This is the third part of a series of posts about the translation, launch and impact of the Scriptures in the Mankanya language of Senegal. The story is told by Maggie Gaved, a translation advisor for the project.
Where did you start translating? Which books are the hardest?
Abbé Samson, a Mankanya man on the organising committee for the launch, and Maggie Gaved, the exegete on the project
When I first started working with the Mankanya translation association, the monk who had begun the work and the group he had worked with had just published an experimental version of the four Gospels. That had taken the first five years of translation work. When I joined the team, we knew the Gospels would need to be revised, but we felt it would be better to start to work on something different; revising them immediately could be discouraging after five years’ work!
We worked first on Acts because it’s written as a simple narrative or story. It’s easier to translate narrative than books like Paul’s letters. Because Acts and Luke were written by the same person, having done Acts it seemed sensible to revise Luke next, so that we could publish both of them in one book. We then worked on the other Gospels as well as the book of James – James is one of the simplest letters to translate.
Gradually we worked our way through the other letters, finishing with the two letters to the Corinthians. Those are the hardest. Paul’s way of expressing himself is very complicated in all his letters, but particularly so in Corinthians. He has very complicated sentences where he tries to explain what depends on what. He also sometimes gets carried away on tangents.
Lots of people think that Revelation would be the hardest, but actually, as one consultant said to us, ‘Because no one really understands the interpretation of Revelation, when you are translating, you are translating the pictures and the images that John saw. You’re not giving an explanation of them. As long as you can find words for dragons and such things, it’s not that hard to translate.’ Finding ways of translating the colours and the jewels was the biggest challenge.
Why translate the Old Testament?
We did also translate some parts of the Old Testament. If you don’t have the Old Testament, the need for the New Testament isn’t obvious. Why would you need a saviour if you don’t have the Fall? In Africa particularly, Genesis is something that people can relate to very well. It’s much closer to their way of life than it is to our way of life in the West, so we felt it was important to translate Genesis.
We were also encouraged to do some other parts of the Old Testament that would help with the understanding of the New Testament: parts of Leviticus to explain the sacrificial system and why sin is so serious; and Exodus to explain the Passover.
People working with Wycliffe translate Scriptures so that other churches and missions can use them, and in Senegal, we knew that the Catholic Church would want to use the Scriptures. The Church has readings every week that are set down. It was important to have as many of those readings translated as possible, because that’s the main way Mankanya people will hear the Scriptures. Some American missionaries also visit the people regularly; they have a chronological approach to telling stories about the Bible, starting with creation and the fall, so it’s important to have those Scriptures translated for them to base the teaching on.
We looked at all those different needs and tried to come up with a plan of the most important parts to translate. We did the whole of Genesis, half of Exodus and parts of Leviticus. We did Jonah and Ruth too as they were easy stories. We also did some Psalms, partly because one is read every Sunday in Catholic churches. The Charismatic Catholics told us how important the Psalms were to them to use when they are worshipping. Most Western Christians have Psalms that are important to them too. We had a workshop with a translation consultant, an expert in Hebrew culture, and with a colleague who’s studied musical instruments. We translated about 30 Psalms and tried to do them in the style of Mankanya poetry – to give the same impact that Hebrew poetry would give but in a Mankanya way. A couple of those Psalms were set to music so they could be used in the way they were originally intended.
Are there any words that are difficult to translate into Mankanya?
Reading the Genesis-NT at the launch
It took several years to work out how to translate prophet into Mankanya. At first, it was suggested that we use a word that means ‘someone who says what’s in the future’; we explained – particularly in the Old Testament – that’s not what a prophet is, so the term wouldn’t work for both the New and the Old Testaments. Our colleagues suggested an expression that literally is ‘the sent one’; when the king needs to get a message to people, he would send ‘the sent one’ to people to give the message. That seemed to fit the idea of someone who has a message from God. But we then found that for some people, it was easily confused with ‘apostle’, even with ‘angel’. After more discussion, the next suggestion was a word that literally means ‘spokesperson’ or ‘the one who speaks for…’, so we came up with the expression ‘the one who speaks for God’. That seems to have the right meaning.
Another interesting challenge was how we were going to translate the Holy Scriptures. The obvious way seemed to be literally, so to have ‘sacred writings’. When we were testing the term with a group of people, a woman turned around and said, ‘That means I can’t touch it.’ Often sacred things are taboo; in fact, the Mankanya word for ‘sacred’ is also the word for ‘taboo’. For her that it was sacred meant it couldn’t be touched. We decided that wasn’t a good way to translate ‘Scriptures’! What we suggested was ‘God’s book’, and that’s what’s printed on the front of the New Testament and Genesis, and what we use in the New Testament, when Jesus says, ‘It says in the Scriptures…’ or Paul says ‘It says in the Scriptures…’
Next week, Maggie talks about dedication day – the launch ceremony of the Mankanya Genesis and New Testament book.
Read the previous posts in this series: