This post is one that Sue wrote from Madagascar eight years ago; it’s a fantastic example of the complexities of language and translation:
What could be simpler than asking someone to close the door you might think? But whenever you try and translate something from one language to another you come across the phenomenon of language and culture beingso closely bound together that they are almost impossible to separate. Let me give you an example. Here in Madagascar, someone from one area simply asked a colleague from another area to close the door; a reasonable request, since it was early evening and the mosquitoes were coming inside! However the request didn’t produce the desired result.
What was happening? The first man had made the request according to hislanguage and culture which was, literally: ‘Please wall the road!’ The second, however, hadn’t reacted because in his own culture and language the way to make that request is to say: ‘Please make-closed the door’ and hadn’t associated the talk of ‘blocking the road’, as he had understood it, with the idea of closing the door! But for the first man, this is just the normal expression used in his language for closing the door: you ‘wall-up the entrance/path’ or as we might say in Yorkshire: ‘Put wood in t’hole!’
What has this got to do with Bible Translation you might ask? Well, if a simple request to close the door was met with such confusion here, among related languages in the same country, imagine how the scope for misunderstanding is magnified when we come to translate ideas written down a couple of thousand years ago in the Middle East into a language with a very different culture and context in the 21st century! Whenever we communicate, the words we use embody the culture of that language – whether we are talking about doors, cricket, Pancake Tuesday or olive branches or in the Biblical context: vineyards, priests or Samaritans – because they are part of the culture and always have the connotations of that particular culture. Therefore when we translate ideas like these from one language to another, we have to find a way of communicating them accurately and clearly in the translated text, whilst avoiding undesirable connotations in that culture.
Following our discussions about cultural differences in closing doors in different Malagasy languages here at our translation workshop in Antananarivo, we then asked the translation teams to look at how they might go about translating Revelation Chapter 3 verse 20 in which Jesus says: “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” What if there is no word for door? And do people knock or do they call out to those in the house when they want to enter? Is Jesus a stranger that he needs to knock? Or in some contexts would Jesus knocking at the door make him a thief, since the custom is for everyone to call out – only a thief would knock to check that the house is empty! There are no easy answers because words cannot help but bring their culture with them! What’s more there are also theological implications from many of these questions which influence the way we translate, but I’ll leave those discussions for another day……