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Reviewer Workshops: The Sweet Spot

April 13, 2013

This past week, the Nsenga Bible Translation Committee hosted workshops to help train people who will formally review drafts of our New Testament books. This is an important step in our publication process.

Because we wanted to have a good cross-section of Nsenga-speakers from all over Eastern Province, we held three workshops in three different towns, and had attendees from five different areas. We went to Nyimba, Petauke, and Chipata, and also invited people from Msoro and Feni areas to come and participate.

About 30 people came to the three workshops. Dr Nyirenda, the Translation Consultant from Bible Society of Zambia, led the workshop. Most of the discussion centered around the translation philosophy of the project (common-language, meaning-based versus word-for-word formal equivalence) and the target audience (younger-generation Nsengas from rural areas). We talked about the translation process, and the importance of reviews from all areas as a necessary stage in the process. We also discussed ways to publicize the translation work in the various churches that are represented in our areas.

The really interesting discussions came when we brought out a 1-page “sample” translation (Mark 8:34-38) and asked the reviewers to read and comment.

Wow! Before the workshop, I had prepared these pages for review by intentionally adding some errors – misspelled words, punctuation mistakes, grammatical inconsistencies, intentional use of loanwords from Chewa, etc. I needn’t have bothered. The reviewers found plenty to discuss without my help.

The main point of discussion was this: Should we intentionally use older, “pure,” possibly obscure Nsenga words in our translation in order to revive or re-kindle pride and interest in Nsenga – or should we instead use more common words which are more widely-known, even if they are borrowed loanwords from other nearby languages? Romans

A good example is the word for “angel.” There is, apparently, an old Nsenga word for angel: malaika. But most people know the loanword mngelo. So, how much “teaching” of Nsenga do we want to do? How “clear” do we want the translation to be – even at the expense of Nsenga itself? (Another example of this will be the basis for a future post.)

Another phenomenon I found even more interesting. Nsenga is bordered by two other big, influential languages: Chewa and Kunda. Those reviewers who came from the Chewa-influenced areas close to the tarmac thought that many parts of our translation sounded “Kunda-ish.” Meanwhile, those Kunda-influenced speakers in the northern valley thought our translation sounded “Chewa-ized.” There was a lot of discussion over spelling, pronunciation, and word choice.

Does this mean that our translation, even the Nsenga language itself, is hopelessly corrupt, and any attempts to find a “common” Nsenga middle are bound to fail? I doubt it. What I think instead is that this means that our translation has found the “sweet spot” – the centre of the modern language, an easily-understandable common-language for the communication of God’s Word to the Nsenga people of today.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Steve Lawrenz permalink
    April 13, 2013 4:38 am

    Saturday, April 13, 2013.


    I very much enjoy reading this. Interesting. Fascinating.

    Steve Lawrenz, Blantyre, Malawi

  2. permalink
    April 29, 2013 8:28 am

    Which way did they take with the word Angel? I think they shoul go with the old pure Nsenga.
    Sent from my Blackberry® SmartPhone on MTN Zambia

    • April 29, 2013 8:34 am

      We went with “angelo,” by popular consensus. And, very interestingly, it turns out that “malaika” isn’t an “Old Nsenga” word — it’s a loanword from Arabic, that probably came through Swahili and Tanzania. So we decided to use the word that everyone is familiar with, so that we actually communicate.

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