Beyond Words

Translating Unknown Ideas

What fascinates me most about language is its connection to thought. Everything that exists in my and your world gets processed through language. This includes both our physical world (e.g. things we can perceive with our senses) and our metaphysical world (e.g. things we can’t perceive with our senses, but are still very real parts of our beliefs about the world, such as spiritual beings or mathematics or love). By naming everything, language helps us make sense of our world. It is frustrating when you encounter something from outside of your world and you don’t know what it is. (Take, for example, the photograph below. What in the world is that? you may be thinking.)

Translation work becomes challenging whenever our "worlds" differ from the world of the Bible. Its authors lived in a very different world centuries ago in the Middle East than I do today on Canada’s West Coast. Differences in geography, culture, technology and even time cause people to use language uniquely for their specific contexts. Translation can quickly come to a halt when something in the biblical text doesn’t exist in the language into which that text is being translated (i.e. the target language).

I first encountered this in southern Tanzania when translating the Old Testament book of Jonah. The language communities there lived among small bodies of water and traversed them with nothing much larger than canoes. The idea of a cargo ship with decks, crew and a captain was just not something for which language was necessary. And so I found myself stuck with literally no words for certain ideas in the book of Jonah.

Getting unstuck meant carefully considering five strategies for translating unknown ideas. Below are the strategies and, in italics, how the word “captain” from Jonah 1:6 might be handled:

1. Use a descriptive phrase: the person in charge of the boat

2. Use a similar known substitute: the boat-chief

3. Use a foreign word (with a descriptive phrase or general word): the person in          charge, called the captain

Translation can quickly come to a halt when something in the biblical source text doesn’t exist in the language into which it is being translated.

4. Use a more general term: the leader of the boat

5. Use a more specific term: the master of the boat

Deciding on the most appropriate strategy is subject to a number of factors. Most importantly, you must determine whether the form or the function of a given word is in focus. For example, it is the function of whiteness that is in focus for “snow” in Matthew 28:3, describing the colour of clothing worn by the angel at Jesus’ empty tomb. In many parts of the world where there are no words for snow, similar substitutes that are white may abound: flowers, feathers, cotton. Anything that people clearly recognize as white could suffice, especially if they use a particular known item with reference to whiteness.

In contrast, when Jesus curses a fig tree in Mark 11:12-25, it is the form of the “fig tree” that is in focus. And if there are no fig trees in the target language, substituting some other similar fruit tree would be historically inaccurate.

Finally, using footnotes, images and section headings in a translation also helps readers grasp foreign concepts while preserving biblical forms. In my 2013 New Living Translation, for example, Luke 19:13 uses “ten pounds of silver,” but in a footnote states, “Greek ten minas; one mina was worth about three months’ wages.” Both the translation and the footnote work together. So, even if I don’t bother to read the footnote, I still have a good understanding of the original text.

Now, about the image I mentioned in the first paragraph. It may look like the face of an alien from outer space to you, but actually, it is an ackee. This fruit is native to West Africa, but is used prominently in Jamaican cuisine. Now consider some of the challenges and solutions to translating ackee into other languages!


Danny Foster is president of the Canada Institute of Linguistics (CanIL), a partner of Wycliffe Canada that trains personnel to serve in language projects, including Bible translation. CanIL operates at Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C., and Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto, Ont.

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