Psalm 23: A Reason 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 language and culture into another. The more different the languages and cultures, the more often it happens.

As a Bible translator for the Canela people in Brazil, I constantly 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.

Since wheat is unknown among the Canela, their language had no word for it. This was an easy one to solve. We simply substituted “wheat” with “rice” since a grain of rice in the shell looks and acts the same as a grain of wheat. 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 that acts the same in the culture.”

It sounds easy. Sometimes it is, but usually it’s 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. The indigenous people memorized the lines and passed them on to their children. Unfortunately, he had depended on an interpreter to translate for him.

A generation or two later a missionary linguist/translator arrived, settled among these people, and learned the language. When, after some years, he began to translate the Bible his indigenous 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: 

The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want

goatThe 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.

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 grass is found on the sun-facing-sides of mountains. “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?

Obviously, 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 a wealth of how-to-translate-the-Bible material is being made available to indigenous translators via computer based training programs. Hundreds of trained Christian men and women are now engaged in translating God’s Word into their own languages, using proven techniques and principles of Bible translation.

Without this training the translator risks turning God, our loving Shepherd, into an abusive goat hunter who well deserves to be fired.

The Search for the Book of Heaven

David Thompson: Explorer, Mapmaker, and Christian
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David Thompson is well-known in western Canada as the mapmaker who, 200 years ago, explored the area. What is not well-known is that he was a devout Christian who 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, British Columbia, and north-western 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.

The Quest
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 of Heaven and bring it back. Two of the men died before they arrived. The remaining two were received at the fort by General William Clark of the 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 in their language. Just before they started on their return journey, the town put on a farewell feast complete with many interpreted speeches. At the end of the feast, one of the Salish envoys gave a speech that had far-reaching consequences.

The Speech
“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 the sky, but the Book of Heaven 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, after one more snow, we tell our people in the big council that we did not bring the Book of Heaven, 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 to Heaven plain. I have no more words.”

The Result
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.

The Task
Currently about 7,000 languages are spoken by the world’s 7.1 billion people. Approximately 1.5 billion people do not have access to a full Bible in their first language. An estimated 175 million people, speaking about 1,800 languages do not have any part of the Book translated into the language they know best. Like the Flathead-Salish people of 200 years ago, they wait, and wait.

Translating the Book of Heaven into these 1,800 languages is not a peripheral option—it is the most foundational task left for the worldwide Christian Church to accomplish.

Note: This story was published five years ago as one of the Mandate blog series.