As I looked over the first draft of the Kimaragang version of this story, I felt that the translator was doing a pretty good job until he got to the part where the husband falls down dead. At that point I realized that he had switched into a literal, nearly word-for-word rendering of the Indonesian. The two languages are very different in their structure, and the result seemed very unnatural and confusing to me. So I volunteered to fix it up, based on my two-months acquaintance with a related dialect. When the man read what I had written, he agreed: “Yes, that does sound better. Of course, if we say it that way people will think that the husband fell down dead, then he picked himself up and wrapped up his own body, carried himself out and buried himself.”
Some years later, in the process of writing a dissertation about Tagalog, I think I finally figured out what went wrong. I had used pro-drop expecting it to signal subject continuity. But instead it was interpreted as indicating agent continuity. In these languages, as in most languages, agents tend to be highly topical in narrative. But because in Kimaragang (as in many Philippine-type languages) the agent is frequently not the grammatical subject, topic continuity is often not reflected by subject continuity.
Topic and focus are important issues in translation. I once heard a man named Roger van Otterloo talk about his initial attempts at translation in Kifuliru, a Bantu language of Zaire/Congo. They were beginning with one of the passages that talks about defending the rights of widows, orphans and foreigners. Roger proposed wording that simply said, “Don’t steal from widows,” and all the men with him began to laugh. He was afraid that he had perhaps gotten a tone wrong and said something improper, but he discovered that the problem was more interesting. Basic word order in Kifuliru, as in most Bantu languages, is SVO. But the immediate post-verbal position is also a structural focus position. So when he said “Don’t steal from widows,” the people heard “Don’t steal from widows” (implying: “anyone else is fair game”).
Nowadays everyone talks about topic and focus, but LFG was one of the first syntactic frameworks to integrate these pragmatic functions into the formal rule system. Joan Bresnan in particular was one of the pioneers in this area. I think this is a significant contribution to the field as a whole.
I once spent several months as an advisor to a committee of translators from one of the Land Dayak languages of western Borneo. They had been producing very literal renditions of the English Good News Bible, and I wanted to give them some sense of what a more natural style would look like; so I asked one of them to tell the story of Jonah and the whale in his own words. When he got to the point where the sailors ask Jonah how they can save themselves from the storm, he said (in Land Dayak): “Jonah told the sailor to throw himself into the sea.” I was surprised and asked who exactly ended up in the water, but it turned