Bible Translation Bloopers

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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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God’s Plans For Training National Translators

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“Go To PLAN B!”

[Editor’s Note: the following story and petitions for prayer were written in August, 2010 by one of our career missionaries who live in the town of Madang, Papua New Guinea. ]

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“Flight cancelled! Flight cancelled! Another flight cancelled. All of our scheduled small plane and helicopter flights to Madang were cancelled due to rain and clouds on that day in July. Oh no! That was the day national translators were due to come in from the bush [Editor: the remote jungle regions of Papua New Guinea] for the Village Checking and Back Translation Course. So what did we do? We switched to Plan B!

We loaded the truck from the Nobonob Training Center with those who came in by PMV (Public Motor Vehicle) along with our Madang PBT staff and helpers and headed on up the hill to Nobonob. With only half of the students and teachers available for the first day of the course, the classes were combined and all the students began translating the five shellbook series ‘How the Jews Live’, which had been scheduled as a Saturday elective. This series of books provides cultural information that will assist the national translators in understanding foreign concepts found in the Bible.

The following day, the rest of the students and teachers arrived at Nobonob, and we were able to split the group into the planned two sessions and proceed with training that will hopefully enable national translators to progress beyond the rough draft stage of translation on their own and improve the quality of the vernacular translations they bring in for consultant checking.”

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Gratitude For Great Helpers

“We are grateful to Wycliffe Bible Translators for renting us their Nobonob Pacific Orientation Course facilities located on a beautiful hilltop location not far from Madang. We were also thankful for them providing meals for some 60 participants for this three week course. Though official plans have been drawn up for PBT’s proposed national translators’ housing in Madang, we do not have space for such a course as this, which involved national translators from nine different language groups. Please pray that sufficient funding will be available to begin construction on this project this fall or early next year.”

[Editor’s Note:  By faith, last year in 2011, the members of our PNG Branch of Pioneer Bible Translators made the decision to go ahead and construct a two-story building in Madang.  This facility will have 10 rooms with two beds each, two family rooms, and two large conference size rooms for teams who are working on Bible translation projects.  Praise God for the funds that have come in to have it mostly paid for.]

“We also rejoice that a former PBT translator was able to come from the U.S. to serve as a mentor for one of the language teams. He and our summer mission interns mentored several language groups. The interns also performed a myriad of other important tasks including a great deal of data entry and presentation of devotional thoughts in Tok Pisin, the trade language of PNG, which all of the language groups present could understand. The interns had worked hard to learn as much Pidgin as they could during their brief stay in PNG villages prior to the course.”

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Farewells & Prayer Concerns

“Our eleven summer interns returned to the USA August 10th, along with one of our Short-term Assistant ladies who oversaw most of the logistical needs for the Branch. Her service this past year has proved invaluable, and with her gone, that will leave a big hole in the operations of our Branch. But we pray some of them will eventually return to serve again with us here in PNG. Please pray with us about this.

Please also be praying:

  • That those who attended the Village Checking and Back Translation Course will be able to put their newly learned skills to good use.
  • For sufficient funds to construct our much needed National Translators’ Housing here in Madang
  • For our summer interns and the Short-term Assistant while they are back in the United States. Continue to pray for God’s guidance as to where and how they will serve Him.
  • For continued success in recruiting new workers to help complete the task of providing God’s Word for the Bible-less peoples of the world. The needs of our mission staff here in PNG are great.”

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[Editor’s Closing Note: there was certainly a lot of logistical details that went into the planning and execution of this program to bring 41 national men and women, and 21 missionaries and summer interns together to have this training course.  Things often go wrong in all that we try to do here in PNG, simply because of the rugged nature of the country and the unpredictability of the weather.

But we have lots to be praising God for now at this point.  We have a good number of national Bible translators who have had some training to get this task done of bringing God’s Word to the people of PNG in the language of their hearts.  It is a slow process and there is much to be done in doing a translation of Scripture as you will see in the next part of this two-part article.

And we also are constantly praising God for all the people who pray for this ministry of Bible translation in PNG, and those who support the work we do financially.  Without their help and God’s sustaining hand, we would not be able to accomplish this task for Him.  Together, we are all a part of a large team who are committed to bringing the Gospel to the ends of the earth.]