One of the goals of my trip was to continue with the translation work I started during our first term. Before leaving Liberia last July, my language helpers and I completed a first draft of Matthew in Manya. After returning to the States, I created a back-translation (word for word Manya to English) and sent that to a translation consultant for review. He looked at our work and left comments and questions about various passages. This provided a starting point for revising the translation. (For more details on the translation process see www.wycliffe.org/transformation/translation.asp)
It was hard to find time for translation work with the huge home renovation project going on, but thankfully I was able to review the first 12 chapters of Matthew. I started working with A.S., a new language helper who is one of the few Manya believers I know. As I read through Matthew with him, I found that some of the terms we had been using in the translation were unfamiliar to him. Whereas my other language helpers are older men with a deep knowledge of their language, A.S. is about my age, with an “everyman” grasp of Manya. The Manya language has been changing significantly in recent decades as a result of increased contact with speakers of other related languages. It is fine art trying to the right vocabulary to use in the Bible translation that will is acceptable to the older “purists”, while still communicating clearly to a younger audience.
Even more challenging is to find key terms that adequately convey Biblical truth. We still have not settled on the right terms for “Christ/Messiah”, “Son of Man” and “holy”. On this last trip, we also spent a lot of time trying to find a better way to talk about the Kingdom of God. The term we had been using, Alla ya Masaya, was based on a term used in Bible translations in related languages that translates literally as the “Kingship of God”. Upon further review I found that in some passages, this term would give readers the totally wrong idea. For example, Jesus often talked about entering the kingdom of God. But to “enter the kingship of God” as we initially translated could be understand as taking over God’s position as King!
In studying the “Kingdom of God” (Gk. basileia tou theou) in the NT, I learned that it is a small phrase with a long history, packed with a lot of meaning for 1st century Jews. Interestingly, it rarely if ever references the territory or realm over which God rules. Rather it primarily refers to the authority or ruling of God over his people. God’s people today can experience aspects of it, while waiting for its final future fulfillment.
Given the problems I mentioned with first term, one of my older language helpers suggested another word, sebaaya, that translates as “authoritative power”. And interestingly, one of the titles the Manya use for God is Masa Fɔnisele “Gracious King”. By using this title in combination with sebaaya we can retain the kingdom imagery, conveying the idea of enjoying the blessings and benefits of being a person under the authority of a Gracious King.
One of my favorite verses of the Bible is Matthew 6:33, “Seek first the Kingdom of God…” I was never satisfied with the way we had initially translated this verse. It sounded like Jesus was telling people to “look for the kingship of God”, which didn’t make a lot of sense. I love the way we have translated it now. Here is the back-translation; “You should do everything you can to humble yourself under the Gracious King’s authority and to look for his straight road. When that happens, he will give you the other things.” Now those are words to live by!