Lost (and found) in translation: Installment #2: Problem areas or special challenges

There are a number of problem areas, or special challenges, when you are translating the Bible. Let me just mention a few:

Implied information: This is what we assume the hearer already knows so we do not need to state it explicitly. It is amazing how much we take for granted when we are talking to someone else, especially someone from the same language, culture, and background. But there is often a very large gap between what was already known or assumed 2,000 years ago in Palestine by first-century listeners, and what Roma in the 21st century in Serbia, for example, already know or assume. We often need to spell things out for them and make explicit what was implicitly known by the original readers.

For example, if you are a guest in my house and I say: “Coffee?”, you understand that I am offering to serve you coffee. I do not need to explicitly say the words, “Would you like some coffee?” Or, if the day after the home team played a game, I ask you, “Did you see the game?”. I don’t need to specific which game since I can assume you know what I’m referring to. If I pull into a gas station in Croatia, all I have to say to the attendant is one word, “Full”. I don’t have to say, “Please fill my tank full of petrol”. He knows what I’m referring to, and I know that the first question he was going to ask was how much petrol I wanted him to fill the tank with.

Idioms: An idiom is a phrase whose meaning is more than the sum of its parts. If you take literally the words which are strung together, they give a meaning that is not intended. These very often do not translate well from one language to another.

There are many examples, such as “You’re pulling my leg;” “It’s raining cats and dogs”; and “He pulled the wool over your eyes.”

Metaphors and similes: These are picturesque comparisons, whose meanings are not always transparent. “Herod is a fox” is a metaphor; “the kingdom of God is like a man who …” is a simile. These make stories rich and interesting, but the comparison being made is not always obvious. Sometimes we need to help the reader understand how the comparison works.

Think of some metaphors we use: “He’s a fish out of water”; “He has a heart of gold”; “You are the light of the world”; “You are a candle in the darkness”; “He swims like a fish”; “She sings like an angel”. 

Event nouns and genitives: There are some actions which one language may describe using a noun, but another may be better served by using a verb. For example, Luke 1:54 says “in remembrance (an event noun) of his mercy (another event noun)” (ESV), but the NLT makes this more clear and natural by rendering these two nouns as verbs: “and remembered (verb) to be merciful (verb phrase)”.

Also, sometimes you need to explain what “of” means when you have nouns joined by “of”. For example, does “love of God” mean his love for us or our love for him? Does “box of wood” mean a box made of wood, or a box holding or containing wood?

Passive verbs: We use a lot of passive verbs in English, and Greek did the same, but many languages prefer active verbs, and in order to be more clear and natural, sometimes we have to change a passive to an active in translation.

Multiple meanings in the source language or target language: Words have various meanings depending on their contexts, and they often do not match well across languages. Is “squash” referring to the vegetable or the sport. Are the “glasses” those you drink from or see with?

In future installments, I will give you some examples and show you some of the specific challenges and obstacles that we encounter when translating the Bible into Roma languages.

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