers was able to identify the “turn” verb as the source of the problem and the national translator started laughing when he understood the problem.

He then demonstrated by doing a pirouette and said that the person was hit on one side of his face and then did a pirouette and was hit on the other side. Somehow I don’t think the pirouette was part of the original story, though I could imagine Jesus laughing at this version of the story.

Praise God with me that this translation project is now one book closer to having the entire NT checked.

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This past month, I have had the privilege to do the Advisor Check with a different group of national translators on their translation of the book of John. We too spent hour after hour for four weeks looking at the text. We would start at the verse level, then go to the sentence level and phrase level, and then even look intently at individual words and terms.

Things were moving along in our checking, and then something really funny happened. We had already dealt many times with the special term “the Jews”. In John’s Gospel, about half the time this term does refer to the people of the nation, and so we would translate it as “the Juda people”. But the other half of the time, John uses the term to refer to the Jewish authorities.

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To handle this in the pidgin trade language, I had said that this could be translated as “the big men of Juda” or the “head men of Juda”. Well, at one point the team had thought I had doubled this up and had said, “the big head men of Juda”. They hadn’t said anything for a few days, but on one day, one of the men thought about this term and burst out laughing.

This man shared his funny thought with the other men in his village language and then they all burst out laughing. It took them quite a few minutes to stop laughing and finally the one man was able to get control of himself and tell me the joke. This is what he said:

“If we translate this term the way you have described it, when the people hear this, they will wonder, ‘What kind of strange men are these?’ They have never seen people that have really, really big heads!”

When he said that, he put his hands about two feet apart, and then the humour of the joke hit me. If we doubled up the expression with both “big” and “head”, then they would be “big-headed men” and it would conjure up the idea of men walking around with heads the size of large pumpkins.

Needless to say, we changed the translation to say, “the head men of Juda”. Even though the Jewish authorities were the enemies of Jesus, we did not want people to think that they were stranger than they already were. And thankfully the national translator caught this one. That’s why we do all the checking that we do.

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