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 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.

Remote Blogging by Email


After my multiple posts in January about posting via Flickr to WordPress using email, I must apologize for never putting this method to use. I seem to have disappeared from blogdom without a word of explanation. I did try once to post via email during these last few months, but the Flickr requirement of including a picture seems to have messed me up. Since I connect to email in our remote village through a high frequency radio connection, attachments normally get separated from the message body.

Anyway, here’s where I’ve been…

January-April: My family moved to Madang for these months as I fulfilled the role of Academic Coordinator for all the new members of our organization arriving in the Pacific. Major responsibilities included teaching Tok Pisin (Melanesian Pidgin) and giving other lectures in Anthropology.

May: I barely made it out to our village in order to help do final checking of the Gospel of Luke for 4 related Austronesian languages. This was thoroughly enjoyable, especially working together with another translation consultant through the 24 chapters of this book.

I am now happily reunited with my family, and I am preparing to help check Luke for another group of 4 related languages in mid-July. I am also helping the 3 related languages that I normally advise to prepare their drafts of Luke for checking at the end of July.

In my next post, I’ll include the message that failed to survive the radio transmission earlier this month.