2018 was something of a departure from normal patterns for Ashe and for me. To the surprise of many, I did almost no checking of translation with Ashe, but focussed on studying 6 Ashe stories – some true, some folk tales. I had reasons to think this was absolutely necessary, and even though it’s taken much longer than I had hoped to get this far, I’m encouraged by the fruit and the potential we are starting to approach to do better Bible translation as a team.
The Frustration of Skipping the Discourse Study
I (David) had checked a lot of the translation of Luke’s gospel in Ishɛ from 2016-2017. We used back translations (explain it in English) to understand what the Ishɛ language was meaning, but often I really wanted to ask questions about translation choices that the translators were not able to answer adequately. All they could do was to say ‘this word in Ishɛ means this in English’. I was never satisfied with that but there was no more we could really do.
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?
Every week I drive past Peculiar International College and a shop titled Peculiar Cuts/Drycleaning. There’s a school bus (above) emblazoned with Peculiar Child. Why do I find this odd?
In Nigeria Peculiar means something/someone special, or precious to someone else. That’s what it used to mean in British English too, as you can see in the King James Version of the Bible where Christians are described as being a peculiar people. But languages don’t stand still, and so today peculiar has changed its meaning, from being a delightful epithet of worth to marking something strange or unusual.
Thus my friend Princeton had been perplexed to read in a novel about a ‘peculiar sight: a cat reading a notice board’. That just doesn’t make sense with the Nigerian (old) English meaning of the word, but does with the modern British use.
Nigeria: special and particularly precious, always in a good way
I had an interesting chat over the summer with someone wrestling with how to communicate ‘in Christ‘ in his location/language. This is an ongoing and troubling translation issue, because clearly ‘in Christ’ is an important topic in Paul’s writing and yet a little difficult to talk about clearly because it’s actually rather odd English.
‘In Christ’ is a somewhat literal rendering of the original Greek ἐν Χριστῳ and quite possibly a Hebrew/Aramaic original concept may underlie it.
Most people around the world speak more than one language.
That shouldn’t be news, but in the English-speaking monolingual world, we may need to remind ourselves of this fact.
One language may be used at home and informally, but in a multilingual world, it’s useful to be able to communicate with people who speak different languages. People with different home languages might share a common language or a ‘trade language’ (especially for the marketplace). These are known as ‘languages of wider communication’. English is obviously one, and so is Hausa (used in northern Nigeria), Mandarin Chinese (for China), Spanish etc. Unfortunately while I can greet people and buy my onions, tomatoes and dankali using Hausa, when I try to go much deeper in the language I come up against a problem:
A Language of Wider Communication frequently ends up being a Language of Wilder Confusion.
This presents itself to me whenever I try using Hausa examples in my teaching of linguistics and translation. (Actually it also happens when I use English examples too.) Is itace (dead) firewood or a tree? What about ice? What different words are there for kinds of cloth in Hausa? If you ask around you’ll find different answers. You could explain this as dialectal variation, and possibly this is the case, but that doesn’t necessarily help with the problem of trying to communicate meaningfully using languages of wider communication. What is fairly evident is that considerable variation arises because people learning a second language in later childhood or adulthood usually use the divisions of meaning from their first language.
Here’s an example. Ishɛ language has a word ushi and when an Ashɛ person learns English, they may be told that ushi is ‘bush’ in English… or ‘farm’… or ‘field’. Thereafter, when an Ashɛ person reads of ‘Moses and the burning bush’ in an English Bible they know exactly what it is, because they’ve seen how the stubble on farms or countryside (ushi) is burned after harvest. But that wasn’t what was happening.
This is a major problem when you’re trying to communicate with any certainty and precision. To use a language of wider communication well you really need very careful feedback to make sure you are actually understanding each other and not talking at cross-purposes. Otherwise you end up with languages of wilder confusion.
One feedback mechanism is to record all the mismatches we discover and learn from each other. So I thought I’d start a little series of blog posts on Languages of Wilder Confusion from what I’m learning in Nigeria, and particularly with Nigerian English vs British English. (Hey, maybe I’ll branch into American English problems too some time, but that is much better documented.)
Particularly dangerous are the words which just carry very different implications though they overlap in meaning. These ‘danger words’ are dangerous because nothing seems odd; they are perfectly understandable but just mean different things to speaker and listener.
Just under 2 weeks ago we were shocked by the news of a colleague’s sudden death.
Naboth Musa was only 23 years old, but had been a tremendous answer to prayer for the venerable Duya Bible Translation project. Most recently I had helped get him and his colleagues set up to record several books of the New Testament in Duya language ahead of a month of community testing, and he took to it surprisingly quickly.
Please, #pray for the family, friends, and colleagues of Naboth Musa, a member of the Duya translation team in #Nigeria, who died a few days ago. (In the attached photo he is wearing the checked shirt). He had only recently recorded Matthew, Galatians & Colossians on audio, pic.twitter.com/8qTP1gDKw9
Why do we so often struggle to start and maintain Bible translation projects and encourage the use of completed scriptures? Is it possible that we’re offering a solution to a problem that few really recognise?
And some followup questions:
If it’s not obvious to pastors and people that translating the Bible is a Good Thing™ then should we launch into it anyway? If we can only encourage a nibble of interest by dangling the carrot of ‘language preservation’ or ‘raising language status’ is it then a good idea to set a Bible translation in motion? What’s the point of taking years to build a lifeboat that no-one sees the need of? Build it and they will come? Really?
Increasingly often I seem to be learning that the more you know, the more you realise you don’t understand. There’s a particular kind of things I’m learning at the moment – English as a Language of Wider Confusion. Words that I’ve been using turn out to mean different things to my hearers than I intend and I keep realising that I’ve probably been misleading people completely unwittingly.
So far BUSH and JARGON have fallen. The latest victim is CONTEXT.