Psalm 23:1 and 2 in Tlingit

Constance Naish and Gillian Story (in The Bible Translator 1963, p. 91f. ) tell this story of a misunderstood version of Psalm 23 in Tlingit:

“‘The Lord is my shepherd…and I am His sheep — isn’t this the sense in which we understand this phrase as the result of long familiarity with the Twenty-third Psalm? But couldn’t it mean instead, ‘The Lord is the one who herds sheep for me?’ It was in some such sense that a Tlingit interpreter for some of the early missionaries understood it. His interpretation of the opening verses of this Psalm was later translated back again from Tlingit into English like this:

‘The Lord is my goat hunter;
I don’t want Him.
He knocks me down on the mountain:
He drags me down to the beach …

“The Tlingits had no domestic animals, apart from hunting dogs, and a mountain goat was the closest thing they knew to a sheep. Who would think of herding the sure-footed mountain goats? But in the northern limits of the Tlingit area goats could be hunted, so — ‘The Lord is my goat hunter.’

“‘I shall not want’ is not the normal form of expression for a modern speaker of English, and a Tlingit who had newly learned English, when most of his people still spoke nothing but Tlingit. might well be expected to be stumbled by it. ‘I shall not want’ — surely an object must be supplied? Hence the interpretation comes out, ‘I don’t want Him.’

“‘He maketh me to lie down …’ Familiarity with a shepherd’s care for his sheep helps us to understand this, but how would one make a mountain goat lie down? How did ‘green pastures’ become ‘the mountain’? In this area the forests of spruce and hemlock come right down to the water’s edge and at the lower levels are broken only by muskeg swamps or by groups of houses in cleared land. At the higher levels on the mountains there are clearings where the little plant called deer cabbage grows in abundance, the nearest equivalent to a meadow as we know it. So with no knowledge of the pasture or the shepherd comes the statement, ‘He knocks me down on the mountain.’

“‘He leadeth me beside the still waters.’ What happened to this sentence? There is more than one word in Tlingit that could be used to translate the word ‘lead.’ Probably the interpreter used the one that means ‘to lead on a string.’ as a protesting animal might be led. He failed to visualize correctly the picture presented in the Psalm. As for the ‘still waters.’ a little word meaning really ‘down to the water’s edge’ was probably used here. Since the beach is the most common ‘water’s edge’ in this area of coastlands and islands, this was the picture conjured up for the Tlingit listeners: ‘He drags me down to the beach.’”