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.

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