Five challenges in beginning a new Bible translation project
When a translation is finally completed, everyone rejoices! But few people realize all of the challenges that the team must overcome in the process. And even before the translation begins, there are some major challenges! Here are a few:
- Church and/or community support for the project: There is no purpose in translating the Bible if no one uses it. If church leaders are educated in a regional or national language, they may resist using a local language. Or, if assigned to work in an area with a language which they themselves do not speak, they will not be comfortable using the local language. When there are several denominations in one language area, people may find it difficult to work with others from a different denomination.Ideally, all church denominations will come together to support the Bible translation project. Ideally, all leaders will commit to using the local language translation as it becomes available. However, this is not always the case.Where a community has no Christian churches, we would look for support from Christian leaders at a regional or national level. Again, this is not always possible.
- Finding the right mother tongue translator (MTT): Who should be part of the project team? When choosing the people who will work most closely on the Bible translation, the church committee will look for men and women who are educated, well-respected in the community, with a desire or calling to do this painstaking task, and who can communicate well. Often, these people are the busiest members of the community and simply don’t have time to join the translation team. Although some deficiencies can be overcome (such as low levels of education), one’s reputation and Christian life cannot be compromised if the translation is to be respected.
- Orthography: When a spoken language has no writing system, one must be developed. This process is a combination of linguistic analysis and the perspective of local speakers. Some sounds may be difficult to represent by written symbols. Often a workshop is held to discuss options with a large number of speakers. Sample texts can be developed and tested more widely with community members. Of course, this assumes that some people can already read in a regional or national language; the test is to see how easily these people can adjust to a new writing system.In other cases, local authors may have already experimented with written forms of the local language. There may even be several varieties in circulation. The challenge then is to arrive at some consensus of what system of writing is most accepted.Orthography can be one of the most divisive issues in a language project. People are often passionate about their language, and how it is written can stir deep emotions.
- Key terms: There are a number of important, recurring concepts in the Bible that are foundational to people’s understanding of the Gospel message. Some of these may be unknown concepts, such as priest, temple, and grace. Other words may be understood differently by various denominations, such as baptism, tithe, and salvation. In all, there are several dozen of these key concepts, or terms.Before a translation begins, the team and the local church leaders must discuss and agree on the terms that will be used to express these concepts. Sometimes a word from the regional or national language may be used, but a local language word or phrase yields a deeper understanding of the text for local speakers.
- Discerning needs, setting priorities: Along with church leaders or other community leaders, the team considers priorities. In some contexts, stories about Jesus may be priority; in other contexts, portions of Genesis may be important to help people to understand who God is and our problem of alienation as a result of sin. When there is a liturgical church in the area, translating the Scriptures for each Sunday’s readings may be important. If a reading from the Psalms is a standard church practice, then translating some of these will be a priority.In some contexts, the first need is for oral Bible stories to be crafted and performed. Then, as interest grows and more people learn to read fluently, a written translation can follow with the encouragement of the growing body of believers.
We are thankful for our national partners who work hard to overcome and work through these challenges with their community. Would you join this weekend in praying for our partners and especially the new Bible translation projects?