Here’s Part 2 of our enlightening interview with Margie Abella Lumawan. You can read the first part of this interview here. [Above photo: Mother tongue translators during a workshop.]
Can you tell us about the organization/company that you are working for?
The Northern Philippine Mother Tongue Translators’ Association (NPMTTA) was incorported in April 2001. It’s goal is to produce quality Bible translation in all the languages that its members are translating into. It has 11 language team members: Kalanguya, Ibaloi, Central Ifugao (Amganad), Ayangan Ifugao, Bontoc, Barlig, Balangao, Paranan, Palanan Agta, Tuwali, and Keley-i. It partners with the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), Translators Association of the Phils (TAP), and Philippine Bible Society (PBS) to get the training that its members need to pursue excellence in Bible Translation and literacy.
Have you encountered words or concepts that are just not translatable? How do you translate them?
Lots. Some if not most have to do with cultural distance (the difference between the culture and worldview of the original author and his original audience compared to the culture here and now) and the personal cognitive schema of the translator as well as that of his/her readers.
There is a level of ambiguity in some parts of the Bible. As translators, we opt to maintain this especially if the author is obviously being deliberately ambiguous. We make a choice to keep a certain amount of ambiguity when we are sure that this will not result in wrong understanding or communicate a totally-zero meaning to the reader.
We also do a lot of consulting with Bible dictionaries, Bible encyclos, commentaries, historical writings, etc. to shed light to an unknown idea.
There are actually a few ways to translate an unknown concept.
1) Give a description of the idea which is pertinent to its use in the passage;
2) Substitute a known but similar concept;
3) Borrow from a nearer language;
4) Retain the original word but put the nearest meaning in a footnote somewhere; and
5) Cross-reference it to another occurrence which might help shed light to its true meaning.
How do you feel about the fact that you are continuing a scholarly tradition and that you are translating a very important book which is considered by Christians as the word of God?
Sometimes, I find myself heartsick when the burden of communicating the Word in all accuracy, clarity, naturalness and acceptability bears down on me. The knowledge that I am an imperfect human being doing something that in some ways is next to impossible (at least to those who believes like I do) scares the hell out of me, fearing that I might not be doing justice to the Word of God. BUT I am comforted by the honor and inner peace and fulfillment in the knowledge that I am a part of something that is much much bigger than myself or even the whole world.
For those who might want to venture into the work of Bible translation, what skills should they have?
The most important thing is commitment. You’d say this is not a skill? Ok, it is not, but it is. S/he needs to be committed to excellence, appreciation and love of his/her language, dedication to truth, and reverence to the Word and of course to the Big Boss.
There is also a need for teachability, openmindedness spiked with humility, and a measure of curiosity and kakulitan. Nobody gets rich serving as a Bible Translator so one should not try it if riches is the motivation. I personally think, to become a translator is a gift. But no matter how gifted in linguistics and translation a person is, if the motive is not to glorify and serve his/her God, everything that person does is in vain.
You also need a skill in interpersonal relationships. Your work is not yours alone. Many people will contribute to it that sometimes it is hard for the translator to let go of his ideas and take or adapt someone else’s. Team members even argue on what is the best word in their language to represent a certain concept in the original language. A stormy interpersonal relationship among the translators will deter the progress and undermine the work. So humility and teammindedness is a must.
How did you acquire these skills?
We attended a lot of workshops both in linguistics, translation and team building. Some of us were also given opportunities to pursue formal training in original biblical languages (Hebrew & Greek), linguistics and theology. As for the commitment, it’s a given, you just have to maintain it. Like a seed that’s already planted, all you need is to water it regularly.
What’s the most rewarding aspect of the work?
Four things: 4) Mindboggling, and challenging puzzles but free, pure, fun mental exercises. 3) Being forced to learn how two ancient languages work (Hebrew and Greek) 2) Hearing/Reading God’s Words in my heart language. 1) Seeing lives transformed by the translated Word.
What’s the most challenging aspect?
First, it is a real challenge for a mother tongue speaker to study his own language. He needs to distance himself from it for a while so that he can be objective in analyzing his native tongue. Native speakers are a bit touchy when they are asked to study their language. They would say, “What for? It’s my language anyway. But when I was forced by necessity to really get into analyzing my language, I realized that I did not even know where an affix ends and a root begins. So it was a challenge to humble myself and admit that all I know about my language is the vocabulary and how to speak it. But when I am asked about its grammatical structure, define all the senses of a word, discover the discourse pattern of my language, all I give is a blank stare.
Secondly, Staying faithful to the Boss is a pure pure challenge. Living what I write. A congressman can be a lawmaker by day and then choose to be a lawbreaker by night but the law he passed is still a law. A businessman can be an honest dealer to a poor associate but crooked to a competitor and yet both his gains are all the same in value. A Bible translator cannot write about someone who is merciful and live in cruelty and unkindness. S/he is in constant battle to live what s/he preaches and not give in to the ‘easier’ way of life.
Do you consider this a dream job? After all you are able to mix things which you are passionate about: your culture and your faith.
It is a fulfilled dream, it is not a job. With a job, you get paid; with a dream, you give all you are. If I’m given a chance to live my life all over again, I’ll live it the same way (probably with a few changes here and there. Hehehe) I am living it now. But I am still human. I have many ‘what ifs,’ in fact, a heaps and heaps of them. Sometimes, in another frame of mind, especially when I look at people who started out like I did but moved on to greener pastures, I question myself if it is really worth it living my life like this and working a ‘job’ like this and all that. Then again, my faith in the God I serve and whose Word I write tells me that my rewards are more eternal than the high pay that the nursing profession could have had given me abroad. This is a come-and-go struggle.
In the end, I realize that by giving myself, I have gained lots in return and I rejoice in all that I have learnt: about translation, about myself and especially about God’s goodness and faithfulness to me/us in the midst of the struggle.
NOTE: The third part of this interview will follow soon.. Part 3 is now here.
Meantime, in case you know of a kailiyan who is doing an interesting (or uncommon) job and who would be willing to answer an email interview about their work please tell us about them through email (firstname.lastname@example.org or in the comments section). Thanks.
RELATED POST: Obla: Margie Lumawan, Bible Translator (Part1). PHOTO CREDIT: Margie Abella Lumawan.