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.