Bible translation isn’t as simple as translating word-for-word from one language into another. Translators must go beyond the literal words of a Scripture passage to the meaning they’re meant to convey. Then they must figure out how best to communicate this meaning into the language of their culture.
Recently, the Pokomo team wrestled with translation troubles regarding kinship terms. Kinship is a vital aspect of the Pokomo culture and their language reflects this through a rich vocabulary of kinship terms, which ironically caused their dilemmas.
For example, in English, younger or older sisters of one’s father or mother would each be called, ‘Aunt,’ as would the wife of a mother or father’s brother. There’s just one term for them all. In Pokomo, the older sister of one’s mother is called, kukuu, and the younger sister is tutu. A father’s sister is odze. There are also different terms for the various uncles in the family. Even twins are referred to by which one was born first or second.
So when it came time to draft Leviticus 25:49, “An uncle or a cousin or any blood relative in their clan may redeem them,” the Pokomo translators were stumped. They also struggled with translating 1 Samuel 10:14, “Now Saul’s uncle asked him and his servant, “Where have you been?”
The Leviticus passage was most simply resolved, as the translators just included both terms for the older and younger uncle, since this verse is making the point that any blood relative can redeem. But the 1 Samuel verse was more perplexing. Was it Saul’s mother’s older or younger brother? Or perhaps it was their father’s older or younger brother.
Technical advisor Edward explains that this is just one example of translation difficulties they deal with. But he goes on to say, “We are consoled by the fact that these challenges are another display of God’s creativity in the creation of language. We serve a God of diversity, but are united by One Spirit — the Spirit of Truth.”