Suna manna?

(September 30 is the United Nations’ International Translation Day. To celebrate this day and the importance of Bible translation, we are featuring this blog post written by one of our Translation Consultants, Jeff Green. The Canadian Bible Society is committed to the accurate translation of God’s Word; it’s not always easy, especially when a language doesn’t have the exact translation of the original text – Aramaic, Greek or Hebrew. The story below illustrates this challenge – and how translators arrived at the perfect word).

Two of the Inuit-language Bible translation projects with which the Canadian Bible Society (CBS) is currently involved are North Slope Iñupiaq, spoken in Alaska, and Eastern Arctic Inuktitut, spoken in Nunavut and the Nunavik region of northern Quebec. The first edition of the Inuktitut Bible was published in 2012, and CBS is currently helping Inuit translators work on a revision. The Iñupiaq New Testament was published by the American Bible Society in 1992, and CBS is helping with the Old Testament translation. We’re currently helping the translators work through the Pentateuch and Psalms.

I was checking the Iñupiaq translation of Exodus 16, the story of God providing manna and quail to feed his people after they left Egypt, when I came across an interesting translation problem to which the Inuit have a remarkable solution. The name mannainvolves a play on words in the original Hebrew of this passage: the Hebrew name for the food is man, which sounds like the Hebrew word “What?”, normally mah, but in Exodus 16.15 the word “what?” is man, just like the word for manna. When the Israelites first see manna, they exclaim, “What is it?”, in Hebrew: man hu’, and Exodus 16.31 reports that they named the food man, which is the question word “what?” they had used earlier. In other words, in Hebrew, the food is called “what?”.

This sort of wordplay is normally impossible to reproduce in translation. I’m not aware of any English translation which calls the food “what”, and I can imagine such a translation inspiring a sort of “Who’s on First?” routine:

“What’s the name of the food?” 
“The name of the food.” 
“What about it?” 
“What is its name?” 
“Yes, what?” 
“You got it!” …

But I digress.

Instead – wisely(!) – English Bible translations, if they convey this information at all, rely on footnotes to point out the reason for calling the food manna. The NIV footnote for Exodus 16.31, for example, says “Manna sounds like the Hebrew for What is it? (see verse 15).” We call it manna in English, instead of the Hebrew man, by the way, because Numbers 11.6-7 in the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, translates it as manna, and the New Testament (also written in Greek) likewise calls it manna, not man. Our English Bibles follow the example set by the Greek.

Coming back to the Inuit: what did they do when they encountered this translation issue? In both the Iñupiaq Bible translation and the Inuktitut Bible translation, the question “What is it?” in Exodus 16.15 was translated as Suna manna?” (Inuit languages are all closely related, so it’s not surprising that they could use the exact same words here.) Suna is the question word “what?”, and manna in these languages points to a mass or collection of items: “Suna manna?” means something like “What’s all this?”, which is exactly what one can imagine the Israelites in the story saying as they looked out at the manna-covered ground. These two Inuit languages not only include a word that sounds like manna, but it’s the perfect word to use in this situation!

About the Author:

Jeff Green is a translation consultant with the Canadian Bible Society. He has been involved in Bible translation since 2001. He and his family spent eleven years in Asia, where he served with Wycliffe/SIL as a linguist/translator, linguistics consultant, translation consultant, and as the coordinator of a network of Bible translation projects in the Himalayan region. Since joining CBS, most of Jeff’s work has involved consulting for Bible translation projects in Inuit languages, at the invitation of Inuit communities and churches. He and his family live in Oshawa, ON.

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