God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Translating the Bible into a Language Whose Values you Hate?

Kate asks a fascinating question about translating the Bible into the language of an cannibalistic tribe in the Amazon that grammatically classifies non-tribe members as “edible”:

Linguist/philosopher Steven Pinker and other researchers inform us that the language of one Amazonian tribe, the Wari, grammatically classifies nouns as either “edible objects” or “inedible objects” — with the category of “edible objects” including all non-Wari human beings, while the category of “inedible objects” includes the Wari themselves. […]

The Bible translation conundrum which this situation creates is, plainly, this: How does one translate the Bible into Wari? […]

How, then, should the Bible be translated into a language whose very grammar endorses cannibalism of outsiders?

There are really two potential issues here.

The first concerns the grammatical details of Wari: What kind of marking is this? In particular, is it pro-forma (like “feminine” and “masculine” in, say, Greek) or is it semantic? If it’s pro-forma, then there’s no problem. (One way to test — are there any Wari speakers reading this? — is with a sentence like, “We can’t eat this meat because…” If “meat” in that sentence still takes the edible marking, as I suspect it would, then the marking is simply a matter of grammar, not of meaning.)

However, if the marking really only applies to things that can eaten, and if, in addition, it must be applied to foreigners, then we have a second issue: What do we do if we don’t like the values expressed by a language?

Wari (if our information is correct) isn’t the only language that might present this dilemma. What about a language that classifies women as children, for example? What about cultures in which a father takes the name of his firstborn child, but only if that child is a boy? And so on.

With Wari, the obvious temptation is to create a translation in which, say, Paul is neither edible nor a member of the Wari tribe. But that, apparently, would be ungrammatical, and, I think, representative of a common but hugely misguided approach to Bible translation: trying to convey more than we can. (This is, again, assuming our information about Wari is right.)

By analogy, we can imagine a language that divides nouns into “human” and “inanimate,” the way English does with “who” versus “that”: “This is the person who changed my life” versus “this is the idea that changed my life.” Hebrew doesn’t differentiate in this way. The question is what to do with “God.” Is God a person or an inanimate object? Hebrew doesn’t force the choice, but English does. Most translators opt for “who” here, not even noticing the way their choice narrows the meaning of the Hebrew. We could go with “that.” We could not, however, make up a new work in this context to convey are disapproval about the dichotomy in English.

Similarly, I think the way to translate the Bible into a language like Wari is to bite the bullet and use the “edible” marking, as the native speakers do, for anyone who’s not part of the tribe. It’s not just that our job, as translators, is not to judge (though I understand that, in practice, most people doing this kind of work are doing it precisely to judge those people and to change their ways.) Even more, we have no choice.

Such an interesting question. Thanks.

April 24, 2017 Posted by | general linguistics, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , | 5 Comments