Translation Corner with Sam Freney


The book of Joel in the Old Testament describes a coming army that will devastate the land of Israel.

The army is depicted as a locust plague that will destroy the crops and livelihood of the people because of their rejection of God. Joel 2:3 says this, talking about the coming locust plague/army (NIV):

“Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, behind them, a desert waste—nothing escapes them.”

When we were checking the Pitjantjatjara translation of this passage earlier this year, I noticed they quite straightforwardly captured the lush ‘before’ picture like the garden of Eden, but they didn’t talk about the aftermath as a ‘desert’.

Instead, they said it was “totally destroyed”.

When I asked the team about this, it turned out that there’s not really a good word for desert they could use here. I found this fascinating—after all, Pitjantjatjara is a Western Desert Language, and traditional Pitjantjatjara lands are in the central Australian desert around and to the south of Uluru.

But this is a case where trying to come up with an accurate term for the word “desert” would result in a less accurate translation.

For a start, there’s no obvious word to choose so it’s going to end up sounding at least a bit unnatural.

But the communicative effect of choosing a word that reflects the kind of land the Pitjantjatjara people live in would knock the impact of this verse down a whole lot. You can imagine the response:

“Before, the land was beautiful and very green, but after this enormous destructive army came through it was just like the landscape where we’ve lived for thousands of years.”

Doesn’t sound too bad, really.

Accurate translations communicate the originally intended meaning, and not necessarily the words.

Sam Freney is translation consultant with Bible Society Australia. Sam works with heart language translators across Australia with the collective goal to translate the Bible in the most accurate, clear and natural way possible.

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