Changes in Translation

Translation work has changed.

In 1983, I started doing translation with a manual typewriter, and for backup, I used carbon paper (Google those, kids). Now I translate on a Mac Powerbook and I send an email attachment to back up my files.

I used to use these thick books called Exegetical Helps. Now I use software called Translator’s Workplace, which contains thousands of titles. Seachable. Lighting fast.

But there is still a use for those bulky old volumes…

…I set my flatscreen monitor on Volumes 1 and 2 of the on the Exegetical Helps on Luke. So with another thin volume, so the screen is level with my eyes. Just right.

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Translating With Needle And Thread

image (c) Fernando Matias photographyI just sewed up a puzzling translation issue.

We ran into a problem translating Jesus’ allegory about the eye of an needle. He said that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to let image (c) Twenty-Two Wordsgo of their selfish greed. No arguments there, right? (I know I have a very upscale readership, so… sorry, all you rich folks; I don’t mean to offend.)

Why would it be difficult to translate the ‘eye’ of a needle?

First of all, in Palawano, the ‘eye’ (mata) of a needle is its sharp tip. Metaphors are not universal across languages, you know. And for most of the people who speak this language, the eye (i.e. where the thread goes) is delang, which means ‘hole’ or ‘opening.’

But there is one region where the Palawanos do not use the word delang. It is vulgar to them and highly offensive. Think of a bodily orifice you might not mention in polite company. You simply would not say ‘the XXX of a needle.”

Okay, fine. I asked this group what word they used to describe the thread-hole of a needle. Ah, it’s the lesot (‘punture’) of the needle. Problem solved. But when I checked that with anyone else, this would mean a hole made by the needle in the cloth! Even when I asked, ‘Could this describe the eye of the needle?” they shook their heads in confusion and said no.

So now we were stuck. Should I use the vulgar word and spice things up for the minority group? Or should I use a word no one else understands?

Eventually a solution came to me. Palawano has specific verbs for most actions. And sure enough, there is a word tubo, which is used for the action of threading the thread (sarban) through the hole. (English is boring, and we “thread” the needle with the “thread,” using one word for both noun and verb.)

So we were able to use a form of the word that has the camel “threading itself” through the needle. No need to mention the eye/hole/puncture of the needle at all.

Sometimes, in translation, finding the right word is difficult. In fact, it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle…

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Good Storytelling: Insights From A Two-Year-Old

Believe it or not, but the dozen or so English phrases my almost-two-year-old grandson has mastered illustrate all the elements needed in the writing of good fiction.

I recently spent about a week with Max and got to hear him talk. He only has about twelve words/phrases total, plus a few family terms like “Mommy” and “Daddy.”

He can say:

  • There it is.
  • Oh yeah!
  • Rrrrr (motor noise)
  • Awwww!
  • No! (disagreement)
  • I don’t know.
  • Uh oh!
  • Oh no!
  • Ouch!
  • No-oooo. (smiling response to humorous teasing)
  • Oh!
  • There you go!

As  linguist, I have studied language structure and acquisition, both adult and child language acquisition. I have always been fascinated by the universals of how children learn language around the world.

As a writer, I have read many books on the craft of writing. And now here I am faced with the fact that children also learn the universal elements of story, as well as language. Linguistics and storytelling, already forming in the mind of a toddler. Is storytelling hard-wired?

My grandson had these concepts under his belt for quite a while. And then, they were the first phrases he learned to say, the first ideas he felt the need to communicate. So all day long, he walks around (runs, actually, more often than not), looks at the freeze frame of any event in his life, analyzes it and immediately gives it one of the twelve labels below. Like any good writer, he describes his life as a series of scenes, each with a storytelling purpose.

Granted, his terminology is unique, but if you don’t believe that these simple phrases do indeed illustrate the commonly-accepted elements of a good novel, go read something by Donald Maas or James Scott Bell.

Here’s his vocabulary list again as he would say them (I’ve added some consonants to a few of them, to make them recognizable), together with the corresponding elements of writing craft:

1.  There it is = Narrative Description

2. Oh da! (‘oh yeah!’) = Joy and Beauty

3. Rrrr = Action

4. Awwwww = Love and Relationships

5. No! = Conflict

6. I don’t know! = Tension and Suspense

7. Uh oh! = Trouble and Challenges for the Main Character

8. Oh no! = Tragedy and Challenges

9. Ouch! = Pain and Suffering

10. Nooooo *smiling* = Humor

11. Oh! = Resolution

12. There you go! = Good Ending

Well, there’s also Da (or Apa, i.e. ‘diaper’), and that would be, well, you know…

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Enough To Drive You Crazy?

I renewed my driver’s license yesterday here in Puerto Princesa. Maybe that doesn’t sound like a big deal to you. Perhaps you think there is no adventure involved in such a mundane, routine activity. Allow me to fill you in.

First of all, there is only one LTO (Land Transportation Office) on the entire island of Palawan. This verdant isle upon which we live is 450 km (270 miles long) and has close to a million inhabitants.

Rising early, we got there before the LTO opened, knowing the lines would be long. We ambitiously wanted to renew our truck’s registration and renew my driver’s license as a single errand. So “divide and conquer” was the strategy. My wife would work on registration.

We had to park down the street, since the LTO has no parking lot or parking spaces on the street. Yes, a motor vehicle registration office with no parking. Um…. never mind. We’ll just keep the story flowing here.

To get into the fenced-in, outdoor LTO waiting area, we wove our way between the dozens of fixers (freelance opportunists who will do your renewal for you, for a fee), careful not to walk into the “Do Not Use Fixers” signs. The seating was already full. Most of the crowd of fifty or so applicants sat in the section for first-time license applications. They were waiting to take a seminar and a test. We got in the line at the Customer Service desk. The patient man there functions something like the triage nurse at a hospital, the maître d’ of a fine restaurant or the concierge of a hotel.

My wife was sent across town to get smog certification. I was given an application form and directed to cross the street to an LTO-approved doctor for my “medical exam” and drug test. Passing the drug test was easy, since I don’t do drugs. But I did notice that they let me take my thermos into the rest room with me. It was only ice water, of course, but how did they know that? They also took my picture and did a scan of all ten fingers. All the more reason not to show up positive for drugs, I was thinking.

Back to the doctor, who had already filled out my medical exam. To save time, I suppose. I appreciated his concern for my tight schedule. I was weighed, and my height measured. That was done in metric, so being an American, I have no idea what it meant. What the heck is “189 centimeters,” anyway?

As for the rest of my medical report, the doctor had generously written: right and left limbs, normal. “Fit to drive.” (i.e. he looked up and noticed that I have two arms, one on each side.) Eyesight in both left and right eye, 20/20. (I’m guessing he was highly trained to ascertain this, simply by watching me fill out my LTO renewal application on the corner of his desk.) Hearing, normal. (Well, I did answer his questions, and I never once said, “Huh?”)

Back to the LTO, where my wife was in line again, smog check done and stencils of the engine and chassis numbers stapled to her paperwork, which included proof of current insurance, last year’s registration receipt (O.R. for Official Receipt), her application form and the C.R. (Certificate of Registration.) We always laugh at “CR,” since in everyday Filipino contexts that means “comfort room” (i.e. restroom). It was also interesting to note how many of the details on the CR used different terminology than what was used on the application form. Nothing like blending government documents with creative writing, I always say.

The concierge guy looked at my application, my drug test certification and my proof of health and two-armedness and gave me a number. When my number came up, I gave the papers to the woman at window 3 and sat back down to wait for my name to be called.

Meanwhile, my wife was called up to pay our truck registration fees. All the fees at the LTO come out to odd amounts like P372.84, but they don’t have coins to give you change. A perversely logical part of me deep inside asks, “Why not round off the charges to the nearest 5 pesos?” I’m sure there is a reason for not doing this.

This year, when she paid, they even had the stickers for our license plates and windshield. Cool! Last year, we never did get the 2011 stickers. We kept checking back at the LTO, but they were always “out of stock.”

Eventually, my name was called, my photo taken, and my digital signature recorded. Then I sat down until the cashier called me. Then, after paying the cashier, I was supposed to wait for my license from window 4 (“Releasing”), but there was a brown-out (that means the electric power went dead).

This was a good time to go across the street and have an iced latte and onion rings at Divine Sweets. They have back-up power, so their aircon was running. We ran into a Peace Corps friend, noted some other locals we often see around town, and enjoyed our little snack break.

When I returned to the LTO, the power was on and I was able to finish my renewal. So the system does work. See? They were able to give me my license.

Wait… you’re not acting suitably shocked. I said they gave me my license. This has only happened twice in 31 years. Usually they have to send the papers to the central office in Manila (well, Quezon City, actually). You are supposed to come back in six weeks for your actual license card and in the meantime, you carry the receipt in case you get pulled over. And the “six weeks” takes more like six months. Sometimes, your license has expired before you actually get the card. But twice the provincial LTO has been set up to produce the card right on site and so I could walk away, proudly holding my new license…

189 centimers. It says so right on the card.

And weight… ha. I’m not telling. Not after those yummy onion rings.

Posted in Life | 4 Comments

The Change… it is a’changin’

Okay, a quick post.

Something happened to me yesterday that would never happen in the USA. (Wow, you’d think I was, y’know, in another country or something!) I was shopping at the pharmacy. Well, actually it was a “generic” pharmacy (they only sell the cheaper, generic drugs) and it is called a botica. This one has friendly staff and we frequent it often. More and more often, to be honest, as we get more middle-aged and require more of its products to live, and to move without symptoms or complaints.

This botica is about 8 feet wide, basically one small room open to the street. I stood on the sidewalk, doing my transactions over the wooden counter. An employee, who recognizes us by now, waited on me. Behind her on the shelves sat an impressive array of all kinds of pills, out of the box but still in their original foil sheets, all organized in small, neatly-labelled plastic bins. Not quite Tupperware, but you get the idea.

I only bought one item yesterday, a tube of ointment. The price was 84 pesos ($2). I gave her P100, so my change would have been P16. But they only had 5-peso coins.

So she said, “I don’t have one peso, so can I just give you a Tylenol?”

This is not that unusual. When our kids were small, stores that didn’t have 5-centavo coins (which at the time could actually buy something) would offer us a piece of hard candy as change. The girls liked that system.

So, I went home with my purchase, plus three 5-peso coins and one tablet of Tylenol as my change.


Posted in Life | 2 Comments

Fun With Translation: Drinking Groups (huh?!)

A Group of Drinks (drinking group?)

Okay, before you raise your eyebrows TOO high over the title and picture for this post, read on…


Gather ’round, and let’s talk about gathering round!

Groups. How do languages express this concept in their unique ways? I just encountered a fun example.

I was working through a consultant check of our translation of Mark 6:39-40. This is part of the gospel story of Christ’s Feeding Of The Five Thousand. What we see here is reason #3,291 (okay, I made that number up) why literal translation does not work. It’s actually not really translation at all.

In verse 39 Christ tells his disciples to have the people “sit in groups.” Then in the next verse, the people “sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties.”

There are two problems with this. First of all, in the original Greek, a different word for “group” is used in each instance. So a stickler might ask if Christ’s command was actually fulfilled, since the people did not sit in the same kind of group he wanted (that’s ridiculous, of course).

But here’s the fun part. The first word for group is sumposion. This word is the ancestor of our word “symposium.” In the first century, its literal meaning was “drinking group.” Yes, you read that correctly. Drinking group. Few translators, no matter how literal their style, will have Christ commanding that. And no linguistics symposium I’ve ever been to involved drinking.

The second word used for “group” is prasia, which is based on the Greek word prason (leek). So it means something along the lines of “onion patch.”

And to give the idea of row upon row of leeks planted in garden patches, it is actually repeated as prasia-prasia, which is a Hebrew way of pluralizing, even though this is written in Greek! So it’s Onion! Onion! Sounds like a topping for Little Ceasar’s Pizza! Pizza!

So there you have it. Christ asked the people to sit in “drinking groups” and they sat in “onion patches” (Greek, pluralized using a Hebrew reduplication).

How much weirder can language get?


“Cocktails” – image by Royce B. McClure (used by permission)
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I was thinking…

Thanksgiving (but I'm wondering why the bird Woodstock is smiling)

Today is Thanksgiving. Always a good time to ponder and articulate what we are thankful for (although we certainly should not be thankful only one day a year).

It’s also my birthday. These two event always coincide whenever my birthday is on a Thursday.

So yeah, thankful. Lemme see…

On my 19th birthday I got a homemade card from a special friend/sister at church. Our first date was about that same time. We’ve been married for 35 and a half years now. I’m thankful for Donna, our life together for all these years, and for the fun and exciting hope and anticipation of what lies ahead.

On two previous birthdays (in decades past) I had an extremely “expectant” wife. I love being a father. My two daughters rank right up there on the list of things that make me thankful, and which fill me with joy. I miss them, being over here for the holidays, but I’m thankful I have daughters to miss… and that they miss me (you do miss me, don’t you guys? Yes? Whew!)

Now I have two amazing and beautiful grandchildren. To say I’m thankful for them is an understatement. There are no words to fully express it. Next birthday and holiday season, we’ll be with them!

A lot of musicians have been born on my birthday. William “Wild Bill” Davis (I have no idea who that is, but I’m stealing the name.) Scott Joplin, the rag time pianist (whose songs I love to play); Pete Best, the drummer the Beatles ditched just before they got famous; organist Lee Michaels (“Waaaow! You know what I mean!”) Even the drummer for the band Blondie was born on my birthday (The Tide Is High just started running in my head). Music. I love it. But I’m thankful I did not continue in my 1972 musical direction (let’s just say I was not committed to the Lord at that point). I almost went on tour as keyboardist for a band that was to open for a then-brand-new rock group. That top billing group went on to be extremely famous and (surprise surprise) completely destroy themselves. I can only imagine what would have happened to me to be on the road with the likes of them. God kept me from that path since it was a union tour and I was not yet 18.

The Beatles started recording the Sgt. Pepper album on my birthday in 1966. That’s completely irrelevant, but I still think it’s kinda cool. Fr. Junipero Serra, the Spanish Friar who founded my hometown of San Diego, was born on November 24, also. In 1713.

San Diego. I’m glad I was born in a city that many people wish they could even visit. But I digress. Back to thankfulness…

Freddie Mercury, (vocalist for Queen – whatever else you might think of him, he was an amazing singer), died on my birthday in 1991, one day after admitting he had AIDS. He made at least a few bad choices in his life, with irrevocable consequences. I’m thankful that God has many times stopped me from adding to my list of bad choices, and other times has graciously saved me from the consequences I deserved.

I’m thankful to know the Lord, and by being thankful for all of the above, I mean to say I give thanks to Him. Every good and perfect gift comes from him.

And I’m thankful to be able to translate his Word, and that we are now looking at the end of that project before my next birthday. We hope to submit the Palawano New Testament for publication around September 2012.

It’s good to remember. And to look ahead. And to be thankful.

Posted in I Was Thinking... | 2 Comments

Proof-Reading is Exciting? (Guest Post)

Proof-reading is Exciting?

I thought I would share a post from my favorite blogger (my wife Donna!), as it explains some of the exciting progress we’re seeing in these finals months of translating the Palawano New Testament. Check out her blog Farthest Oceans, if you want to read more of Donna’s thoughts.

Proof-reading. Who would think it could make a person so happy? But that’s how I felt the other day as I was proof-reading Paul’s Epistle to the Romans in SW Palawano.

This is so cool, I thought. This is one of the last steps in the long, long process of putting God’s Word into the hands of the Palawano people. I got so excited, I had a hard time sitting still and actually doing the proof-reading.

Proof-reading means we have a copy that is almost far enough along to send to the printer.

First I sat down with my notes from the recording step. You can see them below. A couple of months ago, when I did that step, reading the verses to my translation helper several times over, I noted a few little typos along the way, and circled them as I went. Not all of the typos I found during that step of the procedure were still there in the copy Bill sent me to proof-read. Some of them he had caught along the way. Some of the passages had been re-worked and changed a little bit. But a few remained. Even a Palawano computer spell checker can’t catch everything. For example, bo and ba are both legitimate Palawano words. One means ‘and’ and one means ‘if’. Just like in English, you can’t eliminate the need for a human touch in a final proof-reading.

 After I finished checking against my recording notes, I next slowly read through the Palawano Word document on the computer. Carefully looking at each word, each heading, each verse number.

Some things I found I could flag right away. It may have been an extra space in the verse number. A word that didn’t get capitalized in a heading. A few of these I flagged as a question – “Is this right?” I don’t know Palawano perfectly, so when I see a word I don’t know, is it because it’s wrong, or is it just a word I’m not familiar with?

Bill has set all kinds of editing styles in Word for us to use to flag things on our computer copies of translation documents. He’s also developed a file-naming system for us to keep track of the different copies of each document as they goes back and forth through the various procedures.

Then I email the proof-read copy to Bill, so he has it on his computer. Even though we’re in the same house. Next Bill will process my suggestions and questions. Then we’ll print out clean copies for some of the Palawanos to read through. They will probably catch a few things, too.

We are getting closer! There have been times through the years I thought we would never get this job done. But by God’s grace, and with His help, and the help of many, many, many others, we are almost there. Proof-reading is the proof of that.

Posted in Missionary Work | 2 Comments

Mites and Farthings

I was thinking…

Actually, what I was thinking was, “What were they thinking?!”

Today, while doing some research on the value of the coins in Mark 12:42 (i.e. the “widow’s mites”), I ran across this from the Aramaic Bible in Plain English:

And one poor widow came and cast in two minas that were shemonas.

Minas. Shemonas. Nope. Can’t have much “plainer” English than that!

And they weren’t even minas. A mina was a good bit of money. These coins were leptons.

Meanwhile, last year someone found an old Roman coin in the UK which was currently valued at over a million dollars. Should the widow have hung on to those two leptons for her heirs?


Posted in I Was Thinking... | 3 Comments

Palawan Flu – A Ray of Hope?


Many people are not aware, but malaria is a disease that claims over 800,000 lives a year worldwide, most of those being children and infants.

In areas where the disease is endemic, every family can name members whose lives were claimed by malaria.

It’s a horrible and unavoidable fact of life, compounded by poverty, ignorance and the inaccessibility of clinics and medicines for those who live in the remote areas which are most affected.

While Sub-Saharan Africa is where the biggest numbers are, right here on Palawan malaria is the #1 health issue Palawanos and other upland people groups face. Everyone gets malaria. Their babies die of malaria. Their spouses die of malaria. And when old people (for Palawanos, read: over 50) die, it was often malaria that finally finished them off. And yes, expat missionaries and their children get malaria, too.

Worldwide Malaria Distribution

Malaria is no joke. Mosquito-borne parasites destroy your blood. But to help deal with the constant threat, we missionaries have indulged in a bit of humor noir and called it “Palawan Flu” whenever we come down with the all-too-common disease.

Burst Red Bloods Cells

Malaria is actually more common than the flu here. And milder cases do indeed have flu-like symptoms (headache, body ache, fever, chills, nausea).

But the malaria headache can often progress to a “brain-cancer” level of pain, and the chills indicate that most of the victim’s red blood cells (RBCs) have burst, which can lead to a fatal degree of anemia.

And there are always the possible complications of cerebral malaria, where husks of burst RBCs clog up the capillaries in the brain and cause dementia or death, or the equally dreaded blackwater fever, where hemoglobin from destroyed RBCs leaks into the blood and darkens the urine. Fatal kidney failure often ensues. Yes, malaria is no joke.

Life Cycle of Malaria

There has never been a vaccine for malaria. It’s difficult to create a vaccine for a parasite, especially one like malaria with multiple distinct stages in its life cycle. And sadly, on at least one occasion, an executive absconded with millions of dollars of desperately needed grant money, effectively shutting down the research program that was counting on those funds.

But now, apparently, there is a glimmer of hope. A vaccine has been tested in Africa with an initial success rate of 50% reduction in malaria cases for the children who were vaccinated. The goal is 100% effectiveness, but no one would complain too much if we were able to reduce the annual number of deaths to 400,000 from the current 800,000. GlaxoSmithKline and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have teamed up and invested hundreds of millions of dollars in producing and testing this new vaccine. Thanks to the Gates for using some of their wealth for this worthy cause.

Let’s all pray for continued success in this research endeavor.

Lives are at stake.

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