What I Lost in the Translation

By Ker, David | The Ecumenical Review, October 2008 | Go to article overview

What I Lost in the Translation


Ker, David, The Ecumenical Review


Any linguist knows that interpretation of a word or phrase into another language may introduce unintended meanings. The same is true when one's dreams are translated into reality.

I remember very clearly the first time I saw the image which was to fuel my dreams and inspire my labours for the next decade. It was a display put up in the Northwest Christian College cafeteria in 1992 by a representative of Wycliffe Bible Translators. It showed a very eager and well-scrubbed young man: white, blond, with a slightly academic air, seated at a rustic table in what looked like the set of Gilligan's Island. Next to him sat an imposing black man adorned in the feathers of tropical birds, and possibly with a bone in his nose. He had the regal demeanour of Zeus. These two figures, the earnest white boy and the proto-idealized savage, sat in intense concentration looking at a Bible. The bamboo desk was covered with loose pieces of paper undoubtedly recording highly original linguistic and theological scribblings.

I wanted to be that white boy. My next pair of glasses was going to be round and wire-rimmed. And I began reading stories of Papua New Guinea, losing myself in rustic fantasies of acquiring a bizarre language spoken by people who referred to humans as "long pigs". Now, looking back, I see that the masterful image in this advertisement was perfectly designed to weave a spell over naive waifs like myself, holding out hope that one day we too would be sitting at a bamboo desk pondering deep spiritual truths with a noble savage.

Eventually, I learned that reality was more nuanced than that. Seven years later, I at last got to sit down at the translator's desk; I found myself in Africa, surrounded by pastors dressed in suits and ties. We were meeting in a dusty church building next to a busy street where the noises of traffic and the bustle of urban Africa drowned out our conversation. And those irritating sparrows, flying in the rafters with their incessant screeching! This was not the leafy idyll I had hoped for.

Even if the reality didn't match the marketing, it was richer in many ways. African culture was a shock. Life seemed to be comprised of three activities: standing in line, attending funerals and eating nsima. Nsima, known variously by the names sadza, ugali and pap throughout our region of Africa, was a pasty and scalding hot concoction made from white corn flour of startling purity and zero nutritional value. Somehow you were supposed to grab a chunk of this burning stuff, knead it earnestly in your palm for several seconds and then scoop up some goo out of a shared dish and pop the whole thing into your mouth. No wonder children are malnourished. Unless your fingertips are hardened by years of living outdoors, there's no way to pick this stuff up. But now, after a decade of faltering attempts, I actually enjoy eating nsima, especially the rough kind eaten with half-cooked salted fish favoured by men living rough in the bush.

And that was the surprising thing to me as I continued my mission in Africa. I had begun my journey hoping to be that geeky white guy with the round glasses. But the longer I stayed, the more I wanted to become like that exotic black man. For a while I even moved our entire family with four children into a mud hut with a grass roof, a dwelling so small that the entire interior was taken up by a web of mosquito nets covering our flimsy mattresses. I memorized Nyungwe proverbs even when I couldn't for the life of me understand what they meant. And I began to suspect that the awful sermons I heard in the tin-roof churches were not so much an example of uneducated preachers but rather of contextualized truth. The more I translated, the less sure I was concerning that truth. No, I didn't start out a Bible thumper and end up a cynical atheist. But I did find myself in uncomfortable situations when I had to critique an African translation of a biblical text regarding which experts disagreed as to the original meaning. …

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