‘When you have more than one right word’

Translation Corner with Sam Freney

‘When you have more than one right word’

Not having a word for something in a language is pretty common, especially when comparing to English. Australian languages are usually initially translated from English and then checked later from Hebrew/Greek, so let’s talk about English for a second here. 

There are a lot of English words. The Oxford English Dictionary has over 170,000 words that are in common use, plus lots of archaic ones.

The online Yolŋu Matha dictionary, which covers a number of languages/dialects within that group, has a bit over 8,000 words. The latter isn’t aiming to be comprehensive like the former is, and there are lots of words that aren’t in that Yolŋu dictionary, but the numbers still tell a story.

There are some cases, however, where English is under-specified compared to other languages. Famously, ‘you’ can either be singular or plural.

It does double duty: I can say ‘Natasha, you did a great job last night’ and ‘Hey guys, you do great work’ and I use ‘you’ for both singular and plural. Some dialects of English get around this with plural forms, like y’allyouse, or you mob.

Lots of Aboriginal languages, however, specify pronouns a lot more. As an example let’s stick with Yolŋu Matha (an East Arnhem language group, and Gupapuyŋu in particular here):

  • There are singular forms, just like English. There’s a first person singular form ‘I’: ŋarra. There’s a second person singular ‘you’: nhe.
  • The third person singular form is not marked for gender, so ŋayi could be ‘he’ or ‘she’ or ‘it’.
  • There are plural forms too: plural ‘you’ is nhuma; ‘they’ is walala.
  • But! There’s also dual forms, for two people. Not one; not three or more. If I want to talk about two people in particular, ‘Those two, Simon and Susannah, talked about publishing at Vision day’ I would say ŋali (‘those two’) and not walala (‘they’).
  • It gets more complicated when you include yourself. You might want to include your audience, or you might want to exclude them. So, for example, I had lunch with a group of friends yesterday. If I’m talking to that group of friends, I’d say ‘limurru (we, including you lot) had lunch’, but to the rest of you I’d say ‘napurru (we, but not you) had lunch’.
  • There’s corresponding inclusive and exclusive dual terms as well. ŋali is ‘me and you’, but linyu is ‘me and that person, but not you’.

That’s a whole lot of detail about a language you probably have nothing to do with (except maybe for listening to Baker Boy lyrics).

But it just goes to show that there’s always different levels of language to be aware of in translation. Much of this is basically automatic for mother tongue speakers, but we do need to be aware of it so we can check that the right people are being addressed or included in translation of the Bible.

A translation is going to fall very flat if you write ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name’ but you use the wrong ‘you’.

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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