Gospel & Culture blog
I recently came across this back translation (1918) of Psalm 23 from the Khmu language, which is primarily spoken in Laos.*
“The Great Boss is the one who takes care of my sheep
I don’t want to own anything.
The Great Boss wants me to lie down in the field.
He wants me to go to the lake. He makes my good spirit come back.
Even though I walk through something the missionary calls the valley of the shadow of death, I do not care.
You are with me. You use a stick and a club to make me comfortable.
You manufacture a piece of furniture right in front of my eyes while my enemies watch.
You pour car grease on my head.
My cup has too much water in it and therefore overflows.
Goodness and kindness will walk single file behind me all my life.
And I will live in the hut of the Great Boss until I die and am forgotten by the tribe."
True, translating 3000 year old Hebrew poetry into a tribal language is always going to be difficult- which is the main reason this story has such valence- we grin as we watch the native speaker do his best to puzzle through the missionary's botched language skills.
But it doesn't always have to miss the mark this badly. Note that this translation was done before Bible translators understood the importance of village checks and back translations. Nowadays, once the vernacular translators have given the primary draft their best shot, native speakers who were not involved in the primary draft must translate the vernacular back into a lingua franca. That way the consultant can ask speakers, "Why would the Great Boss want you to lie down in the field" or "what other kinds of spirits could come back to you" or "What kind of grease was poured on his head? Was that a good thing or a bad thing? Why would he do that? What kind of furniture was he talking about, and why would he do that?" Then the consultant can work with the speakers to come up with alternative renderings that more closely align with the original meaning.
...unless, of course, you think that meaning is found in the community, and not in the author's intent. I suppose deconstructionists and postmodern literary critics would say that this ethno-hermeneutic of Psalm 23 is equally valid?
*(originally provided by Darrell Whiteman in Wichita Eagle, January 7, 1960, but also in Grunlan and Mayers Cultural Anthropology: A Christian Perspective and in Richards and O'Brian Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes)
© 2015 Kenneth Nehrbass. All Rights Reserved.
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor