Another God coming along behind

I have been working my way through checking the Kasem translation of Isaiah for a few weeks now. The repetitive nature of Hebrew poetic form presents a challenge. Pairs of lines tend to repeat the same information, with some variation in the words used,  sometimes pairing a positive with an equivalent negative, or mirror image;  sometimes with the second line expanding or strengthening the idea contained in the first line. This has been described as rhyming ideas, rather than the rhyming of sounds, which we are more used to.

The challenge is that people not familiar with Hebrew poetry (such as most Kasena) will want to read a different meaning into successive lines–why say the same thing twice over? Here is an example from the English Standard Version:

… for the LORD will go before you,
and the God of Israel will be your rear guard.
Isaiah 52:12b (ESV)
That surely must mean that one God (the LORD) is at the front and another (the God of Israel) is following at the rear. Of course those with a good Bible knowledge will know that these are one and the same, and that the LORD, the God of Israel will protect them in front and behind.
Recognising that it is the Israelites who are being addressed the Good News Bible gets around the problem with:
The LORD your God will lead you and protect you on every side. (GNB)
Surprisingly, the New Living Translation keeps the potentially confusing parallelism:
For the LORD will go ahead of you, and the God of Israel will protect you from behind. (NLT)
Omitting the and between the lines may help a bit, as New International Version and others:
… for the LORD will go before you, your rearguard will be Israel’s God. (Revised English Bible)

Once again, we are faced with the dilemma in translation between maintaining the dynamism of the poetic form (or at least a hint of it), and spelling out the meaning clearly in a rather flat and uninteresting way. A more ambitious alternative may be to research equivalent poetic forms in the target language and mould the text into those patterns, but this is moving further away from the cultural setting of the original.

One more example: Isaiah often interchanges the names Jacob and Israel in successive lines, referring in each case to the same people of God. The names refer to the founding ancestor of the nation, whose name was changed from Jacob to Israel. I count 23 instances in the book of Isaiah where the two names are used in parallel, but with essentially no difference in who they refer to. Here is an example:

But now thus says the LORD,
he who created you, O Jacob,
     he who formed you, O Israel:
Isaiah 43:1a (ESV)
In these cases it seems necessary to combine the two forms of address into one appellation, so as to avoid the inference that God is addressing two groups of people. There is the added complication that of course it is not the long-dead ancestor who is being addressed but his descendants, as a group. In Kasem it is possible to combine these and translate the above into something like:
Offspring of Jacob who are the Israel people,
God has created you and brought you into being.
This keeps a hint of the parallelism, but avoids possible ambiguity in who is being addressed, two groups of people or one. What do you think?

Accurate translation

What makes an accurate translation? Even if we say that an accurate translation conveys the full meaning of the original, without adding anything or taking anything away, that still leaves some fuzzy edges. Meaning can be conveyed in different ways, especially when we consider poetic language where the form of the expressions used is a significant factor in the communication. In poetry for example, maintaining the rhyme and rhythm of the original text in a translation is often only possible at the expense of reduced correspondence in the exact meaning of the words used. It is a balancing act. For the Bible translator, priority must usually be given to conveying the full meaning of the message clearly, sometimes at the expense of maintaining formal characteristics of the original text. It is however especially satisfying when it does prove possible to carry over in translation some of the “poetry” of the original without distorting the meaning.

While what we consider “rhyme” in English is not (as far as I know) found in Biblical Hebrew writings, there are examples of assonance–words which sound similar, or use the same selection of letters/sounds in a different combination, what we would tend to call a “play on words”. I came across an example when I was checking the Kasem translation of Isaiah recently.

In Isaiah 5:1–7 God’s people are likened to a vineyard which he has prepared and tended with special care. Yet when he looks for the expected good grapes, bitter wild grapes are all he finds. Isaiah sums up God’s disappointment as follows:

And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.
Isaiah 5:7b (NIV)

In terms of the meaning of the words, this is an accurate translation, but it fails to convey the poetic balance of the Hebrew:

He waited for justice [mishpat]
but behold bloodshed [mishpakh]!
For righteousness [tsedaqah]
but behold outcry [tsa’qah]!

In fact the word translated “bloodshed” occurs only here in the Old Testament and is of uncertain meaning (bloodshed/disobedience/dishonesty). It was clearly chosen for its wordplay value, rather than its precise meaning. The dramatic form of the two parallel statements and the play on words helps to communicate the broken expectations which God had for his people in the light of all the care he had lavished on them. So is a translation which fails to capture this poetic form fully accurate? Can a translation ever be fully accurate, given the nature of language? It seems that it isn’t always possible to capture all the elements of meaning in a translation. But sometimes it does work out to a certain extent, much to the satisfaction of the translators. In Kasem it is possible to say:

When he looked for goodness [nɔn-ŋonne],
murder [nɔn-gom] only he found there.
When he looked for truth [chega] to be at work,
it was destruction [chɔgem] he found.

The last line does not include the idea of cries of distress, but focuses on the iniquity or bad treatment which gives rise to those cries. This seems a price worth paying in order to keep the play on words: chega/chɔgem.

Translation is a delicate balancing act, stretching and rewarding!

Playing with Proverbs

When I was in Ghana in July, the Kasem OT translators and I went through their translation of Ecclesiastes, picking up on things I had noted while checking the draft here in the UK.  Thankfully this didn’t throw up too many surprises and we worked through it in two days.

In Chapter 1 the writer quotes some proverbs which presumably would have been well known to his readers. Our discussions brought out the fact that Kasem has proverbs which support similar truths.  In Chapter 1 verse 15 we have:

What is crooked cannot be made straight.  (ESV)
What is twisted cannot be straightened. (NIV)

The Kasem proverb says:

They don’t straighten a dry stick.

The meaning is that some things are just the way they are and you can’t expect to change them.  This appears to be reinforced by the proverb which follows:

What is lacking cannot be counted. (ESV, NIV)
You can’t count things that aren’t there. (GNB)

One commentator summarises this by saying that:

There are some things which education, even the best education, is powerless to do: it cannot untangle the twists in the human heart; it cannot make up for what is lacking in the soul.
Sinclair B. Ferguson, “The Pundit’s Folly”, 1995,
The Banner of Truth Trust.

When we move on to Chapter 1 verse 18, we find another pair of proverbial sayings:

For with much wisdom comes much sorrow;
the more knowledge, the more grief. (NIV)
The wiser you are, the more worries you have;
the more you know, the more it hurts. (GNB)

In this case there is a Kasem proverb which says:

How the finger measures, it’s pus also measures thus.

Perhaps here we might say that the more you know, the more you realise how much there still is to learn, and how little you can do to put right people’s follies.

The question arises as to how far the translator may go in substituting a Kasem proverb for the one found in the Biblical text. We don’t want to give the impression that the same proverbs were present in the culture and language of the original author, but we do want to reflect the natural way in which Kasena would express such truths. Not an easy one to straighten out! A literal translation of what we currently have for the Kasem translation of these verses is:

If something is twisted, its straightening out is very difficult. And things which are not there are impossible that somebody calculates their number. (1:15)

How a person’s enlightenment measures, his anxieties also measure thus. However much his knowledge is great, his sadness also will be great like that. (1:18)

What do you think?

Psalm 119: 22 times 8

I have just this afternoon finished checking through the draft of Psalm 119 in Kasem, all 176 verses. I wanted to get it done before the weekend and just made it. An amazing Psalm all round, with a mention of God’s Word in almost every verse.

It poses similar challenges to the translator as the lists in Daniel (see my earlier blog). The Hebrew uses 8 different terms in referring to the Word of God, e.g. law, testimony, ordinance/judgment, commandment, statutes, precepts, word, promise/word. However, the Psalmist’s choice from among these terms is largely governed by the demands of the poetic structure, rather than focusing on a particular facet of meaning in each instance. The 176 verses are divided into 22 stanzas (strophes) of 8 lines each, and within each stanza each of the 8 lines starts with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet, working through all 22 letters successively. Wow! Can you imagine the Psalmist composing within those restrictions? If we tried it in English, how would we manage when we got to the letter X? Even Q or J would be difficult enough. The Psalmist seemed most limited by the letter D (Daleth) in Hebrew, using just three words to start the 8 lines: derek “way” (5 times), dabaq “to join” (twice) and dalap “to drop, drip, droop, weep, melt… meaning uncertain” (just once).

But there seems to be another scheme interweaving with this, whereby the eight different Hebrew terms for God’s Word are spread across the 8 lines of each stanza. In fact, only 3 of the stanzas have all 8 terms, a different one in each line. Maybe the Psalmist found the constraints just too much to manage this in every stanza.

In Kasem, we have (so far) managed to identify 6 words which may be used to cover the 8 Hebrew terms. Three of these are compounds based on the word ni “mouth” which is the term used for a command or order.  The translator aims at consistency as to which Kasem term is used for each, but also tries to ensure that the 6 available terms are spread evenly through the stanzas in order to reflect the apparent aim of the Psalmist. Has there been any translation which tries to reproduce the acrostic nature of the Hebrew text, starting each line with the designated letter? Now that would be fun to try!

Lists in Daniel

The prophet Daniel, or whoever chronicled the book that bears his name, liked lists. For a start there’s the fairly modest list of clever people that King Nebuchadnezzar summoned to explain his dream to him:

magicians, astrologers, sorcerers, and wise men Daniel 2:2

Or a bit later on:

wise men, astrologers, magicians, and diviners Daniel 2:27

By the next chapter, we’re introduced to the list of important people that Nebuchadnezzar summoned to the dedication of his mighty statue:

satraps, prefects, governors, counselors, treasurers, judges, magistrates, and all the other authorities of the province Daniel 3:2 (and again in 3:3)

 This is quickly followed by the herald’s  command to:

peoples, nations, and language groups Daniel 3:4

that they are to bow down and pay homage to the golden statue, whenever they hear the sound of:

the horn, flute, zither, trigon, harp, pipes, and all kinds of music Daniel 3:5 (and 3:7 and 3: 10 …)

I think by now you get the idea of lists.  What does the translator make of them? The above are all quoted from the NET Bible (New English Translation). Other English versions use different words to translate the range of Aramaic terms (yes, this part of Daniel is in Aramaic, rather than Hebrew). You may find triangles, dulcimers, zithers and even bagpipes among the musical instruments if you look carefully in different versions. The truth is we can’t always be sure what was precisely the nature of each one, but in this case they all seem to be either wind or string instruments, with no percussion instruments included, unless “triangle” is a correct understanding of “trigon” (and NRSV does throw a drum in, in place of bagpipe).

Kasem has a suitable range of terms for horns and pipes but only one term for a stringed instrument which is plucked. It is tempting to fill the list out with various terms for drums, since Kasem has no shortage of these, but this would be at variance with the historical setting of the passage. A good approach for the translator seems to be to see what range of terms is available in the language and use these to spread across a similar spectrum without necessarily trying to match term for term individually. This may produce a shorter list (or even a longer one) but the variety is represented. Sometimes one just has to resort to “stringed instruments of different kinds” if there is just one term for a stringed instrument available in the language, as in Kasem.

Of course there are lists in other books of the Bible, but in Daniel they seem almost to take on a life of their own.

Adding zip and pow!

I’m now catching up with backlogs after a successful 4-week trip to the north of Ghana. We got several Old Testament books in Kasem checked with the translators, Jonah, Abraham and James.  As well as several of the minor prophets (Hosea, Obadiah, Micah, Nahum) we checked verse-by-verse through Jeremiah (8 days) and Lamentations (1 day). Each time I work with the translators I find I have expanded my understanding of a new area of the language. This time it was ideophones.

Idephones seem to occur in most languages and can be described as ‘a vivid representation of an idea in sound.’  They relate to sensory perceptions such as colour, sound (onomatopoeia), smell and texture, and often are linguistically distinct elements of the language, falling outside the normal phonological and grammatical categories. In Kasem they usually function in an adverbial capacity.

The OT prophets had vivid revelations from God, often expressed in visual terms. The Hebrew word הִנֵּה <hinneh>, usually translated “behold” in the more literal English versions, is a frequent reminder that God’s revelation came in visions, or as very vivid first-hand experiences. The word occurs 140 times in the book of Jeremiah. Ideophones seem to be a way of capturing this impact in Kasem.  Here are some examples used in Jeremiah:

bigila-bigila fat, well-fed Jer. 5:8, 28, 46:21
bele-bele agitated, distressed Jer. 30:6
bɔge-bɔge in uproar, confusion Jer. 16:8
bugi-bugi uncontrolled, ablaze Jer. 25:36
buri-buri sudden collapse Jer. 51:58
chwolololo tall and towering Jer. 46:18
diŋ-diŋ tight, secure Jer. 50:33
fugi-fugi overflowing, boiling over Jer. 46:8
jalam-jalam aimlessly Jer. 15:17
jilli all together as a group Jer. 25:11
keleŋe swept clean Jer. 43:12, 49:10
kere-kere shocked (face) Jer. 30:6
mura-mura smashed in pieces Jer. 50:23
nyelamm completely consumed Jer. 15:3
palalala spread wide and open Jer. 10:12, 40:4, 51:15
pare-pare spread out Jer. 25:33
vera-vera persistently Jer. 46:22
zɔŋ-zɔŋ completely destroyed Jer. 4:6, 48:20

These are just examples of Kasem ideophones used in Jeremiah. There are plenty more! We do need to test these for acceptability. There doesn’t seem to be a problem using these expressions in written communication, but we need to be sure they are understood and accepted across the language area.

How! or How?

Occasionally I find a mistake in the draft of the Kasem Old Testament translation because the Ghanaian translators have misunderstood the English versions. Their English is good so it doesn’t happen very often, but differences of meaning can be indicated by quite subtle variations in English construction.  In Jeremiah 48:17 we have the exclamation:

‘How broken is the mighty scepter, how broken the glorious staff!’ (New International Version)
“How the mighty scepter is broken, the glorious staff!” (New Revised Standard Version)

The translator had understood this as a question, misled by the ‘How’, normally a question word. Consequently he translated it as a question, instead of an exclamation, giving quite a different meaning.

“How did the sceptre get broken?”

This sounds a bit like a mother scolding her children, “Now, how did that cup get broken?”  In fact, Kasem does use ‘how’ in the sense of an exclamation, but the form of the word is different to when it is used in a question. The equivalent meaning would be given in Kasem by something like: “See how the sceptre has become broken!”

Of course, the translation of ‘sceptre’ in Kasem is not straightforward, but a chief has a ceremonial walking stick which is a symbol of office. This comes close to the ‘glorious staff’ of the second line, which is parallel in meaning to ‘sceptre’. Added to which, the ‘sceptre’ and the ‘staff’ are themselves symbols of power and rule, and some English versions express this meaning, rather than the symbolism:

‘Its powerful rule has been broken; its glory and might are no more.’ (Good News Bible)

In Kasem, in order to maintain the two-line parallelism of the Hebrew poetry and also to fill out the symbolism with its significance we currently have:

‘See (how) the chieftaincy walking stick is now broken! Moab no longer has power!’

Does God bring evil?

Continuing my check through Jeremiah I keep coming across the Hebrew word ra’ah. It occurs 99 times in the whole book, appearing in 39 of the 52 chapters. In chapter 44, which I have just finished, it comes 14 times, 5 of those in verse 9. What does it mean? The Brown-Driver-Briggs English-Hebrew lexicon gives: ‘evil, misery, distress, injury’. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that Jeremiah majors on that area of meaning!

What is surprising is that the word is used of God’s activities as well as those of the wayward people of God. There is a balance between the ra’ah, ‘evil deeds’, which the remnant of Judah indulge themselves in, and the ra’ah, ‘calamities’, which God promises to inflict on them as a result. So how does the translator tackle this? It is impossible to use the same word in English to translate all occurrences of ra’ah, unless one is willing to make God the agent of evil activities. Some English versions come close to this, such as the RSV (Revised Standard Version) translation of 11:11 — Therefore, thus says the Lord, Behold, I am bringing evil upon them which they cannot escape; though they cry to me, I will not listen to them. Other versions use words like ‘calamity, disaster, destruction’ when ra’ah occurs in this sense, and interestingly the NRSV (New Revised Standard Version) has made the change from ‘evil’ to ‘disaster’ in this verse.

This illustrates the principle that there is rarely a one-to-one correspondence between words in different languages. The Hebrew word ra’ah has a wider range of meaning than any one word in English, and in most other languages too, probably. The translator has to cope with this all the time. One simply cannot use the same English word, or Kasem word, to translate one Hebrew word in all its contexts and senses. To do so sounds at best stilted, and at worst (in this case) wrongly portrays the character of God. Of course the translator tries to be consistent in translating each particular sense. In fact, I now need to go back and look at all 99 occurrences of ra’ah in Jeremiah and check just that. As far as possible in Kasem we have used lwarem kikia ‘evil doings’ in the one sense, and lɛɛro ‘calamity’ in the other.

As a footnote, we should bear in mind that God’s instrument of calamity in this case was the Babilonian army, and in that sense God was using an evil power to bring just punishment on his much-loved people.