Jola-Felupe in Guinea-Bissau

the Jola-Felupe translation team

This is my eighth visit to Guinea-Bissau, working this time with the Jola-Felupe translation team. When I worked with them last September, I only had time to go over ten chapters from the middle of the book of Acts with them. Last time my time in Guinea-Bissau was divided, and I only had one week to work with the Jola-Felupe team. On this trip I finished going over Acts with them and we started on their translation of Genesis. By the time I leave here in a few days, we will have checked about a third of Genesis. They have finished translating Genesis and are working on the gospel of John now. The consultant checking is getting behind, with a backlog of work to do. I can’t keep up, but right now there’s nobody else who can check translations in Guinea-Bissau. I was disappointed not to be able to work at all with the Kriol translation team on this trip. Luke in Kriol needs to be checked, and Galatians too, and they are working on Matthew now. I can’t keep up with just one of these translation teams, much less two. But with my overall schedule, making even just two trips a year to do consulting in Guinea-Bissau is pushing it for me.

I always enjoy the work and learn a lot. Here are some interesting things about Jola-Felupe. Like many languages in Africa and South America, they have a base 20 number system. I remember when I lived among the Tzeltals in Mexico when I was a teenager, they, too, had a base 20 number system. Also, I remember when I worked with the Caravela Bijago translation here in Guinea-Bissau, they had a base 20 number system. Also, as I recall, both languages I have worked with in Nigeria—Bwaatye and Nya Huba—had a base 20 number system. The idea is that there are numbers up to 20, counting on fingers and toes, and then the word for 20 is something like “one man.” The base 10 number system that we use is based just on counting fingers, i.e., digits.

Also like many different languages and cultures, there are ways to say east and west, but no straightforward way to say north and south. As in Saint Lucian Creole, and many other languages, I’m sure, east is “the place where the sun rises” and west is “the place where the sun sets.” I dislike having to borrow words from another language in translation, because when you are borrowing you are not translating. I prefer to find a solution that avoids borrowing. In the last few chapters of Acts, there are many unfamiliar nautical terms. The translators asked, how can you say this without borrowing a word for south: “When a gentle south wind began to blow, they thought they had obtained what they wanted; so they weighed anchor and sailed along the shore of Crete”? The Jola-Felupes do live near the water and they know about sailing. I had to study the map, but when I figured out that Paul was on a ship that wanted to go north, I suggested they say, “When a gentle wind came up behind us….” That communicated the right idea without causing confusion. Then later we got to Genesis 13:14-15, which is supposed to say, “Lift up your eyes from where you are and look north and south, east and west. All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever.” On doing a little research, I realized that the original Hebrew does not even refer to the points of the compass. It refers to four directions, but not north, south, east and west. We ended up saying in Jola-Felupe, “Abraham! Look up to see the side where the sun comes from, and the side where it sets, and look on your right side, and on your left.” That communicates the idea of looking in all directions, and is as close to the original Hebrew as (or closer than) our English translations.

About David Frank

linguistics and translation consultant
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1 Response to Jola-Felupe in Guinea-Bissau

  1. Pingback: A mysterious thing | A Frank Look at Languages and Cultures

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