'Let There Be Light'

Bible translation today in Karamoja/Uganda

From 1985-93 I had the tremendous privilege of assisting a group of translators in Karamoja/North-Eastern Uganda in their task of producing a New Testament in their own language, Karimojong.

Our work was made easier by the fact that basic orthography rules had been established in the 1960s, and in the 1970s two different New Testaments had been produced by Roman-Catholic (R.C.) and Anglican (A.) missionaries with the help of local people. The United Bible Societies who supervised the Project, advised us first to produce a joint (ecumenical) New Testament before proceeding with an Old Testament translation.

The main difference between the 1970s editions and the new one was that now the local translators were in charge with their intuitive feel for their own language and not the missionary. My task was to assist them with checks on meaning, consistency and accuracy, having previously been trained by the Wycliffe Bible Translators.

In the following article I want to mention some of the linguistic difficulties we came across during the translation process, although in reality practical difficulties like not having an office, famine, guerilla warfare, lack of electricity and termites eating translation drafts were often the reason for setbacks.


1.1 Different sources for borrowing words
Due to unfriendly relationships between the A. and R.C. missionaries from the 1930s onwards, the 2 Churches had developed 2 different Christian vocabularies which were reflected in their New Testaments. Generally speaking this was not due to doctrinal differences (except e.g. Jesus' 'brother' translated as Jesus' 'cousin' by the Catholics), but the languages from which words were borrowed: mainly from Swahili or English by the Anglicans, from Greek or Latin by the Roman-Catholics. Hence e.g. the word for 'church' was translated ekanisa (Swahili) / ecclesia (Greek) respectively. Fortunately by 1985 relationships had considerably improved and a team from both churches made decisions on which words to use, in this case 'ecclesia'.

1.2 Different key terms
Some key terms like 'the Holy Spirit' had been translated (and used in services) as 'Etau ngolo Ebusan' (The beautiful Heart) by R.Cs and 'Ekuwuain ngolo Akwangan' (The white wind) by A.s. Our preferred option would have been 'Ekuwuam / Etau ngolo Eteyaran' = life-giving wind / spirit / heart, but in the end the joint church committee insisted on 'Etau ngolo Asegan' = the clean / pure heart / spirit.

1.3 Is God feminine or masculine?
'Akuj' is the Karimojong word for the Creator God, grammatically feminine (as in French nouns taking la). The R.Cs had consistently used masculine grammatical forms with it for theological reasons ('Akuj ngolo (masculine) apolon' = the great God). The national translators however insisted that this was totally alien to the language and we used feminine forms throughout ('Akuj ngina (feminine) apolon'), except when the following noun was masculine: 'Akuj Papa ngolo Apolon' (God the great Father...).

1.4 Local Term vs. foreign Term
'Doctor/healer': translated by R.Cs as 'Edakitar' (from the English 'doctor' and the name for the mission hospital), by A.s as 'emuron' (Karimojong for herbalist / witchdoctor), the translators decided to use both depending on the context; e.g. the evangelist Luke was an 'edakitar'.


2.1 Verbal aspect
Like Greek, the meanings of Karimojong verb forms differ in aspect rather than tense:

'edukit akai' he built the house (implied: still standing)
'adukit akai' he built the house (implied: no longer there)
'abu toduk akai' he built the house (simple narrative)
'aduk akai' he built the house (implied: he has just completed it)
'aduki akai' (implied: he was building the house when something else happened)

The national translators intuitive feel for the correct use of the various forms was invaluable for providing the reader or listener with the accurate underlying meaning of the text; e.g.

• 'Christ was raised from the dead' (implied: is still alive today!) 1Cor.15:20
• 'He is risen!' (implied: it has just happened) Lk.24:34
• '... tempted in that which he has suffered...' (implied: he is no longer suffering now) Hebr.2:18

2.2 Unknown concepts
Although the Karimojong culture is closer to the New Testament culture than our Western culture, nevertheless unknown concepts needed to be made understood.

• No snow ('white as snow'): fortunately most Karimojong adjectives have their own specific intensifier; so we used 'ekwang kya' (exceedingly white).
• No flat roof (onto which the paralytic was carried): the Karimojong word for roof causes the reader to imagine the impossible situation of four men carrying the paralytic up a steep straw thatched roof (or possibly corrugated iron), the miracle being how they got up there and didn't break in. We used it nevertheless but inserted an illustration.
• No bread ('I am the bread of life'): bread is hardly known, a luxury addition rather than staple diet, used mostly by foreigners. We discussed for a long time alternatives, e.g. 'I am the rice/posho of life' and finally decided on 'I am the food of life'; an unsatisfactory solution, as one loses the red thread of 'bread' through the whole Bible (Manna, unleavened bread at Passover, 'I am the bread of life'. Jesus breaking the bread at Passover, etc.).

2.3 More specific than Greek
The personal and possessive pronoun 1st person plural (we/our) has two forms, one including and one excluding the audience. As Greek does not make that distinction, it was sometimes difficult to decide which form to use:

Lk.13:33 'let us build 3 huts ...' (did Peter include or exclude Jesus in the building process?)
• 1 Jn.1:5-6 'we have heard the message and announce to you (exclusive?) 'If we say we have no sin ... (inclusive'?).


As the translators explained to me the meaning of their drafts, it showed up some serious misunderstandings due to literal translation.

3.1 'Mary kept all these things in her heart'
For the Karimojong this means 'Mary held a grudge ...'. In order to reproduce the meaning of the original writer ('Mary remembered all these things and kept thinking about them). we had to translate 'Mary kept all these things in her mind'.

3.2 'I have come to seek the lost sheep of Israel'
The cattle and sheep owning Karimojong would understand this to be literally true. The metaphor needed to be made explicit: 'I have come to look for the people of Israel who are like lost sheep ...'

3.3 "Restore them in a spirit of gentleness..."
This seemed to imply the presence of an actual 'Spirit of gentleness' and the translation was therefore changed to 'restore him in a gentle way'.


Occasionally a translated verse looked perfect, but the translators seemed to feel ill at ease or consider it a joke. When I asked them to explain fully how they understood a particular verse ( or what was so funny about it), only then did the underlying connotations of terms surface:

e.g. in Acts 19:16 '... they fled out of that house naked and wounded ...' a literal translation implies a deliberate stripping or evidence of having gone mad. So the translation had to read 'they fled from that house with no clothes on'.

Four years after completing the final draft, the new 'joint' New Testament was launched in May this year and received with great joy by the local Christians. We are well aware that there are shortcomings, but hope that it will cause the local Karimojong who still drive ploughs to 'know more of the Scripture'.

The work is not yet finished, and after studying Hebrew and OT exegesis the translators are now working on the Old Testament, anxious for their people to possess the whole Bible in their own language. The task is beset with many difficulties. Recently one of the translators wrote to me, 'Even though I have suffered a lot through it [translation work], I must still struggle to the end ...' - the vision of translators shared through five centuries from William Tyndale until now. The same Holy Spirit who urged him on, is still at work today - and winning against all odds.

Sabine Burningham


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