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.

Non-imperatives in Romans 12:9-13.

Why can’t we translate the non-imperative clauses in Romans 12:9-13 as something other than imperatives? I don’t see any reason why not. In fact, I believe that translating these non-imperative forms as commands puts too much emphasis on our human effort that just isn’t in the text at this point. The introduction of 14 commands in this passage also has the effect of hiding the more relevant theme that must be continuing in this passage of the Spirit’s control of our minds (cf. Rom. 8:4ff; 12:2,6). The tension within the ethics of the New Testament is that we are frequently commanded to do what we are only able to do through the gift of the Holy Spirit in our lives. The pages of the New Testament do also give plain descriptions of what Spirit-regenerated life looks like, and these should not all be reduced to the rhetoric of direct instructions.

Understood descriptively, vv. 9-13 offer a detailed picture of what love looks like after the preceding discussion of gifts (analagous to 1 Cor. 12-13). It is not a series of orders, but it would have been heard as an attractive description of what love does. Certainly this should motivate us to those actions, but the real power behind any of these loving behaviors is the control of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. These aren’t just mitigated commands. The expository nature of the text leaves more room for figuring in the role of the Spirit.

The real difficulty is how to translate this passage into English when there are some surprising subject-verb agreement features of the Greek text that can’t be automatically carried over into English. The first phrase says “Love (singular) [is] unhypocritical (singular),” but the following supporting phrases are all plural verbal participles (e.g. “abhorring (plural) evil, clinging (plural) to the good…”).

I think the main reason all our English translations go the way of expressing all 14 of these clauses as commands where there isn’t a single imperative verb is this: in trying to do justice to the apparent discrepancy of the lack of number agreement between the first singular clause and the following plural participles, making them all commands apparently solves this problem in English.  By supplying an implied command (“let be”) for the first clause (“let love be unhypocritical”), there is no longer any lack of agreement between the subject of the first clause and the assumed plural “you” subject of all the following participles. The subject now is always ‘you’.

The big problem, however, is that the grammatical subject of this whole paragraph is ‘love’. The traditional English solution loses that and shifts the entire focus to ‘you’. A second person plural subject is not expressed in any form in any of these 14 clauses in vv. 9-13 (nor in the previous 5 verses).

A better understanding of the apparent mismatch in the Greek subject-verb agreement of vs. 9 is that Greek normally allows the semantics of the situation to dictate the forms of the subject and verb. This is regularly seen in various disagreements for person and number when there are compound subjects, and for a variety of semantic reasons (see my summary of the issues here). In Rom. 12:9 the disagreement comes about because the true initial subject of the paragraph is the singular notion of love, but Paul is talking about love that is expressed by the multiple members of the body of Christ. The mismatch in number agreement happens when the singular abstract concept of ‘love’ is introduced and then described by participles that are plural due to the multiple agents in view.

Here’s my first attempt at a translation. Notice that the first command does not occur until vs. 14…

9 Love is unhypocritical: it is people abhorring evil, clinging to the good, 10 affectionate to one another with brotherly love, leading the way in showing honor to one another, 11 not shrunk back in eagerness, boiling over in the Spirit, serving the Lord, 12 rejoicing in hope, enduring suffering, persevering in prayer, 13 sharing their possessions for the needs of the saints, pursuing love between strangers. 14 Bless the ones pursuing you; bless and do not curse.

After translating this passage to more carefully reflect what is happening in the original text, a few things stand out that are not so apparent when all the dependent clauses are translated as separate commands…

The single sentence that includes vv. 9-13 starts off with the broad thematic content of the paragraph, namely, that love is unhypocritical. This theme is illustrated by a broad movement in the following participles from showing love to the brothers in the community who are called saints to a love that endures suffering and is sought after even between strangers.

The transition from the string of participial and adjective phrases in vv. 9-13 to the commands in vs. 14 is marked by the double use of DIWKW ‘pursue’ in vs. 13 in the sense of ‘hospitality’ (or more literally “pursuing love between strangers”) and in vs. 14 in the sense of “bless the ones pursuing (i.e. persecuting) you.”

Understood as a description rather than a series of commands, it also becomes more reasonable to understand the TW PNEUMATI as “the Spirit” rather than as the human spirit that one can manipulate. And that, I believe, is the whole point of Paul using participles in this paragraph rather than imperative verbs. It’s the Spirit’s work, first of all, before it is our own.

“Memorial offering” of Cornelius – Acts 10:4

What does it mean in Acts 10:4 when the angel of the Lord tells Cornelius that his prayers and charity to the poor went up as a “memorial offering” before God? Clearly, this is the language of acceptable sacrifice. But what is the significance of this particular kind of offering, a “memorial offering”?

This question came up because a first draft of a translation I am checking in the Arop-Sissano language in Papua New Guinea has it something like this…

“You often pray, and all the things you give to people with nothing, God has seen this and he thinks of you.”

Is that the intended significance of “memorial offering”—that God thinks of (or remembers) the person who has given the offering? Sort of.

The Greek word here is μνημόσυνον mnēmosunon ‘memorial’, something that enables someone to remember. So if the memorial goes up before God, then it makes possible sense that it functions as a memorial for God to remember something about the one who gives the memorial.

But this word was used in the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew אזכּרה ’azkārâ, the ‘memorial portion’ of the grain offering in Leviticus 2:2, 9, 16; 5:12; 6:15; Numbers 5:26. Driver (Journal of Semitic Studies, 1 [1956], 100) described it this way: “It is the sign whereby the worshipper is reminded or taught that the whole offering is in fact owed to God but that He is pleased to accept only a part of it as a ‘token’ while remitting the burning of the rest of it on the altar so that it may be otherwise consumed.” Thus, Driver puts the focus of the remembering on the worshipper, not on God.

Regardless of whether we think the memorial is more for prompting the worshipper or God to remember something, the particular thing that Driver identifies as the thing to be remembered may be key for understanding the significance of Acts 10:4. The “memorial offering” was only a portion of the grain offering. God was pleased to accept this small portion and allow the rest of the grain offering to be left for the priests to eat even though the whole offering was due him. In Acts 10 it soon becomes apparent that Cornelius and his household function in the story as a representative portion of the Gentiles. Just as the prayers of Cornelius and his charity to the poor arose as the “memorial portion” of an offering before God, Peter recognizes through the grace given to the one man Cornelius that God “accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.”

Thus, in drawing attention to the piety of Cornelius as the ‘memorial portion’ of a worship offering to God, the angel of God anticipates how Cornelius will function later in the episode as a representative of men from all nations who receive grace and peace from God through Jesus Christ.

Jesus Teaches Payback

From my journal on 24 July during advisor checking of Onnele translations in Papua New Guinea…

Chapter 12 has gone pretty slow. There were some pretty major things that needed fixing. For example, in Luke 12:48b… “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” This is in the context of a section about faithful servants, but of course, each Onnele translation made this verse sound like a truism regarding the custom of payback (if people give to
you, you’ll have to give back to them). This applies to gifts, but revenge is also the law of the land. It took a while for the translators to even understand what the difference was, and even then, after they understood it,
they still wanted to translate it almost exactly like they originally had it.

At first, it said (in Onnele, Tok Pisin back translation, and English backtranslation, respectively)…

Nu uma empo nu’pu ompla mingkla, nu ese nane kore ompla mingkla paiyi kore. La mana wongke uma mingklari nane wu ompla mingkla, mana namo nu ese naline wu fa wu ese yali kore ompla mingkla.

Ol man i kisim ol planti samting, ol bai givim bek ol samting planti igo bek. Sapos wanpela man, ol man planti i givim em planti samting, dispela man ol bai askim em long em bai givim ol samting planti bek.

People who receive many things, they will give back many things. If a man–many people have given him many things–this man, they will ask him that he will give many things back.

Now we have something like this:

Nu uma e nu’pu ommo mingklari e bosni, bos ese yali mi kero fa nurune ommo mingklari woneni. Ne mana fina, bos ya’ne ira uporo mingklari, mana namo nu ese nunarine wu mi mimgkla.

Ol manmeri i kisim ol planti samting bilong bos, bos bai givim tok strong bilong lukautim ol planti samting bilong en. Na husat man, bos i givim planti gutpela het, dispela man ol bai askim em long planti tok.

People who receive many things belonging to [their] boss, the boss will give strong talk for him to look after the many things belonging to him. And whatever man, the boss has given [him] much good head [= much knowledge], this man people will ask him about much talk.

This translation makes some things very explicit that are not in the original:

  • the identity of the master as the one who gives the work of ‘lukautim’ (looking after, or caring for) as the type of thing that is given (in the first case)
  • knowledge as the type of thing that is given (in the second case)

Even though these things are not explicitly expressed in the original, I feel pretty confident that these are the implied meanings that fit within

this context. And if we didn’t put these things in, the translation would definitely mean the wrong thing–something about reciprocal giving of goods that really has nothing to do with faithful stewardship to an authority.

So even though things are going slow, I’m really happy with the kinds of changes that we’re making.

Translating the divine name YHWH

To illustrate simply by way of bibliography that translation of the divine name YHWH is not a simple matter, here is a quick chronological list of translation references readily available to me from four journals: The Bible Translator, Notes On Translation, Jerusalem Perspective, and Journal of Translation (IOW, this is in no way a comprehensive list, nor does it necessarily represent the best scholarship on the issue)…

J.L. Sweelengrebel, “Translating the Divine Names,” The Bible Translator. Vol 3:4 (October 1952): 171–196.

J.L Sweelengrebel, “Discussion of Translating the Divine Names,” The Bible Translator, Vol. 3:4 (October 1952): 196–199.

Noel D. Osborn, “This Is My Name Forever: ‘I AM’ or ‘YAHWEH’? The Bible Translator, Vol. 39:4 (October, 1988): 410-415.

Robert E. Smith, “By My Name YHWH, I Did Not Make Myself Known,” Notes on Translation, Vol. 4:4 (1990): 51-52.

Ray Pritz, “The Divine Name in the Hebrew New Testament,” Jerusalem Perspective, Vol. 4:2 (March/April, 1991).

David Bivin, “‘Jehovah’—A Christian Misunderstanding,” Jerusalem Perspective Vol. 4:6 (Nov./Dec., 1991).

David Bivin, “The Fallacy of Sacred Name Bibles,” Jerusalem Perspective, Vol. 4:6 (Nov./Dec., 1991).

Euan Fry, “Editorial – A special issue,” The Bible Translator. Vol 43:4 (October, 1992): 401-402

Since the above reference introduces many others that follow, I reproduce the text here and below each of the articles he introduces…

This is a special issue of Practical Papers devoted to a single topic. We visit again the topic of translating the names of God, especially in the Old Testament; and all of the articles and other contents of this issue will be on that topic.

Over all the years The Bible Translator has been published (since 1950) there have been many articles written from various perspectives about translating the names of God. Besides articles there have also been some books written about the names of God. One book which was made available to Bible translators for a time was The Lord is God by Hellmut Rosin. A more recent study is the book entitled In Search of God by Tryggve Mattinger.

Translating the names of God is a matter of great concern to many Bible translators. All translators have to deal with it almost as soon as they start translating seriously. It can be both a difficult issue and a divisive issue for a translation team. It is also an issue on which readers and hearers of the Scriptures have strong feelings. In my own experience as a Bible translator it was the hardest issue of all to work through in bringing together two different large churches in a single translation project.

It has become clear in recent years, if it wasn’t clear earlier, that no one solution to the problems we face in translating the names of God will meet all situations. There are variations and differences in the way names are used in different languages and cultures around the world; there are also wide differences in the existing names and ways of referring to deity. For this reason different approaches to translating the names of God in the Bible are necessary in different situations. And this is not to mention the variety of church usage and church teaching in different places and different Christian traditions!

It is not my place to go into the topic at length. This is just an introduction to what you will find in reading this issue of Practical Papers. However I must refer in this introduction to an important gathering which was held in May last year, which was an occasion for a number of papers and discussions on the topic of translating the names of God. This was a UBS Translations Workshop at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe; and the first item in this special issue is a statement entitled “How to Translate the Name” from the group of UBS consultants and advisers meeting there.

Following the important statement from the UBS Workshop are a number of articles, which are mostly papers or parts of papers presented during the meetings. In all cases they have been edited for publication in Practical Papers. My special thanks in this connection go to my colleague Kees de Blois who was responsible for the selection and first editing of the material which makes up this special issue. He also prepared the bibliography which is the final item.
The first of the articles is in fact written by Kees de Blois.

“How To Translate The Name,” The Bible Translator, Vol. 43:4 (October, 1992): 403-406.
[Statement by the “Names of God” Study Group, UBS Triennial Translation Workshop, Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, 8-21 May 1991]

Kees F. De Blois, “Translating the Names Of God: Tryggve Mettinger’s analyses applied to Bible translation,” The Bible Translator, Vol. 43:4 (October, 1992): 406-414.

Starting from Tryggve Mattinger’s study on the names of God, he discusses its consequences for translation. He underlines the importance of the associated meaning of the “tetragrammaton” yhwh, while still recognising its function as a proper name. He then summarises the three most widely adopted approaches to the translation of yhwh hyh with arguments for and against each.

Noel D. Osborn, “The Name: When Does It Make A Difference?” The Bible Translator, Vol. 43:4 (October, 1992): 415-422.

Noel Osborn writes of his conviction that choosing just one option to deal with all occurrences of yhwh is not the best we can do in translation. He discusses a number of references where understanding yhwh as a name makes a great deal of difference to our understanding of the passage; and he then makes a good case for transliterating yhwh in those passages. An important part of his article is a classification of 129 sample references in twelve different categories, with a recommendation as to how the name yhwh should be handled in each type of context.

Donald J. Slager, “The Use Of Divine Names In Genesis,” The Bible Translator, Vol. 43:4 (October, 1992): 423-429.

In the next article Donald Slager studies the occurrence and use of the two terms yhwh and ‘élOhîm ‘lh in Genesis from a literary perspective. He compares the source critical approach with that of more recent literary analysts; and he presents some explanations from a literary perspective for the name switching that is found in some well-known stories.

Ernst R. Wendland, “yhwh- The Case For Chauta ‘Great-[God]-of-the-Bow’,” The Bible Translator, Vol. 43:4 (October, 1992): 430-438.

Ernst Wendland gives a very revealing discussion of the translation of the term yhwh in the Chichewa Bible. He refers to the way the name was transliterated in the older translations, and then describes the approach of the most recent Chewa translation team to the problems of rendering it meaningfully.

Nitoy Achumi, “Translation of ‘God’ and ‘Lord’ in Some Naga Bibles,” The Bible Translator, Vol. 43:4 (October, 1992): 438-443.

The two final articles are both studies of the way the terms yhwh and ‘élOhîm have been translated in some of the languages of North India. Nitoy Achumi presents a study of translation in three of the Naga languages. He studies in particular the key terms in those languages for spirits or deities, and discusses how some of those terms have been taken and used in Bible translation. He notes a wide variation between the three languages studied in the way the name yhwh has been treated.

Benjamin Rai, “What Is His Name? Translation of Divine Names in Some Major North Indian Languages,” The Bible Translator, Vol. 43:4 (October, 1992): 443-446.

Benjamin Rai focuses on four major languages which are all derived from Sanskrit: Bengali, Hindi, Nepali, and Assamese. At the end of his discussion he concludes “that the last word has not been said on the question of rendering … yhwh in North Indian (and other) languages.”

On that note I will end my comments. We hope that the contents of the statement “How to Translate the Name” and the articles, along with the bibliography of previous TBT articles and other references, will be a useful resource for translators who face the issue of translating the names of God now and in the future.

Howard Hatton, “Notes: Translating yhwh: Experience In Thailand And Micronesia,” The Bible Translator, Vol. 43:4 (October, 1992): 446-448.

David Thomas, “A Further Note on YHWH,” The Bible Translator, Vol. 44:4 (October, 1993): 444-445.

Jørgen Larsen, “Still More on YHWH,” The Bible Translator, Vol. 45:2 (April, 1994): 243-244.

Marcelo Epstein, “On The “Original” Septuagint,” The Bible Translator, Vol. 45:3 (July, 1995): 322-329.

Daud H. Soesilo, “Sir, Teacher, Master, Lord,” The Bible Translator, Vol. 47:3 (July, 1996): 335-340.

Mary Steele, “Translating the Tetragrammaton YHWH In Konkomba,” Notes on Translation, Vol. 11:4 (1997): 28-31.

Katharine Barnwell, “Translating the Tetragrammaton YHWH,” Notes on Translation, Vol. 11:4 (1997): 24-27.

David DeGraaf, “Translating ‘God’ and ‘Sacrifice’ into Nyarafolo,” Notes on Translation, Vol. 13:3 (1999): 34–49.

Daud Soesilo, “Translating the Names of God: recent experience from Indonesia and Malaysia,” The Bible Translator, Vol. 52:4 (October, 2001): 414-423.

Norm Mundhenk, “Who is God in Papua New Guinea?” The Bible Translator, Vol. 55:2 (April, 2004): 215-227.

John David K. Ekem, “The Rendering of the Divine Name YHWH in Some Ghanaian Bible Translation Projects,”
The Bible Translator, Vol. 56:2 (April, 2005): 71-76.

Vitaly Voinov, “Pronominal Apostasy? Or: Whose God Do You Mean?” The Bible Translator, Vol. 56:4 (October, 2005): 239-245.

Nico Daams, “Translating YHWH,” Journal of Translation, Vol. 1:1 (2005): 47-55.