Eddie and Sue Arthur

What Does A Translation Consultant Do?

Sue and I each have our own offices in spare bedrooms in our house. Sue normally works in silence, whereas I prefer some background music while I read and write. This week, things are different.

I’m not playing any music and from behind the closed door of Sue’s office, I can hear numerous voices (including Sue’s) all speaking French and the chirping of tropical birds. This week, Sue is checking the translation of the book of Ephesians into the Guéré language of Ivory Coast.

But what on earth does that mean?

Keeping things simple, there are two essential aspects to a translation; firstly that people can understand it and secondly that it means the same thing as the original.

You test whether the translation can be understood, by reading it to people who don’t know the original passage and asking them questions about it. This needs to be done with a community of speakers of the language in question and is often referred to as testing or even village testing.

Sue’s job is looking at whether the translated text means the same as the original Greek text of Ephesians. This process is usually called consulting and requires the input of someone who knows something about the original text and who has experience in translation. This person, the consultant, is the one who signs the translation off as ready to be published; this is Sue’s job.

Does This Mean Sue Speaks The Languages She Is Consulting For?

In an ideal world, there would be experienced translation consultants who spoke every language on the planet. However with Bible translation going on in around 2,000 languages as we speak, that just isn’t practical. This makes Sue’s job harder, but not impossible. For the past few weeks she has been closely studying a back-translation of Ephesians in Guéré. That is a literal re-translation of the Guéré text back into French. She has highlighted areas where the may be issues that need looking at and made a list of questions that she needs to ask the team. Thankfully, Guéré is is in the same language family as Kouya, so this makes things a little easier.

IMG_1849So this week, she is meeting with the team by Skype and working through the text of Ephesians verse by verse, asking questions as she goes. The team she is working with includes the original translators, but also someone from outside of the translation team who is less attached to the translated text than those who have worked so hard to produce it. Sue asks the questions that she has prepared in advance and also has to be aware of other issues that crop up as she is talking with the team. Some passages are fine and the team move through them quickly. Then again, there can be periods of long discussion as the team wrestle with a particularly difficult word or passage. Sue’s job is to ask questions and to use her experience from other languages to prompt the team to think of alternate ways to express the things they are struggling with.

Sue and the team speak French together, but the team will break into Guéré among themselves as they discuss different issues. Meanwhile, Sue has French, English, Kouya,Guéré and Greek texts on the screen in front of her as well as a number of guides to translating Ephesians. Back in the day when we were working on Kouya, consultants always used to turn up with piles of books, but multiple screens on a laptop do the job today (Sue is working on two laptops in the picture as she hasn’t finished transferring everything to her new one).

Wouldn’t It Be Better to Meet Face-To-Face?

It is always better for consultants to meet with translation teams face-to-face, but it isn’t always practical. It would cost a fortune to fly Sue to Ivory Coast for a few days work and while Skype isn’t perfect it is adequate. When working with new teams, who have very little translation experience, face-to-face work is essential, which is why Sue makes regular trips to Madagascar. However, with a group like the Guéré team who have more experience and who are used to working with consultants, Skype will do.

However, consulting is a tiring and stressful activity. Working in numerous languages and paying attention to every verse takes a lot of concentration. Doing this with people you can’t see, while having to deal with the fragility of international internet connections is blooming hard work.

Why Do This?

Very simply, because God’s Word is important. We need to know that people can understand what the text says and we need to know that the text is an accurate representation of what Paul wrote. It is worth taking time to get this right. In general, testing, consulting and revising the text takes longer than the initial draft of a translation.

I’m very proud of my wife!

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2 Comments on “What Does A Translation Consultant Do?

  1. Really interesting to hear about that process – particularly about the kind of “mini bible study” and the backtranslation!

  2. I Read this on the same day I read a post on Bill Mounce’s blog (about choosing the right word to convey something in James I think) and together they just made me realise just how much effort that so much people have gone through to give me a decent translation in my language, and how important it is that people are pushing forward with other languages too. Just humbling really.

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