One of my favourite short articles about Bible translation was written 56 years ago by Constance Naish and Gillian Story working among Tlingit people in Alaska. They reflect on how the interpreters for the first missionaries there 100 years ago (mis-)understood the Bible. It’s comic and tragic and repeated in some similar way every day in parts of Nigeria. As we work with people to study their language and the Bible we gradually get to unpick some of the confusions which in our case have often been baked into the reading of the Bible for a few generations, now.
The original article is hard to find, so I’ve re-typed it here.
“The Lord is my shepherd…” and I am His sheep—isn’t this the sense in which we understand this phrase as the result of long familiarity with the Twenty-thrd Psalm? But couldn’t it mean instead, “The Lord is the one who herds sheep for me?” It was in some such sense that a Tlingit interpreter for some of the early missionaries understood it. His interpretation of the opening verses of this Psalm was later translated back again from Tlingit into English like this:
The Lord is my goat hunter;
I don’t want Him.
He knocks me down on the mountain:
He drags me down to the beach…
The Tlingits had no domestic animals, apart from hunting dogs , and a mountain goat was the closest thing they knew to a sheet. Who would think of herding the sure-footed mountain goats? But in the northern limits of the Tlingit area goats could be hunted, so The Lord is my goat hunter.
“I shall not want” is not the normal form of expression for a modern speaker of English (even in 1900), and a Tlingit who had newly learned English, when most of his people still spoke nothing but Tlingit, might well be expected to be stumbled by it. “I shall not want”—surely an object must be supplied? Hence the interpretation comes out, I don’t want Him.
“He maketh me to lie down…” Familiarity with a shepherd’s care for his sheep helps us to understand this, but how would one make a mountain goat lie down?!
How did “green pastures” become “the mountain”? In this area the forests of spruce and hemlock come right down to the water’s edge and at the lower levels are broken only by muskeg swamps or by groups of houses in cleared land. At the higher levels on the mountains there are clearings where the little plant called deer cabbage grows in abundance, the nearest equivalent to a meadow as we know it. So with no knowledge of the pasture or the shepherd comes the statement, He knocks me down on the mountain.
“He leadeth me beside the still waters.” What happened to this sentence? There is more than one word in Tlingit that could be used to translate the word “lead.” Probably the interpreter used the one that means “to lead on a string,” as a protesting animal might be led. He failed to visualise correctly the picture presented in the Psalm. As for the “still waters,” a little word meaning really “down to the water’s edge” was probably used here. Since the beach is the most common “water’s edge” in this area of coastlands and islands, this was the picture conjured up for the Tlingit listeners: He drags me down to the beach.
Today (1962, about fifty years later) it is not likely that any Tlingit would make quite these mistakes. Even if they have never seen a live sheep, probably they have all seen pictures of them. But the same kind of mistakes are still with us today. We meet them in translation of verses, of Bible stories and the choruses that the Tlingits sing. (Over conscientiousness in rendering and “exact” translation leads some to produce masterpieces of literalism, with little real meaning!) They are present, too, when a Tlingit studies for himself the Authorised Version, as some of the Christians are doing. But above all, they are present in the minds of the old folks who don’t know enough English to interpret for themselves.
Back to David: What I love about this is that it’s all very logical — based on the listeners making the most they can of working out the meaning from the knowledge they have. It’s mostly in translation checking sessions that we uncover such gems these days in Nigeria, such as the mysterious case of the heavenly host.