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Sunday, July 31, 2005

Psalm 23 Misunderstood

Here is some lighter relief after my rather heavy posting yesterday:

A recent list discussion was about how the biblical words for "shepherd" had been translated into various languages, especially where there are various words for various kinds of shepherd with various social roles. This reminded me that I had read a few years ago (I think it was in a UBS publication) of how somewhere in southern Africa a translation of Psalm 23 into a local language had been misunderstood. Here I reconstruct from memory part of how this misinterpretation had been translated back into English:
The Lord is the lowly servant who looks after my sheep, but I am a rich man. [When we go hunting together], he makes me sleep out in the open pasture land, and he leads me to deserted waterholes. ...
It seems that the start of the psalm had conjured up quite the wrong scenario, and the reader had followed this scenario right through the psalm. This may sound like a humorous story, but I fear that it was what a published translation really meant to someone.

The lesson for translators is to check carefully what translations mean to their target audiences, which probably requires field testing. This example can also serve as an additional illustration for the last part of my posting yesterday Relevance Theory: how relevant for Bible translation?, for it shows how easily a misunderstanding in line with local cultural expectations can take root in the audience's mind, unless it is clearly ruled out within the Bible text itself.

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