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Nov 9, 2006

Passive resistance in Gwere

translation_check-gwr-nujNyole and Gwere Translators Enoch W., Sam M., and
Richard N. work through a translation problem during a
translation checking session. (Uganda)
Gwere uses what may be called a ‘they' passive. A piece of a word (morpheme) ba- is attached to the verb that would normally mean ‘they.' But when it is used in a passive construction, it has no reference to anyone in particular. It could refer to one person, it could refer to many people, or it could refer to a parrot! Any ambiguity is normally acceptable, but in Bible translation the resulting ambiguity may not be acceptable.

For example, there is a passive construction in Mark 3:28: "But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven..." (NIV). In this case, using the ‘they' passive in Gwere brings ambiguity-and perhaps the wrong meaning-as to the number of people who are doing the ‘forgiving.' In this passage, the Gwere translators chose to make the agent (God) explicit: "But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit, God will never forgive him..."

This passive problem in Gwere is more complex in Mark 14:24: "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many" (NIV). The natural Gwere translation would have used the ‘they' passive: "This is my blood of the covenant, which they are pouring out for many." But immediately we see that this is not acceptable due to the ambiguity of the number of agents doing the ‘pouring.'

The attempt to make the subject explicit raised a theological question: Who is to be held responsible for pouring the blood of the speaker? There are Scripture passages that may support several culprits. But before the translators settled on a particular culprit, a question arose: Did the speaker use the passive to deliberately hide the agent of this action? Would it do the speaker-and therefore the translation-a disservice to make this information explicit? Would this solution cause a shift in the focus of the verse? The translators thought ‘yes' to each.

The translators searched for an alternative that would eliminate the resistance of this passage to using the Gwere passive. The solution came from the Gwere literacy coordinator who offered his excellent solution effortlessly, but with doubt as to its usefulness. He offered the abilitative construction: "This is my blood of the covenant which is pouring (literally, ‘is pourable') for many." This solution also solved the problem as to the time (tense) of the pouring, because Gwere has to choose between one of three future tenses-within the day, within the week, and distant future.

This example in Gwere shows the difficulty of translation due the dissimilarity between languages, causing translators to seek clear, accurate, and natural solutions that are not necessarily easily obtained.

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