featured Madagascar Observations

Jesus is Not My Dead Ancestor

You can’t just look in a commentary to find the solutions to some of the problems that Bible translators face: what Sue got up to in Madagascar.

I had just enjoyed a leisurely Sunday lunch and a catch up with colleagues when my phone rang. It was Pere Benolo telling me that the fuel pump on his car was broken and there was no way we could drive all the way from Tana (Antananarivo, capital of Madagascar) to Fianarantsoa some 400km south, the next day, as we had planned. On a Sunday afternoon, how on earth were we going to find another car at such short notice? Maybe we would just have to go by bush taxi. Leoni (project leader) had also had to change her plans due to a car in need of repair. She should have already been back in Toliara (a long 2-day journey) ready to welcome translation teams arriving for a workshop, but the car was still in the garage. The upside of this was that she was in Tana when I arrived and we got to spend some unexpected time together. After countless phone calls and much prayer, by evening Leoni had managed to find us alternative transport. Phew! So, on Monday morning, it was quite a relief to be on our way, even though it would take us 12 hours to reach Fianara.


The other team members had already made their way to Fianara over the weekend and were settled into their rooms at the Lazarist Seminary where we were staying. Fianarantsoa (which in Malagasy means ‘Good Education’) must have the largest collection of churches, cathedrals, monasteries and seminaries (Lutheran and Catholic) that I’ve ever seen in one place! However I didn’t actually get to visit the town, as we only had a limited time to focus on our goal of checking the team’s translation of Mark’s gospel. So we set to work on Tuesday, going through each chapter, section by section, verse by verse. At times the sheer number of decisions to be made in translation can be overwhelming, but I was impressed by the team’s determination to produce the clearest and most natural translation possible, without sacrificing accuracy. Some decisions certainly needed more discussion than others, but in the end we were confident that we had managed to correct a number of errors and omissions and generally improve the translation.

One of the passages which we found tricky was in Mark 12:36, where Mark quotes from Psalm 110: ‘The LORD said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand….’. Now translating LORD (God) was no problem: Andriatompo. However, finding the right expression for ‘my Lord’ was a different story. Rañandria is the appropriate way to translate ‘Lord’ here, so the team had used Rañandriako for ‘my Lord’. However, there was a problem with this translation, because the team agreed that this phrase could only mean one thing in this context: ‘my dead ancestor’! So we set about investigating other options, and eventually came up with: Rañandria Mpanjakako (literally: ‘Lord my-King’) which seems appropriate here, referring to the Messiah. The problems translators come across aren’t generally addressed by commentaries, since they are language specific, although we can refer to various translation resources and manuals for advice.


I really enjoyed our time working together, and was impressed by the team’s willingness to keep going without breaks (except for meals) to make the most of the time we had, also working after supper some evenings to make sure we finished. At the end of the workshop I was happy to recommend that the translation is now ready for a trial publication. This means that in the near future, the gospels of Luke, John and now Mark will be available in this language. Still plenty of work to do, but this is a significant milestone.  Do pray for wisdom and perseverence as the team now shift their focus to Matthew’s gospel. They are fairly spread throughout this large island, which does not make working together easy, but hopefully with the use of mobile phones and Skype calls they should be able to keep in touch (although one of the team’s nearest internet access is in the next town…)  I am conscious that the translation team have made many sacrifices to be involved in this work, alongside the responsibilities that come with their ‘day’ jobs as Pastors, Priests or Teachers. I am also aware that those who support this project, as well as those who support me and Eddie, financially and in prayer, have made sacrifices, too, and we thank God for each person’s contribution to this work; and I can’t wait to see how He will use these translated gospels!

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