Translating living letters

In 2 Cor. 3:1-2 Paul talks about not needing letters of recommendation because the Corinthian believers are letters that bear witness to the Spirit of God working in people’s hearts through his ministry.

Over at the LivingLetters blog I have posted several times in the last week about the process of Bible translation in our multi-language project in Papua New Guinea. My wife also has a number of posts that relate to our life in PNG and our desire to translate the good message of hope and trust in God in our everyday lives.

We pray that our lives would be living letters of recommendation for the people who have trained us up in the faith. Also, that our written translations would not just be letters on the page but words of life for those whom we serve. May these friends be living letters that testify to the work of the Spirit in our ministry.

Naturalness and Frequency of Word Use

Last week, I met with five Onnele translators who are working together to produce three different translations of the Bible for four different Onnele dialects. These language varieties are quite closely related, and there is a high degree of mutual intelligibility between them. The communities that speak the Romei and Barera dialects have determined that their dialects are close enough that they can produce one translation together. Even though the Goiniri and Wolwale dialects are also closely related, the decision to produce separate but related translations is frequently confirmed for us as we recognize various dialectical differences. In the case of the word aiyem ‘rejoice’, it is simply a difference in frequency of use.

The verb aiyem/ainem is an interesting one. Normally, verbs in Onnele have a different prefix depending on the person and number of the subject that performs the action of the verb. This verb, however, is a complex form such that the normal prefixes appear in the middle of the word. Thus, the difference between aiyem ‘you rejoice’ and ainem ‘they rejoice’.

But we made another discovery about this verb last week. Different Onnele dialects use this verb more or less frequently. While they each can use it and understand it, it is not as commonly used in the Goiniri and Wolwale dialects as it is in the Romei and Barera dialects. This observation was made when Joel (pictured above 2nd from the right), one of the translators from the Wolwale dialect, refused to follow the Goiniri and Romei-Barera translations in their use of the word. When he thought about it, he said, “Yes, we can say that. We know what it means when someone says that. But I hardly ever hear people using this word in Wolwale. When I go over to Romei-Barera, however, they use it all the time.” The other Wolwale translator, Felix (far right), readily agreed with him. Dominic (far left) agreed that the people in Romei and Barera use the word a lot, but he was confident that is was also okay to use in the Goiniri translation.

I decided to add up all the times in the Gospel of Luke that these three different translations use variations of this verb and see if it corresponded to their observations about how frequently it is used in their communities. Sure enough, it appears 24 times in the Goiniri translation, only 7 times in Wolwale’s, and 49 times in Romei-Barera’s.

In place of ainem ‘they rejoice’, Joel and Felix are using two different verbal expressions – woluporo ‘liver-good’ and wolpuna ‘liver-stomach’ – to express the same meaning of ‘rejoice’. The liver and/or stomach is the seat of the emotions for most Papua New Guinean cultures, so expressions related to joy often involve a liver or stomach idiom. The Romei and Barera dialects also have these idioms, but their word of choice of expressing joy and happiness is aiyem. This is a case where the different Onnele communities will be able to read and understand the various Onnele translations, but when they read their own, it will really sound like the language of their heart using the words that are most natural to their dialect.

See the post over at the Living Letters blog for more of this story.

The Greek ‘the’ and the English ‘the’

Wayne Leman over at the Better Bibles Blog has posted on the translation of Greek articles here, focusing specifically on occurrences of “the house” in Matthew where a house has not previously been introduced in the text. One discourse pattern we often find is that definite nouns are used only after that noun has been introduced in the text in an indefinite manner. However, definiteness is not always dependent on the article in Greek. I have posted my response to Wayne in the comments of his post. I’ll only repeat part of that here…

When I read “the house” in the gospels about a house that I have not been introduced to yet, this communicates to me that there was a definite house that Jesus was going to. If the translation were to say “a house,” that would sound to me like Jesus was aimlessly meandering and randomly came across any house when he felt like it was time to stop. So in some of these cases, the ‘the’ doesn’t have to have the same discourse function that we often think of when it is used to refer back to a previously introduced noun. Rather, the article conceptualizes the noun in a certain way (perhaps even making it definite, although it is true that definiteness is not ultimately dependent upon the Greek article) for other reasons besides its previous occurence in the text.In Mt. 9:28, I like what the NLT has done here with “the house where he was staying.” That has the effect of communicating a certain definiteness, and it seems to be a very likely referent that is not too overly specific without other clues. Often times “going into the house” in Greek is the equivalent of our English “going home.” On the other hand, isn’t it possible that “the house” refers to Matthew’s house, the last house we hear of before Jesus was summoned to go to the synagogue leader’s house? Maybe not, since that interpretation would assume that Jesus stayed there for more than just dinner and was there for several days during which the disciples of John the Baptist came to him before the synagogue ruler came to him. Probably quite unlikely. Therefore, it seems that the best option is that Jesus is still in his own town (cf. 9:1), so “the house” is probably whatever house he’s staying in, perhaps even a family house, or ‘home’ as “the house” often means in Greek.

As for 13:36, it’s very possible that Jesus is back in his home town again, since 12:15 says that he left the area he had gone to after he left his home town. Also, his mother and brothers are back in the picture in 12:46. Mt. 13:1 refers to Jesus leaving “the house” and so 13:36 refers to him going into “the house.” It’s the same one he left, very definite even if we don’t want to go so far as to say it was his family home.

As for 17:25, this is Peter’s home town, (cf. Mt. 4:18) and we know that Peter’s mother-in-law had a house there (Mt. 8:14), so this is probably one of those places where “the house” is best understood as the definite idea of ‘home’.

Mt. 24:43 has “the house of him” because it has already referred to the ‘homeowner’.

Daniel Wallace discusses the uses and non-uses of the Greek article in Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, pp. 206-290. I have summarized his discussion in 4 pages if anyone is interested.

As for the differences between the Greek and English uses of the article, it is best to try to identify why a Greek noun has the article in particular instances before deciding if the same meaning is communicated in English with or without the definite article.