complete verse (Psalm 18:7-8)

In the translation of these two verses into Gbaya the translators used a number of ideophones (words that expresse what is perceived by the five senses).

The original text says:

Nù foo mɔ ɗirr,
ɓɛɛ o gun kaya zuɗi ɓut.
Nɛ́ nyimsea kɔ̧-a̧ a̧ dee ha̧ mɔ mɛ fo mɔ.
Zi-wee tura nɛ̀ kɔ̧ zɔ̧ɔ̧-a̧a̧ gbonɛ nduɗɛɛ,
wee baa kɔ̧ nú-a mbɛt,
ɓɛɛ o kɛ̧i̧-wee nyɔŋ yoŋgoŋgo.

A word-for-word back translation is
“Earth moved ɗirr and the feet-hills broke loose ɓut was anger of him that caused for things to move smoke-fire rose from inside his nose nduɗɛɛ fire blazed in mouth him also and coal-fire ate yoŋgoŋgo.

Philip Noss (in The Bible Translator 1985, p. 423ff.) explains: “The Psalmist’s imagery vividly portrays the awesome power of God. In the English translation, the power of the imagery is conveyed by the verbs, but in Gbaya it is conveyed by ideophones that modify the verbs. The Gbaya verb states that the earth moved and the ideophone described how it moved — ɗirr, in the way that the earth trembles when there is an earthquake. In the second line the mountains are shaken, and the Gbaya verb is that commonly used with uprooting a plant like a mushroom whose root goes very deep into the earth. The verb and the ideophone ɓut create an image that dramatically depicts the mountains’ being shaken to their very foundations. The image of smoke also calls for an ideophone because the verb normally used for the movement of smoke merely describes the motion of smoke drifting or floating in its usual lazy manner. The English Good News Translation here says that it ‘poured’ from his nostrils, and Gbaya uses the ideophone nduɗɛɛ to depict mass movement, that of smoke pouring out of his nostrils. The final line includes an ideophone that makes explicit the burning heat of the coals in his mouth. Without it, the coals might be dying embers, but with yoŋgoŋgo, it is clear that they are burning devouring coals. Two lines of the translation are without ideophones, that of the prosaic explanation that it is God’s anger that is the cause of the events being described by the Psalmist, and the next to last line in which the consuming flame is described. In the latter clause, an ideophone is not needed because the verb itself is powerful and precise in this context. An ideophone would have been redundant and would have drawn needless attention to itself.”

house falls (in the parable of two house builders)

Gbaya uses a lot of ideophones (words that express what is perceived by the five senses) which naturally also has an impact on translation. In the case of the two different versions of Jesus’ parable of two house builders in Matthew and Luke, two different ideophones are used to capture the fall of the house and differences in the Greek text.

Philip Noss (in The Bible Translator 1985, p. 423ff.) explains: “The story is short and dramatic, building up from the wisdom of the first man to the foolishness of the second. In addition to using literary and dramatic narrative style to recount the plot line, the Gbaya translators used ideophones to depict the final drama of both versions of the account.

  • Matt. 7:27: ɓɛɛ tua’i gbin a nù gɛ́tɛ́-gɛ́tɛ́ (‘… and it fell—and great was its fall!’ (NRSV))
  • Luke 6:49: ɓɛɛ tua’i gbin a nù nɛ oi-aa lɛŋ mútú-mútú (‘… immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.’ (NRSV))

“In both accounts [many English versions] use the verb ‘fall.’ Gbaya also has a verb ‘to fall,’ but it cannot be used here because the houses did not fall from anywhere. They were on the ground and they broke apart or collapsed. This is expressed in Gbaya by a serial verb construction ‘break-put ground.’ To express Luke’s stronger form of the Greek verb, the Gbaya team added ‘completely.’

“Following the Greek text, [most] English versions add a final emphatic clause which Gbaya expresses by an ideophone. To translate Matthew’s version, the Gbaya team said gɛ́tɛ́-gɛ́tɛ́ which depicts the action of breaking apart, of scattering in small pieces. To emphasize Luke’s portrayal of collapse and total ruin, the Gbaya team said mútú-mútú which describes total destruction, something being crushed and ground to pieces. The Gbaya use of the ideophone is more economical and direct than the Greek original and the English translation which both require an additional term and, in the latter, even an exclamation mark.”

lips (sweetness of)

The Hebrew that is translated as “lips are lilies, distilling liquid myrrh” in English is emphasized in Gbaya with the ideophone (a word that expresses what is perceived by the five senses) ɓisisi. (Source: Philip Noss in Noss / Houser 2019, p, 503)

blood guilt

The concept of “blood guilt” that is referred to in Matt 27:24-25 and Acts 5:28 is translated in Gbaya and other languages of Central Africa with familiar terms that denote concepts relating to Hebrew thought in a way that English, for instance, does not have.

Philip Noss reports (in The Bible Translator 1996, p. 139ff.):

“In the Musey language of western Chad it is called tògòrò, in Sara-Madjingai of southeastern Chad it is known as mōsēyō, in Gbaya as spoken in central Cameroon and in the Central African Republic it is called simbò. (…). Strangely, perhaps, standard English does not have an equivalent word, at least not in contemporary speech. The closest functional equivalent may be the English reference to ‘the stain of blood’ or the expression ‘to have blood on one’s hands.’ These various words and expressions all express the result of shedding blood.

“A person who is guilty of shedding blood becomes the victim of his/her deed. The consequence of the act of killing will inevitably fall upon the killer and potentially upon anyone who comes in contact with the killer, unless the killer is purified.

“In Gbaya a simbò thing is anything that causes someone to become a simbò person, including killing certain animals (incl. leopards, elands and bongos) and humans. (…) The spilling of human blood brought the curse of simbò upon the person who was responsible for the death of a fellow human being. From this curse there was no escape for the guilty person and his family and his village without purification by another person who himself had been purified from simbò.

“For the translator of the Bible the question that must be asked is whether the concept associated with the spilling of blood by these central African cultures is similar to the concepts reflected in the Old and New Testaments or whether it is too culture-specific to be applied within the context of Hebrew and Jewish religious thought and expression.

“When Pilate washes his hands before the people and says, ‘I am not responsible for this man’s death.’ and the mob responds. ‘Let the punishment for his death fall on us and on our children’ (Matt 27:24-25, Good News Bible), the Gbaya understand this to refer to simbò. Pilate attempts to cleanse himself from the consequence of his responsibility in the death of Jesus while the people call for that very consequence to fall upon themselves. In the Gbaya understanding of the shedding of blood, no amount of self-cleansing can remove the curse of spilled blood which will surely fall upon Pilate and the people and their descendants.

“In Acts 5:28 the Jews express an implied fear of simbò when the High Priest says to the apostles, “you want to make us responsible for this man’s death” (Good News Bible). The New International Version of the Bible renders this statement, ‘you are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.’ The Gbaya would say, ‘you want this man’s simbò to take us.’

“The Greek text of these verses reflects the Hebrew underlying thought, for in each of the three sentences quoted, explicit reference is made to blood. (…)

“Although there does not seem to be a specific word that expresses the concept of simbò in Hebrew, in Greek we do come very close to an explicit expression of the result of the shedding of blood. The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible cites the Greek word miasma which it defines as the ‘slain, pollution” of homicide, “an automatic, objective state” for which purification was required. The early Greek verb miainō meant “to stain, to dye.’ A specialized meaning of this verb resulted from its use with blood where it came to mean ‘to defile, to sully.’ The stain or defilement was known as miasma, the person who was defiled was miaros. For the Gbaya this was simbò. for the Sar speaker it was möseyö which is literally, ‘the blood of death,’ that is, ‘the stain/defilement of the spilling of human blood.’ (…)

“In conclusion, the components that are central to the Old Testament concept of dam/damim and the New Testament miasma are widely recognized in the cultures of central Africa. The implications of this fact need to be considered by translator and theologian alike.”

mustard seed

The Greek that is translated in English as “mustard seed” is translated in Muna as “wonolita seed.” René van den Berg explains: “The mustard plant rarely exceeds 50 cm in height. A wonolita is a big forest tree growing from a tiny seed.”

In the Bislama and Uripiv translations it is translated as “banyan.” “The banyan tree is one of the biggest in the islands, and it grows from a tiny seed. We (Uripiv) added a footnote to explain to more advanced readers what we had done: ‘Here Matthew compares the kingdom of God to a mustard seed, but since mustard doesn’t grow here, we put banyan, so that Matthew’s meaning will be clear.’” (source: Ross McKerras)

In Gbaya is is translated with the ideophone (a word that expresses what is perceived by the five senses) kɛ̧́ɛ̧́ which “denotes a very tiny and barely visible object. (…) The Gbaya team applied it to faith instead of referring to a mustard seed which is unknown to Gbaya readers.” (Source: Philip Noss in The Bible Translator 1985, p. 423ff.)

spring of water

The Hebrew that is translated as “spring of water” or “flowing springs” (Good News Translation) in English is translated in Gbaya with the ideophone (a word that expresses what is perceived by the five senses) kpút-kpút, imitating the bubbling of a spring of water. (Source: Philip Noss in The Bible Translator 1985, p. 423ff.)


The Greek that is translated as “log” in English is translated in Gbaya with the ideophone (a word that expresses what is perceived by the five senses) kpíŋgíí-te, imitating the sound of a heavy crash. (Source: Philip Noss in The Bible Translator 1985, p. 423ff.)