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Semantics in Cultural Translation (Part 1)

How do you express concepts that do not exist in some cultures? What do Bible translators do when there isn't a corresponding word in the target language?

Coral* is a member who has served among the Mauwake people in Papua New Guinea (PNG) as a translator and translation consultant. She is currently helping other consultants in East Asia and in the Asia-Pacific taskforce. Coral shares her experiences with this semantic challenge:

On difficulties in translating cultural concepts

Key terms like “God”, “Christ”, “salvation”, “forgiveness”, “grace” etc. are some of the hardest to translate. These are abstract terms which are culturally foreign to the target audiences, or as in the case of “grace”, can hold different meaning in different contexts—it could mean something close to mercy, forgiveness, help, protection, etc.

The Mauwake people, for example, have no concept of a “Creator God”. They have a local spirit which they believe created their people, and he is sometimes called Inasina, which also means “spirit”, or anything that is taboo. We attempted to use this word together with maneka, meaning “big”—Inasina Maneka, the “Big Spirit”—in reference to God, but it was unacceptable to the translation committee and the people.

We tried the pidgin word “God”, but it was regarded as foreign. Eventually we had to use the term Mua Maneka, “Big Man”, as an equivalent to the term “Lord”. This term has been in use in pidgin in the local community to refer to God. The translation team felt that this was the most acceptable term, and when it was tested among the people, they showed understanding of its reference to God.

Forgiveness is antithetical to PNG culture where taking revenge is an honour for each tribe and family. In the case of Mauwake, forgiveness is rendered as “get rid of their sin” or “wipe off their sin”. Despite working on their project for many years, a translation team could not find an appropriate term for “forgive”. Not until one Christmas day, when the villagers came together for a gathering, and they formed a circle and put their arms on one another’s shoulders. The translators asked what they were doing, and their reply was, “we say to each other that we will not remember your sin.” The equivalent term for “forgiveness” in that culture was found; we ended up with “put arms on each other’s shoulders”.

“Kingdom of God” is also hard to translate. Most local groups have no idea of big entities beyond their local tribes and provinces, so the concept of “kingdom” is lost on them. One team used the term “God’s maror”, meaning “what God controls”, in which maror means “the area controlled”. In the case of Mauwake, we have chosen to use the term Mua Maneka (yia) urufiya, meaning “what God oversees/takes care of”; like the village chief taking care of the people and their welfare, God will do the same for those in His kingdom. In actual fact, these are not very encompassing representative terms for the comprehensive view of the kingdom of God, but for most teams, this is the best option.

More methods of explanation

Many Middle Eastern cultural items and flora and fauna, e.g. camels and donkeys, are not known in some cultures. In these cases, pictures of such items can be inserted in the appropriate places. Some teams would add the equivalent word for “animal” before the name of the animal, so in the language it would be “animal sheep”, “animal camel”.

For certain nouns, some cultures use that of the main, common or wider language of communication, e.g. "angels", "cherubim", etc. Long descriptions of such terms would distract from the main focus of the sentence so a glossary or footnotes would be included to provide explanations.

Keep your eyes peeled for part 2 of this interview!

*name changed for security reasons

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