Knives, Non-Prisoners, and the Nuances of Language

We all know how to speak our own language and intuitively understand the various nuances of our words. Though mother-tongue translators have this expertise in their language, there are still times when exact meanings require careful thought. As translation consultants check translations with the national teams, sometimes the translators will find and fix problematic wording in their own drafts that the consultant would not have recognized. In one of our Old Testament projects, we came to Genesis 37, where Jacob laments that his son Joseph has been "torn to pieces" by a wild animal. In his draft of this verse, our translator, trying to be as literal as possible, had used a word meaning something like "piece by piece" along with the word for "tear." This seemed like a good translation to me. However, when the translation team read this verse, they began discussing this word among themselves. Eventually they explained that they could not use their "piece by piece" word in this context, because this is the function of a knife! Because animals could not tear something this way, the wording was changed to be more accurate and natural in this language.

Even in English, we may not always realize some of the various complexities of words, especially the little function words that show relationships. In chapter 40, we came to the story where the butler and baker were "put in custody" or "confined as prisoners." The translator here tried to translate literally this second wording. However, when he gave the meaning, he went on to explain, "This means they were not really prisoners." This confusion comes down to that little word "as." We know how to use this word, but do we realize how many different meanings it may have? In this case, the translator had understood the English word "as" as he had in many other places, to mean "like." Therefore, the idea was that these men were confined like, or similar to, prisoners. However, here the correct nuance is more of a "to be" idea, which is a different word in the language in which we were working. It was easy for us to overlook the different meanings of this one word in English, not realizing that it is translated in various ways in other languages.

While a non-native speaker may not have learned all the possible nuances of a word, a native speaker may just not be aware of them all, and thus both translator and consultant can run into unexpected misunderstandings in translation, whether in the Greek, Hebrew, English, or the language into which the text is being translated. However, many words are much more straightforward in translations, and encountering situations like these can help us be more alert to complications.

Languages can be complicated and nuanced, as words with various meanings relate to each other in various ways. Yet, it is that very fact which allows for communication and understanding of the deep truths of Scripture, in any and every language. Therefore, we can all praise God for His gift of language and communication, while praying for His wisdom to understand and communicate His truth clearly.