We’ve been really busy lately (like the rest of you, I’m sure). In November there was a workshop for 20+ reviewers, which needed to be organized, attended, and recovered from, and then have the advice incorporated into the drafts. Chris is still up to his eyeballs in his college class (but the end is finally in sight). Meanwhile, Chris’ mom is visiting for six weeks, so there were guest preparations, lots of cleaning, and then traveling to pick her up in Lusaka and then a holiday at Victoria Falls. Now we have sugar cookies, Lego trains, and other Christmasy things to do, on top of finishing the homeschool term and spending plenty of time just trying to keep cool in the hot summer before the rains come.
Nevertheless, a HUGE milestone passed today at the Nsenga Bible Translation Project. Today was the day that we took our first serious exegetical/linguistic/translational look at John 3:16. This verse will go through many more stages and revisions before it’s finalized, but today the “Gospel in a Nutshell” verse took shape for the first time in the Nsenga language. Here’s what we have:
Mulungu eŵatemwa ngako ŵanthu a pa calo conse ca pansi. Tetyo, eŵapa Mwana yumo yeka, kuti aliyense womucetekela osati atayike, koma aŵe na moyo wosasila.
God loved very much the people in the whole world. So, he gave them his Only Son Himself, so that anyone who trusts him will never be lost, but have life without end.
I’ve been quiet on the blog front lately, but things have not been quiet at the Nsenga Bible Translation Project. In addition to the linguistic analysis I’m doing on Nsenga for my online course, we have been busy checking Luke, doing exegetical work on Revelation, and getting reviewer input on over ten NT books in a workshop setting. More news will follow in our soon-to-be-released Christmas letter, but for now, let this picture be worth a thousand words:
(The thick black lines represent the stages each draft goes through: Stage 1 = Drafting; Stage 2 = Internal Checking; Stage 3 = Reviewers; Stage 4 = Final Consultant Check. The blue bar for Mark means it’s been published as a booklet already.)
Our fall newsletter is out. In this issue we give you a fictional week in the life of the Plugers, made up of real events that have happened to us over the last two years. (My mom says it’s her favorite newsletter yet, so be sure to check it out!)
For the next three months, I will be taking a class online through the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics in Dallas TX. Hopefully this will be the second-to-last class I need to take towards my MA in Applied Linguistics, which I hope to finish when we’re back in the US next fall.
The course I’m now taking is an introduction to a computer program called The Bible Translator’s Assistant. TBTA is a “Natural Language Generator” – a computer program that creates a translation of a text into another language, a translation which (hopefully) is accurate to the source text and sounds natural in the target language.
Anyone who has ever used Google Translate knows how bad “machine translations” can be. I have many stories of hapless students who tried to do their Spanish homework for me using an internet translator. The results were usually humorous, often hysterical, and always unfit for publication. Just type a paragraph from a foreign-language novel or storybook into an internet translator and try to make sense of the English “translation” you get. For extra laughs, type a paragraph from an English novel into the computer, translate it to the language of your choice, and then translate that back into English. Or try this paragraph from a Korean children’s story.
So, why do people think that computers can realistically help translate the Bible? Won’t you spend more time cleaning up a poor machine translation than you would just translating manually from scratch? And, I didn’t see Nsenga on the list of options on the internet translator…
Well, there’s a big difference between a Natural Language Generator and a program like Google Translate. Very basically, there are two steps to the translation process: (1) Analyze the source text to determine its meaning, and (2) Reconstruct that meaning using the vocabulary and syntax of the target language. It turns out that computers are pretty good at step two; where they drop the ball is in step one.
The main problem is dealing with source language ambiguities. Is the word “anger” a noun or a verb? Is “read” present tense or past tense? Is the word “may” asking permission, or is it a month of the year? What sense of the word “key” is in focus here, the shiny metal thing or the answers to the test? (This is why a student’s machine-assisted attempt to translate “Can I go to the bathroom?” started with the Spanish word for a tin can…)
A Natural Language Generator like TBTA is a fundamentally different from something like Google Translate because with an NLG, the source text is “pre-analyzed” to remove those ambiguities. Instead of an English Bible translation, TBTA starts with a linguistically-coded semantic representation of the source text, specifically designed to remove ambiguities, so that the computer can clearly apply the “rules” of the target language without danger of mis-understanding the source text.So, TBTA already contains an unambiguous semantic representation of the Biblical text to be translated. A linguist (that’s me) “teaches” the computer the vocabulary and grammatical rules of the target language (in this case, Nsenga). Then the computer applies the rules in a step-by-step way to the semantic representation to produce a translation in the target language.
If the linguist did his job well, the translation is grammatically correct Nsenga, targeted in simple vocabulary at about the 6th grade reading level. Since the computer always does exactly what you tell it to, the Nsenga that is produced has exactly the same meaning as (is “semantically equivalent” to) the semantic representation of the Biblical text that it started with. And, as long as the semantic representations contained in TBTA are accurate, the Nsenga text will have the same meaning as the original. Voila. Machine-assisted translation. Natural Language Generation.
Testing has shown that a well-done TBTA translation can be used as the base text for a mother-tongue translator, who then needs to do only “light editing” to make the text smooth and natural. And, since the semantic representation has already been checked by a consultant, it theoretically obviates the need for thorough exegetical checking of the draft. In ideal circumstances, a translation project assisted by TBTA can move approximately 5 times faster than a traditional project, with much less manpower and at much lower cost.
Extra-nerdy linguistic sidebar:
TBTA is built on the principles of Natural Semantic Metalanguage Theory. This theory postulates that there are a small set of innate concepts that are present in every language, and that every word in every language can be defined using those innate concepts. These innate concepts are called “semantic primitives.”
However, using the very small number of semantic primitives (there are only about 56) would make communication unwieldy and inelegant, and it would be impossible to translate without distorting the message. So, in addition to the semantic primitives, TBTA also uses “semantic molecules,” which are slightly more complex concepts which are still almost-universally expressed by individual lexemes. TBTA has chosen for its basic vocabulary the approximately 3,000 words in Longman’s Defining Vocabulary, which is a carefully-selected list of the words most commonly used when defining other words in the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English.
The program also makes use of so-called “complex concepts.” These complex concepts are target-language-specific semantic “bundles,” which are like a condensed shorthand way of expressing a series of semantic primitives. It’s sort of like when a person has spent 5 minutes trying to explain something to you and you finally say, “Oh! We call that _____!” For example, in English, “betray” is a complex concept that bundles together something like, “the action of a friend or ally causing a person’s enemies to be able to capture or harm that person.” The computer doesn’t have to use the unwieldy series of simple molecules, but can simply substitute “betray” each time. The complex concepts are manually written into the program in each target language by the linguist as a “rule,” so that, for example, every time the concept “a person who takes care of sheep” is encountered in the semantic representation, “shepherd” is realized on the surface output.
Currently, the big drawback to TBTA is that crafting the semantic representations of the Bible is a time-consuming and difficult task, and in some particular cases (such as the Psalms) might prove to be impossible. Only a handful of books currently have checked semantic representations. Nevertheless, the program shows promise, and testing with a TBTA-produced translation in Korean has shown that it generates text that tests favorably with other traditionally-translated Bible versions (that is, it’s as good as stuff on the shelf right now).
At any rate, taking this class is getting me one step closer to finishing my MA, which is an important professional credential that can help me in work permits, etc. Exploring TBTA is also interesting from the point-of-view of the Nsenga advisor, because once the linguistic “rules” of Nsenga have been encoded into TBTA, this program is another resource that we can use in our translation, especially as we move forward into the Old Testament after furlough. Finally, I will be the first African-based linguist to work with TBTA, and it will be interesting (hopefully interesting enough to provide a topic for my major MA thesis project!) to see how the program deals with the unique exigencies of a Bantu language.
So, wish me luck, and forgive me if I’m quieter than usual for the next three months as I add this new responsibility to my schedule. “May all of your utterances be laced with humorous semantic ambiguities.”
I realize with a title like that, this blog post could be a PhD thesis. But what I’m really aiming for is to show you some of the “issues” that we deal with on a day-to-day basis in the translation office as we wrestle with the Biblical source texts and the linguistic form and the cultural setting of Nsenga.
Today we were group-checking Luke 7. This is the stage where all three translators, along with me (the exegete), read the book out loud by paragraph and make corrections.
This chapter was first drafted several months ago. Later, I looked at it verse-by-verse comparing it to the Greek. Then the translator went back and made adjustments based on my exegesis. Next, a second translator did the “harmonizing” – looking at parallel passages in other Gospels and making them match where the original has the same exact expressions, while still keeping each Evangelist’s unique wording. So, this section of Scripture has already been looked at at least four times.
But that doesn’t stop us from having plenty to talk about.
Luke 7:1-10 tells the familiar story of the centurion who had both a sick servant and great faith. But what, exactly, is a “centurion?” Basically, he’s a non-Jewish Roman military officer of a middle-rank, in charge of about 100 soldiers. The Romans, of course, were an invading force and occupied Judea during the time of Christ. They were generally not well-liked (although this individual centurion was an exception.) So, how much of this information is crucial to a proper understanding of the text?
Arguably, all of it, right? Except for perhaps the bit about “approximately 100 soldiers,” all of the historical detail comes into play during this section. He sends Jewish elders to talk to the Jewish rabbi because he himself was not Jewish. The fact that those men urge Jesus to help the man because “he loves the nation and built our synagogue” (7:5) is a clue that this guy defies the normal cultural expectation of the occupying force. The centurion’s words about being a man under authority, and having men under him (7:8) are much more understandable when you know a bit about the military context and his place in the pecking order.
But how do you communicate all of this historical background info to Bible readers without either overwhelming them, or leaving them scratching their heads? Do you leave “sentulio” in the text (with “Nsenga-lized” spelling) and put an explanatory footnote? Do you say “Roman military officer” in the text, and have, “Literally Sentulio, a middle-ranking officer of the Roman army, which occupied Judea at the time of Christ” as a cover-your-bases footnote? Do you leave out the unknown loanword “sentulio” altogether, and making people who are familiar with the English wonder what happened in our version?
In the end, we said, “A certain centurion, a leader of Roman soldiers, had a servant whom he loved dearly… When this leader heard about Jesus…”
But that wasn’t the end of our day. After checking and re-checking several more stories in Luke 7, we came to verse 35, “Yet wisdom is justified by all her children” (ESV). What in the world does that mean? To say the least, “The meaning of this saying in its present context is far from clear, and the interpretations vary considerably” (UBS Handbook). However, with some good evidence, the same Handbook goes on to suggest that the sentence can best be understood as a proverbial saying and that “‘children of wisdom’ are those who accept wisdom as their true guide in life. They justify/vindicate wisdom, i.e. they prove that wisdom is right, by their life, and/or by their acceptance of the message of John and of Jesus.”
It turns out that there is an Nsenga proverb which has nearly the same “moral.” Mawu wa akulu owama pakapita nsita – ‘The words of the elders are good (i.e, get better) as time goes on.’ That is, you probably didn’t pay too much attention to advice you got from your elders when you were young, but as time went on you saw the wisdom of what they were saying, and followed it, and thus the experiences of your own life prove that advice to be correct.
So, with a small tweak, we translated the Biblical saying following the model of the Nsenga proverb: Nzelu ya Mulungu yuwama pakapita nsita – ‘The wisdom of God is good (i.e, get better) as time goes on.’ This fits the basic meaning explained by several commentaries. We kept the same “moral,” the same basic sense, but modeled the form on a recognized Nsenga proverb. The translators and I are happy with it; we’ll see what the consultant has to say.
Finally, a small cultural note to make sense of something that would seem very odd indeed without a little background: Jesus eating at the house of Simon the Pharisee while a woman washes and anoints his feet. How does that work, exactly? Although many Nsengas eat on low stools around a common cooking pot, everyone knows enough about fancy dinner parties to know that people sit on chairs, tucked into tables, when they eat formally. The way verse 38 sounds, in their cultural context and with no historical background, the woman must be crouched under the table touching Jesus’ feet – very, very, inappropriate.
However, the issue is solved nicely with a bit of historical and cultural background. In verse 36 we hear that Jesus “reclined at the table.” I had encouraged the translator to handle this expression literally “lay down to eat,” and it sounded so odd in Nsenga that the reader (another translator) stopped and said, “That can’t be right.”
But then he noticed the footnote, which says, “The custom of those people was not to sit down [at a table] to eat, but lying down to put their left arm underneath and eat using the right hand.” Then he said, “Oh, right,” and went on with the reading. A picture is worth a thousand words, but sometimes a dozen or so words can do the trick as well.
That’s far from all of the adjustments we made to our translation of Luke 7, and I’m sure we mis-handled some issues along the way. But the point is that translation is always more than simply “How do you say ____ in Nsenga?” but rather, “What is the message that God is communicating here?” and “How can we faithfully communicate that message in a way that is accurate, beautiful, and clear to a typical Nsenga reader today?”
Thanks for your prayers as we go about our work.
Well, something awful happened. It wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been, but it was still rather horrible.
I hit a man with my vehicle.
It happened like this:
I was driving from Lusaka to Petauke with Sean and seven visitors from the US. It was a Sunday, and getting towards evening – about 5pm. We were less than an hour from home.
It’s tough to describe driving conditions in Zambia for those who haven’t been here. The roads are narrow, poorly-maintained, and treacherous. There are no guard rails or sidewalks, and vehicles travel at highway speeds just inches from pedestrians, bicyclists, vendors, and farm animals. These photos don’t do it justice, since they were taken in a sparsely-populated part of Lusaka province where they have lines on the road and fewer potholes. Add a handful of bicycles (some with women and babies balanced on the back), a dozen pedestrians, a couple of goats, and a few potholes – and subtract about a half-metre of crumbling pavement on either side – and you get a clearer picture of what it’s like to drive in Eastern province.
Anyway, we were passing through a small town, with shops and people close on both sides of the road. There are no speed humps or guard rails to protect people – just their common sense not to trespass on the roadway. I was doing about 90 km/h (55-60 mph). We were rounding a shallow curve.
As we came upon the most-densely peopled part of town, I saw a man run into the road from the right-hand side, running right-to-left straight across my path. (Remember, we drive UK-style here: on the left side of the road, from the right side of the car.) The man was staggering in the characteristic been-at-the-bar-all-afternoon way that one often sees on Sunday afternoons in Zambia. He was only a second or two from the truck at this point, and clearly had no idea I was coming.
I laid on the horn, braked hard without skidding, and gently veered right (into the oncoming lane), aiming for a spot behind where the man was running as he crossed in front of us. I distinctly remember reaching a point where it looked like our trajectories would not overlap – he had managed to run/stagger far enough that he passed the centreline, and the truck would just manage to pass by him on the right as we passed.
Then he turned around.
I don’t know if he was confused by the horn, or had just realised he was in the road and should really go back, or if he was intentionally trying to be hit. But at the last second, he turned around and stepped back into the path of the truck.
Then I hit him.
He took the impact on his right side (now moving left-to-right across my path). His body bent in half and his head bounced forward, rebounding so hard off the hood of the truck that he left a large dent. Then he crumpled and disappeared under the truck. I have no idea how fast I was going at that point.
I pulled off the right side of the road, exchanged a horrified glance with my left-seat passenger, turned on my flashers, and pulled the parking brake. I told everyone to stay in the vehicle. Then I got out.
I knew the man must be dead. Even now, as I replay the impact in my mind, and see his limbs and head all askew, bouncing off the bull-bar on the front of the Land Cruiser, I knew that the person who took that impact must be dead.
By the time I got out of the vehicle, a huge crowd had rushed to the scene. A woman way lying in the road next to the man’s body, wailing. A lot of the man’s fellow bar-patrons had come on the scene as well, most as drunk as he had been. There was a huge commotion and noise. I stood at the side, hands on top of my head, trying to breathe. I had just hit a man with my vehicle.
Because of my “experience” with the Germans, I knew what happened in motor-vehicle fatalities. One waited at the scene for the police to arrive. I took out my phone and tried to call my police-officer neighbour. No signal. I handed my phone to one of my passengers and told him to keep trying to call Mr Chisha.
By this time, a large crowd of people were approaching me – angrily – and a few had run up to grab me by the arm and drag me toward the body. It was loud and hot and close and smelled strongly of local beer. I was pulled toward the man’s body, the man I had hit. And finally I realised what everyone was saying to me.
He wasn’t dead.
I had hit a man with my vehicle, but he wasn’t dead. Quickly, I ran back to the truck and told my visitors that they and all their luggage had to come out, now. There are no ambulances in rural Zambia – or, more correctly, the vehicle which causes the accident becomes the ambulance. We had to get the man to the hospital.
So, with my visitors and their stuff unceremoniously dumped by the roadside, I turned the truck around on the narrow road. Five people loaded the injured man into the back and piled in with him. The village headman joined me in the front seat. The nearest hospital was a half-hour drive back the way we had come.
The drive to the hospital was awful for me, but I’m sure it was a lot worse for the man who had been hit. He didn’t lose consciousness, but moaned and screamed and babbled the whole way, while the people riding with him (his wife, his mother, and several others) tried to comfort him. I hope he doesn’t remember the trip. I do.
I realised about five minutes in that I had left my phone with the visitors, so I had no way to contact anybody. I asked one of the riders to dial my number, and after several attempts we got through to them. Another motorist, an Indian man, had been right behind us and seen the whole thing. He piled my visitors and their luggage into his pickup, and they were on their way to Petauke. I told them to have dinner at Chimwemwe Lodge, where our translation office is located, and wait for me there. Sean was with them to show them the way.
After passing by the police station, we were told to go to the hospital. There the man was lifted out of the truck by his friends and put into a wheelchair and taken to the receptionist. There his mother answered a bunch of questions about identity, a description of the accident, etc. The village headman kept me informed about what I couldn’t follow. The man still sat, in pain and still pretty drunk, but able to answer yes-no questions and recognize voices. It took about 10 minutes for “check-in,” and then he finally got to see a doctor.
At this point we went back to the police. I told my story. The headman backed me up. Apparently the part I didn’t know was that the man had been fighting in the bar, been knocked unconscious, and upon awakening was chased into the road by four guys who weren’t finished beating him yet.
To make a long story short, I was told that if the man died, there would be charges filed, and I – or at least my truck, as “evidence” – would have to stay in Nyimba that night. I begged the policeman to let me go and see to my visitors, who were locked out of my house and probably very worried (this being their first full day in Zambia!). I offered to leave my national registration card, and promised to return first thing in the morning. Upon learning that the vehicle was registered to the Lutheran Mission in Zambia, the inspector agreed.
We went back to the hospital to check on the man again – who, miraculously, was still not dead – and to leave some money so that his relatives could buy food and any supplies the doctors might need to care for him. Then I took a couple other men from the village back to their houses, being instructed by the police to drop them before the accident site so I didn’t risk an encounter with the probably-angry and now-even-drunker friends of the man.
It was a long, dark, prayerful drive home. I found the group in Petauke at the lodge, well-fed and safe but pretty worried about me. I shakily recounted all that had happened since I dumped them, and asked for prayers that the man would recover – not only for his sake, but also for mine.
Finally re-united with my phone, I called my good friend in Chipata, my colleagues at the mission in Lusaka, and also my pastor. Assuring them that nothing could be done that night except pray, I told them I’d let them know what happened when I returned to the police in the morning.
My pastor insisted on accompanying me to the Nyimba police. It would be wise to have an African friend with me, especially a pastor. And I didn’t want to make the drive alone so soon over those same roads again.
To make a short story long, I spent all of three minutes at the Nyimba police station that morning. I was told that the man was “improving,” and that therefore no charges were going to be filed. In fact, the police were pursuing a case against the four men who beat the man and chased him into the road in the first place. The man’s sister had come and given an official statement about the fight and the accident, even confirming the part that the man had doubled-back after it looked like I would miss him. I got my NRC back and was told I could leave.
On the way back home, I felt as if a huge weight had been lifted. The man wasn’t dead; in fact, he was improving. I wasn’t in jail. The programme for the American visitors would not be disrupted. I wasn’t in jail. The sun seemed to be shining particularly brightly for me.
It occurred to me that it’s a bit strange – even though God tells us not to worry, that He will take care of everything, sometimes it’s not God’s Word we trust, but the word of a police officer, or a doctor. The fact is that God was taking care of everything from the moment that man stepped into the road, and before, and after – but I didn’t believe that everything would be fine until I heard it, not from God, but from some human authority. I’m not exactly sure what to make of that, except to say that sometimes it is the job of the policeman, or the doctor, or the pastor, to act in the place of God in our lives, and remind us that He is taking care of everything, always.
To God alone be the glory!
We have a new candidate for longest Nsenga word in the NT:
venzevikaliyokonkhololewa (25 letters)
It means, roughly, “the things which have not yet been set out in order.”
It comes from Titus 1:5 – “The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished…”
The morphemes break down thusly:
- v- the subject-agreement marker
- enze- the past-continuous tense marker
- vika- another subject-agreement marker (I’ll admit I’m not exactly sure about this one yet. It’s rather rare. It definitely shows subject agreement, since it changes for noun-class, but it might also have another function.)
- liyo- the “never/not yet” aspect marker
- konkholol – the stem, meaning “set in order” or “explain”
- -ew – the passivizing morpheme
- -a – the final vowel, marking realis mood
The second-place finisher, as of now, is:
angakusimikizyilenilini (23 letters)
Which means, roughly, “they can not confirm it to you” (from Acts 24:13).
- a- the subject-agreement marker (a portmanteau morpheme which also shows tense)
- nga- the “can” or “potentiality” aspect marker
- ku-…-ni – the 2nd person plural object circumfix
- simikizy – the stem, meaning “prove” or “confirm”
- -il – the applicative suffix, which adds another argument to the verb (like an indirect object, roughly meaning “for someone’s else’s benefit”)
- -e – the final vowel, marking irrealis mood
- -ni – the other half of the 2nd person plural object circumfix
- -lini – the simple negative suffix “not”
Even an apparently simple word like munipa ‘you give me’ is made up of four different morphemes:
- mu- 2nd plural subject marker (also shows tense)
- ni- 1st singular object marker
- p – stem, meaning “give”
- a – final vowel
This is why Nsenga (and other Bantu languages) are called “agglutinative.”