Any book worthy of the title “Bible” in any language must be translated with utmost care so that its promoters can honestly tell the people, “These are God’s words in your language.” In previous issues, we dealt with two vital ingredients of a faithful translation. (1) The translators and the supporters must first settle the text issue. A pure Bible is never derived from a corrupt text. (2) Because we believe that the Bible was inspired and preserved verbally, we insist on a verbal translation. (We must translate words as opposed to thoughts.) That settles the issue of the technique. The third vital ingredient in a faithful translation is the translator. What qualifications must his résumé contain?
God found no perfect men when He inspired His Word, but He did find some holy men. Therefore, the first requirement for a person who moves God’s words from one language to another is spirituality. An unholy man might handle the word of God deceitfully (2 Cor. 4:2). Holiness produces honesty. An honest translator will not force his doctrinal or denominational belief into the Bible text. (For instance, there have been Bible translations that promote sprinkling instead of immersion for baptism or salvation by works, making them almost unusable for a Bible-believing missionary.) Holiness produces spiritual discernment (1 Cor. 2:14). The job of the original writers of Scriptures was easy; that of the translator is extremely difficult. He must be spiritual! The worldly need not apply.
A translator must be studious. The task probably calls for a trilingual person. He must learn the trade language of the host country. Then he must learn the heart language that lacks the Scriptures. That language is probably unwritten, so he must learn it (without a school, a book, or a teacher), give it an alphabet, and reduce it to written form before anything can be translated. Of course, he must also learn the culture because the meaning of words in any language is wrapped up in its culture. Discovering the correct meaning of Bible words and their equivalent receptor language words is a long process that requires a tremendous amount of study. The translator is a combination of language learner, linguist, anthropologist, and Bible student. The lazy need not apply!
The Bible translator must be a servant: a servant of God, of the churches that send him, and of the people who are waiting for their first Bible. A servant will be humble. The key to a good translation is good native translation helpers. The missionary must teach and guide them but not dominate them. He may pay their salary, but he must not be their boss. He must be their partner, and they must be free to express their opinion about the best way to translate a verse into their language. A humble man will listen to those who know the language and culture much better than he will ever know it. He will also listen to his peers when they point out possible deficiencies in his translation. (Example: Missionary #1 translated the New Testament in a certain language. Missionary #2, who works in that language and knows it well, pointed out to Missionary #1 places where the grammar is incorrect. Missionary #1 says, “I’m not changing what I wrote. Missionary #2 will not use the translation.) A translator is the servant of others who will use his translation. Shouldn’t he at least listen to their advice and profit from their help? A servant is a humble person to whom God gives grace (James 4:6). We need servants—the proud need not apply.
The translator must be steadfast. If every person who ever desired to be a Bible translator actually produced a New Testament, there would be no language left without God’s Word. But the road to a Bible translation is very long and difficult. There are hundreds of detours, road blocks, and pot holes big enough to swallow up a Jeep. There are languages to learn, souls to be won, sick babies to be healed, and baby Christians to be fed. There are houses and church houses to be built and supplies to be carried in. No doubt many translations have been put on the back burner—and the fire has gone out under them. There are reports to write to pastors and churches that want results. Some are interested in souls won, not Scriptures produced. They want churches established rather than chapters translated. They may be wondering why the missionary is messing around all these years with that little group of people when he could be in the city doing a “real” work for God. Other missionaries on the field may say the same. And Satan will remind him often of what a failure he is. That liar will tell the translator that he is wasting his life on a few people who really don’t want a Bible. He will show him several greener pastures. The translator has many duties and distractions; he must have a giant dose of holy resolve if the people are to have any hope of one day holding God’s Book in their hands. Those lacking stability need not apply.
We have convictions about the textual basis of a Bible translation and about the technique used to translate it. We know the type of translators that should be involved; but where are they? Pray ye therefore.