I recently returned from Africa, where I was working with a translation of the Gospel of Luke into a language that has had no previous Bible translation and a culture that has had very little contact with Christianity. I was not responsible for producing the translation into this language, but I was responsible for evaluating the translation. This was a very isolated language group, geographically and culturally. But the people were not what I would consider primitive. They are sophisticated in their own way. The traditional language and culture provided some key language for the translation that I would not have expected, including words for “altar,” “priest,” “miracle,” “holy,” “spirit,” “disciple,” “righteous,” “grace,” “savior,” and even “synagogue” (literally, their word for a meeting house).
As to be expected, there were some translation challenges when it came to certain terms for flora and fauna and geography. Though there are sheep and cows, this group has no donkeys or camels, and no words for them. It is possible to say “east” (the side where the sun rises) and “west” (the side where the sun sets), but no simple way to say “north” or “south.” Some concepts in the Bibe have to be translated as a phrase, such as “people mouth of God” for “prophets” and “woman death of man” for “widow.” (I believe these phrases come off sounding better in this language than they do in English.) It is just a fact of translation that you cannot always expect to have a matching target language word for every source language word, but that doesn’t render translation impossible.
I was fascinated to find out that in this language group, people ride cows. And their translation of Jesus riding into Jerusalem had him riding in on a cow. Interesting! Unfortunately, this was not historically accurate. I would only resort to borrowing a word if there is no other good option, because if you are borrowing words, you aren’t translating. However, in this case, we borrowed a word for “donkey” to say what Jesus rode into Jerusalem. The story of the Good Samaritan still has the Samaritan putting the injured man on a cow to take him somewhere where he can be fixed up. Some English translations like the NIV, CEV and NLT have “donkey” there, but the Greek has a more generic word.
This brings us to the verse in Luke that reads, in this language, “It is more easy for a hippo to pass in the hole of a needle than a rich person to accept that God can be king over him.” This is the English backtranslation of Luke 18:25. Interesting! Is this legitimate, or, for the sake of accuracy, do you have to insist that a word for “camel” be borrowed into the language to translate this verse? I have a hard time saying that the translation is not accurate and legitimate. I kind of like it, really. Now, obviously, if you were looking for a match for the Greek word κάμηλος, this target language word backtranslated as “hippo” wouldn’t seem to be a good match. But if you widen your perspective a bit, and don’t just look at words but rather at meanings in context, then in this particular context, a target language word for “hippo” is arguably a good translation of Greek κάμηλος.
In Bible translation, as in any kind of translation, there are norms that govern acceptable behavior. The norms don’t answer the question of what is and is not legitimate translation, which is very elusive to try to answer, but rather what is and is not considered acceptable in a community of practice. Granted, there are different subgroups, and not all Bible translators adhere to the same set of norms. But one norm in Bible translation that is widely–though not necessarily universally–accepted is that it is possible to take a little more liberty in translating an idiom, metaphor, proverb or parable, because the meaning of those language units is more than just the sum of the parts. I would argue that, for a language group that knows about hippos but not about camels, and based on testing with representatives of the target audience, it might be more accurately meaningful to translate Luke 18:25 using a target language word that corresponds to our English “hippo” than to try to find some way to use a word that corresponds to our English word “camel” that is not naturally a part of that language.