FOCUS ON: BIBLE TRANSLATION
Bible translation is the very heart of our ministry. Trained translation specialists facilitate the process beginning with the first draft and continuing through extensive checks for accuracy and naturalness until the translation is ready to be published. Though some details of the process are as varied as the people and places we serve, our goal is the same everywhere: enabling people to hear God’s Word in the language that speaks clearly to both heart and mind.
Grace took a deep breath and stepped into the thatch-roofed gazebo. This was it! The first translation session for the Bible in the Kosuma language! Three pairs of eyes turned toward her as she entered—two men and one woman, her national co-workers. Would their training—and hers—prove effective? This day was the culmination of all of Grace’s years of linguistic and Bible education. She felt the weight of the responsibility of providing the very words of God for people who had never before heard them.
Grace had been working with this team, chosen by the Kosuma community, for a long time. Even though she had immersed herself in the Kosuma language and culture, she was by no means an insider, and never would be. She was a child of a different land. Her cultural heritage and her ways of relating to the world were as different from the Kosuma culture as east is from west. She could never translate the Scriptures in a way that would be clear to the Kosuma ear and sweet to the Kosuma heart. That could only be done by mother-tongue speakers. She could, however, pour herself into facilitating their work and ensuring that their clear and sweet words were also accurate.
“Someone asked me why translation couldn’t just be done automatically by a computer. But human communication defies such shortcuts.”
Grace had trained the team in translation principles. Since they were already accustomed to operating in multiple languages, much of their training simply formalized what they already knew how to do, lending authority to their skills. In preparation for today, Grace had introduced the translators to the book of Mark—its author, audience and distinctives. She herself had prepared through a deep study of the first chapter to be sure she understood all of the ins and outs of its message.
Now it was time to begin. The team members sat in the open-sided gazebo, sifting through the first chapter of the gospel of Mark, working out their ideas about how best to translate the concepts into their heart language. Sometimes their discussions became intense. Quiet murmurs grew louder and louder as they each advocated for their varying viewpoints. People all around the village began to watch and listen.
Frowns creased the brows of the Kosuma translators and the listening villagers as they struggled along with Grace to translate the word repent. Drawing on her Bible training and her knowledge of New Testament Greek, Grace explained the concept of repentance, then gave examples. After much thought and another round of intense discussion, the translators settled on the word nimiza, which means to regret.
As the long work day finally drew to a close, Grace returned to her village house and collapsed into a chair. Day One was in the books!
That night, she wrote to her friends and supporters, reflecting on her first day of translation:
It’s hard to believe that I used to think Bible translation was as simple as replacing one word with another. I even remember someone asking me why translation couldn’t just be done automatically by a computer. But today confirms for me that human communication defies such shortcuts, especially when we’re translating a document that’s 2,000 years old into a language that has never even been written down before! A concept that seems simple, like a type of animal, becomes quite complicated when presented to someone of a different culture, background and language who has never seen that animal. We are striving to convey the meaning of the Scriptures in such a way that Kosuma readers and listeners can experience the same response that the original readers experienced.
Team Check: Saying It Right
Grace wiped the sweat from her face as she sat back from her computer. The software she was using enabled her to view the Kosuma translation of Mark alongside the text in several English versions, the national language, and Greek. She could check each passage closely for faithfulness to the original. Over the past several months she had done this systematically as each section of Mark had been drafted, making many notes and writing out questions to discuss with the translation team. Now it was time to draw on these notes and begin revising their draft.
As she and the Kosuma translators worked their way through the first chapter, correcting and clarifying, they eventually came to nimiza, the word they had chosen for repent.
“What exactly does this mean?” Grace inquired.
“If you do something wrong to someone, nimiza means that you are sorry you did it,” one of the translators replied.
Grace wondered if the word was truly adequate for the concept of repentance. As she hesitated, one of the other translators added, “We can check with others to see if it communicates the right idea.”
Grace made a note on her computer to be sure to test this term later when the team conducted comprehension checks with Kosuma people who had not worked on the translation and thus did not already know what it was supposed to say and mean.
As mother-tongue speakers of Kosuma, Grace’s teammates could translate the nuances of Scripture. They, on the other hand, benefited from her ability to clarify the meaning of the original text as they uncovered places where they had not fully understood the Scriptures when they did their first draft.
After her team had finished going over their rough draft of Mark, Grace wrote to her supporters:
Bible translation is like weaving on a loom. God has given us a pattern that radiates divine beauty and truth. The strands of this masterpiece come from many different writers over several centuries. As wordsmiths, Bible translators have the beautiful privilege and the awesome responsibility to weave the pattern into other cultures and languages so that they too may enjoy its beautiful divine truth.
Community Check: Does Everyone Understand?
Voices buzzed as Grace and the Kosuma translators entered the room. Twenty men and women of different ages, representing the various dialects of the Kosuma language, were gathered for a comprehension check. None of them had been involved in the translation process, and they relished their role of determining whether the translation was clear and natural.
Those who could read took turns reading a passage. Then Grace and the translators asked the group questions to see how clearly they understood—not just the story line, but also the message of the passage.
When the group came to the word nimiza, Grace asked them to tell her what it meant. Their responses confirmed what she had already sensed: that nimiza was not how repent should be translated. She carefully explained its meaning, then sat listening to the animated discussion that ensued. Eventually the group decided that zie velei maavalibo, meaning to replace your bad behavior, should be used instead of the word that meant only to regret.
Bible translators weave God’s divine pattern into other cultures and languages so that they too may enjoy its beautiful truth.
Later, when the reviewers read through the story of the beheading of John the Baptist in Mark 6, they became very quiet. Eventually Grace broke the silence by asking, “Why did Herod want John the Baptist’s head brought to the party on a plate?”
The reviewers looked at each other, obviously uncomfortable. Finally one man worked up the courage to answer. “His relatives were there. They wanted to look him in the eye before they buried him, but didn’t want to go to the prison. So they had the head brought.”
Grace sat for a moment, considering how to respond. Before she could decide, a woman spoke up. “You are afraid of what the missionary will think of you if you tell her the real reason that they brought the head.” Turning toward Grace, she continued, “John was a great prophet with great spiritual power. They were obviously bringing the head so that they could put it in a glass box and worship it.”
Grace’s eyes widened. She smiled, affirmed the woman who had voiced her opinion, then explained that bringing in the head was to prove immediately to Herod’s wife that John was dead—and to intimidate all who witnessed the gruesome spectacle. Then she decided she would add a footnote with a brief explanation when it came time to publish the book.
When the comprehension check was finished, Grace wrote to her supporters, relating what the woman had said and adding:
I certainly was not expecting that answer! But her response was invaluable because it revealed a traditional belief and practice of the Kosuma culture. People of her generation would have read or heard this passage and interpreted it in light of their own traditional culture. How often do we do the same thing?
The great news is that several of the Kosuma reviewers who are not believers told me they want to know more about Jesus!
Consultant Check: Calling in the Expert
The tropical heat washed over Grace as she stepped out of the vehicle. The Kosuma translators and a few other Kosuma speakers with no previous exposure to the translation followed as she entered the building where they would spend the next few days working with a translation consultant. The consultant, an experienced Bible translator himself, was specially trained to help others finalize their translations.
In preparation for this consultant check, Grace and the three translators had produced a very literal translation of Mark from Kosuma back into a language the consultant knew and had sent it to him several weeks before. As he had reviewed this “back translation,” he had noted several areas of possible concern and had formulated questions that would reveal whether any of these sections needed further revision.
They sat down together and the consultant began going through the book of Mark systematically, asking the questions he had written when he read through the back translation. He directed his questions to the Kosuma speakers who had accompanied Grace. Because they had not taken part in any translation or checking, their perspective would be fresh and would reflect how a typical Kosuma person might understand the Scriptures.
When the consultant came to the phrase zie velei maavalibo for repent, he questioned them in depth, knowing that even this far along in the process, some teams have yet to discover the best way to translate this unfamiliar concept. Grace and the translators were pleased at the consultant’s conclusion that zie velei maavalibo communicated the meaning as well as possible in Kosuma culture.
After the exhausting but productive consultant checking session, Grace wrote to her supporters:
The consultant found problems that we never dreamed could have existed. It took a while for the translation team to get over being defensive about their work and regard this as a helpful step! Even with all our technological tools, translation remains a very human process. All the steps we go through remind me constantly that this is God’s Word we’re working with. It’s important, and we all need to recognize our own limitations as we approach the task. That’s why there are dozens of people involved and multiple stages of revision to go through. In the end, the people will have a Bible they can understand and have confidence in.
At the end of his time with us, the consultant declared that we are ready to publish! The “weaving” of the book of Mark in Kosuma is now complete. I’m so excited!
Publication: It’s in Their Hands Now
Now, the final preparation for publication began. With the help of the same software on which she had relied throughout the translation process, Grace carefully went over every sentence, checking for spelling consistency, punctuation and other fine details. Then she sat down with another missionary who served as a typesetter to make decisions about layout and font. They discussed where to insert illustrations and what maps to include in the back. Every detail about the appearance of the published book needed to be decided.
On Easter Sunday, for the first time in the history of the Kosuma people, a portion of God’s Word became available in their heart language. Politicians, Christian leaders, missionaries, Kosuma leaders living away from the area, and people from other language groups were invited to join in the celebration. One fourth of the entire Kosuma population attended the dedication. As the books were unveiled and offered for sale, a line of people snaked around hand-hewn wooden benches under the canopy of palm fronds. Kosuma people waited patiently for their turn to buy their own copies of this, the first ever published Scripture in their language.
Exhausted but exhilarated after the long dedication ceremony, Grace wrote to her supporters:
The feeling of holding the first book of the Kosuma Bible in my hands was indescribable. Today alone, over two-thirds of the copies we printed sold! Some of you have asked why we don’t just give away the translated Scriptures. It is because an object that costs nothing is considered to have no value. We sell the Scriptures well below our cost to produce them, so that they are affordable to the people.
Everywhere I looked, I saw the beaming faces and bowed heads of intent readers. The Kosuma people are demonstrating a hunger for God’s Word that astonished even my Kosuma teammates.
Impact: Transformed Lives
In the months that followed the distribution of the Kosuma book of Mark, as Grace and her team continued to translate other books of the Bible, Kosuma people arrived periodically at her door to share exciting news.
One told her, “This book has truly helped me in resolving my problems! Now, whenever I am confronted with a problem, I spend time alone with the Word of God, and the Lord gives me counsel for my problem.”
Another rejoiced, “I’m so happy that now I can read the Word of God directly in my language! I no longer need to use a dictionary to understand some of the words, like I had to when I tried to read the Bible in another language.”
“This book has truly helped me! When a problem comes, I spend time alone with the Word of God, and the Lord gives me counsel.”
A young man reported, “I am using this book to teach the youth of the community. By the grace of God, He has allowed me to organize a ministry to young people and to find a mission field—to share the Word of God with others who are not yet Christians.”
One person said simply, “Please thank everyone who has supported you for this book. Tell them how much it helps us to understand clearly the Word of God because it is in our language.”
Grace’s eyes filled with tears at each person’s testimony. “Thank you, Lord,” she prayed, “for allowing me to have a part as You transform lives and communities through Your Word.”
You Can Pray:
- for strong teams of translation facilitators and mother-tongue translators
- for wisdom in translating difficult concepts
- for clear and accurate translations that penetrate mind and heart
This story is drawn from the experiences of five Bible translators serving in Africa and Papua New Guinea.