According to most English Bibles, when the prodigal son was at his lowest ebb, he wanted to fill himself with what the pigs were eating, ie ‘pods’ or ‘bean pods’ (Luke 15:16). A more correct translation would actually be ‘carob pods’.
The thing is, specifying ‘carob pods’ rather than ‘pods’ in an English Bible probably wouldn’t help us much. Even if we’ve encountered carob as a chocolate substitute in a health food shop, we probably wouldn’t be able to picture a carob pod without the help of Google Images. But what about in, say, West Africa, where carob-type pods are much more well-known?
If Bible translators were to translate the Bible into a West-African language using only an English Bible, this new translation might also end up using a generic term such as ‘pods’. Thankfully, the work of Bible translation is a little more involved than that. David Rowbory and other translators working on the Ashe translation in Nigeria were using Paratext software, which is specially designed to help produce top-notch Bible translations. A dictionary there included a picture of the ‘pods’, which Ashe speakers immediately identified as the carob pod.
This is a great example of why we use original Greek and Hebrew combined with good dictionaries and other reference resources to help us join the dots when translating. Rather than copying the vague English term, or using further explanation, eg ‘pods used for pig-feed’, Luke 15 of the Ashe translation uses a word that not only reflects the original text better, but also brings the story much closer to an Ashe speaker’s everyday experience.
So how much does this really matter? Would the difference between ‘pods’ and ‘carob pods’ mean the difference between someone connecting with the word of God and dismissing it? Probably not. Perhaps this level of difference doesn’t really matter in the telling of a story.
But on our journey of letting the Bible renew our minds and bring us closer to God, anything that appears more foreign than it should be risks distancing the story from us and diluting its impact. Foreign stuff sticks out and is a distraction – while familiar terms, where they can be used, make a story feel closer to home and more relevant.
This story is adapted from a post on Wycliffe members David and Julie Rowbory’s blog.