Category Archives: Language

Making the most of being confused

Looking back I sometimes think I spent large chunks of my childhood not really knowing what on earth was going on, and being quite aware of it (yet not particularly troubled by it). And I’ve come to realise that being confused, and being aware of being confused is actually quite a helpful thing. In particular, where translation is concerned – and Bible translation is my own focus – I think there’s a lot you can learn from situations where you are confused. And rushing to sort out the confusion may well make you miss a wonderful learning opportunity. Are you confused yet? Let me explain with a riddle:

Living in Nigeria I’ve often heard friends talking about ‘licking an orange’. That just sounds odd to me. But watch someone ‘licking an orange’ and they are really ‘eating’ the orange.

Continue reading Making the most of being confused

A time to plant or a time to kill?

Several people balancing on each other to form a very precarious looking human tower at the Gworog traditional festival 2014
Human tower at the Gworog traditional festival 2014: Writing Gworog can be rather precarious too!

It’s been a while since I wrote anything about the Gworog project. That’s largely because the project has faced personnel management issues and then a funding crisis, and then technical problems and they just haven’t had much for me to work on. I’ve also been pretty busy. But yesterday I had a (nother) meeting with the Gworog translation coordinator and 3 other linguists and literacy people to help come up with a plan for a really necessary meeting.

Perhaps to you “Community Orthography Consensus Meeting” doesn’t necessarily sound like the world’s most exciting knees-up but it could really be a matter of life and death.

Let me back up and explain a couple of things about the Gworog language. Continue reading A time to plant or a time to kill?

Correct Beer

For several months we were all mildly tickled by a massive billboard advert we would pass on our way back from church each Sunday.

In astonishing simplicity it proclaimed “Correct Beer” in huge lettering beside a row of bottles. I was about to snap a picture but just before I did they changed the advert. (Fortunately Google is my friend and here we are:)

Why were we amused?

Because everyone knows (even our children) that the choice of beer isn’t a correct/incorrect kind of choice, but a preference. “Correct God” maybe, “Correct Answer” when you have claimed that 2+2=4, but not “Correct Beer”.

So then why was that phrasing chosen?

Taking note of how I have heard Nigerians use the word “Correct” it seems to be focussed less on a mathematical notion of rightness than on a general affirmation that something is good and praiseworthy. It’s not simply something that can be verified scientifically or a fact which is demonstrably true. And thus clothing which is smart might be described as “Correct Dress”. (I am often complemented by checkpoint soldiers/police on my wearing of “native dresses”, but that’s another story.)

In other words, “Correct” in this Nigerian English means something like “Best” in my own dialect and the praiseworthiness of the beer is just an assertion of the advertiser’s opinion. If in fact the choice of beer was a correct/incorrect matter, then really there would not have been so much need to advertise it; it would have been self-evident.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I think there may be a link with this post on the idea of a ‘correct text’ and biblical inerrancy, but I haven’t explored that yet.

Stomach Infrastructure?!

Sometimes – and especially when crossing cultures and using languages of wider communication – I come across things that people have written where I understand all the words but haven’t the faintest notion about what is really meant. Here’s a prime example, from the Nigerian news site naij.com:

He said: “This year will be a year of the empowerment of our people. While we are doing projects, we will be doing stomach infrastructure.

“Our stomach infrastructure this year will go round the people. We will transform the state in all ramifications.”

A crazy autocorrect mistake? A Nigerianism? Politicianism? Or some jargon I have never come across? Suggestions and answers please below.

(Image courtesy WebMD)

 

It sounds odd when you put it like that… but actually it’s just how we say it

I spent the last week working with the Koro Ashe Translation team again. They are based 3 hours to the west but we worked this week in Jos. (If you receive news and prayer requests from Wycliffe.org.uk you might have heard mention of them as they are supported in particular by some British churches.)

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Some more interesting features of Ashe language came out in Luke 12, where Jesus says he has come not to bring peace but division. ‘Peace’ is expressed as ‘lying heart’ (that is, ‘restful mind’) which had me rather puzzled until it was explained. And where I was expecting a mother-in-law to pop up divided against her daughter-in-law, we ended up with ‘grandmother’. Ashe uses ingkoko ‘grandmother’ and then wife-of-her-son in this situation. That is one of those situations where it sounds odd in English, but everything is OK as far as the Ashe translation is concerned; they had done their job well. Merely translating the 3 English words ‘mother-in-law’ piece-by-piece would have been perplexing and meaningless and also not faithful to the original Greek.

Unexpectedly familiar: ‘Bean pods’ of Luke 15

Last week I made a discovery that surprised both me and the translation team I was working with: that the ‘bean pods’ the young prodigal of Luke 15 wanted to ‘fill himself with’ neither the generic food scraps we might think, or the sloppy grain-husk-porridge people feed pigs with here but were the fruit of a tree very familiar to us in West Africa.

To be fair we are not the first people to have made this discovery since the information was sitting in dictionaries and translators’ helps waiting to be uncovered, but the fact is we were all so sure we understood what the boy fed the pigs that we didn’t even consider it might be wrong. Continue reading Unexpectedly familiar: ‘Bean pods’ of Luke 15

Languages of Wilder Confusion: hidden dangers for international collaboration

I’ve appreciated the numerous short, thought-provoking articles Jim Harries has written (and also here) on topics of cross-cultural communication. One that got my attention recently was Building Castles in the Sky: A case for the use of indigenous languages and resources in Western mission-partnerships to Africa, particularly in the light of 2 realities which are close to home for me:

  1. For my work as a Bible translation consultant (in training) I am reliant on using languages of wider communication (mostly English, with little bits of Hausa) to discuss the meaning of parts of the Bible and help translators check and improve their work. I am very aware of the dangers and pitfalls that this entails.
    1. (Why is this a reality for me? I’m rather slow and poor at learning to speak languages, and work with far too many languages to attempt it.)
  2. There is a real push amongst some Americans who want to “accelerate Bible translation” to resource and partner directly with local churches around the world and to cut out the missionary middle man, as it were. This is possible because more and more non-Western partners are able to communicate in Western languages of wider communication(English, Spanish, French).

Jim warns that great danger lurks here.   Continue reading Languages of Wilder Confusion: hidden dangers for international collaboration