Taking on the Challenge

Bible translation is an awesome task. Nevertheless, it can and must be done in the right way with the right method. Bible translators do not translate by inspiration. If they did, the task would be quite simple since there would be no need for checking or revising. The translator must struggle diligently to find the best possible way to say, in the target language , what God has said in the source language. He must pray for God’s help. It would be easy for us to decide translation is too much responsibility and risk. Are you not glad though, that when he gave us our first English Bible from the Greek received text, William Tyndale did not decide the risk and responsibility were too great? Speaking of risk; Tyndale was martyred by the Roman Catholic Church for his work!

The Bible does not easily fit into the target language. Though Greek did not perfectly fit into English, we can confidently say that we have God’s Word in our language. The goal of translation is to maintain the integrity of the original while making the target translation understandable and readable to the people. If the translation does not sound right, people may carry it to church, but they will probably not read it. We want the people to say, “This is our Bible” not, “This is the missionary’s Bible.”

Some passages are a challenge to put into the target language. However, after finding what does not work, you look for what does. Your native translators are your best asset because they know their language and culture. Perhaps a fellow team member may find or know the answer, or you may consult someone back home.
Challenges may arise if the grammar of the source language differs from the grammar of the target language. Many languages have two words for we. You must choose. One of the words includes the person being addressed; the other word does not. (This is third person plural inclusive and exclusive.) For example, the disciples woke Jesus in the storm and said, “… Master, carest thou not that we perish?” Does the word we include or exclude Jesus? Did they think they would perish but Jesus would survive? Or did they think Jesus would sink with them? Since neither English nor Greek have this grammatical feature, those texts cannot help you make a decision.

Another grammatical challenge is the pronoun their. When the four men let their paralyzed friend down through the roof, Jesus saw their faith. At least one Tibetan language has five words for their. One word is a general reference to six or more people, but the other words depend on whether there are two, three, four, or five people involved. So, did Jesus see the faith of four or five men?

Some languages, such as Melanesian Pidgin of Papua New Guinea, have only active, not passive voice. They cannot say, “John was hit by the ball” (passive), but rather “The ball hit John” (active). This language requires that passive voice phrases change to active voice. While we cannot change the grammar of the target language to match the grammar of the source text, our Bible translation must conform to the grammar requirements of the receptor language. This is not bad translation; it is reality.

Another language challenge is the use of verbs and verb phrases rather than abstract nouns such as faith, love, repentance, salvation, etc. In the story of Zacchaeus, Jesus said, “… This day is salvation come to this house…” This little phrase is full of challenges. For example, the Coatlán Zapotec of Oaxaca, Mexico, does not have the word salvation. They have the verb save, but how does a house get saved? House is used to represent the family. This phrase also presents a collocational clash. (Languages differ in what words naturally fit together.) How does salvation come? Abstract nouns and figurative language are often challenging, but translation must be done. Team members can brainstorm, and someone may determine an acceptable way. You can also consider how other translators have rendered the verse. However, you must be careful. Not all translators have the same convictions or methods of translation that you have.
Translators also face challenges in languages and cultures that do not contain words or concepts such as circumcision, baptism, fasting, or housetops. If people live in houses with thatched roofs and bamboo walls, shouting from the housetop may be totally ridiculous. No one would stand on the roof. We cannot say to announce it over the loudspeaker because doing so is an anachronism, introducing something into the Bible that did not exist in Bible times. Some may suggest a cultural substitute like announcing it in the town square or in the men’s house. But that is not what Jesus said; He said house. A footnote might be used to explain the type of house with a flat roof found in Israel or a picture of such a house with a caption below it. What do we do with words like snow, camel, and lamb where these are not known? The solution might be to borrow or transliterate the word from the country’s trade language. If there is misunderstanding with these words, the checking process will reveal it, and we can look for a better way.

These are just a few of many challenges that make translation interesting. While we must maintain a healthy fear of the awesome responsibility of translating, we must not let fear stop us from getting involved. We must not say, “Let the experts do it.” Look at the junk “Bibles” the “experts” have given us in English! Bible translation requires serious-minded, hard-working, Bible-believing, careful, diligent, godly men and women who will accept the challenge. Translation is not for everyone. However, we need many hundreds more missionaries who love God, love the lost, and love the Bible to complete the task!