Return of the Bicycle Horses!
Over a year ago, I learned a new term for Pharaoh's chariots from the Waja Bible translation in Exodus (read about it here!)
Leave it to the bicycle horses to rear their heads again in Daniel 7!
I watched as thrones were put in place and the Ancient One sat down to judge. His clothing was as white as snow, his hair like purest wool. He sat on a fiery throne with wheels of blazing fire, and a river of fire was pouring out, flowing from his presence. Millions of angels ministered to him; many millions stood to attend him. Then the court began its session, and the books were opened.
Above is the NLT English translation - and there are no chariots, horses, or bicycles in sight. This chapter of Daniel is a glimpse into God's heavenly throne room, and we can see right away that it's difficult to capture in human language. Translated from Aramaic, some of these phrases still leave us a little foggy - what does this Judge really look like?
More specifically, what about this "fiery throne with wheels of blazing fire and a river of fire pouring out, flowing from his presence?" It sounds like an overblown cover illustration from a fantasy novel!
Layers of Translation
When checking a Bible translation for accuracy and clarity, a translation consultant usually uses a back translation to see what the target language says. In this case, the Waja team and I both speak English, so they graciously translate their Waja version back into English for my benefit. Then I can ask questions about the meaning and naturalness when I need clarification on what their Waja version says. After all, they are the experts in their own language!
Just like a game of Telephone or the distortion of running familiar song lyrics through too many layers of Google Translate, sometimes back translations can sound a bit strange. I love this about language - it is impossible to create a one-to-one correspondence across languages because each one is unique. We do the best we can to get as close as we can to the intended meaning, but back translations can produce some pretty amusing results!
Here is the back translation of the Waja description of God's fiery throne:
"He sits on the ruling throne with fire. Its legs are like bicycle horses with fire coming out."
We seem to have left the epic fantasy novel genre and emerged from the rabbit hole into a cartoon Wonderland. ...with fire.
If you remember the first time I encountered bicycle horses in back translation, you'll know that they are the closest Waja rendering for "chariots" - a two-wheeled vehicle that can carry a person, pulled by horses.
But where did this throne get its legs?!
When I asked the translators, they laughed and said that the Waja word for "legs" also means "wheels."
Not knowing their language, I was skeptical:
"Do you mean that bicycles have legs?" "Yes." "And cars?" "Yes." "...So if your car got a flat tire and needed to be fixed...?"
"Its leg is broken."
We all laughed at that. But it helped me to understand their translation. To describe this fiery throne as having wheels like a chariot, they had accurately rendered "legs like bicycle horses" in their language. It may sound fantastical to me, but they are the experts in Waja!
Speakers Know Their Language
Many of us think of grammar and language as something we learn in school: nouns, verbs, punctuation, RULES. But language is living, and anyone who speaks a language from childhood knows more about how that language works than they consciously realize. In fact, there is an entire field of study called neurolinguistics dedicated to finding out what we don't know that we know about language!
Bible translation teams often think of translation consultants as the "experts" because of the requirement for consultants to be trained in biblical languages, exegesis, translation techniques, and they usually have field experience with many different projects. There is a resulting tendency for translators to want to yield to the consultant's suggestions.
I try to remind the translators I work with that they are the experts in their language. I ask questions to understand that language better and can make suggestions based on what I have seen other translation teams do, but ultimately they are the only ones who can decide what communicates best in their own languages. I see my role as encouraging and empowering the translators to discover what they don't realize they already know, to be creative with their language, and have the freedom to translate the Bible in a way that speaks clearly to their people.
I doubt there is any other language on earth that would describe God's throne as having "legs like bicycle horses!" But just as each human being reflects the image of our Creator God, each human language communicates his Truth in its own way. I feel blessed to see and share those images of the one true God with you as we bring his Word to every language on earth.