Friday, June 27, 2008

Praying at the small house

[photo from the Zsohars blog]

What a difference a letter can make! The manuscript that Sarah and I are working with was typed from the original handwritten copy by someone who wasn’t a Shiyeyi speaker, mother tongue or otherwise. Therefore, we occasionally get some typos that are sometimes lexically significant. For example, if someone wrote you an email that contained the sentence I don’t know about tht, I’ll have to give it some more thought. you’d know that the word typed as tht was actually supposed to be the word that, a fairly common typo. However, if someone emailed you Sorry I was late to the meeting yesterday – It was looking for my missing love. you might not immediately guess that the person writing actually meant glove, since love actually makes sense, at least grammatically if not logically.

We had a similar experience yesterday while going over the manuscript for Mark 11:17. In Sarah’s back translation, Jesus was pointing out to the people in the Temple (which he was busily clearing out) that it was written that, “The small house will be called a house of prayer – but you have made it a hideout for criminals.” I kind of laughed when I first read the back translation and knew enough Shiyeyi to see that it was a typo: indjuwoana means “small house”, indjuwo anga means “my house”.

Now, without some cultural context from Botswana, one might think that this typo would be one that would be caught as a typo by someone within the culture. However, “small house” is actually a fully fledged cultural concept among the Batswana. There was recently a billboard campaign around Gaborone that said something like “People say that small houses strengthen relationships – but small houses actually increase your risk for HIV.” What is a “small house”? Well, a Motswana man might marry a woman and have children with her. After some time, he might take on another woman in a sexual relationship, sort of a concubine. He would build her a house, for her and any resulting children that might come from their relationship. This house would typically be not too far from his main residence with his actual wife. It would, however, necessarily be smaller than the house of the legal wife, so as to indicate her preferred status to the concubine. Hence the euphemistic term “small house”. At least, that's my understanding of the small house practice.

More on small houses:
* in Zimbabwe
* as reported in BOPA
* in Wikipedia
* brief mention with regard to HIV

So, Jesus might have been taken to be saying (prior to our edits, of course) that the small house was intended to be the place of prayer but that the Jews were wrongly criminalizing the small house practice. Ah, the importance of a well-placed letter G. Take that, Sesame Street!

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