Monday, March 04, 2013

Every language has its strengths

I've often pointed out to people that every language has its strengths and weaknesses. That is to say that some languages can say things in a single word that it takes other languages whole phrases added to include. Therefore, there are some passages in Scripture that can be more clear in new vernacular translations than it can even be in English. I've even said that things can be more clear than they are in the original. That statement may have gotten me the stink eye on occasion. Thank God, I now have an example of the kind of thing I'm talking about.

Carolyn and I are visiting with the Naro Language Project today, where the Khwedam Bible translation team is here for a consultant check of their translation of Genesis. They're working through Genesis 19 which, as you know, is full of men. Groups of men (the men of Sodom), pairs of men (the two angels), and a single man (Lot), to be exact. There's a string of verses - 19:4-11 - where men are described as doing and saying all kinds of things, without it being specifically stated which men are doing what. You can tell, pretty much, just by reading it who is doing what. But perhaps that's just my prejudice as I already know the story. It's hard to remember what you may not have known before you knew it, especially when you've learned it decades ago.

At any rate, when translating this section into English, the only pronouns we have for the men are "they" and "them". And, where the Hebrew just says "men", we can't specify which men without adding to the text; a limitation of English. Not so in Khwedam! The Khwedam language has a masculine pronoun for two people and a masculine pronoun for more than two people. So, when they translated Genesis 19:10, it is clear that the men who are dragging Lot into the house and shutting the door are the two angels, not the Sodom delegation.

OK, so people could probably figure out which men are which without a headcount being given by the pronoun. My point is just that even Hebrew doesn't tell you clearly which men are which in this section. So, in a sense (however minor), the Khwedam translation of this passage is more clear than the Hebrew original.

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