Wednesday Word: Eye of the Needle

image (c) Fernando Matias photographyI just sewed up a puzzling translation issue.

A year ago I wrote how we had run into a problem translating Jesus’ allegory about the eye of an needle. He said that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to let image (c) Twenty-Two Wordsgo of their selfish greed. No arguments there, right? (I know I have a very upscale readership, so… sorry, all you rich folks; I don’t mean to offend.)

Why would it be difficult to translate the ‘eye’ of a needle?

First of all, in Palawano, the ‘eye’ (mata) of a needle is its sharp tip. Metaphors are not universal across languages, you know. And for most of the people who speak this language, the eye (i.e. where the thread goes) is delang, which means ‘hole’ or ‘opening.’

But there is one region where the Palawanos do not use the word delang. It is vulgar to them and highly offensive. Think of a bodily orifice you might not mention in polite company. You simply would not say ‘the XXX of a needle.”

Okay, fine. I asked this group what word they used to describe the thread-hole of a needle. Ah, it’s the lesot (‘punture’) of the needle. Problem solved. But when I checked that with anyone else, this would mean a hole made by the needle in the cloth! Even when I asked, ‘Could this describe the eye of the needle?” they shook their heads in confusion and said no.

So now we were stuck. Should I use the vulgar word and spice things up for the minority group? Or should I use a word no one else understands?

Eventually a solution came to me. Palawano has specific verbs for most actions. And sure enough, there is a word tubo, which is used for the action of threading the thread (sarban) through the hole. (English is boring, and we “thread” the needle with the “thread,” using one word for both noun and verb.)

So we were able to use a form of the word that has the camel “threading itself” through the needle. No need to mention the eye/hole/puncture of the needle at all.

Sometimes, in translation, finding the right word is difficult. In fact, it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle…


About Bill Davis

Writer, speaker and translation and language learning consultant. I write technical articles, poetry and humor, and I am working on my first novel which is set on the island of Palawan in the Philippines.
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4 Responses to Wednesday Word: Eye of the Needle

  1. Don says:

    A Wednesday Word post on a Sunday? If you’re not careful, you’re going to create a reality-questioning existential crisis. I can already feel my grasp on the real world loosening…

    Really though, good post. I dunno what it would be in French, but I would definitely say ‘the XXX of a needle.’

    Is there a different word for a sewing needle and a hypodermic needle? The latter is the only one where I can imagine or understand calling the tip the eye.

    Then again, in English we have a fondness for calling any holes in inanimate objects ‘eyes’ – shoes (eyelets), hurricanes, etc… Do they do this in the local language?

    • Bill Davis says:

      You’re right.. .I should have held the draft til Wednesday, huh? I’m so behind on the blog, I guess I was over-zealous to publish. Welcome to the Twilight Zone (weird music begins…)

      They use ‘dagom’ here for sewing needle, and ‘tugsok’ for hypodermic needle and as a verb for ‘give a shot.’ Yes, we love ‘eye’ as the ’round opening’ of anything. Here they ‘eye’ for the sharp pointed tip of a needle or knife, and the sharp edge of the blade (especially near the tip) is the ‘mouth’ (perhaps because it ‘bites’?)

  2. Wow. That’s an interesting puzzle indeed. When coming across another language, translation isn’t the hardest part. It’s getting the message across, which means both putting the same emotions in the outcome, while not changing the text. Job well done in this case, I suppose!

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