FAQ: How do you translate unknown concepts?

People ask us all the time how we translate a word/idea in the Bible that is not present in the Kwakum language. For example, the word “grace” is an enormous key biblical idea yet we do not have a word for “grace” (or even “gift”) in Kwakum. What then do we do?

Before answering that question, there are a few underlying translation principles that you need to understand:

You cannot translate what you do not understand.

It is very tempting for our Kwakum translators to hear a word in Scripture (like cistern) and rush to provide a Kwakum equivalent. However with a little investigation, we soon realize that the equivalent that they provided does not mean the same thing as the word in the text. For instance, they may provide a word meaning dry well for cistern but this is not exactly the same meaning. Therefore, we emphasize with our team again and again that we first need to understand the biblical meaning of a word in order to then search for an equivalent in the language. In order to help our team understand what grapes were, for instance, we brought them grapes from the capital and had them taste them and then describe how they look, taste, smell, and feel. Once they really understood what a grape was, they were then able to come up with a way to describe it accurately in Kwakum.

Scripture interprets Scripture.

If someone who has not been to church picks up an English Bible and reads Genesis 12 where God makes a covenant with Abraham, they will likely not understand the word covenant. Perhaps they will look up covenant in the glossary (but they probably won’t). However, if they keep reading, then they will see God regularly making covenants with people throughout the Bible. Their first reading of the word covenant will go from a very basic, possibly incorrect, understanding into a rich, biblical understanding of the word. It is the same way with the Kwakum Bible. We understand that in order for biblical ideas to be known, people need to simply keep reading.  

With these principles in mind, there are five options of what we can do what we can do when we encounter a biblical idea without a Kwakum word which expresses that idea.

1. Use a descriptive phrase.

A descriptive phrase basically describes the idea in question using two or more words.

For example, when we translated the Christmas story in Kwakum and ran into all kinds of translation issues. For starters, there is no word for shepherd in the language, so our team has chose to use a descriptive phrase those-who-monitor-the-livestock. It is longer than a simple word shepherd and yet, it is accurate. We also had problems with the word magi, which, as it turns out, I didn’t know what a magi was anyway. We ended up translating the first mention of magi as “guardians of religious rites who look up at the starts to see the things to come.” All subsequent mentions were just “guardians of religions rites.” Another example is that there isn’t a good option for the word Lord in Kwakum. We discussed using the word chief or master or owner but none of these words really captured the fullness of what Lord stands for. We therefore opted to use the descriptive phrase “the one who reigns.” We also came up with descriptive phrases for manger, priest, and more just for this one story!

2. Substitute what is unknown with something known.

Another option is that when you are dealing with stories or comparisons inside of the biblical text, you can substitute the unknown idea with an idea that is known in the culture. We have yet to do this for the Kwakum stories because we have yet to enter into parables or a lot of comparisons. However, I have heard of African languages, who do not have snow, use something else white in their culture for the verse in Isaiah 1:18 which says that “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” When we went over this verse in training with our translators, they said that they could say something like, “your sins will be as white as cotton.” The point of the passage is clear with this comparison: God takes one darkened by sin and makes them pure.

3. Use a borrowed word.

Another option is to use a word that comes from the language of wider communication, which in our case is French. In Kwakum, there is no verbal or nominal form of a word for grace or gift. We have tried words that we thought we close but when we tested them in villages people would say, “This is when you give something to someone with the hopes of getting something in return.” This is not the right meaning. Although we have yet to officially decide this with our translation team, it is likely that we will be borrowing the French words for ideas pertaining to grace.

4. Use a more generic term.

If a specific term is not available in the language, then a generic term can be used. This generic term is often followed by a descriptive phrase in its first mention. The other day, our translation team came up with a term for cup bearer for the story of Joseph. We were all excited that they had this term in their language until they casually mentioned later on that their term was actually referring to a chimpanzee who tasted the food before the other chimps. Not what we were looking for. So, in this story, we just used a very generic description that there was a man who worked for the king who was in prison with Joseph. Right now, we are working on what is equivalent to a story-book Bible which allows us to eliminate some of the details within a story.

5. Use a more specific term.

Sometimes the language requires that you chose a term that is more specific than the term employed in the biblical text. For example, we surveyed a neighboring people group, the Pol, and found that they do not have a general word for brother. Your options are older brother or younger brother. What this means for translation is that you have to do your best to know if someone is older or younger in order to use the term older brother and younger brother rightly.

The goal for a given translation project is to hold four principles in tension: 1) The translation needs to be accurate, 2) it needs to be written in a way that the people speak, 3) it needs to be understandable, and 4) it needs to be accepted by the community. Each of these 4 pillars are considered over and over and over again as we wrestle through how to communicate unknown ideas into Kwakum well.  

So, this blog really barely scratches the surface of the intricacies of Bible translation. I have yet to talk about weights and measurements or proper names. However, I think, if nothing else it serves to show you that you should pray for those you know who are translating the Word of God into a minority language.

We are indebted to the careful work and years of experience of senior SIL consultant Katherine Barnwell who laid out these options in her book Bible Translation: An Introductory Course in Translation Principles.


Author: Stacey Hare

Stacey is a servant of Jesus Christ as well as a wife, mom, linguist, and Bible translator among the Kwakum people of Cameroon.