In a recent newsletter, a translator shared the difficulties of dealing with concepts within the Scriptures that may have no connection to the culture of a language group in Papua New Guinea. The following is Katri’s comments on translating number references from Revelation.
Have you noticed how many numbers there are in that book: cardinals (1 hour, 2 prophets, 3 plagues, 4 winds, 5 kings, 6 wings, 7 churches, 10 days, 12 gates, 24 elders, 42 months, 144 cubits, 1260 days, 144,000 people) and ordinals (from the 1st to the 7th angel) as well as fractions (e.g., ½ day, ⅓ of the ships, ¼ of the earth and a 1/10 of a city)? It’s a struggle to express them when the Nek language has only two cardinal numbers – noŋgan ‘one’ and tɨpet ‘two’ – as well as the adjectives many and few, which can be further modified to be very many or very few, and no ordinal numbers or fractions.
Three is tɨpet gɨt no ‘two and one’ and four tɨpet gɨt tɨpet ‘two and two’. For five we could say kɨt noŋgan ‘one hand’, and for six kɨt tambon, tambon noŋgan ‘one hand and one [of] the other [hand]’ and so on, until we reach ten kɨt tɨpet ‘two hands’. However, that way the terms become rather long, people disagree about the exact forms, and it seems that once we go beyond three, the younger generation can no longer cipher how many we are talking about anyway. So we use numerals to write the cardinal numbers, and people read them using the trade language terms. As for the ordinal numbers, we can talk about the first angel and the last angel, but to refer to the 2nd, 3rd, 4th etc. angel we have to say ‘angel number 2’, ‘angel number 3’, and so forth.
Expressing fractions is a bit harder, and people are not used to them. (Once I asked a prep school teacher how many quarters there are in an hour, and her guess was five!) We do have the word tambon ‘half, part’, so for a tenth we used to say something like this, ‘divide it, and ten parts appear, and one of them’. Now we try to say “one part of the ships were destroyed, and two parts were OK”, but only further testing will show whether the readers will in fact understand that that left no ships unaccounted for.
It is perhaps not surprising that many PNG vernacular languages do not deal with number concepts to the extent that we are used to. The culture is not obsessed with quantifying anything and everything. From birth we are measured in grams and centimetres; we count our years; track our performance through our education; measure our houses in square metres and our vehicles in terms of power or fuel economy. Even our recreation is often measured in calories burned and points scored for and against.
But we find in Revelation something that could never be counted or measured.
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages standing before the throne and before the Lamb… crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Revelation 7:9
The day will come when all that we now measure won’t count for anything at all.
- For translators to be thoughtful and creative in presenting God’s truth to the people of PNG.