Translation Day 9: livering things that make you happy


Advisor Notes - Wolwale Onnele (Luke 9:18-27)

9 Days of Translation Checking

Today is Day 9 of this celebration of checking Luke in the Onnele translations last month. Thanks to everyone who viewed the posts and the few who left comments. This is taking too much of my time right now, so I will not keep this series officially going. But I will continue these posts as often as I can to relate more of the 70+ translation stories that I took note of last month.

When we came to Luke 9:24, that was a verse that was hard to translate. Here is what the NASB says…

For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it.

The first draft of the Onnele translations all looked something like this (with literal English back translation)…

Le mana samo wola ye laip wone’ni, laip wone’ni ese fafaile. Mana fei samo wola ye laip wone’ni ka yupene ki, laip wone’ni ese uporo.

If a person really livers [= thinks] continuously life of him/her, life of him/her will be ruined. Person [who] not really livers [= thinks] continuously life of him/her and follows me, life of him/her will be good.

A couple notes on this first draft…

  • This followed pretty literally the Tok Pisin source text that had been prepared from the back translation of another vernacular translation in the region and had gone through an exegetical check by three translation advisors.
  • The biggest differences from the pidgin source text is the lack of prepositions and equivalent conjunctions in Onnele.
  • Another main difference is that the pidgin source text for “wishes to save his life” was wari tumas long laip bilong em, which means something like “is very concerned/preoccupied about his/her life” (tumas means ‘very’ and does NOT mean ‘too much’). However, the way the Onnele languages express this idea is with the word wola ‘liver’ used as a verb. It is generally used as a verb to mean ‘think about’. Note that the constraints of the Onnele language make it very difficult to talk about ‘saving’ even when it is talking about one person saving another person from immanent death, although that is a little easier. It is more difficult when the meaning, as in Luke 9:24, refers to saving oneself. However, Papua New Guineans are masters of implied information. To “really think about something” clearly means in Onnele that the person is placing a priority on the preservation of his life or on the things that contribute to a good life.
  • Note that the Onnele first draft uses the word laip a total of four times. That is a borrowed word from Tok Pisin that obviously comes from the English word ‘life’. Onnele has many such pidgin words that have come into their vernacular languages, just as Old English incorporated words from Scandinavian and Norman contact. However, in our translations we aim not to borrow words from Tok Pisin if there are perfectly normal ways to express the meaning in the Onnele heart languages. So I wanted to ask about ‘laip’.
  • Finally, although the Tok Pisin source text may carry the correct meaning and may be sufficient for producing that meaning in some of the 11 languages in our translation project, it was questionable if this first draft clearly expressed the proper sense of this verse. The biggest concern was the part that read “Person [who] not really livers [= thinks] continuously life of him/her and follows me…” What exactly is being negated in that clause? Is it just that the person doesn’t really think a lot about his/her own life, or is it that the person doesn’t think continuously about his/her life? The true sense of this verse should be that the person actually loses all concern for this present life on the basis of following Jesus. The first draft of the Onnele translation left too much room for ambiguity, excuses, and rationalizing one’s (dis)obedience to the call of Christ.

The revised draft of the Onnele translations now reads more like this…

La mana samo wolaye ommo ese yangke wone aiyem, mana namo ese fafaile. Ka mana fina empo samo wolyumalo ommo ese yangke wone waiye uporo ka yupene ki, mana namo ese waiye uporo.

If a person really livers [= thinks] continuously the things that will make him/her happy, this person will be ruined. And the person who really liver loses [= purposely forgets] the things that will make him/her exist good and follows me, this person will exist good.

A few notes about the changes…

  • Le was changed to La. Both words mean something like ‘if’, but this is why Papua New Guineans are in the driver’s seat and I’m not. They know intuitively what sounds right to their ears even when both words would carry the right meaning.
  • The continuous marker -ye was combined with the verb rather than being written separately. This is simply a spelling convention that we are trying to follow consistently. For any linguists out there, this morpheme always seems to hang with the verb. For another morpheme -pu which might seem at first glance to be structurally equivalent to -ye since it means [+completed] rather than [+continuous], we are writing that separately because it does not always hang with the verb. It can actually come at the end of the verb phrase or the end of the whole clause. Some might analyze it as a clitic.
  • Notice that we are no longer borrowing the word ‘laip’. The Onnele translation now refers to the person who “livers the things that will make him/her happy,” and it talks about the person himself/herself being ruined or existing good. The original Greek text has a sort of play on words with multiple senses of the word ψυχή psuche ‘soul/life’. In talking about seeking to save or losing one’s own life, the meaning seems to point not primarily at the preservation from death, but of a certain quality of life that is self-seeking at the core. But regarding the result of either seeking to save or losing one’s status in the good life, the ultimate end is self-ruin or preservation from death, respectively. This is made clear in the following verse: For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses or forfeits himself? (Luke 9:25 NASB) Therefore, the translation is now a bit less literal in terms of word-for-word correspondence, but it is much more clearly meaningful and accurately reflects the significance of the original.
  • The conjunction ka was added. Ka literally means ‘and’ so that is why it wasn’t originally included for the Tok Pisin conjunction that means ‘but’. However, the Onnele translators later realized that ka fits appropriately here, and its usage is a bit more broad than English ‘and’ and Tok Pisin ‘na’.
  • The relative pronoun fina ‘who’ was added. It was probably okay without it, but this makes the sentence flow more smoothly and clearly.
  • The verse now reads samo wolyumalo ommo “really liver loses [= purposely forgets] the things…” The meaning now is clearly an intentional activity of the person and cannot be confused with a more passive experience of life that may have been a possible interpretation of the first draft.

Translation Day 8: don’t need a sail to sail

9 Days of Translation Checking

Today is Day 8 of this celebration of checking Luke in the Onnele translations last month.

When checking Luke 8:26, right away it was obvious that we didn’t express the meaning of ‘sailed’ as in “So they sailed over to the region of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee.” (NET)

But how do you translate an idea that comes from a boating culture for a language group that lives in the foothills of the mountains? They are separated from the coast by a few miles of jungle, sago swamps, and their traditional enemies.

Since the cloth sails of the boat are not in focus in this verse, I wasn’t so concerned with making sure the mechanics of sailing are referred to in this verse. My main concern is that the translation is clear that they went across to the other side of the lake in a boat and not by walking around the lake along the shore. Here is the Wolwale Onnele translation with literal English back translation…

Nu painri repo e fun wamo, painri plele pike plola e nu Gerasa. Pike plola namo sa yeye repo e distrik Galili.

They went opposite of big lake, they went came to part ground of Gerasenes. This part ground it lies opposite of district Galilee.

So when I pointed out to the Onnele translators that we didn’t have anything in this verse about sailing, they laughed and said, “How are we bush people going to say anything about boats. We could use our word for tying logs together on the river to make little rafts for sending garden food down to our village, but that’s not what Jesus and the disciples did.”

I explained that it didn’t matter so much about referring to ‘sailing’ or to any boat, but how would Onnele speakers know when they read this that they didn’t walk around the lake to the other side?

“Oh, that’s not a problem,” they said. And then they explained to me that the two verb phrases they used here painri repo “they went opposite” and painri plele pike plola e nu Gerasa “they went came to part ground of Gerasenes” make it clear that they went across the lake. They would have used other words for go if the action involved walking or going around the lake. And besides, they asked me, “Isn’t it clear from vv. 22-25 that they’re still in the boat?”

So context really helps here in this verse where the Onnele speakers don’t have a word for ‘sailing’. We Bible teachers constantly press upon our students to pay attention to context. For the Onnele speakers, it seems that context always plays a more important role in distinguishing between potentially ambiguous forms.

Tomorrow: livering things that make you happy

Translation Day 7: the wind also hears

9 Days of Translation Checking

Today is Day 7 of this celebration of checking Luke in the Onnele translations last month.

At the end of the story of Jesus calming the storm, he and the disciples ask a few questions in Luke 8:25…

And He said to them, “Where is your faith?” They were fearful and amazed, saying to one another, “Who then is this, that He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey Him?” (NASB)

Earlier drafts of the Onnele translations did not include anything to express the meaning of ‘even’ in the phrase “even the winds and the water.” It’s the kind of word that can probably be left out and it doesn’t make much difference. After all, if you leave the word out, the implied information of the verse still conveys the meaning of ‘even’. But during this last translation workshop, we became much more aware of many intricacies of Onnele grammar and the function of little discourse particles that are often difficult to translate. So we didn’t have to leave out an explicit expression to convey the meaning of ‘even’.

The Goiniri Onnele translation now reads like this (with literal English back translation)…

Ka wu yalile nu nanrona, “Bilip empo pone sa waiye pei?” Nu disaipol nemnum ka flilineri ka nemnalile none kore nanrona, “Empo wu yangke ommo namo, mana mee wu sa fina? Wu yire mi kelo ka rapu re yane nupi kepe nupu mi wunini.”

And he asked them this, “Belief of you, it is where?” The disciples were afraid and they were amazed and they asked one another this, “Since he does these things, man here he is who? He speaks strong talk and wind also and water even hear his talk.”

So we added re ‘also’ to the translation, but we had to be careful where it was added. If re was added after rapu yane nupi “wind and water,” then it would mean something like “water in addition to the wind.” But the meaning of ‘even’ in this verse is functioning to say that the wind and rain are not the sorts of things that they would expect to be obeying his instructions. “People, yes, but not the creation!” But no, it was true. Even the wind and the water — the wind re and the water — hear his talk.

It’s really fun in the process of translation checking to recognize that a little word like re ‘also’ can fit grammatically into the sentence at various places, but the meaning changes depending on just where it fits in. The Onnele translators were really happy to add that little word in and hear how it really emphasized the same point that the original text was emphasizing.

This verse also includes several other examples of linguistic insights that have only recently come to my attention. Knowing these things means I can advise the Onnele translators that much better…

  1. Most verbs are regularly inflected at the beginning of the word to identify the person and number of the subject. So, for example, kali ‘I ask’, yali ‘you/he/she asks’, mali ‘we ask’, pali ‘you-PL ask’, nali ‘they ask’. But what I only recently learned is that quite a few verbs can also optionally mark the direct object for singular or plural with a suffix. For the verbs yalile ‘he asked them’ and nemnaline none ‘they asked themselves’ in Luke 8:25, the -le and -ne suffixes mark a plural direct object.
  2. Some verbs can also include a prefix that doesn’t inflect with the person and number of the verb’s subject. Thus, in Luke 8:25 the verbs nemnum ‘they were afraid’ and nemnalile ‘they asked them’ both include the prefix nem-, which can be glossed as ‘around’ or ‘about’, as in ’round about’.
  3. The discourse particle kepe (and its shortened form ke) is used to mark counter-expectation. Therefore, its inclusion in Luke 8:25 also contributes to expressing the meaning of ‘even’ in “even the wind and the water hear his talk.” These little particles also seem to be used more frequently at points of mounting tension around the climax of a narrative. That makes sense if the climax is understood as the tension that comes from not knowing what to expect next in the sequence of narrative events. A climax may thus be marked by several events in sequence, each marked with this particle that signifies counter-expectation.

Tomorrow: sailing without a sail

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”

Translation Day 5: Remove the head of the one with no head

9 Days of Translation Checking

Today is Day 5 of this celebration of checking Luke in the Onnele translations last month. Did you find the verse in Luke that could be translated this way in the Onnele languages…

La mana ikaklo onnele, mana namo God ese yupapaki ikaklo empo wu yukaine wone yire wone ese yuna.

If a man has no head, this man God will remove the head of him that he says he himself holds.

The verse is Luke 8:18b. Here is the sentence in the NASB with its immediately preceding context…

[16] “Now no one after lighting a lamp covers it over with a container, or puts it under a bed; but he puts it on a lampstand, so that those who come in may see the light. [17] For nothing is hidden that will not become evident, nor anything secret that will not be known and come to light. [18] So take care how you listen; for whoever has, to him more shall be given; and whoever does not have, even what he thinks he has shall be taken away from him.”

The pidgin source text that the Onnele translators used to produce their first draft was much more literal than their own translation. For Luke 8:18b it said…

Sapos man inogat sampela samting, dispela man God bai kisim ol samting long em olsem em yet i tok nating olsem em i gat.

If a man does not have some things–this man–God will take the things from him that he himself says nothingly that he has.

Sorry to make up a new word in the back translation, but I hope ‘nothingly’ gives you an idea of how the pidgin word nating is used here. I might have glossed it as ‘carelessly’, ‘erroneously’, or ‘unthinkingly’, but these are all a bit too specific for the way nating is used here more generally.

Anyway, in both Tok Pisin and Onnele, we can’t just say ‘has’ and “more will be given.” These verbs require some kind of object, so that is why the Tok Pisin includes sampela samting ‘some things’ and ol samting ‘the things’. The pidgin Bible, Buk Baibel, also includes these objects in this verse. However, it is somewhat questionable if the Tok Pisin use of ‘things’ here is general enough to refer to the kind of knowledge that the preceding context makes clear that this verse is talking about. If one really keeps the context in mind, it can communicate that meaning. But reference to “having things” most frequently refers to physical objects, not knowledge, so the final sentence might easily be misinterpreted in Tok Pisin to refer to material goods.

For the Onnele translators, this was certainly the case as they considered what this verse would mean if they translated it too literally. It would most definitely refer to material possessions. Papua New Guinea was catapulted into the technological age of steel axes, cars, and mobile phones without passing through the industrial revolution. Not everyone has joined the various millenarian movements and cargo cults that have sprung up over the past 100 years or so as people have sought to understand how they might plant the seeds of bigger and better cargo. But most people still have unanswered questions about poverty, riches, and the kingdom of God. If the grammar of Onnele demands that objects follow the verbs in this verse, at least they don’t have to add objects that will err in the direction of one of the biggest hangups for Papua New Guineans.

If the immediately preceding context of Luke 8:18 is clear that this passage refers to knowledge or understanding, then the Onnele translators were right to be more specific in the object that their language constrains them to supply for this verse. And while it sounds funny to our English ears, it’s perfectly normal and understandable to refer to a person without understanding as a mana ikakro onnele “a person who has no head.”

Goiniri Onnele:

La mana ikaklo onnele, mana namo God ese yupapaki ikaklo empo wu yukaine wone yire wone ese yuna.

Literal back translation:

If a person [has] no head (= understanding), this person God will remove the head of him (= his understanding) that he says he himself* holds.

* The Onnele translation is actually gender inclusive here, not to be PC, but because Onnele only has one pronoun wu for 3rd person singular. It can be used for ‘he’, ‘she’, or ‘it’.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at what it means in Onnele to have only one liver. It’s found in the Parable of the Sower in Luke 8.

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?

Translation Day 3: Crying and crying out

9 Days of Translation Checking

Today is Day 3 of this celebration of those last 9 fruitful days of checking the Onnele translations of Luke out in the village last month.

In Luke 4:33-34a the NET Bible reads…

Now in the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon, and he cried out with a loud voice, “Ha! Leave us alone, Jesus the Nazarene!”

One of the fun things about translating this verse was trying to include the dramatic vocalization at the beginning of the quotation. In Greek, it’s ‘Ἔα!’ and Louw and Nida describe it this way:

…an exclamatory particle indicating surprise, indignation, or anger… If another language does not have a fully satisfactory particle expressing surprise, indignation, or anger, it is probably best to leave this particle untranslated, as, for example, in a number of translations into English which make no attempt to introduce a corresponding emotive particle.

It’s true that a great many English versions do not include anything for this angry shout (including KJV, NRSV, REB, NASB, NKJV, NLT, and NCV). Other versions use ‘Ah!’ (ASV, RSV, TEV), ‘Ha!’ (NIV, NAB, NET, ESV), ‘Hi!’ (Phillips), ‘Oh, no!’ (GW, ISV), ‘Hey’ (CEV), ‘Eh!’ (Darby), and ‘Ho!’ (Message).

Phillips here is a curiosity. The demonic voice speaking through the man is clearly expressing some kind of anger or rejection of Jesus, so a simple ‘Hi!’ just won’t do. Interestingly, the first Romei-Barera Onnele attempt at expressing this emotive shout was the phonetically spelled equivalent of the English greeting: ‘Hai!’ However, this was intended to reflect the kind of shout that Onnele speakers give when they are angry or displeased with another person’s behavior. It was not meant to reproduce the English greeting (which is actually used occasionally in Papua New Guinea). The potential confusion with that greeting was the probable reason why the Romei-Barera Onnele translators decided to follow their cousins in the Goiniri Onnele and Wolwale Onnele translations and finally put ‘Ai!’ without the ‘h’.

But the more interesting problem that came up in this verse had to do with the sequence of events that occurs in the narrative before this quotation. An earlier draft of the Romei-Barera Onnele translation read like this (literal English back translation follows)…

Mana wongke e yakle nu nainene mow kori e Juda, opola faifaile fa konralo wu. Wu wiri ka yangke mi kero wamo yire nanrona, “Hai! Yesus e Nasaret…”

A man was with those who were at the worship house of the Jews, a bad spirit often really came down on him. He cried and made big strong talk he said, “Hai! Jesus of Nazareth…”

At first I thought that the Onnele word wiri could be used for both ‘crying’ (with tears) and the sort of shouting that in English can be expressed with ‘cry out’. But I asked about this translation because it appeared that there was a sequence of two or three actions in the translation to express the one action of “crying out with a loud voice.” The translators answered that yes, first he cried (with tears), then he shouted out strong, and then he said the words that followed in the translation.

Oops! Evidentally, when the translators looked at English versions to help them understand the meaning of this verse, they didn’t understand the English idiom ‘cried out’ and concluded that something was missing from their translation.

Looking back, this problem actually exists in the source text that was used for all 11 languages in our translation project. Perhaps it’s not a problem for all 11 translations, since the particular words used in another language may actually give the right sense. But now I can write a translation note about this so each of the 11 translation teams can check their translations and change it if necessary.

This is why we do a careful exegetical check of the source text that we use for these multiple translations. If we miss something, that error gets duplicated 11 times! On the other hand, different people are checking these translations, and when we find ways to improve the translation, those improvements also get shared and can often be duplicated for all the others.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at the story of the Gadarene demoniac in Luke 8:30 and why it was so confusing when the demon told Jesus his name was ‘Legion’. Do you know what ‘legion’ means in English?