Samaila and Samson

In Nigeria I have had the privilege of being introduced to the Bwaatye language and translation project and working with two Bwaatye men, Samaila and Samson (pictured) for the past couple of weeks. It has been interesting in many ways. I didn’t know anything about Bwaatye or the Bwaatye Bible translation project before I got here, but I have been learning. My job is has been to study the draft translation and evaluate it and give input to ensure its accuracy. Since I don’t speak Bwaatye, I have been studying the translation by means of a back translation into English. At the same time, I make a good effort to study and familiarize myself with the Bwaatye words directly, to evaluate the translation from that perspective. Of course, Samson and Samaila are the experts on the language, but I can still consult using established procedures. During my time here, I have done a consultant check on the Bwaatye translation of I&II Thessalonians, I&II Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Jude, and I,II&III John, thirty chapters in all.

‘God’ is Həmɨnpwa, literally ‘king of up’. In pre-Christian days, this was the name for the highest among the gods. Sometimes the shorter form Pwa is used. ‘Lord’ is Həmə miye, literally, ‘owner of people’. Jesus Christ’ is Yesu Ma Pwa a Ngɨltən, ‘Jesus the one God has chosen’.

In the first verse of both I&II Thessalonians, Paul (Bulu in Bwaatye) says he is writing to the church in Thessalonica. Except in Bwaatye, that wouldn’t make any sense, because in Bwaatye a church is a building. For ‘church’ they say vɨnə hiutə, ‘house of prayer’. To express writing to the people of the church, they use a different word, ji-kottə, which means ‘followers.’ The word for bishop or overseer is madɨ nidə ji-kottə, ‘person who looks after the followers’. Elders are mi kpan-kpani vɨnə hiutə, ‘big/old people of house of prayer’.

In I Thessalonians 3:7, to say that the news about the Thessalonians encouraged Paul, it says literally that it ‘cooled our stomachs’. In 4:13, where Paul says he doesn’t want the Thessalonians to grieve like other men, the Bwaatye says he doesn’t want them to have ‘spoiled stomachs’. To urge someone is to ‘pull his ears’. In I Timothy 1:3, it says, “As I always pulled your ears when I was headed to Macedonia.” In the same verse, ‘blaspheming’ is ‘spoiling the name of God’.

A shafe in the traditional culture was a place where their priests went to offer sacrifices. ‘Temple’ in the translation is Shafeda Pwa, which means ‘sacrifice house of God’.

II Timothy 2:25 in English reads, “Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth.” In the Bwaatye translation, I was curious to know how they said ‘repentance’, since I knew that could be a difficult concept to translate. For Saint Lucian Creole, there was no single word for ‘repent’ and we translated it as a phrase: ‘turn away from your sins’. Here is a literal back-translation of II Timothy 2:25 from Bwatiye into English: “Those against him, he follow them gently and teach them things, maybe God will help them they fetch sand and return and know the truth and follow it.” When I see something like ‘fetch sand’ in the translation, I am intrigued and always want to find out more why they say things that way. In Bwaatye this is por-njiya. Why do they say ‘fetch sand’? Here’s the explanation I got. Before the coming of Christianity 100 years ago, when the elders went to pray to the gods, they would take sand and throw it over each shoulder and down their backs while confessing their sins. Covering themselves with sand was a ritual to show that they were sorry for what they had done wrong, sort of like covering oneself with sackcloth and ashes. Now idol worship for the most part is abandoned in Bwatiye culture, but the Christian church has retained the phrase por-njiya ‘fetch sand’ to mean ‘repent, doing something to show sorrow for one’s sins’.


About David Frank

linguistics and translation consultant
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1 Response to Bwaatye

  1. Susan White says:

    Thanks for posting about the difference in translations. It is always so interesting to learn the story behind the words and phrases. They knew of repentance, but didn’t know the King of Up…

    Thanks for your faithfulness in bringing the gospel to the world in the language of their hearts.

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