Why Psalm 23 is hard to translate in Australia

Psalm 23

Plain English Version

One of David’s psalms

God looks after me properly, so that I never go short of anything that I need. You know about people that properly look after sheep all the time, called shepherds. Well, God looks after me like that. He is a good shepherd for me.

God gives me a good place to rest, just like a shepherd finds a good place for his sheep to rest, a place where there is green grass for them to eat and clean water for them to drink. 

When I get tired, God makes me feel good and strong again. He leads me on the right track, so that people will know that he is good.

You know, God is with me when I have trouble too. Sometimes I have a lot of trouble and I feel like I am walking in a really dark valley, and something might kill me, but even then, God is with me. I will not be frightened at that time. I know that God is stopping my enemies from hurting me, just like a shepherd uses his stick and stops wild dogs from hurting his sheep. When I remember that he does that, I feel safe.



Psalm 23 is well-loved in Australia, as it is in most of the world. As Westerners, we connect well with the image of God as our shepherd. When we see images of Jesus carrying a sheep on his shoulders it comforts us. It’s an image that we easily relate to, which gives it meaning for us. This is because we are the descendants of farmers. Even as city people now we still remember the metaphors of agricultural and pastoral life that our culture is based on. Not unlike the Bible’s original audience our folk tales are grounded in stories of caring for animals and the annual calendar of planting and harvesting. This is of course, common on a world scale, but there are exceptions. 

Australia is one of those exceptions. Before the arrival of European settlers who brought sheep, goats, cattle and chickens (as well as foxes and rabbits) there were no domestic animals on this land. Australian Aboriginal people have a deep connection to the nature around them, they know intimately the plants and animals that surround them, but this is not by means of domestication of animals or the planting of food crops. They are hunters, not herdsmen. Gatherers, not agriculturalists. Nomads, not settlers. This is by no means an inferior land management system, in fact in many ways it is much more suited to the land of Australia, which is, as we know, a very different landscape to Europe or the middle east. 

What does this mean for Bible translation? On the most basic level it means that there are not words in Aboriginal languages for sheep, or shepherd. Often sheep appear in Australian language translations as “jip” or similar, which is a borrowing from English, adapted to the phonetics of the language and the developed spelling system. This is not a big deal, it’s very common for the arrival of a new object or concept to carry with it the word from the language that delivered it. For example, in English the word “zero” comes from Arabic, “court” comes from French, and even more interestingly, “angel” from Greek.

But, going deeper than the words, the truth is that the concepts that surround these words are foreign too. We culturally know what a shepherd’s role is and exactly what makes a shepherd “good”. The reason that Psalm 23 resonates with us is because we understand that a shepherd provides constant care to the sheep, in terms of food, water, shelter and protection. A hunter, on the other hand, does none of these things. The concepts need to be explained and the connotations made clear. This is why the PEV version of Psalm 23 (above), translated for an Aboriginal audience, is much more detailed than other English versions. It recognises that words like “shepherd” carry a lot of meaning, and presents this meaning within the translation for those to whom it is not obvious. 

This works both ways. There are passages in the Bible that don’t hold for us the deeper meaning that they did for the original audience and can for others, because we lack the cultural knowledge. Hebrews chapter 4 comes to mind. It is a description of salvation in terms of “entering rest”. This is a nomadic concept that mostly flies over our heads as the descendants of farmers and settlers. We probably won’t connect to it as easily, but with a better understanding of the nomadic worldview we can try. (We would probably benefit from some expanded translation here.) The images of comfort, care, shelter and provision that we see in “shepherd” are present here in “rest”. Where we share pastoralism in common with Ancient Israel, allowing us to relate to the imagery of Psalm 23, it is likely that Australian cultures relate to the imagery of “journey” and “rest” found here and throughout the Old Testament, because that is what they share in common with Ancient Israel. 

One of the difficulties of translation is there is so much background attached to the words and images that we all use to communicate. What is surprising is that our “favourite bits” might not be the bits that will be the most meaningful to others. In the end, the Bible is a big book, and we all benefit from all of it, and need access to all of it. We might never know what stories are going to be the most impacting for the audiences of new translations.  And it’s ok if it’s not the same ones as for our own people. 


Image courtesy of www.LumoProject.com

Permission has been given for these photos to be used on educational presentations, blogs and social media only.

Sleeping languages

Why translate for dying languages?

Melody Kube, Feb 2023

The recent Bible Translation National Gathering was impacting for many of the 70+ participants from around Australia. The collaboration brought many new ideas and insights to the surface, even for a veteran translator like Dave Glasgow. Dave was the oldest participant at the Gathering, he’s 89 this year, and has worked in this field for 60+ years.

A presentation about the Noongar Bible translation and language revitalisation project, along with a personal conversation with Noongar woman Charmaine Councillor, brought Dave to a startling new perspective.

By the beginning of this century, after severe damage from the stolen generations policies, the Noongar language, south-west WA, had all but disappeared from use. A seed-thought to translate part of the Bible began to bring hope to the Noongar community, reviving their passion for the language of their identity. A small group of believers laboured over the Gospel of Luke for many years, bringing it to publication in 2014. The book of Ruth followed in 2020. The language is now being taught to many interested Noongar people, who are together rebuilding their knowledge of their own language.

Dave was impressed by the value Charmaine placed on her language; “Even though it is a dying language and she only had partial knowledge of it, the little bit of Scripture in the language she identified with was, to her, genuinely God’s word. She understood the Bible in English but to her it was nevertheless the “white man’s” book, and it carried with it the stigma of the white man.”

This realisation hit Dave “right between the eyes”. Dave has worked with AuSIL (and its predecessors) as a translator for Aboriginal languages since 1961. In fact, in the early 1970s he was part of the survey team that determined that the Noongar language was not “sufficiently robust” to assign anyone to work in. At that time, priority was given to languages that appeared to have the strongest futures. Dave explains the common thinking of the time, “I had always regarded our job as Wycliffe translators to translate the Bible into robust languages, by-passing the small and dying languages.”

Nevertheless, Dave’s compassion for these Bible-less communities became part of the motivation for creating the Plain English Version. Dave put his energies into developing an English language Bible translation, made especially with the needs of Aboriginal Australians, like the Noongar, in mind.

Now, since the Gathering, Dave has begun to see the problem of language endangerment differently. While the needs of strong languages remain at the forefront, Dave now wants to know what we can do for these smaller neglected languages. Dave has begun to appeal to AuSIL members, past and present, urging us to consider the needs of these languages groups that have been overlooked for so long. He also wants this message to reach Bible translators returning to Australia from projects around the world, urging them; “You still have more to contribute!” You see, Dave and Kathy Glasgow have never figured out “retirement” in its usual sense, and he’s convinced there are many more like him out there too! And Dave has a plan. Generally, the knowledge of English is higher in communities whose own languages are suffering, meaning that mother tongue translators can take the lead, with trained outsiders acting as guides and facilitators. And, the PEV, Dave’s original solution to the problem of language loss, will be advantageous to these new translations as the plain English is easier to translate into Aboriginal languages.

So-called “dying languages” may still have more life in them than was once thought. Like Jairus’ daughter, whom Jesus brought back to life, perhaps they are “only sleeping” (Mark 5:39)! Nothing is truly ever dead when we serve the God of the resurrection.

It’s impressive to see a veteran like Dave, who has served this group for over half a century, embrace a new understanding with such enthusiasm. He’s not settled in his ways, not a bit complacent, or reliving his glory days, as he could be forgiven for doing at this stage of life. No, he’s calling for radical change that could affect the future of how Bible translation is done in Aboriginal contexts in Australia.

I just hope we can keep up with him!

The first stories about God and his people

The first stories about God and his people

The book of Genesis in Plain English

Susanna Baldwin, March 2023

I’ve been spending a lot of my work time in Genesis recently. As you probably know, Genesis is full of stories, captivating stories that are good for sharing. So, let me tell you a short story from Genesis 30.

To set the scene, arch villain Uncle Laban has – not for the first time – just pulled a shameless con trick on his nephew Jacob, who’s been working on his farm for a good 20 years. He’s promised Jacob a meagre share of the farm’s flocks to keep for himself – none of the pure white sheep or black goats, numerous as they are, but only the animals with mottled black and white wool, and the odd sheep that is completely black. Jacob barely has time to get his shepherd’s boots on and head to the fields before Laban scoots out ahead of him, rounds up all the multicoloured flocks, and sends them off packing with his sons to a place three days’ walk away. To add insult to injury, he then leaves Jacob in charge of the rest of his flock, knowing that he, Laban, will take all the profits from it. What a ratbag. Anyway, listen up to what happens next.

And Jacob took him rods of green poplar, and of the hazel and chesnut tree; and pilled white strakes in them, and made the white appear which was in the rods.

And he set the rods which he had pilled before the flocks in the gutters in the watering troughs when the flocks came to drink, that they should conceive when they came to drink.

And the flocks conceived before the rods, and brought forth cattle ringstraked, speckled, and spotted.

And Jacob did separate the lambs, and set the faces of the flocks toward the ringstraked, and all the brown in the flock of Laban; and he put his own flocks by themselves, and put them not unto Laban's cattle.

And it came to pass, whensoever the stronger cattle did conceive, that Jacob laid the rods before the eyes of the cattle in the gutters, that they might conceive among the rods.

But when the cattle were feeble, he put them not in: so the feebler were Laban's, and the stronger Jacob's.

And the man increased exceedingly, and had much cattle, and maidservants, and menservants, and camels, and asses.

All clear as mud?

As you may have detected – and bonus points if you did – that’s the tail end of Genesis 30 as translated in the much-beloved, but somewhat outdated, King James Version of the Bible (Genesis 30:37-43 KJV). Now my guess is you probably understood 99 per cent of the actual words in that passage, and you could make a reasonable stab at the other one per cent. Like me, you may never have used ‘ringstraked’ in a sentence before, but you can get the idea pretty well from the context.

But if this were the only translation of Genesis 30 that you had, do you think you could really get a grasp of the sequence of events it describes, or be able to talk about the theological truths that might sit behind it? How confident would you feel if someone put this in front of you and asked you to explain it to a friend, or write a Bible study or a sermon on it?

It’s English, but not as we speak it. The vocabulary is archaic. The sentences have a kind of nice poetic feel to them, but are pretty impossible to decipher unless you concentrate really, really hard. And that’s before you get onto the bigger question of what on earth is going on with all these cattle and lambs and rods and troughs and speckles and spots, and how it could possibly fit into the big picture of God’s creation and redemption story.

Well, sit with that thought for a moment. I think it captures a little of what it feels like to read the Bible in English – any form of English – when you grew up speaking three or four or more Indigenous Australian languages, and only added English later on – absorbing it over a period of time at school and in dealing with public services and through online media, while still living and breathing the traditional languages of your family and community. Have a think about it. You might recognise an amount of words on the page, but they don’t relate neatly to your everyday experiences or the way you see the world. It sounds nice, but it’s not the way you talk. You can’t just read a sentence and translate it in your head, because you can’t make sense of how the sentence is put together and what the different bits refer to. The architecture of the language is fundamentally different to yours. On top of that, the concepts and events being described belong to a foreign culture and a faraway era, and there may be no-one around who can tell you what they meant then and what they mean now.

For Indigenous language speakers, even so-called simple English Bibles, such as the Good News or the CEV, are as baffling and exhausting to read as the King James Version is to us.

Of course, in an ideal world we wouldn’t solve this problem by creating yet another English translation of the Bible. It’s always been our vision for people to access the Scriptures in their heart language, not an acquired language. But there is no quick or easy way to meet this goal in the Indigenous Australian context. Christians in remote communities are hungry for translation work and keen to help with it, but they often lack the time, resources and skills to make significant progress by themselves, and there are never enough trained linguists to support them.

The Plain English Version (or PEV) is an attempt to meet this need halfway by translating the Bible into a form of English that Indigenous language speakers genuinely understand and identify with. It breaks down complex words and abstract concepts into simple and concrete terms, using vocabulary that is familiar from everyday usage and readily understood by those with varied literacy levels. It pulls apart complex grammar structures and reworks them into simple past, present and future statements that readers can relate to from their own languages. It juggles sentences and verses around to help narratives and arguments flow in a logical sequence. And wherever possible, it fills out background and contextual information that is implied, but not stated explicitly, in the original text. Our goal is that our readers will hear and take away the same meaning from the passage as the original audience would have done, so that God’s message is both preserved and made accessible in a new way.

We want to give our Indigenous brothers and sisters a Bible that they can understand in their personal reading, teach to others, and ultimately use as a basis for their own translation work into their heart languages.

So to round off, have a read of our working draft of Genesis 30 in the PEV, and you can play spot the difference. Strap yourselves in, it’s quite a bit longer than the King James.

Then Jacob cut off some young green branches from the trees that were in that place. He cut off some branches from a tree called a poplar tree, and some branches from a tree called an almond tree, and some branches from a tree called a plane tree. Then Jacob pulled off some of the wood that was on the outside of those branches, so that he could see white bits underneath. In that way, those branches looked like they had spots on them, a bit like those sheep and goats that Laban’s sons took away. Then Jacob put those branches in the place where the sheep and goats used to come to drink water. And whenever the sheep and goats came to that place to drink water, the males and females joined together to make young ones, and they looked at those branches that had spots on them. Later on, when those young ones were born, they had black and white spots on their wool, a bit like those branches. And Jacob kept those young ones for himself, because Laban said, “You can take all the sheep and goats that have black and white spots on their wool.”

Then Jacob thought, “I want my sheep and goats to be stronger than Laban’s sheep and goats.” So Jacob waited until the strong sheep and the strong goats came to that place to drink water. Then Jacob got those branches that had spots on them, and he put those branches in front of the strong sheep and goats, and the males and females joined together to make young ones in front of those branches. Later on, when those young ones were born, they were strong too, and they had black and white spots on their wool. So Jacob kept those strong young ones for himself, because Laban said, “You can take all the sheep and goats that have black and white spots on their wool.”

But when the weak sheep and weak goats came to that place to drink water, and when those weak sheep and goats joined together to make young ones, Jacob didn't put those branches in front of them. Then those weak sheep and goats had young ones that were weak too, and those young ones didn’t have black and white spots on their wool. Those weak young sheep were white, and those weak young goats were black. So those weak young ones belonged to Laban, because Laban said, “All the white sheep and all the black goats will belong to me.” In that way, Jacob got lots of strong sheep and goats, and Laban got lots of weak sheep and goats.

Jacob did another thing too. He took the white sheep that belonged to Laban, and he got those sheep to look at the black goats that belonged to Laban. Later on, those sheep had young ones with black and white spots on their wool. And Jacob kept those young ones for himself, because Laban said, “You can take all the sheep and goats that have black and white spots on their wool.”

Every time Laban’s sheep and goats had young ones with black and white spots on their wool, Jacob kept those young ones for himself, just like he agreed with Laban. Later on, those young ones grew up, and they had more young ones with black and white spots on their wool, and Jacob kept those young ones for himself too. In that way, Jacob got lots and lots of sheep and goats, and he became very rich. He also had lots of men and women that worked for him, and lots of camels and donkeys.

Working Draft of Genesis 30 in the PEV

The PEV project has been running for about 20 years now. I’ve been on the team for the last two of those years. Most of the translation work in that time has been done by the legendary Dave Glasgow, who turns 90 in a couple of months, and keeps telling us he is ‘about to retire’, which we’ll believe when it happens. At this point, about three-quarters of the New Testament has been completed, the Book of Genesis is at the checking stage (woo!) and we have some other small excerpts of the Old Testament out and published. But there is a stack of work still to do, and very few of us doing it. So please pray for us, pray for the right workers to join the team, and pray that the PEV will keep growing and being a blessing to many Indigenous churches and communities, and a stepping-stone towards more and more Bible translation happening in Australian languages.

The Word of God born among the nations

What Christmas means to Bible translators

by: Melody Kube

The Christmas season can be difficult for Bible translators. They often live far away from their families and sometimes in climates and settings very different to childhood memories of this special holiday. Most are adventurous folk, willing to try new foods and new cultural forms, but for some at least, Christmas is a little harder than an average day. 

But, it’s also brilliant! Filled with so much hope and encouragement for the true task of Bible translation. Because, Christmas and Bible translation are pictures of each other. 

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. 

We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, 

who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. 

John 1:14 NIV

Jesus came and was born on earth as one of us. As the testimony of Him is translated into new languages it is also like a new birth of the Word of God in each separate nation. 

Some of us have had the honour of being there as the very first verses from the Bible became incarnate in the words of a new language that had never had Scripture before. It can be a difficult and arduous task, but its also incredible to watch this miracle happen! 

Earlier this year Miliwanga Burben saw the Word of God take its first breath in her own Rembarrnga language. The verses she translated were from Luke 2:6-12 about the birth of the Holy Infant. Miliwanga recorded these verses in the sound room at Nungalinya College, with Paul Kube (Bible Society Australia), and when they were played back for her she broke down in tears of joy, which quickly spread to us all. For the first time ever the Word of God had taken on Rembarrnga flesh. Paul, himself a father of three, said it was like watching a baby being born. 

This is why I am especially excited about the AuSIL Christmas project. It is very appropriate that the first verses translated into languages that have waited so long be the story of the long-awaited Messiah. This is also why Bible translation is so important. The message of Christmas is that God found it good to come and be one of us, to bring us his word and to redeem us. Giving people the Bible in their own language gives them the opportunity to see that God has come to them as well. 

Because Jesus is born for all of us! 

Standing Armies

The uncomfortable truth that Bible translation is never completely “done”

There’s a pair of natural questions that everyone wants to know when they become interested in Bible translation in Australia. How many languages are there? and How many have already been done? These are good questions, and they seem straight forward, but the answers are anything but. 

As humans we like measurable goals. We like to know what we are aiming for and break it down into steps. We want to know what we have accomplished and what remains to be done. Who doesn’t love the feeling of ticking a task off an important list? So, as Bible translators, we feel the need to make a Master List of languages and start ticking them off. It seems strategic, organised, achievable, if daunting. 

But, what if the translations refuse to stay “ticked”? 

Languages are living things and always changing. Sometimes the change (or loss) is rapid and by the time a translation is complete, the younger people are speaking a different form. This is true of Warlpiri, for example. Warlpiri is a Western Desert language of the Northern Territory, one of the largest Indigenous languages in Australia by the number of speakers. A Shorter Bible (complete New Testament plus some Old Testament books) was completed and published in 2001. But, the Warlpiri people are greatly flexible in their language use. The Bible translation completed just twenty years ago is reportedly only usable now to those over 50 years old. The younger people continue to innovate in their version of the Warlpiri language, remixing it with other languages they also speak, forming what has been called light Warlpiri and they now struggle to understand the Bible available to them.

Warlpiri is not the only language experiencing change. Similar stories are heard amongst Tiwi, Garrwa, Gurindji and many other communities.

In fact, Indigenous Australians generally are, and always have been, multi-lingual, and their languages are more open to change than we might expect. It might even be this flexibility that has meant the survival of Australia’s ancient languages. But it does pose a problem to our ability to “finish” Bible translations, doesn’t it? Honestly, it’s enough to cause a rising feeling of panic when we realise how many fewer members AuSIL has now compared to when these translations were begun. We are probably losing ground, not gaining. 

But yet, we take heart. By letting go of the Master List and the frustratingly “untickable” boxes, we open ourselves to simple obedience. As Bible translators we must remember that we are not called to produce a result, we are called to serve. Sometimes we are taught in Christian circles to measure success in terms of “what we leave behind us”. But what if what we build doesn’t outlast us? Does that mean we’ve failed? Not at all! We should instead look for results in the fruit that is ready right now, and more importantly, focus on our obedience in the present. We should be willing to serve without understanding what God may do with the big picture. The boxes, and the Master List itself, are up to Him. Sometimes God is strangely “unstrategic” (in our view), lavishing his love and attention on people groups whose language may be labelled “unviable”, or whose population is shrinking, showing again that He is nearer to the brokenhearted, preserving the crushed reed. It is not ours to know what criteria God uses in assigning his servants to the tasks he deems worthy.

Letting go of the boxes also releases us to consider updates and revisions as part of the perpetual process of Bible translation rather than an extra chore, or criticism once we are finished.

Revisions are a positive contribution to Bible translations. David Blackman, who has been working for many years on the Alyawarr Bible translation, comments that by the time someone has translated several books of the Bible, their translations improve, become more readable and are a better communication of the originals. A translator naturally wants to revise their earlier work, but they don’t want to delay publishing either. Part of being human is that, by God’s design, we get better at doing something when we continue to practise. I imagine it might feel discouraging to look back on work done years ago and not have it measure up to what you can now do (though I don’t think God is surprised or saddened by this). The project seems to roll on like a treadmill, what you have set behind you comes full circle and lands at your feet once more. If we gave perfectionism too much reign, it would prevent us from ever publishing anything! 

So, if we can’t expect the boxes to stay neatly ticked, what can we do? We can publish frequently, in small volumes, and keep doing so. The mini-Bible is a homegrown AuSIL concept. It’s a publication of whatever books of the Bible have been translated, released and made usable to the community, even while translation continues. (Mini-Bibles are often missing many large Old Testament books and might not have all of the Gospels or all of the Epistles) We can also publish individual books, or even smaller portions. What if just one chapter wet a community’s appetite for more? And we can consider more ways to distribute the Word of God than only traditional print options. 

The perpetual process of near constant revision has become the norm in modern English translations, though we may not be aware of it. The NLT, NIV and NET versions all have standing armies of scholars, committees who are continually considering improvements to their respective versions. Available resources and translation techniques continue to grow, and the English language continues to change, meaning our English translations are not static. The NLT you bought 10 years ago is not the same one sold today. We are all grateful that English was never ticked off as “done”, or we might have difficulty understanding our Bibles, wouldn’t we?

The situation is obviously different for minority language groups, who may only dream of having the resources available to modern English translations. The Pitjantjatjara Bible Translation Project has a battalion of translators persisting over large sections of the Old Testament. They are set to be the second Australian Aboriginal language group to have a translation of the whole Bible, yet the timeline to completion is also an unanswerable question. David Barnett, Bible Society of Australia, sympathises especially with financial supporters who long to see the project reach its goal. But he is also keen that we see the work of translation, and the discipleship that goes along with it, as valuable in its process, not only in its completion. We hope that the Pitjantjatjara team will stay strong, and become the standing army that their translation will need, even after they complete the Old Testament project. In surprisingly little time the ongoing work of revision will begin, prompted by the certainty of language change and the fact that translations can almost always be improved on each pass through. 

Ken and Lesley Hansen worked for many years with the Finke River Mission and the Pintupi and Luritja people. The first translated Bible portions were published in 1969 and the early 1970s as several small booklets. The Hansens carefully labelled these “preliminary translations”, perhaps anticipating that the project would continue to develop. They also published stories and other materials, supporting a growing literacy in the community. The Pintupi-Luritja language was changing at that time and it has continued to change since. The Hansens with many Aboriginal translators helping, went ahead with the translation and the Bible Society published the New Testament in 1981. In the early 1990s the Hansens began a complete retranslation of the New Testament and abridged Old Testament into younger more modern language. The church and the pastors used photo copied versions of the gospels and the other books available, as the translations were completed.  In 2006 the Bible Society published a single volume containing the New Testament and abridged Old Testament.  The pastors and groups of Christians have been using these scriptures on each of the communities since then. The Hansens served two generations, each with their own translation. It’s not hard to imagine that the Pintupi and Luritja people may one day be in need of another. And it may present a wider truth, that each generation needs a new translation.

Kathy Glasgow, long time translator on the Burarra language Bible translation project, rejoices that the completed New Testament (1991, reprinted in 2009) and some Old Testament portions are still being used by the community, yet she acknowledges with a laugh that “the work is never done!” Some Burarra Old Testament portions are currently being prepared for printing in a new illustrated format.

New technologies certainly make revisions an easier process, says Phillip Townsend, the new director of the SIL Australia Timor Group. Digital files are much easier to update, adjust and print. But, it was the advent of smart phones and tablets that completely changed the game for the distribution of new versions. A Bible app means that anyone who reads through this technology is always reading the newest available version, without having to buy it again like we do with books. The publication of revisions is now possible, even without new print runs. 

The never-ending nature of Bible translation doesn’t have to be a discouragement. At AuSIL, the huge size of the task before us, and the small size of personnel committed to the work, leave us under no delusions of accomplishing everything in our own strength. This gives us the opportunity to adjust our thinking. We would love to have more people, and do more, so we pray and share the needs, hopefully from a place of passion rather than desperation. As long as we are doing what God is asking, we are part of the standing armies that He is building. As such, we have a role and a job to do. And so we stand, knowing that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. 

Image credit: Michael Meier

In translation, audience is everything

By: Melody Kube

Where I grew up, in Saskatchewan, Canada, it started snowing each year sometime in October, and didn’t start melting till sometime in March. Snow was a big part of my experience. Everything from clothing to transport to architecture included a thought of how snow would come into the picture. We thought about snow often. Which is why it might surprise you that I never really connected with the way the Bible uses snow as a metaphor. 

“Though our sins be as scarlet they shall be white as snow” Isaiah 1:18

As a child I found this image confusing and not very helpful. You see, snow is not always clean. It’s often muddy, dusty or stained. People walk in it, cars drive in it, animals live in it. And once it’s dirty you can’t clean it, it sits there till spring. Because of this I didn’t immediately associate “snow” with “clean” or even white. So, the metaphor as it was used didn’t reach me. 

But that’s not the whole story. There is also this magical experience of fresh snow. Particularly after a cold snap, when the temperature comes back up, but not above zero. In those conditions fresh snow can come down thick and heavy. The snowflakes are almost unrealistically large and fluffy, and seem to fall slower than gravity should allow. It comes in slow and soft and blankets everything. Deep enough that objects like cars, fences or outdoor furniture, become indistinguishable, all the corners rounded out by heaps of fresh snow. Fresh snow carries with it a gentle quiet, pulling down background noises as it falls. And this fresh snow reflects light in an amazing way. Flashes can be so bright they hurt your eyes. Whole fields of fresh snow are hard to look at. 

I have decided that this snow is what Isaiah must have meant. “our sins shall be as white as fresh snow”.  He would be referring to fresh snow as it falls, and for a short time covers over everything. In those parts snow didn’t stay around long enough to sit and get dirty, as it did in my experience.  I can tell you that that one word makes all the difference in meaning for me. Some languages even  have different words for these different types of snow. I’m not criticising the translators mind you, as my experience is not shared by all speakers of my language.

A friend of mine who translates documents and literature from English into her native Russian, surprised me when she said that the most important factor to good translation is not how well you have learned your second language, but how well you know your own language, specifically a large vocabulary in your own language. The main task of a translator is communication. Understanding a foreign text is only the beginning – the real work comes in finding the right words to share the meaning with others.  If you are like me, when we imagine the work that goes into quality Bible translation we tend to think first of the Biblical languages and the subtlety of meaning that good translations should illuminate. We might even think that the best translations are the ones that are most like the Greek and Hebrew they were written in. A good understanding of the original is vital, but it isn’t the whole story. Understanding what it means is pointless without a grasp of how that is best communicated in the target language. In translation knowing your audience is everything! This is one of the reasons that there is so much variety in English Bible translations. It’s only rarely because the original is understood differently or that there are questions about what it means. The differences are to do with how that meaning is best communicated in the vocabulary and forms available in the target language, and how it will be understood. 

The audience for translation work in the Northern Territory is Aboriginal Australians, whose English differs to standard English in many more significant ways than just their vocabulary for snow or lack thereof.  The Kriol Bible was largely done before television became common in Aboriginal communities. The translators skipped the meaningless reference to snow and explained the metaphor; that even though you and I are “properly dirty ones”, we will be made “properly clean ones”. This also avoids the easily misunderstood correlation of “white” and “clean”. 

Det nogudbalawei blanga yumob meigim yumob jidan brabli dardiwan, bat ai garra meigim yumob jidan brabli klinbala na. Aisaiya 1:18  

David Blackman, part of the translation team for the Alyawarr language, shares that while most metaphors don’t translate well, occasionally he has been fortunate enough to stumble on a local metaphor. People don’t usually think to give them; you hear them, almost by accident.  When it comes to the “white as snow” metaphor, in most Aboriginal contexts the metaphor is removed in favour of a straight forward rendering. Other times other white things can complete the meaning. One desert language uses “white like clouds” to describe Jesus’ appearance in Revelation 1:14. Another chose “white like the stars” in the same passage. 

Each of these choices are made in an effort to chose the best expression in the target language; it’s all about knowing the way your audience communicates.  

Attention to the English language as used by Aboriginal Australians is the crux of the PEV, the Plain English Version, currently in development at AuSIL in Darwin NT. This translation is careful to disambiguate words and phrases that are unclear to an Aboriginal audience. I easily missed the point of a Biblical concept because of a different understanding of a single word. It is multiple times harder for speakers of Aboriginal languages to understand and use standard English translations. The translators working on the PEV are more than competent in Biblical languages but more importantly they know their audience. They carefully choose vocabulary used by Aboriginal Australians and take the time to explain concepts that would be misunderstood. The results are beautiful. The straight forward and direct language is a fresh breath even for those of us well acquainted with standard English translations. Often times the PEV hits hard, where we can sometimes hide behind the complexity of abstractions. Take, for example, the well known passage about the characteristics of true love from 1 Corinthians 13. Instead of the multi-layered complex words that we usually see in this passage - from patience to perseverance, in the PEV we read each one described as an action, with fantastic results. 

 If we love people, we will be good to them, and we will not get angry with people that give us trouble. If we love people, we will not be jealous of them. If we love people, we will not reckon we are better than they are, and we will not think we are really good when we are not good. If we love people, we will not be rude to them or shame them. If we love people, we will think about what they want, not just what we want for ourselves. If we love people, we will not get angry with them quickly, and we will not keep on remembering the bad things they did to us. If we love people, we will not be happy if they do things that are wrong, but we will be happy if they do things that are right and true. If we love people properly, we will keep on loving them, no matter what happens. If we love people, we will keep on believing good things about them, and we will keep on hoping good things for them, and even if we are getting trouble, we will not give up.  

1 Corinthians 13:4-7

Translation is communication. Accurately expressing the meaning of the original is the goal, but to be an accurate expression the word choices must also be natural and meaningful in the target language, or they might not carry the intended message. It’s a delicate process. And it is done well when it comes from a heart of listening to your audience, knowing them, and loving them. 

Photo credit: Donnie Rosie via unsplash.