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.

As good as done

I finished the exegetical check on Jeremiah in Kasem on Friday. Hooooray. It has been going on a long time, not helped by bouts of uncharacteristic sickness, probably part of a spiritual battle. Anyway, here is something else I came across, which may be of interest.

The prophets had a habit of referring to future events as if they were already completed. They ‘saw’ them so clearly that they were ‘as good as done’. One of the Hebrew words for a prophet was ‘seer’, and God’s revelation to them must at times have been vividly alive, happening before their very eyes. It is probably true to say that the primary differentiation in Hebrew verb forms is between completed actions (perfect aspect) and on-going or incomplete actions (imperfect aspect). Allowing for the dangers of over-simplifying, imperfect verbs refer to non-past (present or future) events, or to on-going or habitual events in the past, while perfect aspect verbs normally refer to past events. But the prophets used perfect aspect verbs to refer to future events, completed but yet-to-happen, as good as done. This is recognised in many Hebrew grammars as the prophetic perfect. I have come to think of it as the ‘as-good-as-done’ tense.

This is another example of the diversity of different languages. It isn’t just words and their meanings that don’t correspond one-to-one across languages. The same applies to grammatical categories, such as verb systems, gender categories, pronouns, and so on.

How does the translator cope with the Hebrew prophetic perfect? It is interesting to see the approach taken by different English versions. Taking an example in Jeremiah 48:4, where there are two prophetic perfect verbs, the Good News Bible (GNB) translates with a past tense, while the New International Version (NIV) uses a future tense, and New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) a vivid present tense—

Moab has been destroyed; listen to the children crying. (GNB)
Moab will be broken; her little ones will cry out. (NIV)
“Moab is destroyed!” her little ones cry out. (NRSV)

After that, the Hebrew verb forms are imperfect, and so are consistently translated with a future tense by all versions. Jeremiah 48:9—

Set up a tombstone for Moab; it will soon be destroyed.
Its towns will be left in ruins, and no one will live there again. (GNB)

This leaves me feeling that the past tense used by GNB in verse 4 is at odds with the future tense of verse 9. But what would adequately capture the flavour of the prophetic perfect? How about Philip’s Improved Version (PIV)—

Moab is as good as done for! (98:4)
… it will surely be destroyed. (98:9)

Well now, at least if you are reading the prophetic books in different English versions and you are confused by some using future tenses, where others use past tenses, you know what the probable explanation is. It is also a good reminder of God’s perspective on events. He sees the future as clearly as the past. But we (usually) don’t, so we need to trust him.

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. Hebrews 11:1 (NIV)

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.

Who do you mean?

I’ve been working on checking through the draft translation of Jeremiah in Kasem for some weeks now. I’ve just got to the end of chapter 41. Hebrew does like to make double sure you know who is being referred to in narrative. It’s what we call “participant tracking”. Take Gedaliah for example. We get to meet him in 39:14 as “Gedaliah son of Ahikam, the son of Shaphan”. Fair enough, since there is at least one other Gedaliah around (38:1). In chapters 40 and 41 (only 34 verses total), Gedaliah is mentioned by name 20 times. 4 of those times he is given the full works, “Gedaliah son of Ahikam, the son of Shaphan”; another 9 times it is “Gedaliah son of Ahikam”; leaving 7 occurrences of  simply “Gedaliah” (and most of those are “Gedaliah at Mizpah”). Add to that the number of times his office as governor is mentioned, and it all gets a bit heavy for most languages. And Gedaliah isn’t the only one being given full-name treatment in these chapters. There’s “Ishmael son of Nethaniah, the son of Elishama”, “Johanan son of Kareah”, and “Nebuzaradan, commander of the guard”, all of which are repeated in full several times. Needless to say, Kasem prefers to keep track of participants in a more economical way. Once we know who it is, just the name will do, with maybe the occasional reminder of their role. Even a pronoun may suffice sometimes!