That’s That!


Yeah, I know. What kind of blog title is that? (Made you look, though!) Let me explain…

As a translator, language is what I work with. Of course you use language, as well. Difference is, I have to think about it all day long… every day.

What is language, anyway? Is language words? I mean, if you know what the words mean, do you know what the person is saying? And, if you translate the words, have you communicated the message?

Those aren’t trick questions, and the answer to each is “No!”

Here’s an example from a translation session the other day. One of my translation committee guys said to me, “Ahin.” (pronounced: ah HEEN). Get it? Oh yeah, that’s right. You don’t know Palawano. Okay, fair enough, I’ll tell you. Ahin is a very colloquialized version of atin or yatin which means “that.”

So… now do you get what he was saying to me? See? Knowing the meaning of the word, especially words like “this, that, here, there, you, me” doesn’t help. If I say “I,” I mean me but if you say “me” you mean you… got it? Or if I say “here,” I mean Palawan, but if you say “here,” you mean wherever it is you are when you say it.

So a big part of a word’s meaning is in the situation in which the word was uttered.

Alright, then. I’ll tell you the situation. I had a verse of Palawano Scripture up on the monitor and the guys were looking at it. I had the word et (uht) highlighted for their attention. This is one of our sort of locative/preposition type words. Sometimes this word goes in front of a certain type of pronoun, sometimes not. Even after 25 years with this language, I’m not always sure. (Thankfully, the Palawano guys are sure.)

Okay, so I pointed to the word et on the screen. I asked the guys, “Do we need this et here or not? Should we leave it or remove it?”

And Abil spoke up first and said, “Ahin.” That’s right. You learned this word. It means “that.” So Abil said, “That.” You know the word, and you know the situation in which he said it. But what did he mean? Which of the two options I gave was “that”? What was he telling me to do?

You see, language is much more than just words. It is even more than just words used in context. Language often carries meanings in very arbitrary ways… according to rules which are not universal, but which the speaker and hearer must both know. Of course, early on, I didn’t know these rules for Palawano! Even as I learned the words, I often did not understand.

And it goes the other way, too. As we translate God Word… it’s not just words. It’s a message. And we need to make sure it comes through loud and clear. For the Palawanos, it’s a matter of life and death… eternal life, in fact.

P.S. here’s the answer to the ahin question. Abil meant, “Leave it like that.” or “That is the way it should be.” So he was saying, “Option 1… leave it there.”

So by ahin (“that”), he meant, “The way it is as I can see it.” Had he wanted me to delete it, he would have said, “Even if you delete it.” Again, those words don’t quite give the full intent, unless you know the “rules.” It’s not polite for him to tell me (his “uncle”) anything in a direct imperative, “Remove it.” So he will soften it. But he doesn’t really mean, “It’s okay if you leave it, but even if you remove it, that’s okay.” He meant, “Remove it, Uncle Bill.”

And that’s just little words like et. Imagine grappling with the big stuff…. and pray for us as we labor to get God’s Word into Palawano.


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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