Archive for Translation Thoughts

Live Bait

Having finished working through Genesis, my Translation work is now tooling through Exodus. Every so often I like to reformulate what I’ve spent the day micro-analyzing, to look at the forest instead of the trees.  This is from chapter 14.

Live bait. That’s what God said his people were. And there they were, a million plus, caught between the desert and the deep blue sea, red sea, reed sea. Pharaoh anticipated a straight mop-up operation. The Israelites figured themselves so much dead meat. God said, “Be quiet. I will fight for you. You will never see this enemy again.”
Then he walked them out of an impossible situation by a solution no one else even contemplated. He still specializes in those things. I believe.

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Of Tone Marks and Hebrew

Sometimes the collateral benefits outweigh the intended one.

Every weekday evening for a month this summer, Ankamah and I sat for two hours and tested the book of Genesis in Nkonya.

Ankamah is in his twenties, and soon heading off to study accounting.

He’s a fluent reader so we used a different testing style than I’ve used previously. He read the passage once through then read it again and back-translated it into English. As we worked he volunteered comments on where it could be improved or where he didn’t understand the text.  I typed in his back-translation and comments,  and asked additional comprehension questions.

Up to this point in time the Nkonya Translation Team has marked high spoken tone with an accent mark in all written work.  However we’ve talked more and more about writing Nkonya without tone marks.

Every so often as he read, Ankamah would make a comment about having difficulty with the tones. One evening he missed the difference between a future and past tense verb – getting it immediately when I reread it according to marked tone. “Missing the one significant tone because of the crowd,”  I thought.

For the next day I stripped all the tones except for the high tone marking future tense out of the passage, saying nothing to Ankamah.  We worked through  together.

I said nothing about the changes.  He said nothing.

Finally, half-way through I asked, “ Is this easy to read?”

“Oh yes,” he replied”

“Do you notice any difference,” I asked?

He looked closely at the text for a few moments before he recognized the sparsity of tone marks.

In fact, it had made no difference at all to him.  He was so used to ignoring the multiple accent marks that he didn’t even notice their absence.

A couple of days later I accidently gave him a chapter with every tone removed. When I was about to add in the initial tone on future tense he stopped me. “Let’s just see how it goes without it,” he said. No glitches in that passage.

Ankamah has started writing a novel in Nkonya. Up to now he was afraid that if he didn’t get the tones right people wouldn’t understand his writing.  No longer.

I thought of this yesterday as I was reviewing Hebrew grammar and vocabulary. Writing the consonants in Hebrew isn’t difficult – putting the vowel marks in, is.  I had just made a mental note to myself that at this stage in life I would never master the zillion minute rules and exceptions that govern vowels (or worry about not being able to do so), when I started thinking about Nkonya tone.  After all, in Israel no one but language students, little grade ones and weighty scholars, write vowels. I’m thinking that marking tone in Nkonya is a very similar case.

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Tamar, the Woman Caught in Adultery

What did Jesus write in the sand, the day they brought a woman caught in adultery to him?

Did he write the names Judah and Tamar?

Was the woman a supposed widow, retching with morning sickness, or just beginning to “show?”

“Let him who is without sin cast the first stone”.

Did they remember Judah’s words- “She is more righteous than I.”?

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Someone’s in the Kitchen with Dinah

And what a story it is, sitting cozily in Genesis 34.

Again, it is an account told without commentary.

Women’s rights campaigners will not be happy.  Dinah, the rape victim has no voice at all.  Was she just at the wrong place at the wrong time? Did her “friends” set her up?  Was she perhaps successfully wooed by the Hivite chief’s popular and persuasive son? What happened to her afterward?  How did she feel about the carnage carried out on her behalf? What did she say to her former girlfriends, now captives and slaves to her family? We are given no hint.

And her Father, Jacob, now Israel.  He doesn’t precisely step up to the plate to his only daughter’s defense.  He dumps the responsibility on her brothers.  After the fact, and in his death-bed curse, he castigates Simeon and Levi for their violence, but where was his leadership at the time.  Why didn’t he at least say, “No”?

And then there is the be-smitten Shechem.  Possession by rape, and then protestations of love. “Get me this woman for my wife.” “No bride-price is too high.”

And his pitch to the greedy towns folks- “Just be circumcised, and all that is theirs will be ours as we absorb them into our culture.”  “Why not?” Religious significance – nope, a thought for the God of the Hebrews – nope, just profit motive.

And of course we have, the Knights-in-Tarnished Armor- Dinah’s brothers,  proving for sure that the most effective lie is one strengthened by a healthy truth.  But how dare they use the sign of their covenant with God to work an unholy scheme?

And then there is the outcome.  The Hivite men lie dead. Their wives, children and all they have fall to the Hebrews- and in fact the two groups get merged, but not as the Hivites envisioned. Dinah is restored to the bosom of her family.

In the final act Jacob cleans out all the foreign idols, including, presumably, the new ones acquired at Shechem. He takes his family  back to the House of God, and the true worship, and is given divine protection against attack as he moves his people out. . The covenant promises are renewed.

Should our sister be treated as a prostitute?  Apparently not.

It does make the eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth of the Mosaic Law, seem most restrained and reasonable, in its meting out of just desserts, though.

Do I have a handle on this story?  I’m looking for one. After all, all scripture is inspired by God and is profitable . . .

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Return to your God

So what was Esau thinking when he went out with the men of his house- four hundred strong, to meet his twin? Was it score settling time, as Jacob feared?  Were they mounted on fast raiding camels, Lawrence of Arabia style?

They meet, embrace, weep.  Jacob eats humble pie, “My Lord, your servant,” “I see your face as the face of God.”  His gift in sheep, and goats, camels, cattle, and donkeys, is over the top. Esau is gracious, only accepting the gift after Jacob insists, offering to lead the way, or provide escorts.

Still, the bottom line remains. Esau goes south to Seir, and Jacob heads north-east to Succoth.

Bloodshed is averted, but a real home-coming, doesn’t happen.

We are left wondering about the rights and wrongs of the relationship because the writer of Genesis limits himself to recording, he doesn’t offer commentary.

Years later two of the Old Testament prophets do weigh in on the issue.

Malachi:

I have loved you, says the Lord. But you say, “How have you loved us?” Is not Esau Jacob’s brother? says the Lord. Yet I have loved Jacob  but I have hated Esau;(NIV)

Hosea:

 The LORD has a charge to bring against Judah;
he will punish Jacob  according to his ways
and repay him according to his deeds.
In the womb he grasped his brother’s heel;
as a man he struggled with God.
He struggled with the angel and overcame him;
he wept and begged for his favor.
He found him at Bethel
and talked with him there—
the LORD God Almighty,
the LORD is his name of renown!

But you must return to your God;
maintain love and justice,
and wait for your God always. (NIV)

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Unless you Bless Me

There are passages of scripture that remain obscure until we have walked through similar life experiences.  Some, we shrink back from, because the price tag is high.

I’ve been thinking of Jacob, now renamed Israel, limping away from the ford of Jabbok with the light of the morning sun on his face.

Surely the night before was one of the darkest of his life. After twenty years of running and scheming he had run out of dodges. His past had caught up with him.

Finally, he sent everyone and everything else ahead, and spent the night alone at the Camp of God.

I think of David’s cry to God,

“Who have I in heaven, and what is there on earth to take pleasure in, other than you?”

So Jacob says, to the one he has wrestled with all night, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

It is only later, in the clear light of day, that he gulps and says somewhat shakily- I have seen the face of God and been delivered.  Limping, but alive, and blessed.

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Psalms are Poetry

The last few mornings I’ve been reading Psalms, with nine English Versions up on the computer screen. I’ve been reading and thinking about  bringing them into the Nkonya language.

It’s a particular challenge, because the Psalms are art and poetry as well as message.

After only a handful of days I’m still working on plotting the translations as to their various characteristics. However I do have some initial favourites and least favourites.  I have discovered that while I want a psalm to be accurate I also want it to touch me with it’s beauty. I want elegance of line and cadence. I want my emotions engaged.

The New Century Version , which I’ve often consulted when translating narrative passages goes to the bottom of the list here.  It has basically jettisoned any attempt at the poetical in it’s dedication to the simple and straightforward.  The Today’s English Version also suffers in that direction.

A number of translations cluster at mid-range.  The New American Standard Version does better than one would expect. Hebrew is a language of heart and passion. If you keep close to the original text much of that emotion actually spills over. In poetry it doesn’t matter so much if the wording is a little unusual. The Revised English Version also gets a nod from me for its creative turn of mind. It is quite flavourful.

The two translations that most consistently wax lyrical are the New Living Translation and the New International Version. They are quite different in style. The New Living has a full rich flavour.  If it were a cupcake it would be generously iced.

The New International opts for a fairly spare rendering. However it is characterized by lovely turns of phrase that wear well and satisfy.  It’s translation of Psalm 65:8, for instance, is nicely evocative.

“Where morning dawns and evening fades
you call forth songs of joy.”

This particular verse, has called forth a rich spectrum of renderings in English.  Looking at it in a variety of translations highlights many of the issues involved. (Consider that homework- perhaps a future blog.)

Here’s a bit more from Psalm 65, in the NIV, my current favourite.

It’s a nice passage to read as winter passes out.

You care for the land and water it. . .
You drench its furrows
and level its ridges;
you soften it with showers
and bless its crops.

You crown the year with your bounty,
and your carts overflow with abundance.
The grasslands of the desert overflow;
the hills are clothed with gladness.
The meadows are covered with flocks
and the valleys are mantled with grain;
they shout for joy and sing.

“Drench” is such a nice verb-I have this urge to run out and wriggle my toes in moist loam. I also love the image of fields “mantled with grain.”  I can see the heavy richness of August wheat fields around Red Deer.

There are 150 Psalms to bring into Nkonya and I have yet to work on even one.  Doubtless my initial impressions will be modified many times. I’m looking forward to the exercise though.

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