When There’s Just No Word for It

“But what if there is no word for it in the language?” someone will inevitably ask during a discussion about Bible translation. Usually the “it” people ask about is some abstract biblical term like “faith” or “redemption” but the “it” could be something quite concrete.

Jack the Bible Translator Ponders Yet Another Problem

Jack the Bible Translator Ponders Yet Another Problem

No Wheat
We ran into this problem when we were translating the passage in which Jesus was teaching the need to sacrifice ourselves to accomplish a greater good, “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” John 12:24 (NIV).

The Canela language of Brazil has no word for wheat since wheat does not grow well in the jungle. The Canelas, however, plant rice which looks a lot like wheat and acts exactly the same. So we translated the passage, “Unless a kernel of rice is planted in the ground and dies, it will remain only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” Bible translators call this “the principle of using a culture equivalent in place of a lexical equivalent.”

No Sheep
We did the same thing when we translated the passage where Jesus crossed the lake of Galilee and approaching the far shore, he sees a great crowd of people milling around. Mark reports, “He had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” Mark 6:34 (NIV).

Since sheep are unknown among the Canela, the only domesticated animals being pigs, chickens and dogs, we asked our Canela translation helpers, “What is there in your village that is lost without a caretaker?” They talked among themselves for a while and came up with an illustration that seemed to fit.

So we translated the passage, “they were like baby chicks without a mother hen.” This was a perfect simile since without the mother hen nearby her chicks are lost, wandering all over the yard cheeping piteously.

No Sacrifice
Not long afterwards, however, we had another problem involving sheep. John the Baptist was in the Jordan, baptizing people when, suddenly he saw Jesus coming and shouted out, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” John 1:29 (NIV).

A lamb is a sheep, but we could not use the chicken metaphor, since this time the lamb had nothing to do with being lost without a shepherd, but with the God-given command to kill a lamb and present it to God as a burnt sacrifice to cover the sins of the people. For two-thousand years the Jewish people had regularly sacrificed an innocent lamb to cover their sins, which, of course, was a picture of Jesus, the Lamb of God, who came to die, not just to cover the sins of all humanity temporarily, but to take them away forever.

I explained to our translation helpers how the Jewish people would slit the throat of a lamb, pour out its blood, butcher the carcass and then put it on a fire to burn it up. They corrected me saying, “No, no! Not “burn it up” but “roast it”. How can you eat if it is burnt up?”

When I explained that the lamb was not for eating, but for burning, they were upset and confused. “Don’t tell us any more stories about those crazy Jews, they don’t even know what to do with a nice little lamb.”

I understood why they were so confused. The concept of ritual sacrifice is unknown among the Canelas. They killed animals only to eat hem, unless, of course it was a dangerous animal, like a poisonous snake.

Since this was a major translation problem, we sent out newsletters to our supporting partners back home explaining it and asking them to pray. And we kept on translating, but each time we came to a passage that talked about Christ’s sacrifice of Himself, we put it aside.

No Solution?
It was years later that we discovered a solution that God had imbedded in the Canela culture centuries before. A story for next week.

2 thoughts on “When There’s Just No Word for It

  1. Yikes! The rest of the story – – – next time! That’s worse than getting caught by the April 1 articles!

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