A few weeks ago, a Nigerian translation team was struggling with the translation of "tabernacle" in the book of Exodus. We couldn't find a suitable word in the target language for God's mobile meeting place in the desert.
Aside from the word itself, we also needed words for each piece of the tabernacle as its construction is explained, step by step. Not only does Exodus 40:18 read like a text-only IKEA manual for a Build Your Own Tabernacle kit, but Moses also doesn't set up tents the same way as the Nigerians do.
"When Moses set up the tabernacle, he put the bases in place, set up the frames, erected the cross-bars, and set up the posts." -Exodus 40:18
We looked at the above illustration for a while. "It's easier to dig holes," one of the translators remarked with a small laugh.
The more familiar Nigerian tent-setting method is:
Clear the ground.
Dig post holes.
Set the posts in the holes.
But that's not how Exodus says Moses did it. Moses set his posts inside wooden bases, not holes.
Girl Scouts aside, I'm not a tent-building consultant. And I doubt Moses dug holes or staked many tents while growing up in Pharoah's palace, so I'd probably side with the translators on this one.
But I am training to be a translation consultant. And from a translation perspective, the Bible says Moses used wooden bases. So that's what the Waja translation says, even if the Waja way is different -- and probably easier!
The Word of the Lord Stands
Our goal is accurate and clear Bible translations that communicate the original meaning of the text to a new target audience. Many times, the Bible raises counter-cultural ideas that result in uncomfortable conversations. You may have had such conversations yourself, even without language barriers.
While we translate the Bible for new audiences, I am sometimes anxious about how it will be received. But this month I was reminded by the teams I'm serving that we also need to let the Bible say what it says. It will stand on its own and does not need our nervous temptation to make it say something else. And that's a good thing, especially in a world that feels so changeable.
Because God's Word doesn't need to be propped up by post holes or wooden bases. It stands forever.