Psalm 23: Motive to Fire God

“Whoops! There’s no word for it”

Those of you who are fluent in more than one language have no doubt experienced this when you translate from one to the other. The more different the languages, the more often it happens.

As a Bible translator for the Canela people in Brazil I often ran into this problem. Jesus taught, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.” John 12:24. Wheat is unknown among the Canela so the language had no word for it. We substituted wheat with rice since they act the same. It was a simple case of using “cultural equivalence instead of lexical equivalence” which is linguist-speak for “if there is no word for the thing, find something like it in the culture.”

It sounds easy. It is not.

Long ago an explorer traveled to the icy shores of the Canadian north. He may have been a Christian because he left behind a translation of the Shepherd’s Psalm (23) in the local indigenous language. It seems, however, that he hadn’t known the language and depended on an interpreter to translate for him. The indigenous people memorized the lines and passed them on to their children. 

A generation or two later a missionary linguist/translator arrived and settled among these people and learned the language. When he began to translate the Bible his language helper told him, “We already have some of God’s Book”, and to prove it recited some verses of the well known and much loved Psalm 23.

The missionary was aghast. Obviously the interpreter had tried to use some cultural equivalents but with disastrous results. Here are the first two verses, with some explanations:

v.1 The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want
The interpreter substituted sheep with wild mountain goats. The closest translation for “herding” was “doing something with animals” which in the case of wild goats was to hunt them. The word “my” carried the meaning “one who works for me.”
The first verse of the Psalm went like this:
God is my goat hunter,
I don’t want him!

The second verse didn’t fare much better.
v.2 He makes me lie down in green pastures, He leads me beside still waters.
The part “he makes me” was interpreted as, “he forces me to do something against my will”. The only green is found on the sides of mountains that face the sun. “To lead” is to pull an animal along by a rope around the neck. The only still water is the sea.
The first two verses therefore went:
God is my goat hunter,
I don’t want him!
For He flings me down on the mountainside,
and drags me down to the sea.

How do translators avoid this kind of disaster? First, they need to understand the meaning of the passage. They also need to know the language and culture. But beyond those two basics, translators need to know the translation principles to obey and the techniques to use. This requires intensive training and continuing study. That’s why I am glad to be working on a project to provide easy Internet access to these essential training materials for workers translating the Bible in over a thousand languages around the world.

Without this training the translator risks turning loving shepherds into abusive goat hunters that deserve to be fired.

On Being Real

Seventy-five years ago, Percy B. Crawford composed a song that became a popular hymn of testimony. Many of us grew up singing“Every day with Jesus is sweeter than the day before.”

Now that I’m older, I say, “Oh really?”  
The lyric requires a good deal of interpretation. Human lives are filled with emotional ups and downs, including the lives of Christians. Yes, there are sweet days, but there are also bitter days. And days filled with deep heart-rending grief. Days boiling over with frustration and anger. Days of freezing fears and doubts. Bible believing, Jesus following Christians are not exempt.
It is true that when a Christian suffers loss, pain, grief, frustration, fears and doubts, he can turn to Jesus and He will go through the experience with him. And in that sense every day with Jesus can be made sweet, or at least less bitter, but let’s not pretend that a Christian can go through his whole life with a smile on his face and a consistent stream of happy words coming from his mouth. He cannot. We cannot. Not if we are honest. Not if we are real.
I spoke with a Christian yesterday who told me he had heard hundreds of speeches by leaders of Christian organizations. “They make serving God sound so wonderful,” he said, “but I can think of only ten that were honest and real. The rest were faking it. They turned me off.”
In Ottawa last weekend, I had the privilege of giving the keynote speech at the closing banquet of the Gideons International in Canada centennial convention. Six hundred leaders and delegates from all across Canada heard me tell how God had used my wife and me to learn the Canela language and translate the Bible into it.
Afterwards people came up to me at my book sales table to thank me for being so completely honest in telling my story.
“You told about your deep discouragement, of your being so frustrated with God you turned your back on Him. Thank you for not leaving out that part of the story. I too have felt that way.”
I blogged that story few years ago. Read it here. 
Everyone knows that not every day is sweet. We see bitter sadness all around us. Even among Christians. We should not be surprised. Jesus himself promised that in this world we would have trouble. Trouble in itself is not sweet, but overcoming the trouble is. And Jesus also assured us that He has overcome this world with all its trouble. He can help us to endure. We can go through the trouble with Him by our side.
I know. I’ve been there. It took six months of weekly counselling, but Jesus restored the sweetness. Even now, years later, I still don’t like singing “Every day with Jesus is sweeter than the day before,” but I know He can make bitter days sweeter, eventually.

In the meantime, I’m for telling it like it really is.