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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Translation Day 2: Do not condemn

9 Days of Translation Checking

Today is Day 2 of this celebration of those last 9 fruitful days of checking the Onnele translations of Luke out in the village last month.

Yesterday, I talked about ‘judging’ in Luke 6:37a. Now it’s time for Luke 6:37b.

The NASB reads, “… and do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.”

As with v. 37a, we again have the problem of not having passive verbs in the Onnele languages. So, once again, we specified God as the subsequent agent. Another feature of Onnele is that we cannot simply say ‘judge’ or ‘condemn’ as intransitive verbs. We have to specify the object of that condemning.

The idea of ‘condemnation’ in the second part of this verse is simply a parallel expansion on the idea of ‘judging’ in the first part, although ‘to condemn’ is stronger than ‘to judge’, and ‘condemning’ implies the status of guilt and deserved punishment.

An earlier draft of the Goiniri Onnele translation read like this…

“Pone ese fei pale eni pai nu uma plai, ka God re ese fei yape pone eni.”

“Do not give heavy to people, and God too will not give you heavy.”

While the idea of giving someone ‘heavy’ started to get at the idea of punishment that is associated with ‘condemnation’, this translation was just way too general. Also, giving ‘heavy’ focused too much on a physical action rather than the verbal assessment of someone else’s action. So the translation now reads…

“Pone ese fei kal mi polo nu uma plai nanrona nu nangke nale fafaile pu fane nu ese nem eni. La pone fei pangke nanrona, sa God re ese fei kal mi yolo pone.”

“Do not shoot talk nothing at people that they made bad skin so they must receive heavy. If you do not do this, then God too will not shoot talk nothing at you.”

So for ‘judging’ in v. 37a, we have “look around nothing at people with sharp liver-stomachs,” and for ‘condemning’ in v. 37b, we have “shoot talk nothing at people that they made bad skin so they must receive heavy.” The latter is an intensification of the former in the same ways that condemning specifies the action of judging.

To ‘shoot talk’ means to accuse, and to do it ‘nothing’ means to do it without consideration of the factors involved.

The phrase ‘bad skin’ is our key term for ‘sin’. The literal word ‘skin’ is commonly used to refer to a person’s behavior, so this refers to bad behavior.

To ‘give heavy’ is retained in this later draft, but it is now related more specifically to the verbal accusation of another person’s supposed guilt.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at how the man possessed by a demon addressed Jesus in Luke 4:33. Sometimes the English versions throw us off.

9 Days of Translation Checking

For the next 9 days, I’ll be posting short reflections on my recent experience checking over translations of the Gospel of Luke for three related Onnele languages in Papua New Guinea. If there’s a good response to this series of posts, I may keep it going.

I just returned to the Papua New Guinea highlands from 8 weeks out in the Sepik region. I spent 5 of those weeks checking over three translations of Luke into the Onnele family of languages. For the last 9 days, my family had to leave me out there by myself since our children had to get back for the start of school. So I made myself available to the Onnele translators morning, afternoon and evening. They set the schedule, and were they ever motivated to finish checking Luke! For those last 9 days, they kept me up until midnight and later almost every day. Here’s the reflection for today…

Luke 6:37 was difficult to translate, partly because the prohibition against ‘judging’ in this verse has a very nuanced sense which should probably not be translated in such a way that will prohibit legitimate judging activities, including God’s role as the ultimate judge at the end of this age.

NASB reads “Do not judge, and you will not be judged.”

Another difficulty is that Onnele does not have passive verbs. We cannot simply say “you will not be judged” and leave the potential agent of that judging ambiguous. So is it people or God who will refrain from judging the person who does not judge others? Perhaps this is the kind of heavenly wisdom that would apply equally well to human and divine judgment, but the surrounding context favors the interpretation that has divine judgment in view. So we made ‘God’ explicit in the translation.

In general the Onnele translators usually want to be as literal as they can so that their vernacular translations of scripture follow the original text as closely as possible. But where such a literal translation ends up communicating the wrong meaning, we have to say that such an approach would just be too overly literal, and we have to focus on translating the correct meaning and not just the individual words. Here is the Goiniri Onnele translation of Luke 6:37a followed by a fairly literal back translation into English and some explanations…

“Pone fa kal weikerpulu nu uma plau wolpun neni, sa God re ese fei yuluronsa pone plau wolpun neni.”

“Do not look around nothing at people with sharp liver-stomachs, then God too will not look around at you with a sharp liver-stomach.”

For “look around nothing at people with sharp liver stomachs,” the translation originally said something like “look around at people” with the sense of “to observe/judge.” But when we considered how the whole verse would be understood, including the promise that God too would not judge, we realized that this translation was not communicating the particular sense of judging harshly that is a common sense of the Greek word that is also mirrored in English. There is no question about the future judging activity of God. What is in question is the particular way that God will judge each person. Therefore, we added the part “with sharp liver-stomachs.” The liver or stomach, or in this case liver-stomachs, is what the Onnele people use to talk about the seat of the emotions. It’s their equivalent of ‘heart’. A sharp liver-stomach refers to anger.

But again, we realized that both people and God frequently have legitimate reasons to judge people with anger. The sense of ‘judging’ in this verse is really getting at an inclination towards judging indiscriminately or a judgmental attitude, one in which there is no room for mercy. So we added one more word to the translation — ‘nothing’. It means that the person judges others without thinking, or without due consideration. When we added that word, the Onnele translators shook their heads with big smiles. Now that makes sense. God will judge everyone regardless. But how will he judge them? This verse now communicates the meaning that only sometimes emerges among the various senses of the Greek and English words for ‘judge’.

I thought that we decided to add the word for ‘nothing’ to the latter part of the verse, too, regarding God’s response, but it’s not in there. I’ll have to ask the translators about that again.