Grace Lost in Translation

SebbySebby, the translator from Sumo, got my attention and said, “I want to understand ‘grace.’”

This is why I’m here, I thought. But then I thought, am I up to the challenge? I can carry a conversation in Pidgin, but the original word in the Bible (χάρις) has so much meaning packed into it that it’s hard for people to understand even in English. How was I going to explain it in Pidgin, a less precise language than English?

Well, I thought, a lot of people in Biblical times didn’t understand the word either. That’s why Paul went out of his way to explain it. So I turned to Ephesians 2:8-9 and worked through that text with Sebby, discussing some of what the grace of God is and isn’t: It’s not something that comes from ourselves. It’s a gift from God. It’s not something you can work for. It’s not anything we can brag about.

It seemed like Sebby got it. But then he used “mercy” several times instead of “grace” in the Pigin translation of the text—All the translators here translate for their own languages and then translate that back to Pidgin. I went to our project leader Ben Pehrson and said, “Either he’s not getting the concept, or there’s something we’re not understanding in his language.”

“See if you can draw out what his language is doing,” Ben said.

So I spent an hour or two giving Sebby different scenarios in Pidgin involving compassion, mercy, and grace to see which Bouni word he would use to describe each case. He used the Bouni word morai every time until the last scenario. I said, “Suppose an American comes and gives you a car. He doesn’t know you, he just wants to give it to you.”

“Free?” Sebby asked.

“Free,” I said.

“We would use o main” (pronounced “o mayn”).

Great! We had the word for “grace.” However, the literal translation for o main is “think sorry.” Sebby had started to translate this literally in his Pidgin back translation of the text. But “think sorry” in Pidgin does not mean “grace.” It means “mercy.”

Sebby and I had to work through the issue using bits and pieces of four languages: English, Greek, Bouni, and Pidgin. But once Sebby understood what was happening, he was more than willing to fix it.

English mercy,


Greek ἔλεος

ἐλεέω, ἐλεάω

Bouni morai o main
Pidgin (literal) tok sori tok sori
Pidgin (meaning) tok sori marimari


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