Lost (and found) in translation, installment #6: Jonah’s sign; signs of time or weather; flesh and blood

Consulting on the translation of Matthew chapter 11-12 in the Arli language via Zoom

Each week I meet over Zoom to consult with the Roma Bible translators in Croatia, Serbia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic in three languages: Arli, Chergash and Gurbet.

What do we do in those sessions? We read through each verse and I ask questions for clarification and give advice to help improve the translations.

What does that look like? Today I was working with one of the languages in Matthew chapters 15 and 16. Here are some of the changes we made in chapter 16:

To make the translation as clear as possible, we try to guide the reader/listener by giving clear titles to the various sections in a chapter. For example, the heading for Matthew 16:1 in the Roma translation was “Jonah’s sign”, but that would probably not communicate very much information to the average Roma listener. So we changed it to “The Pharisees and Sadducees seek a sign from Jesus”. This makes much more clear what the following section is talking about.

In the same way, the heading at Matthew 16:8 was “The Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ leaven”. Again, this is not terribly informative, so we changed it to “Jesus warns about the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ leaven”.

We had a rare occasion where the Roma word has two meanings which could easily be misunderstood in Matthew 16:3. Their word “vreme” can mean both “weather” and “time”. It is usually no problem to understand what the meaning is, given the context, but it just so happens here that Jesus speaks of the “signs of the sky” when referring to the weather (16:2: “it will be good weather because the sky is red”) but then immediately speaks of the “signs of the times”, which they had translated with the word which means “time” or “weather”. In order to be clear, we changed the wording in 16:3 from “you cannot interpret the signs of the times” to “you cannot interpret the signs of these days”. The idea is that they could interpret meteorological signs, but they could not interpret what was happening with God’s Kingdom as shown by the signs (miracles) that Jesus was doing.

In Matthew 16:4, Jesus says that “an evil and adulterous generation seeks a sign”. The context shows that he is not talking about literal adulterers, but is using the metaphor common in the Old Testament where the Lord said the Israelites were adulterous in the sense of unfaithful to Him when they turned to worship idols or did not believe his promises. The generation that seeks for a sign, Jesus is saying, is an unbelieving generation, so we translated 16:4 as “an evil and unfaithful generation”.

Also in 16:4, the phrase “sign of Jonah” could easily be misunderstood to mean that it was a sign (miracle) that Jonah performed. But we know from the book of Jonah that his survival in the belly of the fish for three days was not a miracle he performed, but rather something that happened to him. So we changed the translation of the end of Matthew 16:4 to “the sign which happened to the prophet Jonah.”

In Matthew 16:14, the wording “others say Elijah, some say Jeremiah or one of the prophets” could make it sound like Elijah and Jeremiah were not prophets. So we adjusted the translation to say “others say Elijah, some say Jeremiah or one of the other prophets”. This will help avoid a misunderstanding of this verse when the Roma hear or read it.

In Matthew 16:17, it says that “flesh and blood did not reveal this to you”. That is a picturesque metonymy (a figure of speech where the parts stand for the whole), but we thought it might not be clear to the Roma. He is not talking about literal blood and muscle; this is a biblical way of referring to a person. Since Jesus’ point is that Peter received the revelation from God and not from a human, we made this clear by adjusting the translation from “flesh and blood did not declare this to you” to “man did not show this to you”.

I could go on and on with examples, but this gives you the idea of some of the editing changes we make during our Zoom consultations.

Please keep us in prayer that:

  1. the Lord will give me and the translators much wisdom for each word and phrase as we translate,
  2. we can reach our quota of translating 1,500 verses each quarter,
  3. we will stay healthy and that the Internet, software and computers will run well, (today we had an issue where one translator’s Internet was a bit unstable and his computer crashed once, which slowed us down.)
  4. all will be done for the glory of God alone and that He will use His translated Word to save and edify many Roma.

Todd & Pamala

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