I wrote this article in 2008 for a college writing assignment.
Have you ever tried to learn a language? You learn the alphabet and vocabulary and struggle with the pronunciation and grammar. More than likely you use a dictionary frequently for translation and reading.
Imagine going as a Christian missionary to a jungle village and trying to learn the language of the natives. You’re in the midst of a culture you don’t understand, trying to learn an unwritten language that doesn’t even have an alphabet.
Your goal is to learn that language and translate the Bible, which was originally written in Hebrew and Greek approximately two to four thousand years ago. It will likely be years before your first texts are printed. Yet there are Christians willing to spend their lives working toward the translation of the Bible into every language on earth.
According to the 2007 statistics of Wycliffe Bible Translators, there are 6,912 languages in the world. 2,251 languages, spoken by approximately 193,000,000 people, do not have any portion of the Bible. Bible translation is in progress in 1,953 languages. Only 438 languages have the entire Bible. Bible translation is a long and difficult process which involves many steps.
The importance of academic preparation for prospective translators should not be underestimated. Education in areas such as cultural anthropology, sociolinguistics, literacy, language survey, Scripture use, language-learning techniques, and the Biblical languages is essential to this type of work. Often a group of people works as a team on a translation project; therefore, a person doesn’t need to master all those areas in order to serve effectively, because each member of the team will likely have a different area of expertise.
There are many ways to get the necessary academic training. A prospective translator would do well to look at the training programs offered by SIL International (formerly the Summer Institute of Linguistics). SIL partners with over twenty educational institutions worldwide to offer a wide variety of courses relevant to Bible translation.
When the translation team has targeted a people group for Bible translation, the first step is learning the language. Because the language has no alphabet or dictionaries, it must be learned the way a child does—by hearing, practicing, and being corrected when necessary. With the help of a native speaker, the words for concrete objects can be learned. The words are recorded using the International Phonetic Alphabet. Related words such as stick, branch, and twig make language learning more difficult, as do abstract words that express emotions and other intangibles.
Anthropology, the study of cultures, goes hand in hand with Bible translation. Translators spend years living with the people and interacting with them on a daily basis as they seek to understand the culture in order to translate the Bible in a way the natives can understand. For example, the Bible of a certain West Indies tribe translates Lamentations 3:23 as, “Our God is greater than a palm tree.” That makes no sense to an American until he realizes that 350 products used by the tribe are derived from the palm tree. The natives understand God’s greatness when He is compared to the palm tree.
Since the native alphabet of the learner will likely not prove sufficient for recording the words he’s learning, he must use the International Phonetic Alphabet. With over 100 letters, the IPA has characters for every sound humans can make. The task of recording words is made more complicated by the fact that many words sound similar or nearly similar, such as our and are.
Phonetics and phonology play an important part in the language learning process. Phonetics deals with the way speech sounds are produced; phonology applies phonetics to a specific language. Language learners must be alert to tone, because in some languages the meaning of a spoken word is changed based on the tone in which it is spoken. An example of a tonal language is Northern Tlaxiaco Mixtec, spoken in Mexico. Mixtec has three tones: high high, mid mid, and mid low. The same word, said in those three tones respectively, means “yellow,” “buy,” and “wheat (ripen).”
An alphabet will need to be developed before translation work can begin. The vowels and consonants of the language must be identified and accent marks may be needed to indicate tone. The grammar of the language needs to be learned—how words function by themselves and combine to form phrases and sentences. The learner looks for the patterns the language has in word usage. Some of the many aspects of grammar are direct and indirect objects, nouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives. In translation grammatical devices such as figures of speech and irony must be handled carefully. The language will also need a dictionary.
In dictionary development the primary and figurative senses of a word must be clarified. As an example, take the word mountain. In the primary sense, we think of a mountain as the tall, steep-sided natural elevation of the earth’s surface. Figuratively, a mountain refers to a large quantity or heap. When we talk about a mountain of homework, we are not referring to a literal mountain. Once the translators have mastered the language and culture, the actual task of translation can begin.
Once the first draft is completed it is tested and improved upon. The text is read by other speakers of the language, either native speakers or members of the translation team, and they give their input. The translation receives an exegetical check to ensure its accuracy and faithfulness to the original Greek or Hebrew. The translation is also tested for consistency in the use of key terms, parallel passages, and important concepts. After a check of the format and style and a proofreading, the text is read aloud to native speakers of the language for their evaluation. Finally, after all these reviews, revisions, and corrections, the text can be printed.
Bible translation is a complex task that often involves a life-long commitment on the part of the translation team. You may be asking, “Is it really worth all that effort to translate the Bible into an obscure language?” William Tyndale, a well-known Bible translator who died for his faith, said, “I had perceived by experience, how that it was impossible to establish the lay people in any truth, except the Scripture were plainly laid before their eyes in their mother tongue, that they might see the process, order, and meaning of the text.”
The impact of the Bible can be seen in the story of the Konkomba areas of Ghana and Togo. After the Bible was translated, an audio version was produced, and within four years over 2,300 communities had listening groups and nearly 400 churches had been planted. The Konkomba started to reject their ritual dances, sacrifices and other traditions. Many other stories also testify to the revolutionary impact of the Bible. How can you partner with God to impact the world with His Word?