Froggers of Men


You know the Bible verse, come on. You don’t? Really? “Follow me and I will make you froggers of men”?? Never heard of that one?

Well, okay. I though you might find it interesting to look at yet another of the kind of challenges Bible translators face.

The famous verse is really, “Follow me and I will make you FISHERS of men.” So what’s so hard about that? Well, for one thing this is figurative language. The Lord Jesus didn’t really mean that the disciples would be drawing people out of water using nets or baited hooks.

With figurative language you run into a number of potential problems. What is the “point of comparison” that the Lord is making between fishing (for fish) and evangelistic ministry, which he was going to give to his disciples? Lemme see… people catch fish to kill and eat them. That it? Uh… no. People catch fish for a living… they catch ’em, let ’em suffocate in the bottom of boat and them sell ’em in order to make money. Hmmm… hope not.

So what did the Lord mean? There are a number of possible good points of comparison. For one thing, what did those disciples previously do? Fishing. What did they think was the most important way to spend their lives? Fishing. Now the Lord was going to commission them to live a different sort of life with a very different, and more eternally significant purpose: bringing men to him. Sure, there’s a vague analogy of using the net and “drawing men” to the Lord, but we really can’t stretch that too far. For one thing, fish have no choice; if they get encircled with the net, they’re caught. But when men hear the gospel (the net?) they often walk away, refusing to believe.

Sometimes speakers of another language may not easily get the point of a figure like this. They just may not use that kind of verbal illustration, and so they will rummage around in their mind for “what does this mean?” and could come up with something like the “catch to eat” analogy, or something worse. Or they might have their own figurative use for “catch men in a net like fish,” and it might always have a negative connotation like deceiving them with a “net” of lies. Yikes! So to communicate clearly, the point of the figure might have to be made explicit.

But back to “Froggers of Men.” What’s that all about? Well, I have a couple friends who work in Indonesia in the West Papua region. They are translating some of the Gospels and Acts right now and they ran into a different sort of problem. The wife, who was translating this passage, wrote me and asked for my thoughts. You see, their people don’t fish with nets. They’ve never seen or heard of a fishing net. So… problem number one. Secondly, this Papuan language has only one generic word for “river-dwelling things,” which includes both fish and FROGS. There is one word used for “gathering” or “catching” frogs and fish, but it would make no sense if used for people. And what if a language with a single fish/frog word only caught them with spears instead of nets? “Follow me and I will have you spear people like frogs”?? So you see the challenge a simple verse can present.

Another “simple” expression caused fits for my friends in Papua, and for us here on Palawan, as well. When Luke wrote in Acts that Simon Peter went to Joppa and stayed with Simon the tanner… he had no idea he would be causing Bible translators problems over 2,000 years later!

The problem: What’s a tanner?

For us on Palawan, no one “tans” skins or hides. They’ve actually never heard of doing that, even though they are familiar with leather belts and shoes. Many have no idea that leather is made from cow hide or other types of skin! So “Simon the guy who dries animal skins” would work as far as being generic and descriptive, but WHY would he want to do that? That’s what the Palawano reader would want to know. And you can’t really take a half a paragraph to put an encyclopedia entry on “Tanning: What, Why and How” in this verse, especially for such a minor, non-thematic point… if indeed a “point” is being made at all!! “Tanner” may actually have been more of a last name (like Miller or Smith) or simply a way for Luke to help his readers to distinguish between the two Simons in his story.

But in my friend’s Papuan language, they don’t know about tanning, either, and they’ve seen little or no leather. Plus, they have no generic word for “skin” or “hide.” Each species has a specific word that denotes their hide. So even if you wanted to say “a guy who dries skins,” it would have to be “dries pig skins” or “dries frog skins (or was that fish skins?)” or some other specific kind of critter.

All this confusion about staying at a tanner’s house, when the story is really trying to get the reader to the story of the Holy Spirit coming to the Gentiles through the gospel of grace! Argh.

Just today, I was working with some of the men on our translation committee discussing how to best express “filled with the Spirit” in Palawano. That kind of concept can be difficult. But you see, often, it’s “simple” things like figurative fishing and tanning leather that can stall a translation.

Pray for us… and our friends in Papua and everyone else facing the challenge of putting God’s Word into another language.

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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