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Semantics in Cultural Translation (Part 2)

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.


Here's part 2 of our interview with Coral:

On significant biblical concepts which haven't been easy to translate “Angels”, “apostles”, “disciples”, “stewards”, “servants”, “slaves” and related terms are often hard to translate. Some translators have used “God’s workman” or “God’s heavenly workmen” for angels, to indicate that whatever powers they have, have been bestowed by God. However, these may not adequately portray the powers given to angels in certain situations. The apostles are sent as Jesus’ servants or students.

In Luke 22:42, Jesus prayed to God to remove the cup from him. That is a cup” of punishment and death. In contrast, to the Mauwake people, the cup signifies forgiveness and wishing for healing from sickness. When a man has been very sick and no cure could be found, his family will think of different causes such as anger from enemies and possible sorcery. They will send messages to relatives from different villages to come on a certain day. Food and two cups with water will be prepared; one cup will contain leaves. They will sit in a circle, and the cup without leaves will be passed around. As each person holds the cup, he/she will say whether he/she has any grudges against the ill person, and for what reason. Those with nothing against the sick person will also say so and wish him to be well. It is believed that by speaking into the cup of water, the sins/grudges will be no more and the sick person released from them. The water in the cup will then be thrown outside the village, and the cup with leaves will be sprinkled on the sick person.

After many weeks of discussions, we substituted the cup in the passage with “the arrow you gave me”. In the Mauwake culture, that is the act performed when the village chief punishes a person with impending death.

To address accusations of “changing” the Scriptures, a footnote was included to explain the meaning of the “cup” symbol in biblical culture, and the reason for its replacement with a figure of speech that would be better understood in the local culture. Further comments Translators need to know the target culture and language well, and be aware of the pitfalls in translation. The translator needs to know the Scriptures well, and internalize the passage of the text, whether narrative or non-narrative. At the same time, the translator needs to take into account the local people’s worldviews, their way of life, and the socio-linguistic concepts and cultures. Translation is not just dealing with words, but with worldviews and concepts, and the wisdom of choice of words and phrases, to convey those concepts. Read part 1 of the interview here. *name changed for security reasons

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