Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Translating the Bible into Kouya

First - the important thing. Go and read Eddie Arthur on "Comment is Free" describing the way in which he and Sue worked with the Kouya people to get the New Testament into the Kouya language. Imagine the difficulty of taking a language such as koine Greek - supple, flexible, and capable of both narrative and prolonged philosophical meditation - and translating it into an oral language that is good for narrative but bad for theology. Imagine having to work out the alphabet for an unwritten language. Imagine the struggle that involves - and the desire to share the Good News that drives a six-year stay in a house with no running water.

Then reflect on the comments underneath. But not for too long. Not most of them. Although my favourite is not necessarily even an atheist comment (or "aethiest") - but it's this.

"Ah, so the Aramaic is translated to Greek, which is translated to Latin, which is translated to English, which is translated to Kouya... there is a significant passage in the Bible about the Tower of Babel...."

So yes, Jesus spoke Aramaic, and his words would have been translated into Greek. The people who witnessed his life, ministry, death and unexpected reappearance would have spoken Aramaic - but that doesn't mean the message wasn't passed on in Greek very fast, including by eye-witnesses. But then the majority of the New Testament books weren't translated from anything by the authors. The Epistle to the Romans, to name but one of many, was written in Greek. And of course, Eddie, Sue and co weren't working with an English version of the Bible that was translated from the Vulgate. So the commenter was "clever". Just wrong and misguided. But still, clever.

Eddie's blog is here. Very highly recommended. More so than the comments underneath. But then that's CiF for you.


  1. One of the real difficulties lies in translating concepts that have a completely different meaning in other cultures. "To use something like water" means to use it carelessly in Europan languages, but it means to use it very carefully in others.

    As for "breaking bread", Jesus being the Bread of Life... our daily food... but not in countries where rice is the staple and bread is a rare treat.

  2. Yup, I think so too. What an achievement!
    I commented if only because I think this deserves more than only one liturgical response. I see that the moderators have had a good troll hunt among the comments on the original site; good for them. Thank you, Archdruid, for drawing our attention to it.

  3. That's OK, Pastor. I'm always happy to publish the good work of Wycliffe.

    Erika - you're right. And one step further of course. In these cloudy climes, wine was the drink of the rich (or at least the aspiring) whereas the rest got beer. I wonder if that's one reason why England is unusual in being a place where the rich, not the poor, went to church?

  4. Erika, surprisingly enough, most of the examples you suggest are not at all difficult to translate. There are excellent guides produced by Wycliffe and the Bible Societies to help with problems such as 'the bread of life'. The real difficulties (as I mentioned in the CiF article) are to do with getting sentences and paragraphs right.

    We did have one conceptual problem in Kouya that was rather memorable. 'Who would give his son a snake when he asks for a fish?' Well, in Kouya culture, fish is an everyday food, while snake is a luxury. A literal translation would have reversed Jesus' meaning completely. We eventually plumped for a species of snake which is viewed as taboo and not eaten.


Drop a thoughtful pebble in the comments bowl