Getting It In Context

Yesterday, while working in the nursery during first service, I asked one of the other workers what they thought was a very random question. Out of the blue I said, “If you had to pick any animal that would be associated with the word ‘wise’ or ‘prudent’, what animal would you pick?”

Their response was actually quicker than expected. “Owl.” I had been pulling a blank. But that is a very good answer in my opinion, one that most English-speaking (in any case American) people would be familiar with – for “wise”, at least.

I then asked the follow up to that. What animal would you identify with the word “pure” or innocent”? That was much more difficult of an answer. In fact, no real solid answer was given. But at that point I shared why I was asking – my current work on translating Matthew 10:16-23. I will be done soon. No, really….

What amazed me even more, since it isn’t exactly a normal topic of conversation around the church, was when my conversation partner started waxing eloquent about how important it was to translate into a context that readers could understand, and how many cultures don’t have the same words or connotations attached to things. Brought an unexpected smile to my face.

So what do you think? What animal would best illustrate the idea of “wise”, “prudent” or “thoughtful” to English speakers? And what animal would best illustrate the idea of “pure” or “innocent”? Do you think that the 1st century illustrations from Matthew (serpent/pigeon*) accurately demonstrate cleverness and innocence to English speakers?

* most translations read “dove”, but this itself probably is an attempt to be culturally aware, or maybe just traditional, as the Greek word employed does not indicate the animal we would consider a dove.

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About George

I'm interested in theology, languages, translation and various sorts of fermentation.
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7 Responses to Getting It In Context

  1. Paul D. says:

    I remember reading that the phrase “lamb of God” was translated as “seal of God” in the Inuit Bible, since that culture was not familiar with sheep but ascribed similar sentiments to seals.

    • George says:

      Interesting. I know in the Philippines Papua New Guinea, that same phrase has been translated roughly as “pig of God”, for similar reasons.

  2. Pingback: Matthew 10:16-23 | σφόδρα – exceedingly

  3. Ed says:

    Hm, what are your sources for the claims that the expression, “Lamb of God”, has been translated (and published) as “seal of God” or “pig of God”? I strongly suspect that these are urban myths, though I may be wrong.

    • George says:

      My sources are Ed and Aretta Loving, missionary-linguists with Wycliffe Bible Translators, who worked with the Awa people of Papua New Guinea. The example was used in a teaching session discussing translation into source context, and was stated from personal experience with their own translation of the New Testament into Awa for Wycliffe. In other words, right from the horse’s mouth.

      The Awa would not know what a “lamb” is, and the pig in question was the closest culturally relevant replacement.

      • Ed says:

        Hi, George. I just now had an e-mail conversation with Aretta L; I don’t know her, though I have heard of her before. She assures me most emphatically that they never did and never would use “pig of God” as a translation equivalent for “lamb of God”. One reason, among others, why she and her teammates (and I’m fairly certain that this would apply to all Wycliffe translators) for not using “pig of God” is the fact that pigs were an abomination to Jewish people, and an astute reader (from Papua New Guinea or elsewhere) would readily see that this phrase would have been extremely insulting. Your point in this blog is a good one – when we speak figuratively (which we do much more than we generally realize), we need to ensure that our audience is able to make the associations that we’re intending. But the examples mentioned here (“seal of God”, and the other one) are (at least) highly questionable.

      • George says:

        Yes, the fact that pigs are an abomination to Jews was even brought up in class. Definitely not something that missed my attention.

        I’m certainly not meaning to pass along any misinformation. Ed was very clear about it (I thought) and even spoke about the fact that it was something that wasn’t shared often because many untrained (in regards to translation) people would find it distasteful. In the end it was the definite awkwardness of the particular example that stood out to me. I’ll readily admit that it could be my own misunderstanding – maybe Ed intended it hypothetically as what could have been done and I simply missed it.

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