A Host of Problems

The Rowbory/Nigeria Family Blog

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A Host of Problems

In the course of trying to compare the style of natural storytelling in Koro Wachi language with what’s in the Bible, we looked at a seasonally appropriate passage:


“That time, angels that accepted strangers in heaven many appeared and they came with the angels.”

Luke 2:13, the Koro Wachi translation draft, as explained in English.

That’s how the Koro Wachi translator explained the current translation of Luke 2:13. I must admit I was somewhat puzzled as I asked about each word of the Koro translation in turn. It wasn’t what I was quite expecting. Suddenly the penny dropped! Of course! Who welcomes strangers but a generous “host”? And this is what the original Koro Wachi translator understood when he read Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared… in his NIV Bible. If these were heavenly hosts then they must be angels welcoming people to heaven. It all makes some kind of sense.

But of course it’s based on a tragic misunderstanding of the NIV English. Had the original translator looked at the Good News version ‘a great army of heaven’s angels’ then they may have done better, but how were they to know what to choose? Since ‘host’ (one welcoming guests) is a familiar concept and ‘heavenly host’ features in not only the NIV but in the KJV, ASV, ESV, RSV, NRSV, NASB (even the NLT!) why would a bilingual translator who considered himself to know English adequately suspect anything could be wrong?

Being hosted by Pastor Joseph, last year. He was a very good host.
Photo: David Rowbory

This kind of happening reminds me why translation assistants/consultants like me still may have a role. I don’t blame the current translators because they weren’t the ones who first drafted that translation, but as Jonathan explained it to me piece by piece he didn’t remark on anything being wrong. It’s quite likely that a good many Koro Wachi people have read or heard this story in English and share the same misconception, if they even think too much of the story at all. So other people wouldn’t necessarily pick up on the problem.

Does it matter?

We think that the Bible is coherent (even if occasionally difficult) and was supposed to be understood with the same mental faculties we use for all other communication, so if it randomly comes out sounding like incoherent nonsense, then we’re really not going to build the church well. The privilege of working alongside translators is that we get to walk with them discovering what the Bible’s really saying, straightening out misunderstandings they, we and others might have.

Last week in conversation with the translation team someone asked how much of the Bible seemed clear to them and with a slightly sheepish smile one translator admitted that perhaps not very much seemed clear. Several other times when working with other theological students and translators I’ve realised that almost nothing they read in English could be considered clear. In much the same way that I stagger my way through Hausa greetings and conversations, they listen out for key words or phrases and guess at everything they don’t understand in between. Sometimes it may not matter, but it’s a very shaky foundation for trust in a God who gave the Law, the Prophets and sent his son to communicate with people in whatever language they understood.

David, Jonathan and Ibrahim working on the Waci translation
Photo: Jonathan Barnhoorn

Praise and thanks at Christmas time

So perhaps as you read through the familiar Christmas story, and remember the “heavenly host”, could you remember to pray for the Koro people (and many others like them) who catch snatches of the story and want to believe, but who haven’t too much clarity on what they’re believing and why. Pray that God would make things clear, and help us as we strive for that goal in our translation work. Wading through a morass of misunderstandings, the clarity and certainty we seek seems often out of reach.

We’re so grateful to our family and friends who support us so that we can live here and get involved in this great task. Although we often use English and Hausa as languages of wider communication, it’s very clear that throwing even excellent written resources at people often isn’t going to help very well. What makes a difference is having lots of face-to-face interaction and a growing understanding of their culture and language. And while we’re looking to make an impact in the wider community, I’m reminded that sometimes the greatest impact we see at this stage is in the translators themselves as they gradually become aware of what the Bible actually means, aware of how much they had never really understood well, and aware of what God has told us about himself. There’s a lot for us to learn too!

Geekish extras:

Where on earth did the ‘hosts’ come from anyway?

Intriguingly, Tyndale had a multitude of hevenly sowdiers, the 1599 Geneva Bible used souldiers where the Vulgate had militia and the Greek στρατιᾶς. So why on earth did KJV and most who revised it end up with ‘hosts’? My guess is that quite possibly for the sake of getting official approval and sounding nice and grand, the KJV committee chose the medieval Latinate word ‘host’ here and bequeathed us ‘hosts’ of trouble. Perhaps we have a little insight into the problems that can come from key terms being influenced by languages of power. But that’s just my guess.

ps. NET uses ‘heavenly army’ and CEV ‘many other angels’.

pps. Did you notice that in the English explanation of the Koro Wachi translation, it said “…they came with the ANGELS”? Yes, it should have been singular, but the Koro Wachi has it plural. That doesn’t make sense.

ppps. ‘Angels’ probably is understood somewhat vaguely as ‘spirits’ in this language. Quite what readers/hearers will have in mind I don’t really know. We need to ask more questions.

A heavenly host(ess)?
Photo: David Rowbory

Comments: 2

  1. Daniel Gya says:

    Keep doing the great Job, David and Waci team!

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