Translation Day 4: My name is Army

9 Days of Translation Checking

Today is Day 4 of this celebration of checking Luke in the Onnele translations last month.

For Luke 8:30 the NLT reads…

Jesus demanded, “What is your name?”
“Legion,” he replied, for he was filled with many demons.

When I first checked over the three Onnele translations for this verse, I noticed something that frequently happens between these related translations. The translators from Romei-Barera Onnele had used a vernacular expression where the translators from Goiniri and Wolwale Onnele had decided to borrow a word from the Tok Pisin trade language. The pidgin word itself comes from English, so see if you can spot the difference…


Ka Jisas yaline wu nanrona, “Yene noula fina?” Ka wu yireni Jisas nanrona, “Noula kinini Ami.” Empo fika nu opola fafaile mingklari fai nenene wu.


Ka Jisas yarine wu nanrona, “Yene noula fina?” Ka wu yireni Jisas nanrona, “Noula kinini Ami.” E fika nu spirit fafaile mingklari fa nenene wu.


Ka Yesus yarine wu nanrona, “Yene noula fina?” Ka wu yireni Yesus nanrona, “Noula kinini Iim Mana.” E fika, nu opola fafaile mingkla isi fa nisnorine wu.

You can see that these translations are almost identical, so why produce three different translations? It’s true that these language varieties are quite mutually understandable. We could easily call them dialects of the same language. But they are not simply dialects in the way that English speakers tend to think simply in terms of difference in accent. The differences cover the whole spectrum of sounds, words, meanings, grammar, higher level discourse features, and implied information.

One relatively major difference is that RomBar Onnele uses ‘Yesus’ for the name of Jesus, whereas Goiniri and Wolwale Onnele use the Tok Pisin pronunciation ‘Jisas’. Can you imagine having to read the Bible in a language where the very name of Jesus was spelled in a completely different way than you were used to saying his name? Other pervasive differences in the sounds and words used between these language varieties means that the translations will be more likely to be used if they each have a translation that rings true in their particular heart language. Yet because there is frequent contact between these language communities, we try our best to translate everything in the same way and only allow differences where there really needs to be.

Did you spot the other major difference in the Onnele translations of Luke 8:30? The thing I wanted to ask the translators about was the difference between Iim Mana in RomBar Onnele and Ami in Goiniri and Wolwale Onnele. The word ami comes from the English ‘army’ and is pronounced very much like Australian English without the ‘r’. But if Goiniri and Wolwale Onnele could use this vernacular expression like RomBar Onnele, then they wouldn’t need to borrow the word ami.

The phrase iim mana literally means ‘fight man’ (it’s purely coincidence that the Onnele word for ‘man’ is mana). Traditionally, this referred to neighboring enemies who regularly fought with spears for control of the land. Most Onnele nouns do not have a separate plural form, so context usually gives the appropriate sense for singular or plural. This is also true for the pidgin trade language and many other languages in PNG. So I wasn’t concerned about that in the translation. But I should have been.

Remember, the thing that they’re translating here is the name of the demon, ‘Legion’. Do you know what ‘legion’ means in English? It’s a bit archaic, but it can refer to a large regiment of soldiers. In Greek, a legion referred to a major unit of the Roman army comprising 3000 to 6000 foot soldiers and perhaps 100-200 cavalry troops. In Luke 8:30 it’s simply a name that signifies a large number of soldiers and derives from the fact that many demons had entered the man.

When I explained the normal use of the word λεγιών in Greek to refer to a whole army of soldiers, that’s when I got my lesson in another difference between Tok Pisin, English and Onnele. In Tok Pisin the word ami does not necessarily refer to a whole group of soldiers. It’s often used to refer to a single soldier, so you could say something like “He’s an ami.” So, in the Goiniri and Wolwale Onnele translations, they had the equivalent of “My name is Soldier.”

It also turned out that the Onnele languages DO distinguish between singular and plural for ‘fight men’. To refer to a whole group of fighting men, they say iim uma, not iim mana. When I suggested that this expression would be much more appropriate in this verse, they all laughed.

They said, “But that would mean that this verse has one person saying, ‘My name is Group of Soldiers.'” They laughed again.

“But that’s exactly what it means,” I said, “and that’s why the next clause says, ‘for a large number of demons had entered into him.'”

Their eyes lit up. Now it made sense.

Tomorrow we’ll look at another verse in Luke 8 that finally makes sense. It now understandably talks about God removing the heads of those who don’t have heads. Can you find the verse?

2 Responses to “Translation Day 4: My name is Army”

  1. Damian Says:

    As you said that if you received a good response, you might continue this series, I thought I might respond. Knowing nothing about PNG languages, I can’t contribute, but having an interest in linguisitics and bible translation, I have to say I’m enjoying these tremendously, especially tracing your thoughts as you check the translations.


  2. bzephyr Says:

    Thanks for your encouragement. I’ll extend this series of posts at least one day because of you.

    B Zephyr

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: