Translational Research

by Carlan

Translational research is the phrase we use (or formerly used, I’ve been out of that world for a while now) to describe how something discovered in a Petri dish could be made relevant for patients. It is about getting from theory to practice. Now before your eyes glaze over and you scroll on to the next post in your feed, let me assure you that no boring science or statistics will appear in this article. Rather, I want to tell you what happened to me the other night with three Burundian pastors and elders in our house.

Since the beginning of the year, I have been working through a curriculum called Fundamentals of the Faith with a group of hand-picked men from the community here. They are two chaplains, an administrator, a nurse anesthetist, and a schoolteacher. All are leaders in their respective churches. This curriculum has been translated into a bunch of different languages (at least nine) but not into Kirundi. So our plan has three phases:

1 - go through it together in French
2 - translate it into Kirundi
3 - they teach it in Kirundi to others and perfect the translation

We are well into Phase 2 and every Monday night we drink tea, eat some snacks, and talk about how to convey timeless biblical truth in their native tongue. I’m largely superfluous to the technical work that these five guys are doing, but occasionally my amateur language-learner status comes in handy. This was one of those rare helping moments.

Firmat, Luc, & Silas pore over a translation question
We need some background to start. The word for “spirit” in Greek (pneuma) is neither masculine nor feminine. However, every time a pronoun is used in reference to the Holy Spirit, the masculine personal pronoun shows up. This is a little linguistic nuance not lost on Bible translators and theologians across the ages - a place where grammatical rules were broken in service of a truer expression.

English carries this through pretty well. For example, in John 14:17, clearly talking about the Holy Spirit, Jesus says, “You know him, for he dwells with you…” Not “it,” “him” and “he.” French likewise respects this understanding, using “le” and “il” for the pronouns. But Kirundi doesn’t have gendered nouns or pronouns like students of European languages are used to thinking. There are sixteen noun classes in Kirundi, so it’s complicated, but there is no “masculine” pronoun to be used. How to translate the exercise that asks students to read the passage and identify the pronouns?

Well, the Kirundi word for spirit, mpwemu, is in a particular class (Class 9, for those of you counting at home). This class includes, as far as I can gather, mostly farm animals. (Scroll down for a list of Class 9 nouns.) But interestingly enough, the pronouns from that verse are from Class 1 and are actually found as infixes within the conjugated verbs. (Yep, you knew about prefixes and suffixes already, but Kirundi also has infixes - in the middle of the word.) Class 1 is exclusively used for people nouns, though some people nouns fall outside of Class 1. So even though Kirundi grammar would call for one pronoun, the translators wisely chose the one that makes it clear that the Holy Spirit is personal rather than animal. Way to go!

Class 1 and 9 nouns
But I titled this post “Translational Research” because a wonderful metamorphosis is happening as these brothers work the principles from French into Kirundi: their eyes brighten and their hearts come alive. It is fun for me to watch as this task takes what might otherwise remain cold and intellectual and pushes it to the warm, beating center of their understanding.
Part of the the Gospel of John in Kirundi

1 comment:

Rebekah said...

Praise God for His faithful followers who translate His Word into every language so people can hear the good news of Jesus Christ!