EVEN MORE Fun with Translation


In this blog, I want to show a little bit of why word-equivalence translation doesn’t work. You cannot simply ask, “What’s the word for so-and-so in your language?” You cannot translate by using a dictionary.
Language is not merely words. Language is meaning. Language uses words, but languages are not just lists of words that line up with the lists in other languages. Allow me to demonstrate…

Over the past week I have seen over 15 signs hanging over the streets of Manila which made me realize that among the educators who are over the school systems of the world, the over-hyped battle over how to teach translation principles is far from over.

Huh? You don’t like my overly contrived sentence? Read it again. How many instances of “over” did you read? I count seven, each with a different meaning:

over: during

over: more than

over: in a position above

over: having supervisory authority

over: too much

over: concerning the topic

over: finished

So… if you asked someone, “What’s the word for over in your language?” what should they say?! “Over” can have many meanings depending on its context.
Donna and I have a hobby of collecting pictures of funny signs at home and abroad. We saw one last week which inspired me to write this blog. It was the sign for a little pizza kiosk in Manila:

Over sa Toppings!

Over sa Sarap!

First of all, what language is this? It is Taglish, meaning a mix of Tagalog and English. To help you out here, sa is (in rough terms) a preposition with meanings such as in, with, to, by, for, from, etc. And sarap means “deliciousness.”
But even though we knew all the words, this sign had us scratching our heads for a while. What in the world were they trying to say? What we finally came up with was that this sign is trying to say that their pizzas have tons of toppings and lots of flavor, even more toppings and flavor than their competitors. But it strikes us as odd, because over is used in a very unusual and incorrect way.
So, how did they come to use the word over here?
I’m guessing this was the result of dictionary translation. The original, 100% Tagalog was probably:

Sobra sa Toppings!

Sobra sa Sarap!

The Tagalog word sobra was borrowed from Spanish and in this case it means, “large amount.” Sometimes it means “excessive, too much,” but you can’t really have “too many” toppings or “too much” good flavor, can you? So here it just means “a whole bunch.” (That reminds me of when one of our girls, as a toddler, wanted an extra large helping of ice cream and said, “Daddy, I want too much!”)
So the sign write looked up sobra in a Tagalog-English dictionary and saw “over” as one of the options, plugged it into the sign to “English it up” a bit, and ta-daaaah! You have “Over sa Toppings“!
As we translate the Scriptures into Palawano we face this issue of words and meanings every day. It would be so much easier if there was a one-to-one correspondence between the words of one language and the words of another. But nope. That’s not the reality we must live with.
Here’s a simple example from Luke: in English we would say that the demoniac in Luke 8 was “possessed” by evil spirits. But the Greek actually says it the other way around, that the man is the one who “had” the spirits (so “the demons were possessed by the man”!) But in Palawano we can’t use “had” in either sense to describe this man’s plight. We say the man had been “entered” by the demons, and actually, we have to say that he “is being entered,” since by using a past tense form of the verb might imply that the demons had entered the man sometime in the past, but had already left.
God’s Word is truly Over sa Power and Over sa Good News, but the Palawanos are still a few years away from having the entire Palawano New Testament in their hands. We’re making good progress, and we gratefully acknowledge that to a great extent, that is due to your prayers. So please keep praying as we translate… it’s a huge task to get all that precious meaning clearly communicated in Palawano (but not word by word, as that would be Over sa Confusion.)
This blog is now over.
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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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