We Have an Extremely Limited Perspective: A Conversation with Dave Brunn, Part 1

February 14, 2019

Have you ever wondered what makes Bible translation so complex? What are the day-to-day dilemmas translators face? With years of experience as a church-planter, translator, and translation consultant, Dave Brunn spent the day with TMS students sharing about the vital ministry of Bible translation.

How did the Lord lead you from San Diego to the mission field?

The church that I attended in San Diego had an outreach program to orphanages in Mexico. I would go down to the orphanages regularly, and when I would cross the border into Mexico, I would be in a different world. God used those experiences in Mexico to impress upon my heart that he wanted to use my life in missions somewhere, but I had no idea where.

When I first went to the mission field, I did not know I was going to be a Bible translator. I went to Papua New Guinea to be a church-planter. I had a passion to find an unreached people, a people who did not have the gospel in their own language, and teach them the gospel and God’s Word in their heart language. I wanted to learn their language. I loved language from the time I was young, and God gave me a ministry where the first thing I did when we arrived in Papua New Guinea was learn two more languages to fluency! It was hard work, but it was fun hard work.

What do you find most challenging about Bible translation?

Bible translation is a very, very complex undertaking. It is something that you basically learn on the job. There are things that you can learn ahead of time; there are things that you should learn ahead of time. I tell my students that the courses I teach are like pouring the concrete slab. In the classroom, we do not even put up the first vertical stud of the house.

We tend to have an oversimplified view of what it takes to translate God’s Word into another language. We simply take the Greek word and then plug in the word for the target language. Right? That rarely describes what we do even translating into English.

As a translator translating into the Lamogai language, I faced challenges that the translators who translated into English would never have imagined because Lamogai is totally unrelated to Greek, but English and Greek are linguistically related because they are both Indo-European languages.

There are around 7,000 living languages spoken in the world today; 94% of them are not classified as Indo-European languages. Thus, only 6% of the world’s living languages are related to Greek in the way that English is. If we base our understanding of Bible translation on the process of translating the New Testament from Greek into English, then we have an extremely limited perspective.

What is one unique challenge of translating into Lamogai?

Perhaps I can give you some examples from Lamogai.

One thing about English and Greek is that there are many abstract nouns. An abstract noun is a noun that is not necessarily something you can hold in your hand. Sometimes it is something that you would do, like hospitality or love. We have nouns to talk about abstract concepts like justification, salvation, and forgiveness, and there are many things that we talk about in the form of a noun. What we do not realize, though, is that the majority of the languages around the world do not use abstract nouns to express many abstract ideas, but use verbs instead.

Let’s consider a fairly simple word: love. The word love in Lamogai is a verb; there is no noun form for love. The Lamogai mostly use nouns for things that you can touch, see, and carry around with you. Love is not something that I can put in my back pocket and carry around with me. Love is something I do.

We tend to have an oversimplified view of what it takes to translate God’s Word

In Lamogai, if I were to say, “God loves me,” it would be “God’s insides go toward me.”  Or “My insides go toward my wife.”  Love, in Lamogai, is always a verb. But, to make it a bit more complicated, you cannot talk about love in Lamogai without stating who is loving whom. You have to state both the subject and the object, or else it is an incomplete thought.

With that in mind, how would you translate 1 Corinthians 13:4 that states, “Love is patient”? Remember, love must be a verb, it cannot be a noun, and you must state who is loving whom. There are two slots, the subject and the object of the verb, that need to be filled in. Who is doing the loving, and whom are they loving?

In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul is focusing on people loving people. So, to communicate what Paul was communicating to the Corinthians, that is how it has to be translated for the Lamogai. The translation in Lamogai is rendered, “The person who loves people, acts patiently toward people.”

Now, some of you might say, “Whoa, that sounds way out there. I’m not sure I can go for that.”  Well, I am open to suggestions, but I refuse to translate that verse or any other verse into Lamogai in a form that is totally meaningless to them. If this verse is not translated in this form, what the Corinthians understood in this passage would not be communicated.

There are plenty of other verses where love is a noun, which are even more difficult to translate than 1 Corinthians 13:4. How are you going to translate “God is love”? Remember love must be a verb, and you must state who is loving whom. An overly literal translation of “God is love” into Lamogai might be “God is his insides going toward.”  It sounds just as meaningless in Lamogai as it does in English. It does not mean anything in that form. We do not want to be careless in the reflection of forms; when we are able, our translation should reflect the structure and the forms of the source texts. But we have to make sure it communicates the meaning of the source text because it is the meaning that will change hearts, not just the rote forms.

What are some linguistic structures that Lamagoi does not have?

There are things that English, Hebrew, and Greek do that Lamogai does not do. For example, the verbs in Lamogai are virtually tenseless. So, you would say, “I went,” “I go,” and “I will go” virtually the same way in Lamogai–it is the broader context that will communicate the tense.

We might think, “How in the world can the Lamogai speak and not be confused all the time?”  There are aspects of English that cause the Lamogai to think, “How can you speak without this sense being in your language?”

For example, consider the first-person plural pronoun, we. The Lamogai have what we call inclusive and exclusive pronouns. Someone might say to you, “We are going to go out for lunch.”  You will be thinking, “Wait, did they mean that I’m going with them”?  Or “Are they just going, and I’m not invited”?

 This would never be a question in Lamogai, because they have one form of we that means we including the hearer, and they have another form of we that does not include you the hearer. So, they would never be confused with this dilemma. And they think, “Wow, you guys don’t do that? How can you not be confused all the time when you are talking”? Well, somehow we make it work.

How do you ensure that your translation conveys the correct meaning in the target language?

Meaning has to take priority over form. It is ideal when we can reflect to some degree the structure and the wording of the source texts. However, if that stands in the way of meaning, then we are not going to prioritize the sentence structure of the source text if it is meaningless to the target audience. In our English versions, there are examples on almost every page of every version, even the most literal versions, where the translators made judgment calls and prioritized meaning above the form. The more literal versions will try to give a higher priority to reflect the forms of the source text, but there are countless places where they set that priority aside in order not to distort the meaning.

 One example is Matthew 1:6, which states, “David was the father of Solomon by Bathsheba who had been the wife of Uriah.”  This verse in Greek is much simpler than its English translation. There are far fewer words in Greek. The name Bathsheba, for example, is not in the Greek text, but it is in the NASB. However, it was a perfectly acceptable translation decision to make Bathsheba explicit for the purpose of meaning. The name Bathsheba did not have to be inserted in order to make the verse understandable, but the translators decided to include it. And if you look at the genealogy in the first 16 verses of Matthew, you will see that every single person who was part of the genealogy is mentioned by name, except Bathsheba.

It also says, “by the wife of Uriah” in the Greek of Matthew 1:6. Several versions say, “By Bathsheba who had been the wife of Uriah.”  Why did they add, “who had been”? We do not want to make it sound like she was still Uriah’s wife at the time that David fathered Solomon because she wasn’t. But by the time that Solomon had been born, Bathsheba had been Uriah’s wife, and she was not anymore. Uriah was no longer alive. So, the translators decided to add the phrase, “who had been”, and this is perfectly acceptable. It is not literal; it is not as if you absolutely could not translate the verse without that phrase, but the translators made a decision to add it. This is acceptable translation practice.

We appreciated the opportunity to learn from Dave and Nancy Brunn and spend a memorable day together at TMS. If you have enjoyed what Dave shared in this article, keep your eye out for part 2 of this conversation.  


J. Jack Smith avatar
J. Jack Smith is a current M.Div. student at The Master's Seminary and assists Dr. Shryock at the Tyndale Center for Bible Translation.

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