9 Days of Translation Checking

For the next 9 days, I’ll be posting short reflections on my recent experience checking over translations of the Gospel of Luke for three related Onnele languages in Papua New Guinea. If there’s a good response to this series of posts, I may keep it going.

I just returned to the Papua New Guinea highlands from 8 weeks out in the Sepik region. I spent 5 of those weeks checking over three translations of Luke into the Onnele family of languages. For the last 9 days, my family had to leave me out there by myself since our children had to get back for the start of school. So I made myself available to the Onnele translators morning, afternoon and evening. They set the schedule, and were they ever motivated to finish checking Luke! For those last 9 days, they kept me up until midnight and later almost every day. Here’s the reflection for today…

Luke 6:37 was difficult to translate, partly because the prohibition against ‘judging’ in this verse has a very nuanced sense which should probably not be translated in such a way that will prohibit legitimate judging activities, including God’s role as the ultimate judge at the end of this age.

NASB reads “Do not judge, and you will not be judged.”

Another difficulty is that Onnele does not have passive verbs. We cannot simply say “you will not be judged” and leave the potential agent of that judging ambiguous. So is it people or God who will refrain from judging the person who does not judge others? Perhaps this is the kind of heavenly wisdom that would apply equally well to human and divine judgment, but the surrounding context favors the interpretation that has divine judgment in view. So we made ‘God’ explicit in the translation.

In general the Onnele translators usually want to be as literal as they can so that their vernacular translations of scripture follow the original text as closely as possible. But where such a literal translation ends up communicating the wrong meaning, we have to say that such an approach would just be too overly literal, and we have to focus on translating the correct meaning and not just the individual words. Here is the Goiniri Onnele translation of Luke 6:37a followed by a fairly literal back translation into English and some explanations…

“Pone fa kal weikerpulu nu uma plau wolpun neni, sa God re ese fei yuluronsa pone plau wolpun neni.”

“Do not look around nothing at people with sharp liver-stomachs, then God too will not look around at you with a sharp liver-stomach.”

For “look around nothing at people with sharp liver stomachs,” the translation originally said something like “look around at people” with the sense of “to observe/judge.” But when we considered how the whole verse would be understood, including the promise that God too would not judge, we realized that this translation was not communicating the particular sense of judging harshly that is a common sense of the Greek word that is also mirrored in English. There is no question about the future judging activity of God. What is in question is the particular way that God will judge each person. Therefore, we added the part “with sharp liver-stomachs.” The liver or stomach, or in this case liver-stomachs, is what the Onnele people use to talk about the seat of the emotions. It’s their equivalent of ‘heart’. A sharp liver-stomach refers to anger.

But again, we realized that both people and God frequently have legitimate reasons to judge people with anger. The sense of ‘judging’ in this verse is really getting at an inclination towards judging indiscriminately or a judgmental attitude, one in which there is no room for mercy. So we added one more word to the translation — ‘nothing’. It means that the person judges others without thinking, or without due consideration. When we added that word, the Onnele translators shook their heads with big smiles. Now that makes sense. God will judge everyone regardless. But how will he judge them? This verse now communicates the meaning that only sometimes emerges among the various senses of the Greek and English words for ‘judge’.

I thought that we decided to add the word for ‘nothing’ to the latter part of the verse, too, regarding God’s response, but it’s not in there. I’ll have to ask the translators about that again.

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