‘Cultural Context’

Translation Corner with Sam Freney

‘Cultural Context’

Word choice in translation is very rarely an isolated decision. As English speakers with many many (many!) different Bible translations available to us, we often think about different translations and think that the more ‘literal’ or ‘word-for-word’ translations are more accurate because they tell us what the original words are and what they mean.

I think there are several reasons why that’s not the case, but here I want to explore just one: how we go about choosing individual words.

Our word choices are bound to our cultural context. 

Sometimes that background comes through less as a sharp line of knowing a word or not, but more of a vibe.

The Greek word peristera (περιστερά) refers to a bird of the Columbidae family. That is, a dove or a pigeon. In the OT it almost always translates the Hebrew term yonah (יוֹנָה). Very frequently it’s a sacrificial animal (e.g. Gen 15:9, Lev 1:14), especially for poor people who can’t afford a lamb (Lev 5:7). It’s also a common metaphor for a beloved partner throughout Song of Songs.

The NIV almost always translates peristera as “dove”, except for when it occurs in Leviticus, where it’s translated as “pigeon”. In these Leviticus passages it’s paired up with another related term ‘turtledove’ (Greek trugon, τρυγών, Hebrew tor, תּוֹר). Presumably to differentiate between the two options given for a sacrificial animal, the NIV says:

“But if he cannot afford an animal from the flock, then he may bring to the LORD two turtledoves or two young pigeons as penalty for guilt for his sin—one as a sin offering and the other as a burnt offering.” (Lev 5:7)

According to the Pigeonpedia “doves and pigeons are technically the same thing”. It’s the same family, with a number of different species.

There can be very good reasons for choosing one word over the other. One might have much more recognition in a particular culture or location – the Australian Plain English Version characteristically uses ‘pigeon’ instead of ‘dove’. But there can be a perceived difference between a dove and a pigeon.

There’s a vibe. Check out these quotations from the Plain English Version:

“So Noah let a pigeon go out of the window. But the flood water still covered the ground, and the pigeon couldn’t find a place to stop and rest, so it went back to the big boat. Noah held out his hand for the bird, and he helped it back into the boat.” (Genesis 8:8–9, PEV)

“So John baptised Jesus. And as Jesus came up out of the water, the sky opened up, and Jesus saw the spirit of God coming down like a pigeon, and landing on him.” (Matthew 3:16, PEV)

“And Jesus went to the men that sold pigeons, and he shouted, “Get those birds out of here. This is my father’s house. Stop turning it into a shop.” (John 2:16, PEV)

Do you do a double-take on any of these? What is your bank of connotations and associations with ‘pigeon’ over against ‘dove’ doing for you as you read these? Or what if we took one of the many metaphorical uses in Song of Songs and substituted one for the other?

“How beautiful you are, my darling! Oh, how beautiful! Your eyes are pigeons.” (Song of Songs 1:15, NIV [mostly])

It’s not going to be the same for everybody, but for me at least I have a cultural stock that designates ‘dove’ as pure and beautiful and delightful and designates ‘pigeon’ as a rat with wings.

Like every translation choice, there’s lots of factors to weigh up. Cultural background and connotations are one factor. The vibe’s important.

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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