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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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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4 Responses to Translating With Needle And Thread

  1. Hehehe! Or is it hahaha? Really fun to read! 🙂

  2. Thanks for using one of my photos in your post, and for linking to my site.
    Cheers!

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