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Obviously the people were interpreting a direct quote as indirect speech. I believe that the language in question was Bariba. Pike devotes several pages in his 1966 book on African languages to the factors which determine the choice between direct vs. indirect speech in Bariba, involving such things as the relative prominence of the speech act participants on the person-animacy hierarchy. He does not spell out what the grammatical difference between the two is, but in an obscure footnote he mentions that indirect speech is preferred and expected for reporting statements that are believed to be true.

Reported speech has been a source of difficulty in a number of other African languages as well. In some cases the use of the logophoric pronoun has caused problems. Other languages have a very productive and widely used category of “semi-direct” speech. Some translators have been reluctant to use this “semi- direct” form in their translations, even in contexts where they would always use it in natural speech, because they feel obligated to match the direct or indirect speech of the source text. The point is, every detail of grammar is potentially significant. The LFG implementation of large scale grammars for English, French, German, etc. has (I believe) instilled an ethos which takes the details seriously; they all have to be accounted for.

My own first attempt at translation came roughly two months after I began to study the Kimaragang language. I was asked to return to the state capital to help teach a seminar on translation principles. I was lecturing in the mornings, and in the afternoon the participants were practicing on short passages from the book of Acts, using a simplified Indonesian version as the source text. One of the participants turned out to be a Kimaragang; he spoke a dialect significantly different from the one I had been studying, but I could make out a fair bit of what he said.

One of the assigned passages was a somewhat bizarre story from a very early period in church history, when the small band of believers were practicing a kind of voluntary communism (or communalism), sharing their possessions with each other. A certain couple decided to sell a piece of land that they owned, keep part of the money and donate the rest; but to pretend that they were donating the full price. When the husband brought the money to St. Peter, Peter asked him: “Is this the full amount you got for that land?” The husband said “Yes.” Peter said, “Why are you doing this? The land was yours, and after you sold it you were free to do whatever you like with the money. You are not lying to me, but to God.” Immediately the husband fell down dead, and the young men wrapped up his body and carried him out to bury him. Some time later the wife came in, not knowing what had happened; the same conversation was repeated, with the same result.

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