Fronting the Background

Yet More Fun With Translation

We’ve been working on translating Acts for some weeks now. One of the really interesting aspects of translating the book of Acts has been what we are learning about Palawano language.
Donna records someone retelling the stories, and I discuss the recordings with my translation committee of five or six Palawano guys to decide how we might revise the draft to have, among other things, a clearer, more natural Palawano discourse structure.


“Discourse” refers to how a language organizes information when you talk or write longer stretches. For example a story is not simply a string of sentences coming one after another. You have to keep track of participants, props and locations in the story, clarify who says what to whom, show the logical connection between different statements, etc.

Here’s a very simple example of what I mean:

1. STRING OF SENTENCES
John came home. John was hungry. John got some pizza out of the fridge. John warmed up the pizza. John ate the pizza.

2. ORGANIZED AS DISCOURSE
John was hungry when he came home. So he got some pizza out of the fridge, warmed it up and ate it.

Which do you like better… #1 or #2? (If you said #2, you may stop reading now, ha ha.) But what’s different about these two versions? For one thing, it’s not natural to say “John” in every single sentence. Well, in Hebrew it would be. But in English, after the first instance, you can keep track of him by saying “he” and not sound so annoyingly redundant. Also, by adding “so,” it shows that his hunger was the reason for John’s whole “pizza warming incident.” And again, once you mention the pizza, it’s more natural to refer back to it as simply “it.” And lastly, you will notice that five short choppy sentences got combined into 2 longer, more complex sentences. That’s good English story telling, and it’s what an English-speaking reader needs in order to follow the story… and for the story to avoid sounding like a preschool primer!
Each language has various devices for doing all these kinds of functions. But, of course (since Babel, at least!), each language is unique and uses devices which are quite different from other languages.

Palawano has its own ways of performing all these discourse tasks, and let me tell you… the devices which Palawano uses are nothing like English.

For example, sentence length… English loves long, complex sentences. Palawano almost always has shorter sentences with fewer elements. But while Palawano may have a higher number of sentences, each with fewer words, there is great complexity in Palawano at the word level. Verb prefixes and suffixes do complex things that run circles around English -s, -ed and -ing.

Keeping dialogue straight… Palawano needs to have the equivalent of “he said,” in every single sentence (as long as “he” is still talking)! Otherwise, the listener assumes that the quote has ended. Bill said, “And so,” he said, “this makes the translation sound rather different. Because English,” he said, “doesn’t do this. In fact,” he said, “if you wrote English like this, it would,” he said, “drive us nuts!”

In tracking participants… English starts off with John, then switches to “he… his… him.” Palawano starts off with John (well, maybe Juan) then switches to…. nothing! Most sentences after that first introduction will say neither “Juan” nor “he.” Rather, a suffix on the verb shows that we’re still talking about Juan, and ’nuff said!

I didn’t mean to wax so grammatical on you here, but when you’re a translator, this is fascinating stuff. But it’s also vital. If we are to make the message of God’s word clear, we have to follow the structural rules of Palawano.

FRONTING THE BACKGROUND
Okay, now on to my title (remember the title?)
Another important aspect of discourse is how a language makes it clear what is the theme line of the story vs. the background information. And how is the main point indicated?
Every story (including Luke’s account in the Acts of the Apostles) has a main theme line. And there will also be supporting, background information. Ah, but how does each language distinguish the two? That’s the question. English allows for long complex sentences with subtle signals of background. For the purpose of illustration, I will make up a little “pseudo-verse” for you:

ENGLISH:
“Once Paul arrived in Antioch, he taught the believers there about the Kingdom of God after had dropped Timothy off at the library and grabbed a sandwich at Subway.”

PALAWANO:
“Paul, when he reached Antioch, upon arriving there, after he had dropped Timothy off at the library, after he had grabbed a sandwich at Subway, taught the believers there about the Kingdom of God.”

Now that’s a bit exaggerated, but not too much. Let’s call it poetic license to make a point. What’s the “theme line” here? There are four events: arrived, dropped off, grabbed, taught. But what’s the important core event of this long English sentence?
= Paul taught the believers about the Kingdom of God.
But notice how that is embedded in the middle of the English sentence.

But in Palawano, to show that all the rest is background (and not the main focus), you front each piece with a pause after it (see all the commas). The “main point” comes last… in one concise, unbroken unit.

Now, of course you can write a long Palawano sentence to follow the same order of the English. Theoretically, at least. But it would not be clear. The pieces of the puzzle would be there, but some would be upside down, some would be backwards, and others would be overlapping so that parts were hidden. The main point of would be lost in the jumble. Very possibly, “grabbing a sandwich” would be understood to be the main point, since that clause came last.
You see, in Palawano you have to “Front the Background.”

And so you guys who are reading, now that you’ve read this, since you’ve learned a little more about what we face when doing translation, and as you notice that I’m fronting the background here, please pray for us that we will have wisdom to communicate God’s message clearly.
And pray particularly that the Palawanos will get the main point.
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About billdavisthoughts

From San Diego, CA. I've been a missionary and Bible translator in the Philippines for over 30 years and have travelled as a language learning consultant to 15 countries. I play piano and guitar. I write, read voraciously and love to work on word puzzles. Married for 35 years, we have two daughters and two grandchildren.
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