Put the most important last

Consider these two sentences:

Why she married him I really don’t know.
I really don’t know why she married him.

The first carries a lot more emotional content than the second. If the person speaking wanted to make clear their complete disagreement with the woman’s choice, the first sentence works better. It puts “why she married him”at the front whereas it would normally come at the end – something grammarians call fronting.

But not all languages use fronting for emphasis. Languages here do the opposite. My boss in Ghana and the Director of the national organization we work for, GILLBT, says that the organization has a three-fold heritage – language development, literacy and Bible translation. On more than one occasion I have heard him mention to other Ghanaians that it is important to put Bible translation last because it is the most important. That’s because in Ghana, the most important words come last. It was the same way in Congo – the most important words came at the end.

Consultant advising translators to put "blessed" at the end

Consultant advising translators to put “blessed” at the end

Recently, I sat in for part of a workshop on the translation of the book of Romans. A translation consultant was giving instructions to translators from five languages. One piece of advice he gave concerned the following verse:

Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves (Romans 14:22)

He asked the translators to think about how to translate this verse, specifically where they would put the word “blessed”. They indicated that they would put it at the end, something like:

The one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves; he is blessed

Why? Because the important bit needs to come at the end in the languages here. The consultant warned them not to weaken the verse or make the translation awkward by keeping the word “blessed” at the front. He mentioned that the same thing applies when translating the beatitudes.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
(and so on) (Matthew 5:2-12)

Blessed with emphasis are the first words in English. In the languages of Ivory Coast, the last words are the ones so blessed.

3 thoughts on “Put the most important last

  1. Pingback: Saying it back to front – the right way! | John 20:21

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s