‘When you don’t have the right word’

Translation Corner with Sam Freney

‘When you don’t have the right word’

There are no two languages on earth that have a neat one-to-one mapping of words.

Any given word always has a range of meaning that may or may not match to the word used in translation. It happens a lot in English Bible translations too, but we often don’t notice it because we’ve spent a few hundred years getting used to some rather odd phrases that have come from rather directly translating the Bible.

Tyndale coined the word ‘atonement’, for example, to translate the (rather rare) Greek word ἱλαστήριον from Romans 3:25.

We’re pretty used to that word now because it’s been in English usage for a few hundred years, but Tyndale looked around at the rest of the English vocabulary and pulled together a few different things to mean “at-one-ment”, which rather nicely describes our union with Christ because of his sacrifice for us.

Sometimes when you don’t have a good word you can just transliterate it—that is, write down the same sounds using the symbols of your language. This is most obvious in names for things or currency in the Bible: a ‘denarius’ is writing the Greek word δηνάριον using English/Roman script.

When the Bible is being translated into Australian Indigenous languages, this is a common problem to solve. The world of the Bible frequently has words and terms that have no equivalent in the language of people from, say, the Australian desert.

For example, some time ago the Walpiri people of central Northern Territory were translating this saying of Jesus:

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:25; Matt 19:24; Luke 18:25)

There’s been plenty of camels out in the centre of Australia for a long time, so the word ‘camel’ could be translated fine. But ‘needle’ (let alone the idiom ‘eye of a needle’)?

There was no traditional language equivalent for that. So the translation team figured they had a few options:

  • They could transliterate ‘needle’, probably as something like ’niidul’. Downsides are that it’s not a self-explanatory word, and you’d probably need a picture to go along with it.
  • They could replace the word with an explanatory phrase, something like ‘a metal tool that whitefellas use to mend their clothes’. Downside is that it’s pretty cumbersome.
  • Because camels going through the eyes of needles is not a metaphor that has lots of other parts of Scripture built on it, another possibility is to change the details of the metaphor in order to communicate the meaning.

This last option is what they went with. The Warlpiri translation of this verse has Jesus saying,

“Does a camel go into the hole of an ant’s nest? No. Likewise a rich person won’t go into God’s kingdom”.

But this process can become harder, because sometimes word choices have big implications for interpretation in other parts of the Bible.

In Pitjantjatjara, there’s basically only one word for leader, boss, ruler, or someone in a hierarchy. Mayatja was a loan-word from English, from either ‘mayor’ or ‘major’, and is used for your boss at work, the local council, and for king.

In the NT, Jesus is the ‘big mayatja’ to distinguish him from the leaders (mayatja) of the Jews.

Last year the Pitjantjatjara translation team was working on 1 Samuel, where the main story is about the transition from judges to kings. Because both judges and kings are leaders of Israel, they’re both translated using this word mayatja.

Sometimes judges are called ‘a mayatja who help us sort out problems’, reflecting their judicial function (cf. Jdg 4:4–5; 1 Sam 7:15). Sometime the king is called ‘a mayatja who fights for us and protects us’.

As you read through 1 Samuel, these are pretty accurate descriptions of the function of these two types of leaders.

However, in 1 Samuel 8, when the people ask for a king, they ask for a king so they can be just like all the other nations. And they ask for a king in a way that is almost perfectly opposite to God’s vision for judges and kings in Deuteronomy 17.

They ask for a king who will judge us (that’s fine), but who will also go out before us and fight our battles for us (that’s meant to be God’s job). This is a sinful request from the people. That means if in your translation you define ‘king’ as ‘a leader who fights for us’ you’ve always got a faint memory of the rejection of God by Israel in the term itself.

So the Pitjantjatjara team decided to use a new word. It’s kinga for, you guessed it, ‘king’.

It doesn’t have any description attached that colours your interpretation.

As more of the Bible is translated and updated Pitjantjatjara Christians will be able to read about kinga David, the coming kinga promised by God in the prophets, through to Jesus who says to Pilate that yes he is a king, but he’s not a king like those others on this earth.

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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Join as we look at all things clarity, accuracy, acceptability, and more in a general series of Bible translation tidbits from around our region.

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