‘Classification Systems’

Translation Corner with Sam Freney

‘Classification Systems’

Something that we sometimes need to take account of in translation is the difference in scope between different terms. We often have certain words that refer to a particular grouping on a spectrum, with a dividing line that’s reasonably well understood – but another language may have a division that is in a very different place.

Some languages, for example, have one term that refers to both sheep and goats. Some languages distinguish colours more than English does – for example ‘blue’ and ‘light blue’ are distinct vocabulary items in Greek; ‘dark blue’ and ‘light blue’ are quite different words in Russian.

This is sometimes important in surprising ways. Working on the nativity story from Luke 2, where the infant Jesus is laid down in the manger, a few Indigenous languages described the ‘manger’ as ‘the feeding box for animals in the place where they ate’.

“What animals were they?”, some of them wanted to know. Because it mattered quite a bit in their language which type of animal – they had separate words and grammatical constructions depending on whether the animals who might have been hanging around that part of the house were sheep, oxen, or something else.

Classification systems can be built into a language structure itself. You might have heard about ‘grammatical gender’, which some languages have for nouns (‘thing’ words). In French, for example, ‘bread’ is ‘le pain’ – a ‘masculine’ noun.

In German, ‘duck’ is ‘die Ente’ – a ‘feminine’ noun. Neither of these are because of any gendered or sexed characteristics inherent in the thing itself, it’s just how the language works by having everything have a gender.

This gender affects the grammatical structure of the sentence.

Mawng is an Indigenous language from the Northern Territory. It has five grammatical genders: 

  • Masculine: male humans, most animals, some birds, snakes, song, the moon, meat, honey.
  • Feminine: female humans, crabs, some birds, some animals, the sun.
  • Land: land, landscape features, liquids, stories, customs, knowledge, language, rocks/stones.
  • Vegetation: most plants, non-edible parts, plant products, wood.
  • Edible: all edible plant products, buildings and other household items, wind.

This means that sometimes, Mawng speakers will need to classify things differently to English, and not necessarily group everything together in quite the same way we might.

Just like with some languages needing more specific information on the direction people travel in, some languages need more detail on what type of thing we’re talking about.

That means having some really good contextual knowledge of what would have typically happened in the time of these biblical events, so we can make some good decisions about how to best translate something we might not have ever realised we needed to translate.

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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