“Don’t eat strangled animals” (Lost [and Found] in Translation, Installment #16)

Screen shot from a recent Zoom session checking the Bible translation into the Gurbet language

We recently finished checking Acts in the Arli, Gurbet and Chergash languages. It was a four month process, fun to do, but also with many challenges.

One of the challenges in Bible translation is what to do when there is implied background information that we know was clear to those who read the New Testament in the first century Roman empire, but which we think that our 21st century Roma in Eastern Europe will not know. How can we make sure that they understand through our translation what was clear to the original readers, but will certainly not be caught if we make a very literal translation?

“Godfearer” mentioned in a mosaic inscription at the synagogue of Sardis, ca. AD 365 (c) bibleplaces.com

For example, in several places in Acts, reference is made to “those who fear God” or simply “God-fearers”. What may not be clear to today’s readers is that this was a semi-technical term that referred to Gentiles who worshipped the God of Israel. These Gentiles had not fully converted to Judaism (perhaps they had not been circumcised) but they worshipped in the synagogues and sought to obey Yahweh.

A literal translation of Acts 13:16 would say, “Then Paul stood up and made a sign with his hand and said, ‘Men, Israelites and those who fear God, listen.” What might not be clear to contemporary readers is that Paul was addressing a crowd with two groups of people, Israelites/Jews, and Gentiles who were favorable to Judaism. To make this clear in our translation in the Roma languages, we translated it as “Israelites and you others who fear God”.

Meat offerings depicted on bell-krater, late 5th century BC (c) bibleplaces.com

Another passage which sounds strange to our ears, but would have made sense to the original readers is Acts 15:29. In the Arli language, the translators had made a draft that said, “to abstain from food which is intended for idols, from blood and from meat from strangled animals and from fornication”. As modern readers, we might wonder what was wrong with eating an animal that had been strangled. But their are two important points: First, under the Jewish law, the throats of animals had to be cut and the blood drained out before an animal could be eaten; if an animal was only strangled, and not slaughtered, the blood would not have had a chance to drain out. Secondly, strangling and eating an animal was often used as part of pagan idol worship. Thus it makes sense for this to be forbidden since Gentile converts to Christ would need to make a clean break with pagan idol worship which often involved eating a non-slaughtered animal, drinking blood and temple prostitution, thus fornication.

Now, we can’t bring all of that out in a translation (since we are not producing a study Bible with notes). But we did adjust the Arli language draft to say “to abstain from food which is sacrificed to idols, to not drink blood and to not eat meat of strangled animals whose blood was not shed/drained and to not commit fornication”. But making that adjustment to the translation, it makes clearer some of the cultural background which our modern Roma readers would otherwise surely miss.

Roma translations of Luke & 50 Bible stories in 5 Roma languages

Stay tuned for more “lost (and found) in translation” installments. And please pray for the Bible translators and for me as the translation consultant to have much wisdom and insight to know the best way to translate, especially in situations like those I’ve just mentioned. We want the Roma of Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia & Herzegovina to hear God’s word with understanding. We are just finishing up James and beginning the Gospel of John. We appreciate your prayers.

Thank you for your prayers and financial support for Bible translation!


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