Swearing

That’s another workshop finished and one issue that always crops up for translation teams is what to do with Key Biblical Terms – important words and concepts that have a lot of significance and come up throughout the Bible. Often there’s a term in the translators’ language that seems an instinctively good match, but which ends up giving completely the wrong idea to the reader/hearer. One such term is often ‘swear’.

Of course in English, that term really is somewhat ambiguous and for some reason ‘swearing’ 99% of the time in normal (British) talk means using filthy language. But the Hebrew word often translated ‘swear’ is a massively important word and the related concepts have almost nothing to do with our Anglo-Saxon 4-letter Soap Opera words. Instead ‘swearing’ is assuring someone that something is true (or that you will do something) by placing a curse on oneself in the name of a greater being than yourself if you are not in fact telling the truth. And a curse is also a significant term – much more serious than we would normally think about it. Interestingly God even “swore a swearing” (we’d normally say an ‘oath’) on himself, since there’s nothing greater than him.

In our team as we discussed the concepts, senses and implications of the terms, it seemed that they had a word and concept that matched the Hebrew very well; someone “curses/destroys their head”. That’s strange to mother-tongue English speakers but in discussion it really does seem like a good match.

But in other African languages it hasn’t worked out so well. It’s rather too easy to latch onto one part of the meaning, such as “invoking something/someone more powerful than you” and end up with something dangerously wrong. In several cases swearing has ended up being mistranslated as being somewhat like Voodoo/Juju cursing of enemies or ‘claiming’ blessings for yourself by incantation or invoking some spiritual power, or sacred object. It’s latched on to part of the underlying meaning but completely missed the point about the assurance of truth or solemn promise.

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