An inexpensive Bible with cheap paper and a vinyl cover costs only dollars, but if you want a nice, leather-covered Bible with thin pages, you will pay dearly for it. In Communist Europe a Bible once sold for $400.00 on the black market. However, this is not what I mean when I talk about the price of a Bible. I refer more to the sacrifice that must be made so that a people can have God’s word. For instance, what did it cost William Tyndale to give the English world the Bible? It cost him years of work done in hiding; and he was rewarded in the end by being burned at the stake!
Before the translator takes up his pen, he must first take up his cross. This is the price that any true disciple must pay. Death to self, death to his personal ambitions, is the first expense to pay. Translation is not a quick task. In spite of modern technology, it is still going to take the very best years of his life. In theory, computers should speed up the process, but computers cannot heal sick babies, disciple baby Christians, build airstrips and church buildings, home school the children, and a hundred other things that demand the translator’s time.
The translator must master the meaning of a bunch of strange sounds and put them in a usable alphabet. He must also crack the culture code and decipher the thinking of the people. Before he begins to translate Scripture, he practices on fairly easy materials such as folk stories, books about health or agriculture, and simple Bible stories. During this time he is training himself and his native translation helpers. He is also showing the people that their language can indeed be written.
Now the work begins! Even though he has learned thousands of words, the translator hasn’t learned many Bible terms. Take Mark 1:4 for instance. How does he say “baptize?” They don’t baptize people, and if they do, it is a pagan baptism. Can he use the pagan word? What about the word “preach?” The missionary knows the words for “talk,” and maybe “teach,” but not “preach.” And how can someone “preach baptism?” What is repentance? And what is “the remission of sins?” Before the translation session, the translator must study and find out for sure what every word means in his own language. Then he must explain these strange new concepts to the native helper, and together they decide how to say those things.
The temptation is to explain instead of translate, thus producing a commentary instead of a translation—we must not do that. In Mark 1:5 the translator might need to clarify to the helper that the “land of Judea” did not really go anywhere; it was the people of the land that did. Verse six mentions the camel, and there may be no word for it if none live in the region. Should the translator transliterate a word from the trade language? Or should he say, “a big animal like a horse with humps?” Because he could not find a word for donkey, one missionary said that Jesus came into Jerusalem on a large animal with long ears. The only animal the people knew with long ears was a rabbit, and they envisioned Jesus riding on an enormous rabbit. That was the first Easter Bunny!
And on it goes. Nearly every verse presents a challenge. It can be done, but it is never easy. The initial translation is time consuming, but the checking and editing takes even longer. The translator or the helper must read a passage to others who have no knowledge of the Bible and ask them what it means. If their understanding doesn’t match the Bible, then it’s back to the drawing board.
We attempt to translate literally, but sometimes a very literal translation of a verse will be a bad translation because the translator has matched words, but not meanings. In English we say, “We are going to support a missionary.” If we translate literally into Spanish, using the equivalent word for support and say, “We are going to soportar a missionary,” we actually say we are going to “tolerate” or “put up with” him. Translation is moving words, along with the correct meaning, from one language to another. We moved words, but by being too literal we failed to translate.
Bible translation in virgin territory is a noble work, but it’s not hard to understand why very few take on this challenge. The living conditions are usually primitive, the work is tedious, and the results (salvation decisions, baptisms, churches) are usually very slow. The translator may be somewhat despised because he lives among people that are despised. He will be criticized by those who know nothing about translation, and by those who do, but use a different method and text. One day, the missionary translator is going to hand the people a book, and say, “This is God’s word.” What an awesome responsibility! And he will stand at the judgment seat of Christ and give account for his work. May he honestly repeat the words of Jesus recorded in John 17:14, “I have given them thy word,” and hear Jesus say, “Yes, you have; and you did it right!”