I was recently asked if I had a story about Bible translation that would interest children. Well, children like to talk about their body parts, and one thing that’s really fun is our bellies. Many of the language communities in Papua New Guinea think of the stomach and/or the liver as the seat of emotions, feelings, and cognitive processes. So the following explanation about Bible translation was written for children. I have simplified the language expressions from one of the languages I work with that refer to the stomach and to the liver, and I have translated them all back into English with the word ‘belly’. Enjoy…
Most languages in Papua New Guinea only like to use words that refer to things that you can see and touch. They do not have many words that refer to emotions and qualities about people that we cannot touch like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, grace, mercy, hope, faith and faithfulness. But they usually do have ways of expressing these meanings.
One way that languages in Papua New Guinea frequently express these kinds of ideas is by describing how their bodily organs are feeling. We do the same thing in English. We can say that someone feels ‘broken-hearted’, or one can “harden his heart.” Or, I can say that “my heart goes out to you.” You can “lose heart,” “pour out your hearts,” “open your heart to someone,” “take heart,” or even—“eat your heart out.”
Languages in Papua New Guinea have lots of expressions like this too, but the difference is that instead of talking about their hearts, they usually talk about their bellies. It may sound really funny to us, but they might think it sounds funny if they heard us talking about our noses running and our feet smelling. They might wonder if we were really upside down! But every language has their own unique way of talking about how we experience the world around us.
In one language of Papua New Guinea, they can say “good-belly” as a way of welcoming someone. They say “belly-talk” when they make a decision. If you “give-belly” then you are loving someone. For taking pity on someone, you would say “belly-cutting.” If you are worrying, then you’d say “belly think.” If people do not agree, they are “belly-fighting.” To be angry is to have a “sharp belly.”
So when the translators from this language were trying to translate Luke 1:50 where Mary says that God’s mercy extends to those who fear him, at first none of us knew how to express ‘mercy’ in their language. In the pidgin trade language Bible of Papua New Guinea, grace and mercy are almost always translated with the same word that refers to some vague notion of kindness. But many times when we read about God’s mercy in the Bible, it often refers to God lovingly holding back his judgment on our sins.
I explained to the Onnele translators that it’s like when God is angry with us for our terrible sins, but then he decides to love us anyway and not give us the punishment we deserve. When the translators from Papua New Guinea heard this, they knew exactly how they needed to translate mercy—“God’s sinking belly.” That’s what they say when a person relaxes his anger. His belly goes down for us. And now the Onnele people can understand about God’s mercy in their own language. Words that sound funny to us, but very meaningful to them.