I am in Jos, Nigeria for an Old Testament workshop on biblical law at the Nigeria Bible Translation Trust. We have two more weeks to go.

The first week has been eventful as we have had lectures each morning, given by Scott Nikaido, Anne Kompaore, and me. We discussed some introductory material on the first day and then began looking at texts after that. We spent the first week focusing on the Ten Commandments and the Book of the Covenant (Ex 20-23). Our lectures have ranged in topic depending on the presenter. Scott is very knowledgable on background issues related to the Ancient Near Eastern law codes. Anne Kompaore is the translator among the three of us, so she focused on specific translation and linguistic problems that arose in her texts. I focused on the Hebrew text I was covering and worked through my chapter, showing how we get from the Hebrew text to an English translation.

After our morning sessions we have been breaking into small discussion groups to allow the participants to ask questions and discuss particular points of interest. My group on Friday was particularly interesting to me. In the morning session I had been covering Exodus 23, which included a description of three annual feasts. In our group I asked the translators how they have been translating matzot, the unleavened bread used in the first feast. Most of them responded in their local language with some sort of phrase that included bread and indicated that the bread had no yeast. I then asked if any of them had bread in their culture. “Oh, sure,” they all responded. Good. So they know what bread is. “And does your bread have yeast in it?” “Oh, yes, yes. We use yeast in our bread.” “Well, okay, then. Do any of you have bread with no yeast in it?” A few of them thought for a moment, and then one older man to my right said with a big smile, “Yes, we make a type of bread with no yeast.” “And what do you call it in your language?” He answered with a word that sounded to me like mpenpen. “Do you suppose,” I continued, “that you could use mpenpen to translate matzot?” All the men looked at one another. “No, we already have a phrase ‘bread without yeast’.” I then went on to explain that in English we have no bread without yeast. So when we come the word matzot we can’t translate the word. We have two options. We could simply transliterate it and call it matzot. But then we would still have to explain to people what that was. The other option is to explain in the translation what matzot is. The second option is what the English Bible tradition has done by using the phrase unleavened bread. The problem, however, is that these Nigerian translators, at least in some cases, do not have the same problem we do in English. They have bread with no yeast, and they have a perfectly good word for it: mpenpen. But they were reluctant to use it because they had a tendency to work from an English translation as a base text. They were creating unneeded difficulties for themselves because instead of seeing the Hebrew and finding the right translation in their own language, they were following the English, which has to use explanations and figures of speech that are not in the Hebrew language. They were trying to translate our problem, rather than translating the text.

After we talked for a few minutes, a few of the men got very excited and animated. (Our group was called down at one point because our spirited discussion drowned out the work of the other groups!) They began to explain to one another how they could use their own words rather than following the English words. There was a satisfaction, I think, both in the fact that they discovered a simpler way to translate the text, and also that their languages were rich enough to be able to translate the Bible more easily and naturally than English could.

This first week has been a great education for me as I learn to identify translation problems. I also have had to learn to ask questions properly. I have been working in our afternoon sessions with the Gokana translation team. The team consists of two Nigerian translators from the Gokana people group and an American consultant. We were checking their translation of the Ten Commandments on my first day with them. I noticed something odd in the last commandment, “You shall not covet . . .” There was an odd combination of words about an eye and a fire. I brought it to the consultant’s attention. “Oh, yes, that is a good question,” he said. “What does that phrase mean there?” One of the translators began to work through it, but I thought I would cut to the chase, and asked, “Does it mean coveting?” Before the translator could answer me, the consultant interrupted and said, “No, we don’t do it that way. Let me try this.” He then began to work with the translator to apply his phrase in various situations to see what his phrase meant. We fianlly figured out that his phrase, as he translated it into English, was to have a “burning eye.” But when we explored various scenarios, we discovered that to have a burning eye meant you had something that you wanted to protect. You didn’t want anyone else to have it. Well that was the opposite of what we were trying to communicate with “You shall not covet.”

The other translator brought up a related idea. You can have “a burning heart” as well as a “burning eye.” He suggested perhaps that was the better option. The translators became frustrated at this point, because at this level of analysis it is difficult to figure out how one uses language naturally. The dissection kills the patient, so to speak. Finally, the first translator took out his phone and called a Gokana friend back home. The consultant sat back and looked pleased. Now we were getting somewhere. When his friend got on the phone, they had a brief discussion about what a “burning eye” and a “burning heart” meant. The first meant that you wanted something. The second could be used either way, for something you want or for something you wanted to protect. So, as it turned out, they had the proper translation.

That lesson taught me several things. First, you have to ask the right questions. If the translator had been allowed to answer my first question and say, “Yes, it means to covet.” We would not have had the whole discussion. As it was, we learned quite a bit about those figures of speech and perhaps a better way to translate a nearby text, “I am a jealous God.” God has a burning heart in that case. Second, I learned that translatinn and translation checking is hard work. It is time consuming and must be done carefully. But it must be done. I will share more about that later.

Week One has gone well. Pray that Week Two goes as well or better. Blessings.