Translation Day 6: Like people who exist one liver

9 Days of Translation Checking

Today is Day 6 of this celebration of checking Luke in the Onnele translations last month. Did you find the verse in Luke 8 that could refer to people who only have one liver?

In the Parable of the Sower, at Luke 8:15, the NCV reads…

And the seed that fell on the good ground is like those who hear God’s teaching with good, honest hearts and obey it and patiently produce good fruit.

For this idea of “good, honest hearts,” earlier drafts of the Onnele translation included this phrase (with literal English back translation)…

pinuma e fa sam naine wolpun uporo

people who really exist good liver-stomachs

When I checked over these earlier drafts, I was quite happy with the overall translation of the verse, but I wasn’t quite sure about this one phrase.

The reason I wanted to ask the translators about this phrase here was that I was familiar with the use of wolpun uporo “good liver-stomachs” in other contexts. They often use this phrase to refer to a general state of happiness or contentment, perhaps a peaceful state that derives from having needs met and lacking any interpersonal tension. But is that what this verse is talking about?

I didn’t think so. This verse refers to people who have an “honest and good heart,” and therefore, they retain the word when they hear it and patiently bear fruit. It’s the concept of honesty that I didn’t see in the Onnele translations. Of course, some might argue that honesty isn’t really in the original Greek text either.

The words in Greek that describe the state of their hearts are two words — καλός kalos and ἀγαθός agathos — that are both most commonly translated as ‘good’. You can imagine that the use of such words throughout the development of the Greek language would have a rich history in relation to ethical, political, philosophical and religious ideas. However, the word καλός kalos may be thought of more in terms of being ‘healthy, fit, useful’–the same word used to describe the soil–but in the Synoptic Gospels it is regularly used to describe people who through repentance show evidence of divine power guiding their conduct. On the other hand, ἀγαθός agathos has more to do with spiritual and ethical ‘excellence, worthiness’ and is applied most aptly to the absolute goodness of God alone.

Yet in many ways, these words are near synonyms and acquire the greatest significance from the contexts in which they are used. It is the immediate context of Luke 8:15 that makes me quite happy with English versions that use the word ‘honest’ to translate καλός kalos in this verse, even though that is a fairly rare translation of this word. The people with “good and honest hearts” in Luke 8:15 stand in stark contrast to the people who received the word with joy but allowed the worries, wealth and pleasures of this life to crowd out the word (v. 14).

The picture in v. 14 describes a double-mindedness that tries to hang onto both the will and word of God AND the self-centered cares of this world. That can only be done by receiving God’s word with a dishonest heart. One either hears the true message and fools oneself into thinking that he will make space for God to accomplish his purpose, or one misinterprets the word in an attempt to reconcile the all-consuming message with the interests that continue to consume one’s thoughts and aspirations. Thus, the person with a καλός kalos ‘good, healthy, fit, and useful’ heart is the one who hears the message without deceiving oneself or being dishonest with the clear meaning of God’s word. The theme of honesty in the face of God’s expressed will also continues in the next paragraph…

Everything that is hidden will become clear, and every secret thing will be made known. So be careful how you listen. Those who have understanding will be given more. But those who do not have understanding, even what they think they have will be taken away from them. (Luke 8:17 -18, NCV)

When I explained to the Onnele translators how this idea of honesty fits within the surrounding context, they immediately knew that their expression pinuma e fa sam naine wolpun uporo “people who really exist good liver-stomachs” was not sufficient. They explained that it referred more to a passive experience of life and did not express the kind of single-minded outlook and action towards the word of God that this text must be talking about. But what could they say instead?

Their minds were clearly working. They turned their attention away from me and engaged each other with energy as they tossed words and phrases backand forth. Some ideas seemed promising but just didn’t quite work. Other suggestions simply got a laugh and they moved on. I suggested that they think more about other idioms that involve the wola ‘liver’ or puna ‘stomach’ since these have proved to be so rich already for many other emotions and behaviors. After all, this verse does talk about having a good and honest heart, and I didn’t want them to lose their own idiomatic reference to the locus of their inner selves.

And then one of them suggested wolwokera.

They all stopped talking about other ideas as they each contemplated wolwokera. They were all thinking to themselves, some of them mumbling silently as they considered how wolwokera might fit into the sentence. Heads started nodding and they began giving approving smiles to one another.

Okay, I knew what the literal meaning was. That’s wol ‘liver’, and wokera ‘one’. It meant ‘one-liver’. But what did it really mean? How did they actually use that expression? I tried to ask, but they shushed me as they wanted to figure out first how the whole sentence would read…

Ka, nalale e firipanro pike uporo sa yukaine pinuma e naine wolwokera uporo, ka nupu mi e God ka nuna kero mi namo. E ommo wongkwongkeni yemplekare nu, nu fa neri kero bilip ka nalelwa.

And, the seeds that fell down on the good ground are like people who exist one liver and good, and they hear the talk of God and hold strong this talk. When various things tempt them, they stand strong belief and produce fruit.

And then they explained to me: when a person “exists one liver,” it means that he doesn’t go after different things. This person does not listen to the word of God and still try to go after the things of this ground, because he is intent on only pursuing one thing.

What a blessing it is to work with the Onnele translators, who are not content to simply allow a quick and easy (mis)understanding of God’s word to fill their pages. Rather, with honest and good hearts, they hear God’s word, hold onto it, and patiently produce fruit. And not only the fruit of a carefully worked out translation, but the fruit of the divine will at work in each of their livers.

Tomorrow: “the wind also hears”

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