grass

The Greek that is translated as “grass” in English is translated as the very specific kind of grass diyau in Samo.

Daniel Shaw (in: Scriptura 96/2007, p. 501ff.) explains (click here to see more):

“When we translated the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand the first question the Samo asked was, ‘What kind of grass did Jesus tell the people to sit on?’ This was not a question I had anticipated and, of course I did not have an answer. We solved the problem by going for a walk and collecting grasses. We brought the grass home and I asked my assistants to sort the grasses into piles on my porch. By doing a semantic analysis of the way the Samo categorized those piles of grass I discovered their classification was based on placement in the environment: In the forest or in open places. After much deliberation, the Samo decided that the hillside in Galilee must have been an open space for that many people to sit down. The grass must have been soft enough not to hurt anyone sitting on it. Therefore, the grass name used in the translation is the same as that found on airstrips – one of the few open spaces the Samo know.

“Of about forty different types of grass in the Samo repertoire, they singled out a type called diyau. It matched their expectations and enabled them to make inferences that avoided images of people sitting in the forest or other inappropriate places. Using the right nomenclature met with audience expectations and allowed them to focus on the miracle rather than on the type of grass. Using the wrong grass name could have derailed the translation because of the wrong conceptual information it suggested to the Samo.

“Illustrating from the Samo conceptualization of ‘grass’ in the translation of Matthew 14, the term, diyau is both the name of a specific type as well as a generic for non-forest grasses. Thus, it serves as a prototype of ‘open space’ grass. By using this term, the Samo receive a considerable amount of information that triggers an elaborate ‘mental space’ or schema (I will return to this shortly) which connects their ‘knowledge’ of grasses in the jungles of Papua New Guinea with the hillside above the Sea of Galilee. While by no means a one-to-one connection, it enables the Samo to envision a large crowd of people sitting on comfortable grass enjoying a meal provided by Jesus. At the very least, the use of this prototypical term does not create dissonance and, therefore, allows the Samo to focus attention on the miracle rather than on what people were sitting on. Had we used a term associated with forest grasses, many of which have thorns, the Samo would have had a very different (and wrong) impression of this important event in the life of Jesus and his disciples.

“Whether it was the same type of grass that actually existed on that hillside above the Sea of Galilee is immaterial, as is what went through the minds of those who actually experienced that moment. What is critical for a translation to communicate, how¬ever, is the need to focus on what happened irrespective of the grass-type. The fact that the Samo immediately asked a question focusing on the type of grass, indicated that it was an important trigger to a broader schema that provided the context for the miracle of Jesus feeding more than five thousand people (5000 was the number of men — women and children were over and above). The Samo instinctively knew it was men because of the junction of the respective schema which created a new conceptual blend.

“When [in the experience of the Samo] there is a large crowd (such as occurs for an initiation or other ceremonial event) meals are eaten in the cleared space in front of a longhouse with a focus on men feeding their allies. Allies are friends who gather to help each other, often ceremonially. Furthermore, men are the ones who prepare and distribute the food in such a context. And the food that people consume is the result of prolonged garden preparation and hunting (two or more years in the case of initiation ceremonies). As the disciples passed out the food in the translation, so Samo men hand out food to those who have gathered at the house; it is not right that people should go home hungry. So when Jesus blesses the five small loaves and two fish and begins to pass them out, the Samo are not surprised that a man would do this. What is a surprise is the instant food — Jesus blesses it and the bread and fish multiply. Jesus’ ‘blessing’ is somewhat comparable to a shaman’s chant over a small loaf of roasted sago or plantains at an initiation. Clearly there is a spiritual aspect to this event; something important is happening here. That was true in the original context as well. When Jesus told the people to sit down, there was an expectation that something was about to happen. And Jesus did not disappoint, he blessed the food and gave it to the disciples who, in turn handed it out. As they did so the food multiplied and there was sufficient for all with plenty left over; everyone was satisfied.”

bread, loaf

The Greek term that is translated in English as “bread” or “loaf” is translated in Samo, it is translated as “Sago,” which serves “like ‘bread’ for the Hebrews, as a generic for food in the Samo language. It is a near-perfect metonymy that has all the semantic elements necessary for effective communication.” (Source: Daniel Shaw in: Scriptura 96/2007, p. 501ff.)

In Chol as waj, the equivalent of a tortilla.

John Beekman (in The Bible Translator 1962, p. 180f.) explains: “The word ‘bread’ in Scripture primarily occurs as either a specific term for bread (including the Lord’s Supper), or as a generic term for food. It is not surprising, however, the some aboriginal groups use something other than bread as the staff of life. The Chols, with their cultural focus in the cultivation of corn, use waj, a type of thin corn flake. Since a meal is not complete without this main item of food, the term has been extended to include any other foods which may be served along with waj. While bread is known to them, its use is limited to a few occasions during the year when it functions as a dessert. In translating this term in the Chol New Testament, consistent use has been made of the word waj whenever the function of bread as a basic food was in focus. John 6:35, “I am the bread of life,” was thus translated with this word. If the word for bread had been used, it was feared that the Chol would compare Christ to the desirable, but not absolutely necessary, dessert.”

Robert Bascom adds his thoughts to this in relation to other Mayan languages (in Omanson 2001, p. 260: “In many Mayan languages, ‘bread’ can be translated waj or kaxlan waj. The first term literally means anything made from corn meal, while the second term literally means ‘foreigner’s waj,’ and refers to the local wheat-based sweet breads which are so popular within the broader European-influenced culture of the region. On the one hand, waj would be a better dynamic equivalent in cases where ‘bread’ meant ‘food,’ but in cases where the focus is literal or the reference well-known, kaxlan waj would preserve a flour-based meaning (though in biblical times barley was more in use than wheat) and not insert corn into a time and place where it does not belong. On the other hand kaxlan waj is not the staff of life, but refers to a local delicacy. In cases such as these, it is even tempting to suggest borrowing pan, the Spanish word for ‘bread,’ but native speakers might respond that borrowing a foreign word is not necessary since both waj and kaxlan waj are native terms that cover the meaning (though in this case, perhaps not all that well).”

thief

The Greek that is translated as “thief” in English in Matthew 24:43 was translated as “raider” in the translation into Samo, a language in Papua New-Guinea of a people who traditionally conducted raids on other communities and were in turn raided by other groups. Daniel Shaw (in Cannibals, Kiaps, and Magistrates: Three Eras Impacting Samo Spatiality, Interpersonal Relationships, and Bible Translation) explains:

“When translating for the Samo, we came to the parable of the wise householder: ‘But know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into. Therefore, you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect’ (Matthew 24:43f.). Interestingly, Samo is a language with no word for ‘thief.’ In asking about this, I learned that an assumption within a household is common ownership — everyone shares. As individuals move beyond the household, their allies, and friends — and ultimately those across a river in enemy territory — represent increasingly less trust as well as ownership. Taking something from an enemy is not regarded as stealing, but rather simply as trading or raiding. Whatever they take (including bodies) is regarded as theirs. Such a rationale for behavior, then, is predicated on the degree of trust, so within a household everything is held in common and there is no such thing as stealing. Taking the ‘spoils’ of an enemy raid is not stealing, but rather the reciprocal result of procuring that which has been hard won. As a translator, I was faced with the task of communicating God’s intent in this passage from Matthew and moving beyond Jesus’ specific use of the term ‘thief’ in order to ensure Samo understanding. I asked, ‘What in the Samo cognitive environment accounts for the element of surprise and requires vigil?’ Clearly the schema surrounding raiding fills this semantic domain. The ayo, ‘old man of the house’ instructs the young, unmarried men who sleep on the open porch to take turns keeping watch against the surprise of a raid. With a longhouse positioned at the top of a sloping ridge, which intruders would need to traverse, the household warriors were able to sound an alarm while raining arrows down on their assailants and thus warding off a raid. Jesus makes his intent clear, ‘always be ready!’ As the householder always posts a guard because he never knows when a raiding party may attack, so the Samo also must carefully watch for Jesus’ unexpected return. This moves the translation into a dramatic cognitive sphere that conveys the intent of the passage with which every Samo householder resonates and every warrior bristles with anticipation. They receive this message with understanding and there is no need for an explanation regarding what a thief does, how that happens and who is involved. The Samo would not understand such an inappropriate focus on something beyond their experience. However, placed in the context of raiding, they immediately understood and were able to appropriate the intent of Jesus’ words to their understanding of the raiding experience and apply the message to appropriate action, an attitude of careful anticipation for that which is unexpected — never be caught unaware.”