What does a translation consultant do?

Before I went overseas, I thought of a Bible translator as a foreigner who goes to live among a people group for 30 or 40 years, learns the language and then translates the Bible with the help of a few nationals. And until more recently, this probably would have been a fairly accurate description. But God has been doing a new thing. Today the national people we go to serve are able and eager to take a larger role in bringing God’s Word to their own communities in their own language.

Chuwabo translation team

A translation team is usually made up of four mother tongue translators. They are often pastors and are experts in their language. They understand the local context and culture, have relationships with the church and unbelieving communities, and can produce natural speech without agonizing over the correct verb conjugation (or continuing on, oblivious of mistakes, like I often do!).

When the translation team completes a draft, they go through several steps of revision and send it out for community testing. After all of this initial feedback is incorporated, a translation consultant meets with the team to help them further revise the text. A consultant checks the accuracy from the Greek or Hebrew, making sure nothing has been added or left out and that the meaning will be clear. They are a resource for the team as they try to understand the original meaning and render this in their own language.

So, what are the kinds of things a translation consultant looks for?

  1. Key terms. How easy it would be if all languages had an obvious equivalent for every word! Many times there is no apparent translation for the Hebrew/Greek concept. Other times there are too many options! (For a few examples, check out previous posts: Was Jesus hungover? or They put Jesus in a WHAT? or White as Snow)
  2. Parallel passages. If the same story is recorded in multiple gospels, do the two translations reflect the same similarities and differences as the original text?
  3. Discourse features. Is it clear and easy to understand? If it’s poetry, is it written like poetry? If it’s narrative, is it written like narrative?
  4. Spelling, punctuation, formatting, etc.

And much much more! This is a non-exhaustive list from my very limited experience. In future blog posts I hope to give more examples of these translation challenges in action. Stay tuned…

Jesus was hungover?

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One of the privileges of a translation consultant is being part of discussions to decide what word in the target language (language being translated into) will best convey the meaning of a Biblical concept. Sometimes the choice is obvious. Many times it requires thoughtful debate and a dose of creativity.

When the Chuwabo translators were drafting the book of John, the word “osisimuwa” came up for discussion. If you ask older speakers, they would say it means “to resurrect” in the same sense you or I understand it–someone who was dead comes back to life. However, among the younger generations this same word has taken a more colloquial meaning. To illustrate, if a person gets so drunk they pass out, the next morning when they wake up they will have “resurrected.”

Clearly this is not what we want to convey about Jesus’ resurrection! We don’t want anyone misunderstanding that Jesus got so drunk he blacked out and didn’t wake up for three days. Or that Jesus claimed to be “the hangover recovery and the life.” Instead, the Chuwabo translators opted for the more literal and less ambiguous phrase “raise from the dead.”

They put Jesus in a WHAT?

As we move into the Christmas season, may this story be a reminder of the humility of our all powerful God. May it also show us the importance of translating every word with diligence. This is from the Wycliffe USA blog.

Mbe translators discussing a translation pointAs the Mbe translation team in Nigeria was translating the Gospel of Luke, they came to chapter 2, verse 7: “She [Mary] gave birth to her first child, a son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them.”

The translators took time to ponder how to translate some of the words, but not “manger.” They immediately used the word “ókpáng.”

“What’s an ókpáng?” asked their consultant, John Watters. “Tell me what it looks like.”  One of the translators drew a picture on the whiteboard. It was essentially a cradle hung by ropes so that the newborn could be laid in it and swung.

“Read the Translator’s Notes again,” John suggested. “What do the notes say about the manger?” (“Translator’s Notes” is a series of commentaries in non-technical English that are especially helpful for Bible translators for whom English is a second language.)

The Mbe translators read the notes and saw that “manger” referred to an animal feeding trough. Even as the Mbe team read the notes, they objected. “We have always used the word ókpáng. We have used it for years, and that’s what we should use.”

John pointed out to them that it wasn’t just a matter of tradition. God expects us to find the words that express the original meaning as accurately as possible. Furthermore, this word tells us something profound about God. “When He came to live among us and bring salvation to us, He came in the lowliest way possible. He did not come and sleep in a nice ókpáng like every Mbe mother wants for her newborn. Instead, He showed us his unbelievable humility,” John told them. “So we need to find your best word for an animal feeding trough.”

Suddenly the one who had argued most loudly for the traditional term offered, “We feed our animals out of an old worn-out basket that is not usable anymore except to feed the animals. We call it ‘ɛ́dzábrí.’”

“Then try that term,” said John. “Put it in your rough draft and test it with Mbe speakers.”

Mbe translators going out to test translation

As the Mbe people listened, they were visibly moved. Picturing the newborn Baby lying in the animals’ feeding basket, they recognized in a new way that Jesus was willing to do whatever it took to reach them. As an adult, He would humble Himself by washing the disciples’ feet and then by dying on the cross. And this humility started right from birth, when He was born to a young peasant woman under questionable social conditions and laid in an animal feeding trough.

No word in Scripture is too unimportant to translate carefully and accurately. And no language community is too unimportant to merit the Scriptures in the language they best understand.

white as snow

Come now, let us settle the matter, says the LORD. Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.
Isaiah 1:18

This past week I sat in on some of the translation consulting sessions for the Koti language. Consultation is a very important part of the translation process. A specialist not involved in the translation goes over the text with the team of Koti speakers and asks questions to make sure the translation is clear and accurate.

In this case the Koti were reviewing the first 20 chapters of Exodus. It was quite interesting to see the issues addressed in such a meeting. For example–

  • Is each case of the pronoun “he” clear? Does it help the reader understand who the text is referring to?
  • How are the names of God going to be written? In English (and Portuguese) we write LORD in all caps to refer to YHWH. How should YHWH and Elohim and Adonai be expressed in Koti?

One of the most interesting discussions in my opinion was how to translate the metaphor “white as snow.” Snow is a fairly unfamiliar concept in Angoche, where the Koti live. (Right now it’s winter and 70 degrees!) Some of the options considered included sea foam, the inside of a coconut or cotton.