How Hard Can Translation Be?

I was once that young, bright-eyed, seminarian. I studied Greek and wondered at how easy it was to translate passages of Scripture that I already had memorized in English. And when I eventually heard that the vast majority of languages in the world (~91%) do not have the entire Bible, I was a bit shocked. I mean, we have had the whole of the canon for about 2,000 years. Surely, it should not be taking this long. How hard could it be?

For those of you that are in the same place, or who at least are asking these questions, I wanted to give you a glimpse of our last two weeks. Right now we are doing Oral Bible Storying (see more info about OBS HERE). Just like with the written translation process, we have to find appropriate words and phrases in Kwakum to convey the meaning of the original.

This week we had to deal with the issue of ‘sin’. What is sin? How would you define it? The way that I have defined it to our group is that ‘sin is anything we think, say, or do that is not pleasing to God’. Can you think of any reason this would be a difficult word for people like the Kwakum? Consider that most of the Kwakum do not go to church, most of them do not consider God in the day-to-day, and their language has formed apart from a knowledge of God or his Word.

Several words were proposed, with differing levels of certainty. One word, nsɛm, is the word that I am used to. This is the word I have heard in the village, and at church. Another word was proposed sɛmbu. I had heard this word a few times, and I knew that some people considered this to be the word for ‘sin’, however, I don’t hear it very often. In the small group discussion about the word people offered their different perspectives.

It turns out that the word nsɛm is a borrowed word from another language in Cameroon called Ewondo. In Cameroon, the Bible was originally translated in a few languages, one of them being Ewondo. Different churches/denominations adopted these languages, and so I have been told that in the Catholic church they used (and some still use) Ewondo as a “church language.” My experience is that most people do not understand Ewondo well, so it is sort of like Latin mass. Since the word nsɛm has been used in the churches, people have gotten used to it and many now associate it as the Kwakum word for ‘sin’.

Languages borrow words, it’s really no big deal. Consider the word résumé in English. Is that an English word? I mean it’s not, right. We don’t have accents on our words. But, at least in American English, résumé is what we call that list of personal information, work experience, and education history. We really don’t have another word for it (sure, the Brits call it a CV, but that’s not English-origin either). But while this seems normal to us, for the Kwakum, it is quite a problem.

As we have talked about the issue, several people (though not the majority) have said that we are supposed to be translating into Kwakum, not Ewondo. And if they have a perfectly good word for ‘sin’ in Kwakum, why would you use a borrowed Ewondo word? But of course, that raises the question: Is sɛmbu really a Kwakum word for ‘sin’?

So, I went out and did a survey with two men (one who says nsɛm and one who says sɛmbu). We went to a total of 10 villages and talked to 48 people. During this survey I asked each person what the word for ‘sin’ was, and only 3 people said sɛmbu. When asked to define sɛmbu I got a wide variety of responses: ‘bad luck’, ‘curse’, ‘incest’, and 16 people said ‘sin’. Just the other day, talking to someone in the village, they said, when you are walking on the road, and you see a dead viper on the ground, that is sɛmbu. It means that someone in your family is going to die soon. Is that sin? Even if sɛmbu can mean sin, should we still use it when some people hear ‘bad omen’?

I presented the results of this survey to the group, and the sɛmbu crowd remained unmoved. They said if you hear someone say the wrong word for something, you just correct them. And afterall, the Ethiopian eunuch said “How can I understand unless someone guides me?” So, from this perspective, it is better to use the ‘real Kwakum’ word, even though some people do not understand it well, and we will just have to teach them.

This is how we spent two hours of our translation time last Friday. On top of that I spent probably around 10 hours surveying. This is all for one word! After much discussion, at one point we felt like we were not getting anywhere. Stacey went over to our house and talked to Sophia (our tutor) and the kids. She told them what was happening, and asked for prayer. By the time she came back to the translation house, the group had decided to use nsɛm. This was a huge blessing, however, not everyone was happy. I think there will be more difficult conversations in the future.

So, it turns out that translation is not just about finding words that have the same meaning as the original. When you sit at home, in front of your computer, and study the Bible in English, after hundreds of years of English Bible history, it does not seem that hard. Greek and English are actually quite similar. You can look in a Bible dictionary and see that hamartia means ‘sin’ and think, “Well that was easy.” But what if the only English word we had meant ‘bad luck’ or ‘bad omen’. What would you do then?

Is an English translation really English if we used words borrowed from German? Or Spanish? Should the Bible contain words that most people do not understand (like propitiation)? What is the difference between translation and teaching? Have we translated well if people don’t understand a passage without a teacher? Are all passages the same? These are some of the questions we face in the day-to-day. I spoke to a veteran translator on the phone and he said it took them YEARS to figure out a good way to express the idea of ‘forgiveness’! Translation is war, it is struggle, it is political.

So, to respond to the main question: How hard can translation be? Hard.


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.