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The taxing art of translation

Baka bina good
Baka Bina - "Translation is really hard work, very taxing on the mind"


PORT MORESBY - I recently submitted a short story of mine to the Commonwealth Writers competition. It was written in Tok Pisin and I had translated it into English.

Ino long taim igo pinis, mi salim wanpela hap stori igo long Komonwelt Raitin Resis long ples bilong Misis Kwin. Mi raitim dispela stori long Tok Pisin na bihain mi mekim wok tanim tok na putim dispela stori ken long Tok Ingis.

I wrote it in Tok Pisin first then, paragraph by paragraph, rewrote it in English, trying to stick to the meaning as best I could.

Hawsat na me mekim olsem - raitim wanpela stori long tupela tok ples.  Mi raitim stori long Tok Pisin pastaim na bihain mi go long hap 'paragraph' (sorre, mi no tingim Tok Pisin nem bilong dispela hap toktok paragraph) na tanim tok igo long Tok Inglis wan wan paragraph. Mi traim insait long ol despela paragraph long istap klostu long 'meaning'.  Yu ken lukim howsat mi mekim long hap bilong stori mi tok mi salim igo long ples bilong Misis Kwin.

I applaud Dr Dom, because translation is really hard work, very taxing on the mind. Not so much the writing but the ideas that the words must carry, the meaning and the intent. 

I'd say it must have taxed Ed Brumby very much and I also say it is superb work he did in translation.

Mahn ya katim tok em mekim tru tru stret. Wonem tok, Dokta Maikol laik mekim, tanim tok em katim stret ya.

Here’s an extract and translation from my Commonwealth Writers story.


Na Mama Weh? Wonem Samtin Kamap Long Mama?

What Must Have Happened to Mama?

'Iyeno!' Kol bilong avinun ikam long baret na san igo daun klostu klostu long hap.  Klostu em bai go daun long silip.  Hangere bel bilong mi tanim tanim mekim mi lukluk go daun long hap weh mama isave stap long em.  Mi tingim, em bai stap klostu o longwe liklik.  Em taim bilong painim aut.

'Iyeno!' The afternoon chills followed the depression up and the sun was slowly setting to the west.  Soon it would sink behind the mountains to go to sleep.  I was very hungry when I looked down to see if I could find where mama would be.  I was wondering if she would be near here or at the far end of the garden. It was time to find out.

'Mama, Iyeno!' Mi singaut tu long tokples. 

'Mama, Iyeno!' I also called out in our language.

Mi sanap antap long maunten  na singaut isi igo down long baret.   Ples igo daun na mi save olsem liklik nek bilong mahn save ron igo daun na long wonem hap mama istap, em ken harim neck bilong me.

I stood at the edge of break going down to the garden and called out softly.  I knew that you just needed to call softly and the call would float down the gully to where mama would be and she could discern my voice. 

Nogat bekim ikam bek antap long mi.  Mi stap long het bilong  gaden na lukluk igo daun.  Mi traim tingim weh hap bai mi painim liklik samting bilong kaikai long holim bel. 

There were no replies back up to me.  I stayed at the head of the garden and looked down.  I tried to think where will I find things to eat to hold up my empty stomach.

Mi tingim laulau tasol em istap arasait long gaden na tu em bilong ol lain kasen bilong mi.  Nogut ol bel kross.  Mi lukluk igo long ples bilong ol guava.  Ino taim bilong guava tasol bai sans wanpela bai stap hait long ol lip. 

I thought about the laulau fruit across the fence in my cousin's garden.  I did not want to create any angst against me.  I looked towards where the guava trees grew.  It was guava season but I knew there would be a few off seasonal ones out of sight amongst the leaves.


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Philip Fitzpatrick

Paying a bride price places a positive value on the life of the bride and the relationship that she enters by marriage.

It makes her a valued member of her husband's clan and community and ensures she is treated well.

Bride price is not a simple act of purchase, as one might buy a tin of fish at a trade store. In that sense the Tok Pisin term 'baim meri' is inaccurate.

Unfortunately too many men nowadays take the term literally and consequently corrupt the tradition.

A lot of domestic violence can be traced to this misinformed proprietary interpretation of bride price.

A better term would focus on the idea of marriage, i.e., 'prais bilong marit' or 'marit prais' and not on the bride or the act of buying.

In Tok Pisin, the word 'baim' can mean 'buy' or 'pay'. The term 'baim meri' means to pay bride price - KJ

Lindsay F Bond

Michael, the sense of orderliness in the method(s) of exchange has elements of endearment. The principle would likely apply to other facets of 'tribal' encounters.

But my comment is to ask whether the transactions were facilitated by some 'device of exchange', such as rare items like shells from the sea.

Any precedent to the use of coin and printed foldables?

Michael Dom

Some thinking on the expression of written versus spoken text may be helpful at particularly tricky juncture for communicating clearly ideas/actions such as "peim meri and baim meri".

Literally, and strictly by custom too I suspect, we do not 'buy or pay for a woman' (that's akin to prostitution) we buy (more precisely exchange, but folks don't talk about that nere tere) or pay the expected, negotiated and agreed customary value of a woman's worth for the groom's family, and loss to her own thereof, i.e., brideprice.

Specifically, I suggest that in most instances we say 'yumi save baim/peim brideprice bilong ol meri' in reference to the entire customary process, whereas we may say 'yumi save baim/peim meri' in the context of speaking about bride price itself as a singular act devoid of it's cultural basis.

Perhaps the mix up is a result of the commercialization of this customary practice of bride price, the loss of it's fundamental social purpose, and the convenient commodification of women and references towards them in our language use, i.e., we buy/pay for women.

Actually, no. We buy or pay for the socially recognized value that the transfer of a woman from one family into another family means to us within the context of our communal livelihood.

Today we confuse that exchange with a cash payment based on personal lifestyle.

Baka Bina

Keith, ask an Engan what Kaim is. I think it is brother or something and is branded Engan.

I think it would be similar to the brand - Apo - all Eastern Highlanders or Kera for Simbus.

Sounds good to me, Cobber - KJ

Baka Bina

Yes, Kaim O, what you say is true. Each region has its own peculiarity with spoken and written Tok Pisin.

The more it is written, read and perhaps debated, perhaps we can have some rules - although that means some sheer hard work going forward.

It's both meaning and usage that are of concern. I would like to illustrate with peiim meri and baiim meri. These are to me the same things.

Putting out bride wealth at marriage and again after the instalment of the bride in her bridal village completes the act of bride price.

My reading of the act around securing a bride is based on my own particular cultural and traditional process and that is the meaning that I read into the words peiim and baiim.

These unfortunate words also have the ability to bring out unpolitically correct norms around them. They are an unfortunate placings of words that does not explain the intricacies around reviews and norms.

The relationship between tribes and villages and, for example, the issue of a person (the woman) dying in a foreign land where she was not born but adopted into by marriage is an important issue.

There are a host of other reasons why there has to be peiim and baiim.

So when Daniel writes peiim and baiim, while the words are correct and standard Tok Pisin, we both may be saying different things with different meanings.

The same with our 860 Tok Ples [traditional languages]. There needs to be some rules. Again some sheer but not impossible hard work - we just need to write a bit more and by many more other PNGns.

We need rules like while short form Tok Pisin is okay, the written form should be long form: for example, lo (spoken), long (written); blo (s), bilong (w); pla (s), pela (w).

And Kaim O, I have been blessed to have listened to Musau missionaries go 'hawzat', 'avinun', 'wonem', 'baimbai' na 'ah laka' over at the Seventh Day Adventist college that have captured me even though they are not standard Apo Tok Pisin.

I still add new words continuously.

And in adding 'Kaim', Baka, you've sent me on a scamper through the internet in an effort to pin down its meaning. Best I've come up with (and this only through deduction) is 'wantok', rendered in the Enga language. Put me out of my misery... - KJ

Daniel Kumbon

Correction to my comment in the second line of the Tok Pisin dialogue. It should read: "Mi no ting yu bai gipim pei na mekim olgeta samting long sem taim".

And KJ your translation is OK but not quite right and seems to imply that the girl is some sort of a commodity.

No, The Old Man pays bride price, as a man should in the traditional highlands context.

He transported pigs down the Highlands Highway to pay bridge price in addition to cash contributions from wantoks and his own money– but not to pay for her as commodity. He gave the girl, her mother and relatives the chance to decline his marriage proposal.

But the girl and her mother accept The Old Man’s proposal for marriage. She could have said no but sees The Old Man as a true gentleman.

Even though he is rich and could have easily sent a plane ticket to the girl and some money to her mother and fly the girl to Port Moresby, he opted to go to Lae instead, attend her graduation and pay bride price, Highlands style.

Let us wait and see if somebody else comes up with another translation before I write mine…..

Daniel Kumbon

How Tok Pisin is spoken and written varies from province to province. Words from Baka Bina’s article like hawsat, avinun, wonem are not how I would spell them.

Also, words from the local vernaculars can easily make their way into Tok Pisin. Students of Tok Pisin can very easily be confused if they read a pidgin translation from one part of the country to another.

I have used three languages in my new novel ‘The Old Man’s Dilemma: Love, Grief, happiness & Rebellion, A Modern-day Novel from PNG'.

Compare how I had translated these lines with how one could have done it if you are from another province or is living there.

It would be interesting to see how one can translate the Pidgin sentences to English. And from the Enga language translated to English and how that can be translated to Tok Pisin.

“Delisa mas kam wantaim yu. Mi no ting olsem yu bai wokim haus. Mi no ting olsem yu bai wokim bikpela mumu. Mi no ting yu bai gipim pein a mekim oldgeta samting long sem taim.

“Yu wanpela gutpela man. Mi laikim yu stret. Igat sampela man em ol stap longlong. Ol pipia man save lusim meri pikinini na ronawei wantaim yanpela meri. Nogat sem bilong ol.

“Ol man mas save olsem olgeta meri em wankain. Ol gutpela man save lukautim ol meri pikinini gut. Mi wanbel long yu soim gutpela pasin. Tenk yu tru long olgeta samting”

And the English translation…

"Delisa must come with you. I never expected a new house. I did not expect any big party. I did not expect any bride price payment all at the same time.

"You have demonstrated goodness. I admire you. There are other men who are foolish. They abandon their wives and children at the sight of new woman. Shame on them.

"Every man must understand that all women are of the same anatomy. Real men look after their wives and children well. I admire you for everything you have done. All men who abuse and mistreat their wives must learn from you. Thank you for everything."

Three paragraphs down, I use the Enga language when a ‘wantok’ says something to The Old Man to conceal the hidden message or advice as is sometimes the case among Engans and other Papua New Guineans. It may seem rude or disrespectful, but it’s the Enga way.

Now, here is the Enga sentence with the translation into English. How would one translate that to Tok Pisin?

“Wanaku naim diu lelyamin ongo kinde maipoko,” one of The Old Man’s wantoks called out in their Enga dialect. ('They are giving us the girl, go ahead and pay the bride price.')

Note: This all happens at Bumbu village on the edge of Lae city in Wopa Country when The Old man pays bride price for Delisa’s hand. The above text is taken from page 77-78 of my book.

How about 'Oli givim yangpela meri long mipela, nau yu ken gohet paiim mani long baiim em'. Daniel's novel, The Old Man's Dilemma, is a marvellous read about present day PNG and available from Amazon - KJ


Graham King

“Pasin Wes” is short for “Pasin bilong West New Britain”. Pasin bilong laikim, na halivim, na luksave istap. If you go to markets in Kimbe or Bialla there will be laplaps and t-shirts for sale with “West New Britain - Oil Palm Province - Pasin Wes tasol” printed on the shirt.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Interesting response, Graham.

So what does 'Wes' mean? West New Britain or west in general? If you're sitting in Mosbi 'wes' could mean Kerema or Daru or anywhere in between.

Speaking of which, how to you say 'east', 'west', 'north' and 'south' in Tok Pisin?

Hap sun ikamap = east, hap sun igo daun = west but what about north and south?

Graham capitalised 'West', so I assume he refers to 'the West', the rich white folk who cause the world so many problems - KJ

Graham King

Tenkyu tru. Nau mi save. Pasin Wes tasol.

Baka Bina

Atus loket! Tru tru o Graham, mi lus tingting olsem ol 'lauto' bai ino save long dispela nupela hap tok bilong ol Kombe, i isi isi kam insait long Tok Pisin.

Mi bin stilim tok bilong ol Kombe bilong West New Britain husat save usim dispela hap tok long 'expressim' nupela bel kirap or 'surprise'. Mangi Ariolo long Amerika save stori gut tru long ol Arowe na em putim planti stori long Facebook.

Ed Brumby

Just to add to Chris's always valuable and insightful comments......

Chinese languages are, indeed, phonemically tonal, in the sense that the tone (or 'pitch' if you like) used when saying a word (i.e. high, medium, low - rising, falling, level) indicates the meaning. For instance, 'ma' can mean 'horse', or can act as a question marker, depending on the tone.

Mandarin ('Putonghua'), the national language, has four distinct phonemic tones (or five according to some phoneticians). Cantonese ('Guangdonghua') has seven! (Which explains why, during two years in Hong Kong, I only ever mastered a handful of rudimentary Guangdonghua utterances.)

The trick, I was told during 30+ business visits to China - when I did acquire mastery of very basic Putonghua, was to ignore the tones, speak quickly and allow context to convey meaning.

Generally speaking, English is not phonemically tonal. We do, however, use tone and stress to convey different meanings. Consider, for example, how you would say: 'What?' versus 'What!'

As to 'creole' language(s), Chris's assumptions are largely correct - up to a point. While sources such as Wikipedia and Britannica support that view, it has been the view of linguists for quite a while now that creolisation occurs when a pidgin language like Tok Pisin becomes a mother tongue/first language - as in the case of a child born to a woman and man from different language groups who use Tok Pisin as their lingua franca. Thus, Tok Pisin has been creolised for 60+ years.

Chris Overland

In my previous comment on this article I erroneously attributed the translation of Baka's work to Ed Brumby.

I have become aware that, in fact, the original translation was done by Baka himself.

Ed was responsible for translating Michael Dom's essay on the Crocodile Prize and PNG literature.

I apologise to all concerned for my mistake.

Me too for not picking it up. I've now effected a minor change to Chris's comment to eliminate the error - KJ

Graham King

I would like to know the meaning of 'atus loket'. These words are not in my Mihalic dictionary.

In Bahasa Indonesia 'atus' means over and 'loket' means counter, but a literal translation (over the counter?) doesn't get me very far. Baka, put us out of our misery - KJ

Chris Overland

It is 50 years since I last spoke and heard Tok Pisin with any regularity. This, combined with the fact that the Tok Pisin I learnt would now be regarded as archaic, means that I have to concentrate very hard indeed to decipher modern Tok Pisin.

Translating written text from one language to another is a notoriously fraught activity. To do the job well, especially with fiction, the translator cannot simply do a literal translation. If that is done then the subtleties and nuances of words and expression will be lost.

As I recall, German is a language that is extremely difficult to translate into English unless the translator is fully aware of the meaning and intent of some of German's famously long compound words.

Most of us will have experienced technical instructions for equipment made in China. They are often said to be written in 'Chinglish', where a translator has made a valiant but not entirely successful attempt to turn Chinese words and expressions into English.

From what I gather, Chinese is a tonal language, where quite subtle changes in the way a word is pronounced can completely alter its meaning.

English is not a tonal language but is full of irregular spellings and loaded with synonyms which can make translation tricky.

Tok Pisin started life as a pidgin language. It was meant to be simple to learn and so dispensed with the more complicated forms of verbs and tense that occur in English. This necessarily made it a bit convoluted at times but, mostly, it is pretty clear and direct.

These days it is a genuine creole language, which I understand to mean a recognisable language constructed using both a variety of borrowed words and phrases as well as entirely indigenous words and expressions.

The charm of Tok Pisin lies in the expressions used to express certain ideas as in the above text. For example, 'em ken harim neck bilong mi' meaning 'she can discern my voice'.

A literal translation would not do justice to the meaning and intent of this phrase, so Baka has clearly striven hard to stay true to his intent.

Such work is important if writing in Tok Pisin is ever to come to the attention of the wider world. Only then will people from other countries be able to truly appreciate the often surprising delights of the language now spoken by most Papua New Guineans.

Baka Bina

Tenk you Barbara, mi lukim tasol, atus loket long em, stori mi salim pinis igo.

Ol lain husat mekim na makim resis long ples bilong Misis Kwin bai luksave o nogat, em stap nau long han bilong ol.

Planti taim mi save mekim dispela kain asua.

Barbara Short

Just one mistake... "It was not guava season...etc
Of course this in not Pesbuk Tok Pisin!

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