behemoth

Another often transliterated biblical term is bĕhēmôt (…). The Hebrew noun behemâ typically means “beast, animal, cattle”, while the -ôt feminine plural ending here seems to indicate something like a “plural of majesty,” since in the context of Job 40, this creature is obviously singular in number.

Countless tons of ink have been spilled in arguments over whether this creature is a hippopotamus, an elephant, a dinosaur, or a mythical amalgam of large, powerful land animals. The point that is of interest to us here is that in modern English, at least the U.S. variety which I speak, the commonly recognized meaning of the term behemoth has become the following: “any monstrous or grotesque creature or thing”, “something of oppressive or monstrous size or power.” This word is usually applied as a description of inanimate entities, such as “a behemoth car” or “the behemoth government agency,” but can occasionally also be used to refer to animate creatures. A quick search through a corpus of contemporary American English (…) shows that the term is often used with a negative connotation approximating “more trouble than it’s worth.” So when an English reader who has not had much contact with Christian teaching or the Bible reads this passage in Job for the first time, it is quite likely that associations of oppressiveness or inutility will color this reader’s initial mental image of the creature, even though the context of the verse does not contain any such connotations, but rather the opposite connotation of appreciative wonder.

The Russian Synodal translation (RST) has transliterated this word from the Hebrew as “бегемот” (begemot), apparently borrowing this rendering from the Russian scholar/poet M. Lomonosov in his poetic translation of the Job 40 passage (c. 1750 AD). What is of interest is that this very transliteration has become the main term meaning “hippopotamus” in modern Russian. There is another Russian term with an almost completely synonymous meaning, “gippopotam,” derived from ancient Greek, but in contemporary Russian usage this latter term is becoming more and more obsolete, or at least restricted to scientific contexts. An informal corpus study of the use of the word begemot in Russian texts indicates that prior to the publication of the RST, it was used to refer to monstrously large animals, but not specifically to the hippopotamus. Thus, it seems that what gave the meaning of “hippopotamus” to the transliterated word “begemot” was the tradition of scriptural interpretation in favor at the time of the translation of the RST. Even though the transliteration “begemot” was originally introduced into the Russian text of Job ostensibly because the translators were not quite sure what this creature was, the new word eventually came to refer unambiguously to the hippopotamus and nothing else.

What should the Tuvan translation team have done with this term? (Note: The goal of the Tuvan translators was to match the Tuvan transliterations with those of the Russian Synodal translation)? the RST, which all Tuvan believers currently read as their main Bible version, specifically states in Job 40:15 that this animal is a begemot, which in contemporary Russian is completely unambiguous as meaning “hippopotamus.” This is the meaning with which the Russian word has already been borrowed into the Tuvan language. Maintaining this transliteration would mean affirming this specific interpretation of the Hebrew term “bĕhēmôt.” Although the explicit “hippopotamus” interpretation is found in some other modern translations (e.g., the English CEV, The French La Bible en français courant or Louis Segond’s translation, or the Italian Conferenza Episcopala Italiana), the Tuvan translation team did not want to commit themselves wholeheartedly to this interpretation. So we decided to retransliterate the Hebrew word using a different medial consonant — “бехемот” (bekhemot), with a footnote explaining this decision as an attempt to remain open-minded concerning the exact nature of this beast. This new transliteration created a word that did not have any pre-existing semantic associations transferred from the Russian language. Only time will tell how exactly future generations of Tuvinian Bible readers will react to the new transliteration of this term, and whether or not they will imbue it with the same “hippopotamus” sense as in the RST or with something completely unforeseen by our translation team.

Source: Vitaly Voinov in The Bible Translator 2012, p. 17ff.

I am the door (gate)

The Greek that is translated in English typically as “I am the door (or: gate)” is translated in Lak as “I am the entrance.”

Vitaly Voinov tells this story:

“Field testing showed that some readers might find it hard to understand how a person could say about themselves that they are a door or gate. What exactly this metaphor means in this context was not well understood and caused what linguists call ‘processing difficulty.’ Even when it was explicated by ‘I am the door/gate for the sheep,’ it still caused problems in understanding. In other languages that have experienced a similar problem with this metaphor, translators have sometimes resorted to turning it into a simile, ‘I am like a door/gate.’ But in the Lak case, this would still leave unanswered the basic question of what the exact point of similarity is between Jesus and a door/gate. After much discussion, the team decided to try a different synonym, ‘I am the entrance.’ Further field testing should show whether this has solved the problem or not.”

formal pronoun: Herod addressing wise men/Magi

Like many languages (but unlike Greek or Hebrew or English), Tuvan uses a formal vs. informal 2nd person pronoun (a familiar vs. a respectful “you”). Unlike other languages that have this feature, however, the translators of the Tuvan Bible have attempted to be very consistent in using the different forms of address in every case a 2nd person pronoun has to be used in the translation of the biblical text.

As Voinov shows in Pronominal Theology in Translating the Gospels (in: The Bible Translator 2002, p. 210ff.), the choice to use either of the pronouns many times involved theological judgment. While the formal pronoun can signal personal distance or a social/power distance between the speaker and addressee, the informal pronoun can indicate familiarity or social/power equality between speaker and addressee.

Here, Herod addresses the wise men (Magi) with the formal pronoun, expressing respect.

I am the good shepherd

The Greek that is translated in English typically as “I am the good shepherd” is difficult to translate into Lak.

Vitaly Voinov tells this story:

“In Lak culture, shepherds are considered low-class. On an emotional/connotational level, it’s somewhat akin to calling a person a swineherd or muckraker in English; these employments don’t earn much respect from the average person. In the original context in which Jesus made this statement, a Jewish person who heard Jesus would likely have made the association with the Old Testament use of “shepherd’ for the Lord God Himself (see Isa 40:11, Ezek 34:11) or for earthly kings and rulers of the people (see Isa 44:28, Ezek 34:23). Thus, there’s a fairly big disconnect between the conclusions which the original audience would have probably drawn from Jesus’ words and the conclusion that Lak readers are likely to draw from His words. What to do about this? The Lak team will try adding an interpretive footnote to fill in this knowledge gap. But many (most?) people don’t bother to read footnotes. And if a Lak person listens to an audio recording of this passage, they definitely won’t hear any footnote. Should this be left for preachers to interpret for the audience? But there are almost no Lak pastors, and no Lak church to speak of yet. So this rendering is currently a problem without a really great solution. We accept it and go on, but always have it in the back of our minds until a better solution arises.”

See also shepherd.

vine

The Greek that is translated in English typically as “vine” is translated in Lak as къюмайтӀутӀул мурхьра: “the (grape-)cluster tree.”

Vitaly Voinov tells this story:

“Laks (who live in the mountainous regions of Dagestan) historically have had no experience with planting and tending vineyards. They buy grapes at the market or the store, but that’s about all they know of grape growing. Thus, in field testing, none of the readers could picture the primary image of this chapter. The translator’s initial attempt of rendering ‘vine’ as ‘grape stalk’ met with complete non-understanding. After much discussion of the problem and potential solutions, we settled on what one of the field testing respondents suggested to remedy the problem: ‘vine’ was rendered as ‘the (grape-)cluster tree’ (къюмайтӀутӀул мурхьра). Technically grapes of course don’t grow on trees, but something had to be put in the text, and it had to be said in a way that the average reader/hearer could understand it. The Lak team could have borrowed the Russian word for “vine” (лоза), but since this is a very low-frequency word in the Russian language, it’s likely that many Laks wouldn’t know the Russian word either. So the team settled for a reduction of accuracy in order to achieve greater clarity. After all, the primary point of importance in this passage is not a horticultural analysis, but a metaphorical comparison to the spiritual world, to the relationship between the Father, His Son, and the followers of Jesus. This rendering allows readers to get to the core of this meaning without getting tangled up in unknown terms.”

formal pronoun: angels addressing people

Like many languages (but unlike Greek or Hebrew or English), Tuvan uses a formal vs. informal 2nd person pronoun (a familiar vs. a respectful “you”). Unlike other languages that have this feature, however, the translators of the Tuvan Bible have attempted to be very consistent in using the different forms of address in every case a 2nd person pronoun has to be used in the translation of the biblical text.

As Voinov shows in Pronominal Theology in Translating the Gospels (in: The Bible Translator 2002, p. 210ff.), the choice to use either of the pronouns many times involved theological judgment. While the formal pronoun can signal personal distance or a social/power distance between the speaker and addressee, the informal pronoun can indicate familiarity or social/power equality between speaker and addressee.

Here, angels address people with the formal pronoun, expressing respect.

In most Dutch translations, the angels are addressing people with the informal pronoun.

formal pronoun: John (the Baptist) addressing Jesus

Like many languages (but unlike Greek or Hebrew or English), Tuvan uses a formal vs. informal 2nd person pronoun (a familiar vs. a respectful “you”). Unlike other languages that have this feature, however, the translators of the Tuvan Bible have attempted to be very consistent in using the different forms of address in every case a 2nd person pronoun has to be used in the translation of the biblical text.

As Voinov shows in Pronominal Theology in Translating the Gospels (in: The Bible Translator 2002, p. 210ff.), the choice to use either of the pronouns many times involved theological judgment. While the formal pronoun can signal personal distance or a social/power distance between the speaker and addressee, the informal pronoun can indicate familiarity or social/power equality between speaker and addressee.

John addresses Jesus with the formal pronoun

Voinov explains: “This relationship is somewhat complicated. John and Jesus are relatives, John being the older. However, John recognizes Jesus as more important than himself, as the Messiah whose sandal straps he is not worthy to untie (Mark 1:7). At the same time, Jesus highly respects John, submitting to the inferior position by receiving John’s baptism, and later calling him the greatest among the prophets (Matt 11:7-15). In the Tuvan translation, we finally decided that the overall circumstances indicate that John addresses Jesus with the formal pronoun as a sign of respect.”

John the Baptist

A further question of cultural assumptions arose in Tuvan in the case of “John the Baptist.” The instinctive way to translate this name denotatively would be “John the Dipper,” but this would carry the highly misleading connotation that he drowned people. It was therefore decided that his label should focus on the other major aspect of his work, that is, proclaiming that the Messiah would soon succeed him. (Compare his title in Russian Orthodox translation “Иоанн Предтеча” — “John the Forerunner.”) So he became “John the Announcer,” which fortunately did not seem to give rise to any confusion with radio newsreaders!

Source: David Clark in The Bible Translator 2015, p. 117ff.

See also John.

formal pronoun: crowd and Pilate

Like many languages (but unlike Greek or Hebrew or English), Tuvan uses a formal vs. informal 2nd person pronoun (a familiar vs. a respectful “you”). Unlike other languages that have this feature, however, the translators of the Tuvan Bible have attempted to be very consistent in using the different forms of address in every case a 2nd person pronoun has to be used in the translation of the biblical text.

As Voinov shows in Pronominal Theology in Translating the Gospels (in: The Bible Translator 2002, p. 210ff.), the choice to use either of the pronouns many times involved theological judgment. While the formal pronoun can signal personal distance or a social/power distance between the speaker and addressee, the informal pronoun can indicate familiarity or social/power equality between speaker and addressee.

Here, the crowd and Pilate address each other with the formal, respectful pronoun.

formal pronoun: Jesus and his mother

Like many languages (but unlike Greek or Hebrew or English), Tuvan uses a formal vs. informal 2nd person pronoun (a familiar vs. a respectful “you”). Unlike most other languages that have this feature, however, the translators of the Tuvan Bible have attempted to be very consistent in using the different forms of address in every case a 2nd person pronoun has to be used in the translation of the biblical text.

As Voinov shows in Pronominal Theology in Translating the Gospels (in: The Bible Translator 2002, p. 210ff.), the choice to use either of the pronouns many times involved theological judgment. While the formal pronoun can signal personal distance or a social/power distance between the speaker and addressee, the informal pronoun can indicate familiarity or social/power equality between speaker and addressee.

Here, Jesus addresses Mary, his mother, with the formal, respectful pronoun, whereas she addresses him with the informal pronoun, typically used by parents for their children.

Vitaly Voinov explains how the translation team made those choices: “As in probably all languages with a formal/informal distinction, so in Tuvan, parents always address their children with the informal pronoun. Mary does likewise in the only passage where she directly addresses Jesus (Luke 2:48). It was assumed by the Tuvan translation team that Jesus always treated Mary with proper filial respect as a fulfillment of the fifth commandment (cf. Luke 2:51). This is the case even in John 2, where he addresses her as gunai ‘woman’ [see woman], and at first seemingly turns down her request.”

In most Dutch translations, the same distinctions are made.

gospel

In choosing a word for the Greek that is typically translated as “gospel” in English, a number of languages construct a phrase meaning “good news,” “joyful report” or “happiness-bringing words.” In some instances such a phrase may be slightly expanded in order to convey the proper meaning, e.g. “new good word” (Tzotzil), or it may involve some special local usage, e.g. “good story” (Navajo), “joyful telling” (Tausug), “joyful message” (Toraja-Sa’dan) (source for this and all above: Bratcher / Nida), “message of God” (Shilluk) (source: Nida 1964, p. 237), or cohuen ñoñets or “good news” in Yanesha’ (source: Martha Duff in Holzhausen 1991, p. 11)

Vitaly Voinov tells this story about the translation into Rutul:

“In Rutul, it was only during the most recent consultant checking session that I realized that the Rutul word for Gospel – Incir (from Arabic إنجيل — Injil) — sounds and looks exactly like the word that means ‘fig’ in Rutul. This is a case of homonymy, in which two completely non-related words from differing historical sources have come to sound exactly alike. Most Rutul speakers know that incir means ‘fig’ because they grow this fruit in their yard or buy it at the market every week. However, because the religious sphere of discourse was heavily disparaged during the Soviet era, most people simply never encountered Incir with the meaning of ‘Gospel.’ This meaning of the word, which Rutuls of the pre-Soviet era knew from the Koran, simply fell into disuse and never had much reason for returning into contemporary Rutul since there is no Christian church established among the people. So if the translator continues to use the term Incir as the rendering for ‘Gospel,’ he runs the risk that most readers will, at best, read the word with a smile because they know that it also means ‘fig,’ and, at worst, will completely misunderstand the word. The seemingly ‘easy’ solution in this case is for the translator to use a Rutul neologism meaning ‘Joyful Message’ or ‘Good News,’ [see above] instead of Incir; but in fact it is not all that easy to make this change if the translator himself insists on using the historical word because at least some Rutuls still understand it as meaning ‘Gospel.’ This is a situation in which the translation team has to gradually grow into the understanding that a fully intelligible translation of Scripture is preferable to one that maintains old words at the cost of alienating much of the readership.”

formal pronoun: John and Herod

Like many languages (but unlike Greek or Hebrew or English), Tuvan uses a formal vs. informal 2nd person pronoun (a familiar vs. a respectful “you”). Unlike other languages that have this feature, however, the translators of the Tuvan Bible have attempted to be very consistent in using the different forms of address in every case a 2nd person pronoun has to be used in the translation of the biblical text.

As Voinov shows in Pronominal Theology in Translating the Gospels (in: The Bible Translator 2002, p. 210ff.), the choice to use either of the pronouns many times involved theological judgment. While the formal pronoun can signal personal distance or a social/power distance between the speaker and addressee, the informal pronoun can indicate familiarity or social/power equality between speaker and addressee.

Here, John addresses Herod with the informal pronoun, showing a lack of respect.