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.

Part Two, What the Recruiter Didn’t Tell Me–the Upside

In the previous post I shared some “Unexpected Whoops!” experiences. This time it’s about the “Unexpected Wows!”

While my wife and I were translating Paul’s letters to Timothy, we got stuck at 1 Timothy 2:5, “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus.” Since we had no single Canela word for the term mediator, we rewrote that whole sentence explaining what Jesus did, but as we read the sentence we weren’t satisfied with it. Our daily prayer was, “Lord, please keep our eyes and ears open to learn the terms we need to translate Your Word.” A few days later He did.

We were participating in a festival ceremony during which the Canelas dramatically reenacted an impending battle. At the height of the tension a specially decorated Canela man rushed between the two groups of warriors and with many gestures caused them to lower their weapons and make peace. Wow! A mediator in action! I could hardly wait for my study session with my Canela translation associate the next morning!

I asked him what that decorated peace-making person was called. “Ajp?nna-mepa-jaxôr-catê,” he said. Hmm, I knew what each of those words meant: “each other-us-hang-person” In other words, “the one who hangs us together.” But what did that mean?

“It’s easy,” our associate said, “You know when you have picked some cobs of corn and you need to let them dry. You tie a string to each of them, then tie the ends of the strings together and hang them from a cross pole in your hut. There they hang as a bundle to swing to and fro as one even though they came from different plants.”

Wow! That’s perfect! This term will even work for the passages that tell of Jesus bringing people together!

What a feeling! The delight of discovery replaced the deskwork drudgery! My sticky, sweaty body was strengthened and refreshed. Instead of feeling that Jo and I were alone, plugging away at an overwhelming task, I again experienced that deep down joy of knowing we were working together with God Himself! Why hadn’t the recruiter told us that these foretastes of heavenly joy— unexpected Wows! — would be part of our missionary work?

Why hadn’t he told us about the incredible excitement we would feel when the first Canela declared himself a Christian? Wow! And what it would be like the first time I heard young men and women pray to their recently found Saviour and thank Him for us, and for our families, and our financial partners? My eyes tear up just writing about it.

And then there was that fierce joy that energized us when Satan caused all sorts of hardships and problems. The energy that flowed through us as we stood against him in the name of Jesus, praying for God to rescue the Canelas from Satan’s grasp. And the joy of working with likeminded colleagues! And the excitement as God built a partnership team to stand with us financially. Wow!

And, and, and, Wow! after Wow! Why didn’t he tell us about the Wows!?

What the Recruiter Didn’t Tell Me.

Wow, this is cheap! I thought as I started to fill my gas tank. Gasoline at rural stations is usually way more expensive than at the discount stations in town, but at $0.70 a litre this was a bargain.

Then, just as I finished filling the tank, I saw the little note taped to the pump. “Sorry, our old pump will not count beyond 99 cents per litre, so the price will be doubled in the store when you come in to pay.” Whoops! At $1.40 per litre ($5.00 a gallon) that was a major unexpected expense.

Seventy-cent gas is not the only thing that looks attractive at first but in the end comes with a nasty surprise. A friend in high school had just enough money to buy a car he desperately wanted. It took all his income to cover the insurance, registration and fuel. Then the transmission went out. Whoops! Unexpected expense.

A young couple bought a house with a monthly mortgage payment that was less than the cost of the rent for their current apartment. They had enough income to cover the taxes, utilities, insurance, and yard and home maintenance. That fall the roof started to leak. Replacing the roof put them into debt for years. Whoops! Unexpected expense.

Missionaries are not exempt from this “Whoops!” scenario. I remember grinding along in low gear, four-wheel drive through sand, mud and thick bush on the last 70 kilometres of trail into the Canela village.

Suddenly a bearing broke and I saw the left rear wheel and axle sticking way out beyond the fender. The truck was loaded with food, supplies, equipment, and work papers. We couldn’t leave it sit unguarded to be plundered by local farmers or cowboys that used the trail to walk or ride to their fields. As I left Jo to guard the truck and walked the six hours back to town, I thought, Hmm, they didn’t tell me about this when they called for volunteers and I raised my hand at that missionary meeting. An unexpected whoops!

Then there were the times I had to treat two of my family for rabies with the dreaded daily injections into belly fat for thirty days. I’m sure no recruiter ever mentioned rabid dog bites. He mentioned tropical diseases, but I didn’t expect twenty years of regular on and off diarrhoea. The tears shed in mutual longing by parents in the village and their children in the boarding school, or their teenagers in college on another continent: Jo and I didn’t expect it to hurt so terribly.

The bumper sticker on our mini-motorhome reads My Boss is a Jewish Carpenter. To Him these costs of serving Him are not unexpected. Our Boss already knew what lay ahead for the Popjes family when Jo and I raised our hands at that missionary meeting. He knew about the coming mechanical problems, the rabid dogs, the loneliness, and the many trips to the outhouse.

To reach the rest of the world with His Good News, He still looks for raised hands, and for hearts that trust Him to take care of the unexpected costs – even $5.00 a gallon gasoline.

What Happened to Jack’s Blog Posts?

“So what happened to Jack’s weekly blog posts?” No doubt many of you are wondering why there were no postings in June. Here’s why:

Starting in the first week of June, I had to paddle my life’s canoe through three weeks of severe white water rapids. On the very day that my 97 year-old Mom celebrated her 74th wedding anniversary, she stumbled and fell, breaking bones and dislocating joints.
The subsequent surgery to relieve the incessant pain further weakened her and after fifteen days, God took her Home to be with Him. I spent much time sitting by her bedside, seeking to make her comfortable. But even when others took my place, my mind and heart were still there by her side.

The private family burial and memorial gathering brought some closure and calmer waters, but it will take several more weeks before I get everything dried out and properly stowed away so I can resume paddling my canoe down life’s river. (Check out my Facebook page for more information and pictures about my Mom.)

We are also planning a three-week family vacation in San Jose, CA, with our American family during July and August. Seven of us will be traveling down and back in our mini-motor home. As soon as we get back to Canada, I will fly to Ottawa to speak at the closing banquet of the Gideons 100th Anniversary convention.

All this to say that my blog postings will be sporadic during the next seven weeks. I did post one this week on INsights & OUTbursts as part of the Inscribe blog tour. Check it out and leave a comment to have a chance at some great prizes.

Have a great summer!

THE MANDATE, God Goes Before . . . and After

Bible translator’s job: Translate the Bible so God can introduce Himself to people.

God’s job: Prepare the people to accept the introducers.

Forty-three years ago, in the spring of 1968, the Canelas took the second step in accepting us as part of their indigenous society. My wife and I went through the Canela adoption/initiation ceremony that made us members of their families and citizens of Canela society. It involved lots of red ochre paint, plenty of tree-sap glue and white hawk down all over our bodies. Surrounded by crowds of Canelas, we listened to the chief’s long speech; then each of the sub-chiefs and elders made shorter speeches.

We couldn’t understand a word.

Popjes Family early 1970s

I had taken the first step a month earlier when I first met the chief in town. Although he knew only a little Portuguese, he understood that we wanted to live in the village, learn Canela, and help where we could. He pantomimed giving me an injection in my upper arm, and made writing motions. “Yes,” I said, “we will treat sick people and teach you to read and write.”

“You come,” he said.

A few days later, I stood in the centre of the Canela village plaza surrounded by a large group of sombre, silent, serious looking Canela men. I faced a village elder who, leaning on his spear, chanted loudly for long time.

I couldn’t understand a word.

Abruptly he stopped chanting, and shouted loudly, “Prejaka! Prejaka! Prejakaaaa!” at which all those silent men behind me suddenly shouted, “Yuhaaa!”

Major adrenaline rush!

Then they all broke into smiles, grabbed my hands and kept saying “Prejaka, Prejaka, Prejaka.” It finally got it! I had just been given a Canela name—the first step into being accepted into Canela culture.

Jo and I experienced only one naming ceremony, but over the next few decades, we went through the adoption/re-initiation ceremony dozens of times—each time we returned to the village after an extended time away. And eventually we fully understood all those speeches.

“We have adopted you into our village and into our families. You are even more one of us now than when you first came to us. You now speak our language. You invented a way to write our language and taught us to read and write it and count and read numbers. You are training teachers. You make books for us. You help us with medicine. You are family and belong here. Join any festival. Go anywhere in Canela lands. Take pictures of any of us, and of any of our festivals. When outsiders come in just to look at us and our ceremonies and take pictures, we ask them for gifts, but we will never ask you.”

Still true.

A few years ago, after an absence of nineteen years, (forty-one years after the original invitation), we re-visited the village. Yes, once again, glue, feathers, red paint and a wide-open village welcome to our whole family—fifteen of us—including our eight grandchildren.

God arrived in the Canela village before we came to prepare them so they would adopt us and accept us as citizens. He stayed after we left to adopt many Canelas into His Family and accept them as citizens of His Kingdom.

THE MANDATE, The Book of Heaven

David Thompson is well-known in western Canada as the mapmaker who explored that part of North America 200 years ago. What is not as well-known is that, as a devout Christian, he carried his Bible and told stories about Jesus and heaven everywhere he went. In 1807, while charting the homelands of the Flathead Salish people who lived in southern Alberta and northern Montana, he found that these people couldn’t get enough of his stories. “Someday, someone will come and bring you the Book of Heaven,” he told them.

In 1832, a whole generation later, the tribe could wait no longer and sent four men on a 5,000 kilometre round trip to St. Louis, Missouri to find the Book and bring it back. Two of the men died before they arrived. The remaining two were received at the fort by General William Clark (Lewis and Clark Expedition) who introduced them to the priest.

The two emissaries, however, were disappointed when no one could give them the Book of Heaven. Just before they started on their return journey, the town put on a farewell feast complete with many speeches. At the end of the feast, one of the Salish envoys gave a speech that had far reaching consequences.

“We came to you over the trail of many moons from the land of the setting sun beyond the great mountains … we came with an eye partly open for our people who sit in darkness; we go back with our eyes closed.

“We made our way to you with strong arms through many enemies and strange lands, that we might carry back much to them. We go back with our arms empty … Our people sent us to get the white man’s Book of Heaven … You took us where they worship the Great Spirit with candles, but the Book was not there. You showed us images of the good spirits and pictures of the good land beyond, but the Book was not among them to tell us the way.

“We are going back the long, sad trail to our people of the dark land. You make our feet heavy with gifts, and our moccasins will grow old and our arms tire in carrying them, yet the Book is not among them. When we tell our people in the big council, that we did not bring the Book, no word will be spoken by our elders or our young men. One by one they will go out in silence. Our people will die in darkness … they will have no white man’s Book to make the way plain. I have no more words.”

As news of this speech spread among Christians in England and the north-eastern US, missionaries and Bible translators began to penetrate the west. The Bible was translated into Cree 25 year later, but it would be many generations before the Flathead-Salish finally received the Book of Heaven in their own language.

Currently 6,860 languages are spoken by the world’s 6.9 billion people. An estimated 341 million people speak 2,078 languages in which not even one line of the Bible has ever been translated. Like the Flathead-Salish people of 200 years ago, they wait, and wait.

Translating the Book of Heaven into these 2,078 languages is not a peripheral option—it is the most foundational task left for the Christian Church to accomplish.