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Linguistic, Historical and Cultural Adjustments in Luke 7

September 13, 2013

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.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Steve Lawrenz permalink
    September 13, 2013 9:49 pm

    Saturday, September 14, 2013.

    Dear Chris,

    I read this with interest. Thank you for sharing it with us.

    Steve Lawrenz, Blantyre, Malawi.

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