Friday, July 18, 2014

Bread, Rice, and Bible Translation

Image source.

So I'm reading Psalm 102, and verse 4 says, "My heart is struck down like grass and has withered; I forget to eat my bread."

But my bible has both English (ESV with British spellings) and Chinese (Chinese Union Version, simplified characters) side by side. The Chinese version ends verse 4 with "我忘记吃饭", which, hold up, means I forgot to eat rice.

Or, not exactly. See in Chinese, "吃饭 [chī fàn]" means eat a meal. But the "饭 [fàn]" part comes from the word for rice, because, you know, if you're eating a meal but there's no rice... what are you doing?

You're confusing this baby, that's what you're doing. Image source.

(That's not entirely true. Noodles are a common substitute for rice. And I can think of a few other common Chinese meals that normally wouldn't include rice.)

But my point is, in modern Chinese, "吃饭 [chī fàn]" means eat a meal, which may or may not include rice, though the origin of this term assumes that you're eating rice.

So why does the ESV say "I forget to eat my bread"?

Well let's have a look at some other English translations. Here, I found a whole list. Some say "bread," some say "food," and there's even one that says "I have lost my appetite."

So I'm thinking, the original text in Hebrew probably said "bread" (yep, confirmed), but some translations changed it to "food" because they want to get across the idea that this is a staple food that is not being eaten, and in modern Western culture maybe bread is not as staple-y as it was for the psalmist.

And in Chinese culture, nope bread is not a staple at all. Rice is your staple. Bread is kind of like a dessert.

But my stomach needs bread every day or I don't feel full, so I'm always making sandwiches for myself (it is HARD to find decent sliced bread here!) or going to bakeries to get little bread-type pastry things (though if you're coming from an American/western perspective, whatever you just imagined when you read "bread-type pastry things" is definitely NOT what they have in the Chinese bakeries).

And I get Chinese colleagues asking me all the time, "How can you eat so much bread???!!!" and "You need to eat other things too!" No, seriously guys, Americans eat bread every day. Chinese people eat rice every day. It's the same idea.

But anyway. If the Chinese translation of the bible said bread here, that would totally miss the point of the verse. (It would be like if the English one said "I forget to eat my rice." Us Americans would read that and go "so? I mean we eat rice sometimes but no big deal, you don't like need to eat it.") In that case, "吃饭 [chī fàn]" is a good translation.

But hey, let's check out some other Chinese translations!

Chinese New Version: "我連飯也忘了吃。" "I even forgot to eat." This one again uses that word "饭 [fàn]" which means meals in general but people will assume you're talking about rice with a side of something.

Chinese Contemporary Bible: "我茶饭不思。" Hey this is a fun one! Apparently "茶饭不思" is a 成语 [chéng yǔ], a four-character Chinese idiom! "茶 [chá]" means tea, "饭 [fàn]" means, well, we talked about that, and "不思 [bù sī]" means not thinking about something. So together, it's an idiom that means you totally lost your appetite. Kind of a fun modern translation there, I guess.

In summary, translation is hard. But also really interesting. Maybe the more literal the translation is, the more culture you need to know to actually get the meaning.


This post is part of a link-up on the topic of Psalm 102. To read other people's posts, click here: Do people of faith struggle with pain?

1 comment:

  1. I'm a little behind and just getting to this now. I love that you explored translation. And I think you're right on- translators have to dance between being accurate with the word itself and with the tone or presumed intent of the word, as it would have been heard by the earliest readers. Which is why The Message translation has so many Western idioms (like "kill 2 birds with one stone.") Eugene Peterson wanted to help us realize that the Bible, which sounds like "high" language to us, was actually written in ordinary vernacular.

    One translation resource I really like using is When you look up a verse, and click on the word in English, it takes you to the dictionary definition of that word in its original language. Which not only gives you meaning, but links to other times it's used, and how often it's used. It helps a lot to see which words are rare, or hard to translate, or are connected to other words in ways we might not see in English. (or Chinese!)

    So glad to be back on this Psalms Journey- and to have you back with me!