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Thursday, August 07, 2008

Do not shoot talk nothing at people that they made bad skin so they must receive heavy.

The title of this post is a back-translation from the the Goiniri Onnele language of Papua New Guinea. The phrase in question is from Luke 6:37, “Do not condemn.” Zephyr at ΑΓΑΠΗΣΕΙΣ is beginning a series of posts discussing his experience checking translations done in Papua New Guinea. What’s so fascinating about his articles is how Papua New Guinean languages are so different from Greek and require different strategies for communicating information. For example, Onnele verbs lack a true passive, require an object, and more which makes it impossible to say something like “lest you be condemned.” Instead you have to say something like, “lest others say that you should be accused for doing wrong.” While Onnele lacks a passive, I assume that the grammar has a way of backgrounding a subject in order to highlight an object which is one of the functions of passivization.

The term for sin is “bad skin.” Reading Zephyr’s posts reminds me why I got into Bible translation in the first place. Being forced to express Biblical ideas in another language forces you to see these ideas in new ways that are less tied to your native language. And in the process, Biblical concepts begin to impact culture in ways that were never possible when they only had access to the Scriptures in a trade language.

Zephyr has promised a long series if there is interest. Here are the first two posts:

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At Thu Aug 07, 05:48:00 PM, OpenID agaphseis said...

David, thanks for commenting on my post. You assume correctly that the Onnele grammar includes a way of backgrounding a subject in order to highlight an object. There are actually a number of ways.

One strategy, which is actually quite common in both Austronesian and Papuan languages of PNG, is to use the plural 3rd person pronoun (‘they’) as the subject. This can often be done even if the true (or unknown) subject is only a single individual. We have done this in some places in Luke for supposed “divine passives.” Here in Luke 6:37, however, this strategy would most certainly give the meaning of other people not judging/condemning the person who does not judge/condemn. We felt strongly--the immediate context makes it clear--that this is talking about divine judgment/condemnation.

Another strategy would simply be to use a different verb that focuses on the receiving of the action. In this verse, however, we could not find a way to get the right sense of ‘judging’ and ‘condemning’ without including verbs that require God as the subject.

Onnele languages can also sometimes front the object at the beginning of the sentence. Onnele does not follow a super strict word order. They can state the object and then make a statement about it. Topic – comment.


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