Many people think they know that the people who live in the far north of Alaska and Canada have a phenomenal number of words for ‘snow’. This is actually a myth, but the principal it’s based on – that people who deal with something a lot tend to have more, specific words for it – is true. In Bible translation, this problem comes up a lot!
Ben and Jeannette Gerth work in Tanzania with the Jita people, who are translating the book of Jonah. The translators saw this problem: what’s the right word for ‘storm’?
Jonah 1:4‘The LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest.’ The Jita translators were struggling with the right Jita word to translate ‘tempest’. They knew that many Jita people are fishermen and would therefore have various terms for storms at sea. Therefore, they decided to ask the community. The testers said they use [rikubuji] for a crazy gust of wind and [echiiwure] for a fierce wind that lasts for a while. The translators decided to use [echiiwure].
The translation team faced the same problem with the plant that grew and died at the end of Jonah’s account. Read about that problem on the Gerth’s blog.
The translation of Jonah reminded Ben and Jeannette of how important Bible translation is for the Jita people:
Jonah 4:2 ‘I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful.’ The Jita translators have been struggling for a long time finding the right Jita word for ‘grace’. Grace is the unmerited favor of God toward man, an undeserved gift from God to man. That concept is not readily accessible in Jita culture (another reason why they need Scripture!). We asked the community testers and the testers suggested [obhwitiriranya] which seems to fit very well.