Tag Archives: Bible translation

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Celebration!

Celebration!

Rev Abraham Ayiakwo, Judy & Philip Hewer and Rev Jonah Kwotua celebrate completion of work on the Kasem Bible, after working for three weeks with the GILLBT typesetter, John Sidsaya. The text of the Bible was “signed off” at 11 am on Friday 22nd November 2013, to say that no more changes would be made, and giving the go-ahead for final formatting prior to sending to the printers in South Korea. The Kasem New Testament was published in 1988 and work started on the translation of the Old Testament 10 years later.

See more news here.

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Sweet-heart gifts

In a couple of days we leave for a 6-week visit to Ghana to work with the translation team on the Kasem Bible. We are working towards having the Bible ready to start the publication process in November this year, and there are a lot of details to pick up on. Here is one example.

There are several different kinds of sacrifices and offerings described in the Old Testament, with details of when they are to be offered and for what purpose. Alongside these “obligatory” offerings, there is the opportunity for the people of Israel to bring “freewill” offerings that are presented to God on a voluntary basis. These might be to help with a particular need within the community of God’s people, e.g. work on the sanctuary (Exodus 36:3), or to express personal thanksgiving for God’s blessing (Deuteronomy 16:10).

In checking the consistency of  how we had translated the Hebrew term נְדָבָה (nǝdabah) I found we had used two expressions. Firstly there was “own-thinking gifts”, focusing on the element of choice. But we had also in some places used “sweet-inside gifts”, focusing more on the generosity of a gift one is not obliged to make. Kasem uses a lot of idioms based on body parts to express attitudes and emotions. In this case the “inside” (wo) is the equivalent of the heart, as used in English expressions. These would be gifts made from a sweet-heart (wo-ywoŋo pɛɛra), expressing the generous attitude with which they are made.

We have to decide which of these expressions would be better for translating “freewill offerings” and then check the consistency of translation for all 26 occurrences of the Hebrew term. This process needs to be repeated for many terms and expressions. We thank God for excellent software to assist in the task.

As a final warning, Kasem idioms are not always what they seem. To have a warm heart (n wo lona) means you are stingy. So I hope today your heart is sweet rather than warm.

Away with the manger?

With all the glitz surrounding Christmas it can be hard to disentangle the facts from the questionable add-ons. How many kings were there? Were they actually kings, anyway?   How long after the baby’s birth did they come? Did they kneel in the stable?

We can at least hold on to the manger as the place where the new-born baby was placed, but what was the manger like? And what of the inn, the hard-hearted inn-keepers and the stable which provide the essential plot-line for so many nativity plays?

Recently reading Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth E. Bailey, I have had my mind opened up to an alternative Christmas scenario which seems very convincing and which makes me question some of the long-accepted backdrop to the world-shaking birth of the long-promised Messiah:

While they were there [in Bethlehem], the time came for the baby to be born,  and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
                                              Luke 2:6-7 New International Version

Much of Bailey’s reasoning centres around the Greek word traditionally translated in most English versions as “inn”, katalyma. Significantly, this is not the word for a commercial inn, providing rooms for strangers in return for payment. That word is pandocheion, as used in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:34-35). katalyma is a more general word for a lodging place, and is the word used for the room where Jesus ate the Passover with his disciples (Luke 22:11). As there, it may apply to a room which is part of a larger structure and is kept available for guests. Bailey argues that it is unthinkable that Joseph, from the royal line of King David, would not have been taken in by relatives in the town of his family’s origins, especially when he arrived with a heavily pregnant wife. He would never have had to go searching for somewhere to stay among the commercial establishments of the town, and Luke would have used the appropriate Greek word if he had.

A second distraction is that the expression “no room at the inn” easily gets transformed into “no rooms available at the inn”. The Greek word topos means “room” in the sense of “space”, and so we may legitimately end up with the translation:

Mary placed the baby in a manger, because there was no space for them in the guest room.

This changes the picture entirely. Jospeh and Mary are taken in by relatives, but the guest room is already fully occupied by other relatives who have come to Bethlehem because of the census. So where is the manger? Quite probably in the family living room! A simple village home would have had one room where the family lived, ate and slept.  A guest room with a separate entrance might be at one end of the building or constructed on the flat roof. At one end of the family room would be a section, often at a lower level, where the animals would be brought in at night. The manger might be a hollowed-out dip in the floor of the living room at the end where the animals were kept, such that they could lean across and eat from it. Whether like that, or a more conventionally imagined portable wooden structure, it would make a very suitable place, lined with hay, to put to bed a baby just born in the family room.

Since there is every indication that some time passed between the arrival in Bethlehem and Mary giving birth (when the time came for the baby to be born), it is even more unlikely that a makeshift arrangement which would have brought shame on the relatives could have taken place. Later, when the Magi came on their visit, led by the appearance of the star, Matthew says:

On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.
                                      Matthew 2:11 New International Version

It was clearly a house, not a stable, that they came to. Of course, if they came a considerable time after the birth (as is quite possible), alternative arrangements would by then have been made to house the visiting family. We cannot however escape the consistent picture which emerges from a fresh reading of the Biblical account. Whether the birth of Jesus actually happened exactly as Kenneth Bailey portrays the event, or not, it is a good reminder to approach the Bible with an open mind and not to be blinkered by traditions, however long-held and well-established they may be.

Just as he was

On Saturday we had an excellent 3-hour session at church on “Reading the Bible in a way that grips your heart”. As part of this we were exploring  in a small group the passage Mark 4:35-41, Jesus calms the storm. While this account was familiar to us, by entering into the dramatic situation and exploring some of the details we all gained new insights.

One little phrase which  we puzzled over was “just as he was” in verse 36:

Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. (New International Version)

Why did Mark include this little phrase? Somebody in the group asked how we had translated it in Kasem. Prepared for everything I fired up my laptop and found the passage. Initially I was concerned that we had left it out altogether! But a closer look showed that we had taken the phrase in a slightly different way, literally:

As Jesus was sitting in the boat like that, they took him, went away and left the crowd behind. (Kasem back translation)

Turning to the Greek text there is some ambiguity in how the phrase “as he-was” should be connected with the surrounding context:

and leaving the crowd they-took-along him as he-was in the boat (Greek back translation)

With a lack of punctuation in the Greek, we can see how two slightly different meanings may arise depending on whether as he-was is primarily linked with the preceding or the following phrase. From the context we know that Jesus was already seated in a boat in order to teach the gathered crowd (Mark 4:1). So it makes sense to take  the phrase here to be connected with the following: as he-was in the boat. This is how the Good News Bible takes it:

the disciples got into the boat in which Jesus was already sitting, and they took him with them. (GNB)

Either way, you get a picture of the disciples taking charge of their rabbi who was physically worn out at the end of a busy day of teaching, saying to each other something like this:

“Teacher wants to get off to the other side of the lake and he’s in no fit state to do anything for himself. No point in moving him—just give him a cushion to make himself comfortable at the back of the boat where he won’t be in the way. We can handle it.”

How soon though the disciples realise they are in a situation they cannot handle themselves, as a storm whips up and seasoned fisherman call on the sleeping carpenter to rescue them. No wonder they end up with the question on their minds, “Who is this?!”

Will there be drums in heaven?

There are plenty of musical instruments mentioned in the Bible—just have a look at Daniel 3:5, for example. But honest-to-goodness drums don’t seem to number among them. I was alerted to this when checking the Kasem (Ghana) translation of Daniel, where the translator had decided to draw on the wealth of Kasem words for different types of drum in order to arrive at a list of instruments as impressive as that in the original Hebrew text. Having determined that drums appeared to be without mention in Scripture, I decided that substituting drums as a cultural equivalent in the translation was not a good choice.

There is however one possible exception to all this—the Hebrew word tōp.  In nearly all versions this is translated as tambourine or timbrel in its 17 occurrences.  CEV (Contemporary English Version) translates it as small drum just once, in 1 Samuel 10:5, and GNB (Good News Bible/ Today’s English Version) also translates it as drum here, and in 6 other places. Both these versions use tambourine in all the remaining occurrences of  tōp, so it would be interesting to  know why they chose to use drum in just these few specific verses.

In any case, even if tōp could be classified as a type of drum, it is a small, hand-held percussion instrument, tapped rather than thumped. In fact, it seems to be one of the few percussion instruments of any kind  mentioned in the Bible. Psalm 150 mentions cymbals  of two types (v.5), as well as including one of the occurrences of tōp (v.4). The most complete collection of percussion instruments comes in 2 Samuel 6:5, adding rattles/ castanets/ sistrums  to the tambourines and cymbals. All in all, we are left with 17 references to tambourines, 3 to cymbals (2 of these in Psalm 150:5) and 1 to rattles.

So, will there be drums in heaven? Taken overall, Scripture seems to favour stringed instruments (harps, lyres), trumpets and woodwind (flutes) over any kind of percussion. This is even more pronounced in the New Testament, where a single mention of cymbals (1 Corinthians 13:1) is used to represent abrasive noise. In Revelation, where we might expect to get a glimpse of heavenly music, harps are definitely in vogue. Harps seem to represent peace and harmony, whereas flutes relate more to merriment, and trumpets to warnings and announcements.

I suspect heaven will be quite a noisy place (see, for example, Revelation 14:2 and 15: 2-4), but we won’t be putting our fingers in our ears, rather joining in, together with people of every nation,  tribe, people and language.

Another God coming along behind

I have been working my way through checking the Kasem translation of Isaiah for a few weeks now. The repetitive nature of Hebrew poetic form presents a challenge. Pairs of lines tend to repeat the same information, with some variation in the words used,  sometimes pairing a positive with an equivalent negative, or mirror image;  sometimes with the second line expanding or strengthening the idea contained in the first line. This has been described as rhyming ideas, rather than the rhyming of sounds, which we are more used to.

The challenge is that people not familiar with Hebrew poetry (such as most Kasena) will want to read a different meaning into successive lines–why say the same thing twice over? Here is an example from the English Standard Version:

… for the LORD will go before you,
and the God of Israel will be your rear guard.
Isaiah 52:12b (ESV)
That surely must mean that one God (the LORD) is at the front and another (the God of Israel) is following at the rear. Of course those with a good Bible knowledge will know that these are one and the same, and that the LORD, the God of Israel will protect them in front and behind.
Recognising that it is the Israelites who are being addressed the Good News Bible gets around the problem with:
The LORD your God will lead you and protect you on every side. (GNB)
Surprisingly, the New Living Translation keeps the potentially confusing parallelism:
For the LORD will go ahead of you, and the God of Israel will protect you from behind. (NLT)
Omitting the and between the lines may help a bit, as New International Version and others:
… for the LORD will go before you, your rearguard will be Israel’s God. (Revised English Bible)

Once again, we are faced with the dilemma in translation between maintaining the dynamism of the poetic form (or at least a hint of it), and spelling out the meaning clearly in a rather flat and uninteresting way. A more ambitious alternative may be to research equivalent poetic forms in the target language and mould the text into those patterns, but this is moving further away from the cultural setting of the original.

One more example: Isaiah often interchanges the names Jacob and Israel in successive lines, referring in each case to the same people of God. The names refer to the founding ancestor of the nation, whose name was changed from Jacob to Israel. I count 23 instances in the book of Isaiah where the two names are used in parallel, but with essentially no difference in who they refer to. Here is an example:

But now thus says the LORD,
he who created you, O Jacob,
     he who formed you, O Israel:
Isaiah 43:1a (ESV)
In these cases it seems necessary to combine the two forms of address into one appellation, so as to avoid the inference that God is addressing two groups of people. There is the added complication that of course it is not the long-dead ancestor who is being addressed but his descendants, as a group. In Kasem it is possible to combine these and translate the above into something like:
Offspring of Jacob who are the Israel people,
God has created you and brought you into being.
This keeps a hint of the parallelism, but avoids possible ambiguity in who is being addressed, two groups of people or one. What do you think?

Accurate translation

What makes an accurate translation? Even if we say that an accurate translation conveys the full meaning of the original, without adding anything or taking anything away, that still leaves some fuzzy edges. Meaning can be conveyed in different ways, especially when we consider poetic language where the form of the expressions used is a significant factor in the communication. In poetry for example, maintaining the rhyme and rhythm of the original text in a translation is often only possible at the expense of reduced correspondence in the exact meaning of the words used. It is a balancing act. For the Bible translator, priority must usually be given to conveying the full meaning of the message clearly, sometimes at the expense of maintaining formal characteristics of the original text. It is however especially satisfying when it does prove possible to carry over in translation some of the “poetry” of the original without distorting the meaning.

While what we consider “rhyme” in English is not (as far as I know) found in Biblical Hebrew writings, there are examples of assonance–words which sound similar, or use the same selection of letters/sounds in a different combination, what we would tend to call a “play on words”. I came across an example when I was checking the Kasem translation of Isaiah recently.

In Isaiah 5:1–7 God’s people are likened to a vineyard which he has prepared and tended with special care. Yet when he looks for the expected good grapes, bitter wild grapes are all he finds. Isaiah sums up God’s disappointment as follows:

And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.
Isaiah 5:7b (NIV)

In terms of the meaning of the words, this is an accurate translation, but it fails to convey the poetic balance of the Hebrew:

He waited for justice [mishpat]
but behold bloodshed [mishpakh]!
For righteousness [tsedaqah]
but behold outcry [tsa’qah]!

In fact the word translated “bloodshed” occurs only here in the Old Testament and is of uncertain meaning (bloodshed/disobedience/dishonesty). It was clearly chosen for its wordplay value, rather than its precise meaning. The dramatic form of the two parallel statements and the play on words helps to communicate the broken expectations which God had for his people in the light of all the care he had lavished on them. So is a translation which fails to capture this poetic form fully accurate? Can a translation ever be fully accurate, given the nature of language? It seems that it isn’t always possible to capture all the elements of meaning in a translation. But sometimes it does work out to a certain extent, much to the satisfaction of the translators. In Kasem it is possible to say:

When he looked for goodness [nɔn-ŋonne],
murder [nɔn-gom] only he found there.
When he looked for truth [chega] to be at work,
it was destruction [chɔgem] he found.

The last line does not include the idea of cries of distress, but focuses on the iniquity or bad treatment which gives rise to those cries. This seems a price worth paying in order to keep the play on words: chega/chɔgem.

Translation is a delicate balancing act, stretching and rewarding!