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Who Guards the Translation? October 13, 2017

Posted by P, J, or J in Uncategorized.

approved-bibleCC0When translating the Bible you want to get it right, and often translation agencies won’t sign off on a translation until it has been through a thorough process of checking. Ideally this is more about guiding than guarding and seen as beneficial and encouraging.

Here are some “Bible Translation Fails” and then the question: who decides whether a translation is a good one and how do they do it?

There was of course the misprinted “Wicked Bible” of 1631 containing the commandment “Thou shalt commit adultery” . (one copy sold for £31,250). Opinion is divided as to whether the printing error was a genuine mistake or sabotage by a rival printer.

There was the heavily over-contextualised Cotton Patch Gospel paraphrase which has Jesus born in Georgia and replaces St Pauls letter to the Romans with his “Letter to Washington”.

There was also the story of missionaries who, “Lacking adequate language preparation” translated “Enter the Kingdom of Heaven” as , “Go sit on a stick.”

There are also failures in understanding such as the people asked to explain a verse written in Swahili who thought it said “Jesus ordered his teachers to plant milk“. Nothing wrong with the Swahili except that the people asked to explain the verse didn’t speak Swahili as well as their pastor thought they did.

Stories also exist of people getting confused not by the words but by their expectations and a mismatch of what they picture in their head. eg Peter going up onto his roof to pray seems a bit strange if you have a sloping thatched roof, or translating Luke 11:11, “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead”, for a people who avoid eating the local fish but do eat snakes.

I’ve been telling the “plant milk” and “fish/snake” stories since I heard them twenty years ago.

The “Go sit on a stick.” example was in a book by Lamin Sanneh but used earlier by Eugene Nida in the 1950’s. I found it quoted in the Chicago Tribune under the heading, “Humor, Chaos, in New Bible Translations

and in Nida’s own words,

“Every missionary realizes how easy it is to make silly and embarrassing mistakes in speaking a foreign language. But perhaps none has been more shocked than one missionary who discovered that in one of his favorite sermons about “going to heaven,” he pronounced the words so incorrectly that the people thought he was telling them “to go sit on a stick.”
Eugene Nida, 1953

Being able to get back to original or early sources is an important part of ensuring accuracy and some of today’s translations are supported by archeological findings of very early copies of the Bible plus the versions that have been passed down and received as part of church tradition.

Obviously knowing the language you are translating from and translating into is important.

It’s also helpful to know the culture and context of the original and of the modern recipients, so that whatever the words themselves might say the intended and received meaning can also be explored.

Back in the 1950’s Nida explored many of the common errors made by western missionaries. The people were generally not willing to criticize the missionary ” but did sometimes voice their frustration with comments such as “God surely didn’t learn our language very well.”

For these reasons the major Bible translation organisations have a long history of training translators well and of ensuring that quality is maintained by having thorough checking processes and qualified translation consultants.

But there is a problem. There aren’t always enough experienced translation consultants to go around and translations can be held up.

Technology is a help both in terms of software that helps analyse text and technology that helps people connect by video, voice and text across continents. For all the advances in technology a key skill is still how the consultant relates to the people she or he serves.

It’s important that the translated Bible be clear, natural, and accurate. But quality is still not a guarantee of acceptance. Increasingly the local church has a higher stake in deciding when the translation is ready to be released.

As early as 1958 meetings were convened to look at how translated scriptures were actually being used and what could be learned from work that had already happened.

If translation checking came of age in the 1950’s it would perhaps still be another 20 years before more in depth research really started into Scripture use (now commonly termed “Scripture Engagement”

Today’s consultants help people engage with an ever widening set of ideas and resources and specialists in anthropology, sociolinguists, arts and ‘ethnodoxolgy‘, Scripture engagement, and now some specialising in new forms of digital engagement.

For more details on some of these specialisations and of their impact explore your local Wycliffe website. There are over 100 organisations in the Wycliffe Global Alliance so I’m just adding specifics links to a few of the ones with material in English, others are linked to from wycliffe.net (which has lots of material of it’s own in lots of languages)



Version 0.9 Oct 13, 2027
This blog post has not been checked by an outside consultant

It may contain typos, errors and omissions. Being in digital form, it may be updated (and  already has been).





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