Throwers of Cowries

newspaper-articleA newspaper headline in Côte d’Ivoire read:

Les pasteurs sont devenus des jeteurs de cauris

Here’s an accurate literal translation of that sentence from Google Translate:

Pastors have become throwers of cowries.

The newspaper article was in French, the official language of Côte d’Ivoire. It was quoting an Ivorian church leader who was criticizing the actions of certain pastors. I thought that this newspaper headline would be an interesting way to show some of the issues that a translator faces.

Many of you won’t know what the church leader meant. So what if pastors throw cowries? Why would a pastor throw cowries? Is that good or bad? What are cowries anyway?

Photo: Sodabottle (Wikimedia Commons)

Photo: Sodabottle
(Wikimedia Commons)

Cowries are small sea shells used widely in Africa and other places. They used to be used as money. In this photo, cowries are being used as dice in a game. Now you know what cowries are, but what does it mean to throw them? People from West Africa will know immediately what the church leader was saying. Throwing cowrie shells is a common tool of diviners – what we in the US call “psychics” or fortune tellers – people who tell the future, give advice or reveal secrets by interpretation of omens, by “reading” you, or by supernatural powers. Throwing cowrie shells is the functional equivalent of reading you, your palm, Tarot cards or tea leaves.

The church leader was decrying that some so-called pastors have abandoned the true Gospel and engage in fortune-telling calling it prophesy under the guise of Christianity. They call themselves prophets, make predictions of all kinds including political. They collect money from people, just like fortune tellers or psychics, in exchange for their revelations. Some make a very good living plying their trade.

The phrase “Les pasteurs sont devenus des jeteurs de cauris” evokes all of that. But for most of my readers, the literal translation “Pastors have become throwers of cowries” doesn’t. It is not a very informative translation. What might we do to improve it?

At a minimum, I suggest that we replace “cowries” with “cowrie shells”. While cowries can be found in the dictionary as the plural of cowrie,  the word is not that well known. For people who don’t know what cowries are, the translation “cowrie shells” tells them generally what they are – shells. The reader still might not know what shape, color or size cowrie shells have, but the reader will at least know they they are a kind of shell. We have not changed the meaning at all. “Cowrie shells” is a very good translation of the French word “cauris”. So our first improvement in the translation is

Pastors have become throwers of cowrie shells.

Next, we need to recognize that we are dealing with a relatively common translation challenge – translating an action whose meaning was clear in the language and context where the phrase was spoken or written, but which is not clear to the people for whom it is being translated. We are dealing with translating an unknown action. One of the techniques for translating an unknown action is to include the purpose or meaning of the action. So, if we want to make the translation more transparent, we can make explicit the purpose of throwing cowrie shells. We can do this in subtle or obvious ways. Here’s a subtle option:

Pastors have become readers of cowrie shells.

What we have done with this translation is translate the action “throw” by a word that tells the purpose of throwing. When the church leader said the sentence, he knew that he was talking about divination and he knew that his Ivorian audience would understand that. So, by translating the meaning of the action we are adding nothing to what he actually communicated at the time when he said the sentence.

The literal translation “throwers of cowries” has a stylistic problem as does “readers of cowrie shells”. We generally don’t phrase things that way. We would never say of a young lady who just got her driver’s license: “She has become a driver of cars”. That just sounds weird. We would not say or write “he has become a reader of books” or “she has become a player of golf” but rather “he now reads books” and “she has started playing golf”. The translation “have become readers of cowrie shells” has this same un-English awkwardness. If we repackage the same information in a sentence that sounds like normal English we get:

Pastors now read cowrie shells.

But not everyone will understand the idea behind reading cowrie shells. Some will get get the connection to “reading” Tarot cards or tea leaves, but others won’t. Besides, the church leader did not literally mean that pastors throw cowrie shells. He was using throwing cowries to mean divination in general. He was including so-called prophets who never actually throw cowrie shells. So if we were to take the translation a step further, we could translate the purpose of throwing cowries even more explicitly with a translations like:

Pastors have become fortune tellers.
Pastors are now fortune tellers.

Or we could split the difference and keep the throwing of cowries and make the purpose explicit with a translation like:

Pastors have become cowrie-throwing fortune tellers.

We have choices for “fortune tellers”. We have the more technical but less well-known term “diviners” or the broader term “psychics”. I think that “fortune tellers” is more exact than “psychics” and better known than “diviners”. Besides, “fortune tellers” has a bit of a negative connotation which fits the pastor’s critique.

How far can we go in making the meaning clear? The following translations are very clear, but they are not acceptable:

Pastors have started reading tea leaves
Pastors become readers of tarot cards

These translations explain the meaning, but they introduce factual inaccuracies. Tea leaves and tarot cards are not widely known arts of divination in Ivory Coast. This translation implies that they are. The church leader was referring to a specific common practice, we can’t substitute and another practice that is not common as though it were. We have made the pastor’s meaning explicit, but at the expense of a factual problem. If the sentence we were translating were telling of a person throwing actually cowrie shells, we would be more constrained in our translation for the same reason. But in this case, the pastor was not recounting an actual incident of someone throwing cowrie shells. Instead he was comparing some pastors to the general category of people who are “throwers of cowries”.

A consideration in the translation is the fact that the church leader used a comparison. He could have said “Pastors have become diviners”, but he didn’t . He said something more evocative, something more poetic when he compared them to the practitioners of a long-established and traditional method of divination. Perhaps our translation should reflect that. Here’s a translation that tries to do that:

Pastors have reverted to being old-fashioned, cowrie-throwing fortune tellers.

This translation captures the fact that by saying “throwers of cowries” the church leader was saying that there has been a regression to old practices. For me, this translation is the best at evoking the mental image the church leader intended and it also captures his disdain. But it takes us quite a ways from the original text. It is more of a commentary or an explanation than a translation. My preferred translation would stick closer to the text :

Pastors have become fortune tellers.

But this is only my preferred translation if the translated sentence appears in a daily newspaper in the US. If I were translating it for a daily newspaper in Ghana where the official language is English, I would use the literal Google translation because the Ghanaians who read the newspaper will understand all that was meant by the phrase “throwers of cowries”. If I were translating this phrase for a professional journal for anthropologists, I would use the literal translation because they have the academic background to know what it means. In fact, in such a case I might put the original French in the text and the English translation in a footnote. If I were translating it for a paper for a college class, I would use the literal translation and explain its meaning in a footnote. That doesn’t work in newspapers because they don’t have footnotes. If I were translating the phrase for a Christian magazine in the US, I would use “Pastors have become fortune tellers” and include the literal “throwers of cowries” in a footnote or in parenthesis if the editor allowed. So my choice of translation would depend on the knowledge of the most likely readers of the publication in which it would appear and what the editor of the publication allows.

So, what is the “best” translation? Well, it depends. The best translation is one that respects the original, that the  intended audience is most likely to understand they way the church leader meant it and which fits in the style of the publication where it will appear.