How Do You Translate Without Numbers?

When discussing some of the difficulties of Bible translation with people, often I will hear them say, “I think you should just translate the Bible word-for-word.” Actually, I think I have said that before! However, as it turns out, it is not that easy.  As I have studied linguistics for the last 20 weeks a host of translation issues have come up. Consider this section of Zechariah’s Prophecy in Luke 1:
76And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
78 because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Verse 78 is interesting in Greek:
δια σπλαγχνα ελεους θεου ημων…
Literally, “because of the bowels of mercy of our God…” Bowels of mercy? What does that mean? Well, in Greek this is one of the ways that you communicate heart-felt mercy is to say σπλαγχνα ελεους ‘bowels of mercy’. For the ancient Grecian the bowels were the seat of the emotions, not the heart. For the English speaker “heart of mercy,” or “tender mercy” makes so much more sense. So, English translators have chosen to translate the meaning not the literal words.

The point of translation is to take something in an un-understandable language and make it understandable. In any translation, including Bible translation, word order, word selection, and grammar will always be different from Hebrew and Greek (and Greek is different from Hebrew!). Thus, the goal of the Bible translator (which I am aspiring to be) is to be faithful to the text of Scripture and to make the text understandable in the new language.

And now, how about doing it without numbers? I spent 16 weeks at GIAL learning Bemba, a Bantu language from Zambia, Africa.  In those weeks I repeatedly tried to get Bemba numbers and I was only able to elicit 1-5 and 10. Think about how this would affect Bible translation. How many days did it rain when Noah was on the ark? How many disciples were there? How many days did it take God to create the world? Compounding this problem, there are some languages that have the numbers 1 and 2 and then they just have “many.”  What do you do there? No seriously, what do you do? My intention is to show some of the complications of Bible translation. I am not sure exactly what I would do with these issues, but mainly I just want you all to be praying for us and for the many other translators on the field as we prepare to be making hard decisions like these.
Linguistics nerd alert! The following is pretty nerdy. 
For those interested, the task of translating the Bible into a previously unwritten language has many more hurdles than simply which word to pick for “bowels.” As I studied Bemba we had to listen to our language consultant (Elijah) speak in Bemba. Then we had to try to write down what he was saying in the International Phonetic Alphabet. Then we had to try to understand which sounds were contrastive in the language and therefore had to be distinguished when we wrote them down. And, among other things, we had to gain a grasp of the grammar of Bemba as well. So, just in case you like this kind of thing, I have uploaded two papers that I co-authored with Mical Hilbert below.  Again, pray for all the Bible translators out there – that we’d get it right!

Author: David M. Hare

Dave is a husband, father of four Africans, and is currently helping the Kwakum people do Oral Bible Storying and Bible translation in Cameroon, Africa.