What It Takes To Translate the Bible

I love this diagram by my friend Jason Ramasami which comes from the latest Wycliffe magazine, Words for Life. There is so much going on in the picture that I suspect everyone will focus on different bits; but the things that stick out to me are:

  • It is God who is at the centre of everything; breathing life into the work.
  • Despite being sovereign and central to the work, God also responds to the prayers of his people.
  • Clearly, translation isn’t a work for the Lone-Ranger, it takes a big team.

Of course, any diagram like this is only an illustration and can’t cover all of the aspects of translation work. If it were really accurate there would be so many people doing lots of different types of ‘something else’ that you wouldn’t be able to make anything out.

The point of the diagram is to highlight the different ways in which people in the UK can contribute to Bible translation work and it does a brilliant job of that. My one, slight, reservation is that it doesn’t really reflect the leading role mother-tongue speakers in the the translation process – perhaps that’s a subject for another diagram in the future.

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A Church Divided

Even more regrettably, modern denominational divisions are often driven by crass motives of money, power, and pride. Often, new denominations are created simply as ways to exercise control and power by a person or faction, and then justified by some obscure doctrinal rationale. All this makes a mockery of the church’s witness. So the existence of more than 40,000 denominations in the world is not only a measure of flagrant disobedience with respect to God’s desire for the Church; the paths that have led the church to this reality are littered with sin. Our contemporary practice shamelessly violated biblical teachings in ways unimaginable to those who wrote the New Testament  and to leaders of the early church.

From Times Square to Timbuktu by Welsey Granberg-Michaelson (p.15).

One of the reasons I enjoy working in Bible translation is that our work generally does not have a denominational basis, indeed it can serve to bring believers from different backgrounds together; I wrote this in a blog post 8 years ago, but it is as true today:

Bible translation is one area in which Christians from different confessions can unite in order to advance the Gospel. The Scriptures are above our theological differences; there is no premillenial Bible as opposed to a post or amillenial one. The faithful translator strenuously avoids placing their personal slant or theological spin on their work – and where inevitable mistakes occur there is a rigorous checking procedure to ensure faithfulness to the original. If we are truly Christians, of whatever background, our concern must be to make God’s revealed word available to the millions of people around the world who still can’t read the book in their own language. Placing the Bible and God’s desire to communicate through it, above our own theological and cultural convictions is a liberating experience. It allows Christians who might never meet or who might, in other circumstances, be hostile to one another to work together towards a cause that is bigger than them and their secondary convictions.

People Groups: Why Bother? No, I Really Do Mean It!

You know what? I’m far from convinced that the idea of ethno-linguistic groups is a useful one for most Christian mission thinking. Before you call in the missio-heresy police, let me explain.

In a recent post on Mission in the 21st Century (which I unpicked here) Al Mohler made the following statement:

The new vision for world missions is directed toward the reaching of people groups rather than nations. Missiological focus upon the nation-state is a remnant of the nineteenth century, when nations were conceived as singular units and national identity was paramount. This paradigm was long out of date by the end of the twentieth century. Christians now recognize that there are thousands of distinct people groups, each identifiable by culture, language, and social structure–and they are not always divided neatly by political boundaries.

The problem for Dr. Mohler, is that the paradigm of people groups was running up against its “sell by date”  by the end of the twentieth century. He has discarded one long out of date paradigm to replace it with one that is (at best) on its last legs.

Firstly, the notion of people groups identifiable by culture, language and social structure is far too simplistic. You can’t divide people up this way any more than you can divide them into neat, homogeneous nation states. Let’s take a nice easy example, the Kouya of Ivory Coast; there are only about 14,000 of them, so things can’t be too complex, can they?

There are twelve or thirteen Kouya villages, but in three of them very few people speak Kouya; mostly they speak the neighbouring language, Gouro. Then around 10% of the Kouya population live away from the area in cities and towns where the linguistic and cultural situation is extremely complex – we will return to this. Even within this small group you can identify at least three language and culture groups. Things get even more complex if you try and classify bigger groups as having shared language, culture and structure. Sorry, it just doesn’t happen.

Singapore Sunset

Secondly, such homogeneity as  does exist is being eroded by urbanisation. Over 50% of the world’s population now live in cities where ethnic and linguistic identity is thoroughly up for grabs. I have Kouya friends who are married to people from other ethnic groups and who are bringing up their children as French speakers. The kids’ “mother tongue” is not actually the language of their mothers. This sort of thing happens over all the world; cities are melting pots where ethnic and linguistic identities are lost and redeveloped within generations. The classic case of this is the “melting pot” of the United States; it is strange therefore that it tends to be Americans who propagate the idea clearly defined ethnic groups.

OK. I realise that I have overstated my case somewhat. Despite the pressures that I have mentioned, it is still possible to identify a Kouya as a Kouya; at least in the rural areas. It’s also true that some ethnic groups manage to maintain a distinct identity despite living in a large, multicultural setting. That’s why I said this paradigm is near it’s “sell by date”, it hasn’t quite got there yet.

What does this mean for mission strategy? It seems to me clear that Bible translators will always need to have some sort of linguistic criteria to work with; but BIble translation is a fairly specialised – not to say unique – sort of mission work. It isn’t typical.

One of the sadder things that I come across in mission literature are the check lists of ‘unreached people groups’ (or UPGs). These purport to be lists of every ethno-linguistic group on the planet, with information on whether there is a Christian witness in those groups, often accompanied by the implication that when every box is ticked, Jesus will return. So what’s the problem?

  • As I showed above, the classification of the groups is blurry at best.
  • The information about which group has been “reached” is incomplete at best. I remember seeing one list which described a particular group as having ‘no Christian presence’ which was a surprise as Sue was working on Scripture translation with the local church at the time.
  • More importantly, by fixating on ‘ethno-linguistic’ groups, we are likely to miss the spontaneous urban “tribes” and new groupings which arise in different settings. Martin Lee of Global Connections wrote this:

I personally have a huge problem with how some people deal with the issue of unreached people groups and  the focus on ethnicity as if that is the only problem. Yes this is  important but middle class Buddhists in Japan have few Christians among them, middle class Hindus and Sikhs seem almost impossible to reach. We need something more nuanced now people are mixed up in an urbanised world. I leave in leafy Leamington Spa and we have one of the largest Sikh temples in Europe. Yet I personally have little contact with them. (read the whole presentation)

A paradigm which thinks only of “people groups” doesn’t deal with our rapidly changing, rapidly urbanising world. Sadly, there is a vast mission industry devoted to promoting this way of thinking. We need to break out of the box.

People Groups: Why Waste Our Time?


A few years ago a prominent British Christian leader (names withheld to protect the guilty) told me that he couldn’t take Wycliffe Bible Translators seriously because we wasted so much time translating the Bible for tiny little people groups.

I might just have ignored this as the ramblings of someone who didn’t know what they were talking about, but the person in question had just given the weekly missionary talk at a well known summer gathering.

So what was the problem with my friend’s statement?

Well, firstly, it was a rather ignorant caricature. We do work with some very small groups (the Kouya number not much over 10,000), but we also work with some groups of several millions.

However, and much more importantly, the person in question really hadn’t grasped the nature of God’s mission to the world.

  • It isn’t all about size and bang for the buck. Our culture values efficiency and making the best use of resources in order to have a maximum impact. Now these aren’t necessarily wrong, but the Kingdom of God is a place where the shepherd leaves 99 sheep in order to go and look for the one who is lost; it is the smallest of seeds or the little bit of yeast lost in the dough. Just because a people group is small doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t invest time and energy to bring them the good news. After all, many clergy in the UK invest their whole lives serving Churches of less than 100 people.
  • It is about all peoples. The Scriptures make it plain that we are to take the Gospel to every people group on the planet and that every tribe, tongue and nation will be represented before the throne of God. There is no get out clause that tells us that we don’t have to worry about tiny people groups hidden in the forests of PNG or the Amazon basin.

Of course we have to be wise in our use of resources; a balance has to be reached between our vocation to reach all people groups and the people and finance available to us. However, in the upside-down world of the Kingdom of God, we simply can’t say that some groups are too small to deserve our attention. Our God is a God who continually reaches out to people wherever they are; we, his people, can do no less.

English Translations: Two Good Articles

I don’t really want to blog about English translations of the Bible, but I don’t seem to be able to avoid it. Today, I came across a couple of good articles which I think will be of interest to readers of Kouyanet.

The first is on the FIEC website and written by David Shaw and looks at the 2011 edition of the NIV. This update of a familiar translation has been vilified in some circles, but it really doesn’t deserve the criticism it has received. Shaw does a great job of unpacking the issues around it and his piece is well worth a read.

We need to remember that God’s perfect word doesn’t change but that imperfect translations do and that’s often a good thing precisely because they are imperfect. There is always room for improvement. In the case of the 2011 NIV, about 95% is identical with the 1984 NIV. According to the committee in charge of the NIV 2011, chaired by Douglas Moo, changes were made for one or more of three reasons:

  1. Progress in scholarship
  2. Concern for clarity
  3. Changes in English

The second article I came across is an excellent overview of what we need to think about when it comes to comparing different English versions of the Bible by Mark Ward.

Bible translation reviews are like newspaper articles on climate change. Few of us have any real scientific knowledge, let alone the specialized kind required for understanding that complex issue. We have to trust that the journalist has done his or her homework. Likewise, reviewers of Bible translations are asking us to trust them—while generally providing lists of examples in which you can supposedly “see for yourself” what’s wrong (or right) with a given translation.

Don’t take my word for it, go and read these excellent articles. Meanwhile, remember that there are almost 2,000 languages without a single word of Scripture available to them.

English Bibles Cartoons

Everyone likes cartoons and what could be better for this blog than a cartoon about different Bible translations? Make sure that you do have a quick look at the link or the rest of this post won’t make much sense (even then it may not).

Bible translation isn’t the funniest subject in the world and this cartoon takes a stab at making a difficult subject approachable. However, sadly, the comments alongside each cartoon don’t quite match up to the standard of the drawings. I’ll just take three examples:

New Living Translation: A nice guy, but a little immature. Frequently gets in trouble with the older crowd. Still digs veggie tales.

This gives the impression that the NLT is not a serious translation and is just useful for children or youth. The reality is that the NLT is an excellent translation. Most Bible translators I know rate it highly and many (myself included) use it as their first choice translation. It is unfortunate that the publishers gave it the name they did, which automatically links it to the original ‘Living Translation’ a completely different and much inferior publication. With a different name, this translation would be much more highly regarded – as it definitely should be.

New International Version: Was super cool in high school. Unfortunately got caught up in the wrong crowd and was never quite the same after that.

I assume that the reference to the ‘wrong crowd’ refers to the issue of gender-neutral translations. I’ve gone into this issue previously, and won’t unpack it here. However, I do think it’s a shame that the cartoonist refers to people he obviously disagrees with as ‘the wrong sort’. I know it’s only a cartoon, but given the amount of vitriol that has been poured out over this issue, I think the term is unfortunate, even if only in jest. I quoted Don Carson in my earlier post on this issue:

…Would it not be good to recognize that there are people of good will on both sides of this debate? Both sides are trying to be true to Scripture, and to make their understandings known; and both make money in the process. (read more)

English Standard Version: One cool cat. All the popular folks like him. Recent success may be going to his head a little. Was reformed before it was cool.

I’m not sure how you can refer to a translation which in language and philosophy is distinctly old fashioned as ‘cool’. But I’m not a popular cartoonist and I’ve never been cool, so what do I know? The ESV is a good translation (as are the other two above) but the cartoonist is right that “success may be going to its (little in-joke there) head”. I’ve blogged elsewhere about how the marketing department responsible for the ESV should be ashamed of some of their actions.

So what are we to make of this?

  • If you want to be amused in a religious fashion, Christian cartoonists are a good place to start (I’d suggest reading Dave Walker). However, if you want good information on English Bible Versions, you’d be better off reading a book: like this one. In fact, if you haven’t read Dave Brunn’s book then you really shouldn’t be talking about the question at all.
  • Most people haven’t grasped the fundamentals of Bible translation terms and need to study my authoritative guide in depth.
  • We don’t need to worry about all of the millions who don’t have any Scripture in their own language. It is probably more important to sort out which is the best available version in English (slight sarcasm for those who don’t spot it).

God, gods and gods

As a kid, I used to love reading old European mythologies. I was pretty broad in my tastes and didn’t care if the stories were of Greek gods on Olympus or Norse ones from Asgard. I just liked the stories.

Looking back, I suspect that part of the appeal was that there was something dangerous, exciting, unpleasant even, about the characters in those stories. Zeus the father of the Greek gods was a very nasty piece of work:

  • Zeus condemned Prometheus to having his liver eaten by a giant eagle for giving the Flames of Olympus to the mortals.
  • When Hera gave birth to Hephaestus, Zeus threw him off the top of Mount Olympus because of his repulsive appearance.

The ancient Greeks called Zeus a god, using their word theos. 

Amazingly, when the New Testament writers came to write about the Triune God of the Bible, they used exactly the same word theos. They took the greek word which was used for Zeus and his unsavoury companions and instilled it with a whole new meaning.

Likewise, when the Christian message first came to Northern Europe with its unpleasant pantheon of warlike gods, the word used to describe the creator and redeemer of heaven and earth was ‘god’. New life was breathed into an old word and god came to mean the Christian divinity, not Thor, Odin and that lot.

Despite the fact that the Northern European gods were pretty awful, I’ve not heard of anyone mounting a campaign to stop Christians using this tainted word for the divinity of the Bible. Nor have I heard any suggestion that Paul, John and co were wrong to use the Greek word theos when its meaning was obviously so far from the Old Testament of God.

Part of the genius of the Christian religion is the way that it can be translated into new languages. Investing old words with new and richer meaning. It has always been thus.

My colleague Mark has just written an excellent post exploring a specific contemporary example of this.

The same thing happens with religious words. In translating the Bible for example, very often the translators will find concepts in the Greek and Hebrew texts that don’t exist in the target language, and they will have to decide whether to use a word that has a similar but not identical meaning, to modify an existing word or phrase, or to borrow a word from another well-known language (or even, as a last resort, to insert the word untranslated, as happened with the word “baptise” in English). What is the best way to communicate the concept of “God”? Or “Holy Spirit”? Or “salvation”? Or “messiah”? This can be a long and tricky process, with potentially strong opinions from different sections of the community, or from different churches. Ideally, the word (or words) eventually chosen will be that which best communicates the concept in question, which may on many occasions be a word borrowed from another language.

-Zezuu gwalɩgbʋ

-Mʋʋ bhla, nyɩmaa ‘wlulapɩlɩnyɔ ‘kadʋ *Sezaa Ogusɩ palɩa tite yabhlo, nɩɩ, wa zɛlɩ ɔ nyɩma weee, dʋdʋ weee -gʋ. 2 Bhla -we nya Kiliniusʋ mɩa Siliii -dʋdʋ -gʋ nyɩmaa ‘wlulapɩlɩnyɔ nya, we bhla wa zɛlɩa nyɩma tɩanʋ. 3 Nyɩma weee yia wa ‘dɛɛ -zɔɔ wa ‘ŋnɩ cɛlɩa mnɩ -bhlo -bhlo.

4 *-Zɛzɛfʋ -mɔɔ yi ‘yaa Nazalɛtɩgbe ‘wʋ ‘bhʋ, Galilee -dʋdʋ -gʋ, ‘ɩn ɔ yia -Davidɩɩ ‘gbe wa laa Bɛtɩlɛmʋ nʋkplɛ mnɩ, Zudee -dʋdʋ -gʋ. -Davidɩɩ zʋayli -yɔ ɔ -budu zɔ -nyɩmɛ ɔ -mɩa, -Davidɩɩ -budu zɔ. 5 Ɔ -yɔ ɔ bhoyi Malii, -ɔ mɩa ‘wlʋwlʋ -nʋkpla ‘sɔ, ‘ɩn wa yia mnɩ, wa ‘ka wa ‘ŋnɩ cɛlɩɩ ‘gbʋ. 6Wa mɩ Bɛtɩlɛmʋ, ‘bhie, Maliii ‘wlusabhla yia nyni. 7 ‘Ɩn ɔ yia ɔ ‘wʋkpɩalɩ yu gwalɩ, nʋkpasuyu nya. Ɔ bibelia ɔ ‘naa -yɔla nɩ, ‘ɩn ɔ yia ɔ nɩmaa ‘wʋlili -gbo ‘wʋ lapɩlɩ. Nɩɩ, wa ‘nɩ ‘bɩ ‘yɩ ‘lakpanyaa -budu zɔɔ ‘gbʋ.

-Lagɔɔ ‘anzɩ yabhlo -laa bhlabhlɛɛ ‘yliyɔzʋnya ‘dɩzɔnʋ

8 -Mɔ wee dʋdʋ -bhlokpadɛ -gʋ nɩ, kpaa bhlabhlɛɛ ‘yliyɔzʋnya gʋa. Sabɔ, -zugba wa kʋ wa bhlabhlɛɛ -zlo ŋwɛ. 9 -Jejitapɛɛ ‘anzɩ yabhlo yia wa ‘klʋtlalɩ, ‘ɩn -Lagɔɔ ‘ŋnɩmnɩee san ‘kadʋ yia wa gbeli. ‘Ɩn -nyanɩgbɔ yia wa -kpalɩ. 10 ‘Anzɩ nɛɛ wa -ylaɛ: «A ‘na nyamanɩ -nɩ, nɩɩ, ‘dɩzɔnʋ ɩn -laa aɩn. Mʋ yia nyɩma weee ‘mʋna ‘kadʋ dlɩ zɔ slua. 11 -Zɛɛn sabɔ, wa ka amɩaa Gbʋwʋsanyɔ gwalɩ, -mɔ -Davidɩɩ -zɔɔ. Mɔ -wa -Lagɔɔ -Bhasanyɔ, ‘ɩn mɔ -wa Nyɩmaa -Kanyɔ. 12 -Lu -we ‘kaa ɔ -slolu, ‘bhie, a ‘ka ɔ yibheli mʋ nɩ: ‘yuyolu yabhlo a yia ‘yɩa, ‘naa mɩ ɔ -yɔlabibelida, -zugba ɔ pɩ nɩmaa ‘wʋlili -gbo ‘wʋ la.»

13 Tɔʋn, yalɩ ‘anzɩɩ -zlo yia ‘anzɩ -gʋbho, -Lagɔɔ ‘ŋnɩmnɩnɩe nya, -zugba we gbaa:
14 «-Lagɔɔ ‘ŋnɩ ‘yli -mɔ yalɩ ‘pɩpɩ,
‘ɩn nyɩma -wa -Lagɔ ‘yɩbhaa,
‘wʋtʋtʋe -dlɔɔ mɩ wa -nʋ nya dʋdʋ -gʋ.»

Bhlabhlɛɛ ‘yliyɔzʋnya mnɩa Bɛtɩlɛmʋ

15 Da -Lagɔɔ ‘anzɩnya ‘bhʋa wa kwesi, ‘ɩn we ‘dɛ weee yia yalɩ mnɩ nɩ, -bha bhlabhlɛɛ ‘yliyɔzʋnya zʋzlʋa ‘dɩ, wa nɛɛ: «-A mnɩ Bɛtɩlɛmʋ, gbʋ -we nʋa -mɔ lɛ, Jejitapɛ -slolua -aɩn ‘klʋ, -a ‘ka we ‘yɩ.»

16 Wa -sɔa ‘wʋ -gwagwɩe nya, ‘ɩn wa yia -mɔ mnɩ. ‘Ɩn wa yia -mɔ Malii -yɔ -Zɛzɛfʋ ylɩ. ‘Yuyolu pɩ nɩmaa ‘wʋlili -gbo ‘wʋ la, ‘ɩn wa yia ɔ ‘yɩ. 17 Da wa ‘yɩa ɔɔ ‘yuyolu nɩ, -we ‘anzɩ gbaa wa -yla ɔɔ ‘yuu daa, ‘ɩn wa yia we ‘dɩsasɩe bhli nyɩma tɔlʋa -yla. 18 Gbʋ -we bhlabhlɛɛ ‘yliyɔzʋnya gbaa, -wa weee ‘nʋa we, ŋwɛgaga sʋbhaa wa. 19 Gbʋ weee ‘plɩa, Malii yia we dlɩ zɔ ladɩlɩ. Ɔ -ka ladɩ, -zugba ɔ pʋpalɩ we -gʋ ‘wlukʋʋn la. 20 -Mʋʋ ‘bɩgʋ, ‘ɩn bhlabhlɛɛ ‘yliyɔzʋnya yia lʋmnɩ, -Lagɔɔ ‘ŋnɩ ylimanɩe -yɔ ɔ ‘ŋnɩ mnɩnɩe nya. -We wa ‘nʋa klaa, ‘ɩn wa ‘yɩa -yɔ klaa, nɩɩ, sa ‘anzɩ gbaa we wa -yla, ‘sa we nʋa.

Luke 2:1-20 in Kouya. If you couldn’t read this; please remember the 340 million people around the world who have no record of the Christmas story in their languages. Perhaps 2014 could be the year when you get involved in God’s amazing work of Bible translation.

Words in Context

Translation is simple isn’t it? Just a case of finding the right words in the new language to replace the words in the old language; nothing to it really!

Well, of course it isn’t as simple as that. Words combine into phrases which don’t quite up to the sum of the individual parts; has anyone ever really had a frog in their throat?

There are many complexities in translation; not least the fact that words change their meaning according to the context. Nataly Kelly, co-author of the excellent Found in Translation, has just posted an excellent blog post which explores the way in which some common English words have multiple senses according to the context in which we find them.

This infographic captures the issue wonderfully.

Words with Multiple Meanings

Though the example is from English, the same is actually true of every language, including Greek and Hebrew; the meaning of a word is determined by its context. This is why it is impossible to always translate a word or phrase in the Bible by the same word or phrase in English (or any other language for that matter). Languages just don’t work like that.   

 

How Many Languages Have a Bible?

Infographic sample

I know that you have been waiting with baited breath for the annual Bible translation statistics and here they are!

The highlight figures are on the right taken from a brilliant infographic that you can download, print and share with others. If you prefer your statistics in text format, you can get hold of them here.

There is known active translation and/or linguistic development happening in 2,167 languages across approximately 131 countries potentially impacting 1.9 billion people. This includes 692 languages for which there is no known Scripture; 197 languages with a Bible; 645 languages with a New Testament; and 651 languages with portions of Scripture, such as a book. Staff from organisations in the Wycliffe Global Alliance are believed to be involved in at least 79% of these programmes.

So, putting all this together, when will Bible translation actually be finished? I answered this question in a post a few years ago.

If English is anything to go by; the Christian church will still be translating and publishing new editions of the Bible in many different languages in the year 2425, unless the world has come to an end by then. One day, there will be no more need of Bible translation because we will all see God clearly, face to face. But until that day, we will need to keep on searching for good, accurate and natural ways of expressing the Greek and Hebrew text in all sorts of languages. We can no more finish Bible translation than we can finish the Great Commission.

John Risbridger on Bible Translation

John Risbridger is one of the ministers at Above Bar Church, which has supported Sue and I since we first joined Wycliffe in 1985. This video was prepared as one of the resources for Frontline Prayer Live; an opportunity to pray for the work of Bible translation across the world. Why not take a look at the website and find out whether there is an event being held close to where you are?

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