Revelation 3.20 tells us that Jesus stands at the door and knocks: “Look! I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends.”
But what if you live in a culture where there were no “doors” and, instead of “knocking,” people coughed to get your attention? That was the situation in the Kewa culture of Papua New Guinea where Joice and I and our children lived for many years.
We built a house with a door, but the nearby men’s house did not have a door. It was a low gable-roofed house, which was open at the front. A large log was placed across the entrance and women and visitors could come and sit on the log, but not go inside. The women would bring sweet potato and food for their husbands and, while sitting on the log, hand the food to the men inside. Inside the house was a large open “room” with a fire table in the middle. Further on were small cubicle-like rooms where the men slept and kept their belongings.
There were houses that the women and pigs stayed in that had openings, what we would call “doors” that were boarded at night with horizontal pieces of wood. This so-called door was called a “pora,” the same name as a “path” or (later) a “road.” Paths or roads led to dwellings which had openings and both the path and the opening were the “pora.”
Although we had two doors (front and back) to our bush house, the people did not knock to let us know they were there and wanted to see us. Instead, they coughed. Some learned where our bedroom was and even late at night, when it was dark inside and out, a man (usually) would stand outside the cane-woven wall by our bedroom and cough. I knew the person wanted something, so in the language I would say “who is it? Speak.” A man might want to know if he could borrow a tool or if we were sending any carriers to the mission or government station the next day. Sometimes the person had a problem and wanted some advice—anything was fair game to discuss once the cough was acknowledged.
When translating Revelation 3:20 into Kewa I would have liked to use “cough” instead of “knock,” but I knew that wouldn’t pass the scrutiny of the Greek scholars who would check my translation. I might be burned at the stake (metaphorically, I hoped). I also knew that “knock” would be translated literally as “hit” and Jesus could be interpreted as making a forced entry. I ended up using an expression that is literally, “I at the path (door) stand and am banging on it.” Not very elegant, but it was obvious that Jesus wanted in and that he was waiting for you to acknowledge that he was there.
Bible translation is like that: we must understand the culture to know how the people are going to grasp what is translated. Hebrew and Greek have words for “door” and “knock” that correspond roughly to what we think of when we hear the words in English and all English versions use those words. One adds “of the church” after door and “continuously” before knock but all assume, because of our cultural knowledge as English readers, we will know what the words “knock” and “door” mean.
That is not always the case in Bible translation and there are nuances everywhere. If I use the word “brother” in Kewa, it encompasses a much larger set of men than in English. What we would call first cousins are “brothers” (or “sisters”) to the Kewa and although we might call someone as “aunt” (say, mother’s sister), that relationship is like a “second mother” (with a special name) to the Kewa.
There are hundreds and hundreds of instances like those I have mentioned, which is why it took Joice and I so long to learn to speak Kewa with some degree of fluency. We lived and participated in the Kewa culture, so we learned words from their context—the only dictionary was the one we were constructing. (There is now one we put online at www.webonary.com, under Papua New Guinea and Kewa.)
Another example: When we first worked with the Kewa in 1958 they had never heard of “bread.” Sweet potato was the staple, so could we translate Jesus as saying “I am the sweet potato of life”? We can paraphrase it that way for teaching, but we used “bread” in the translation and now (over 60 years later) there is lots of bread around. But there is no wine, so what should/did we use? I’ll leave that for you to think about.
Vocabulary evolves according to cultural changes and need. Most often, words our borrowed, like English has always done—from Latin, French, German, Greek, Spanish, American Indian languages, and so on. We usually add our own accent and spelling but often we need to ask what the word “means.” Bible translation employs similar techniques to pass along the “Good News.” And it is only “good news” if people clearly understand the message.