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…
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.