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Putting the byte into Scripture translation

Putting the byte into Scripture translation

by Jack Taylor


A boy holding the Kinaray-a New Testament.

How important is it to have God’s Word in your mother tongue and what difference has technology had in making that possible?

While the complete Bible has been translated into 650 languages, there are at least 7,000 spoken or signed languages known to be in use today. 1.5 billion people do not have the full Bible in their language even though more than 1,500 languages have access to portions of the Scripture. More than 2,500 languages across 170 countries have active translation and linguistic development work happening right now. Approximately 2,000 languages still need work to begin.

Mark (and Karen) Naylor, Fellowship International missionary to Pakistan and Northwest Baptist seminary professor, started translating the Bible into the Sindhi language in 1989. The Old Testament was completed in Muslim Sindhi in 2007 but a parallel New Testament revision in both Hindi and Muslim Sindhi is underway. They began their work in translation without technology but are committed to what technology can accomplish.

Joshua and Jenni Smolders, working as translators in Ethiopia with Wycliffe since 2012 worked initially as a linguistic researcher on the Ganza and Opo languages. Living in Gambella, close to the border with South Sudan, he now advises on the Opo Bible Translation. “100 percent of my work as both a linguist and translator is dependent on modern technology.”

Irhya and Marianne (Stirche) Mahamadou worked in Niger (now from Canada) translating the Old Testament into Tamajag Tawallammat. Swiss born Marianne started work in 2001 and married Niger born Irhya after he joined the project in 2012. Technology allows them to raise their family in a safe place while still accomplishing their dream on behalf of Irhya’s tribal group.

Naylor says “Although it has been said many times, having the word of God in your mother tongue is very powerful. The reason we are doing a Hindu Sindhi translation is not because Hindu background Sindhis cannot understand the Muslim Sindhi, but because it does not resonate with them. That is, they do not appreciate the Muslim theological terms used (name for God, Jesus, Holy Spirit, etc.) and so they are repulsed. But when they read the word in a version that uses their vocabulary, they are excited and feel that it is for them. Also, having a meaning-based translation that is at the level of a 6th grade educated person, makes the translation very accessible to the average person. Rather than reading and being overwhelmed with a sense that they are not capable of understanding, they are drawn into the text. For example, a newly literate young Muslim woman commented that she preferred to read the Sindhi NT because it was easy for her to read.”

He adds that the impact of technology cannot be overstated. What originally took three days for three people checking one Hebrew word in a Strong’s concordance is now completed using Paratext in 30 minutes with fewer errors. “Flexibility, accuracy and speed are affected. There are amazing resources in terms of indexed exegetical commentaries and lexicons as well as powerful translation checking programs.” Support teams are easily set up and accessed while “distribution has shifted from print to digital with audio versions becoming increasingly important.”

Smolders uses at least three different computer programs on a daily basis including Paratext, Fieldworks Language Explorer (FLEx), and Logos 8 Bible Software. “Four computers, an external monitor, a surge protector, and high-quality USB-pre recording microphones form the core of the hardware.” The internet is used for syncing and sharing work and “for accessing images and videos to aid in understanding the Biblical text.”

Stirche says that, “A lot of research material is available using networks like where papers written on your topic of interest or book reviews that might be interesting and relevant for your translation can be found. The internet allows networking and accessing materials and contact with workers around the globe.”
With advanced technology, it is possible to work remotely and have working sessions via Skype with the national team on the ground. It is also easier to train national translators as computer programs are often cheaper than books and better training materials have been developed. SIL offers worldwide linguistic courses and helps, as well, training national personnel. The Home for Bible Translators in Jerusalem trains nationals in the Hebrew language (modern Hebrew and Biblical Hebrew), understanding the land and the culture Jesus was living in relation to Bible Translation (

Paratext’s most basic function is as a place for translators to type their translated text into a digitally indexed Bible template. Smolders says, “This means that translated works are immediately searchable (like any Bible app, with digital links to all books, chapters and verses) and exportable (you simply tell the computer what you want your book to look like in terms of columns and font and then presto! you have a perfectly formatted PDF). In addition to this, Paratext allows the translators to read commentaries, translation notes, and other Bible translations (from almost any language available) all in the same place. It also allows for spelling, punctuation and grammar checking (all configurable within the program to fit the target language), checking for content and consistency of key Biblical terms, the creation of Bible dictionaries, and mass editing (like advanced search and replace). It allows us to backup our work and mark points in a project’s history so we can revert back to a prior state after major changes (if necessary).”

Smolders is clearly committed to his technological support system. He adds that Paratext “makes it possible for teams to work with each other remotely via the internet. When we draft a text, like a chapter or book, we then sync it with all computers which have permission to view the project. Others can then post their comments on the text and make recommendations for changes as necessary, or record questions to be addressed during checking sessions. When an expert comes in to do an exegetical checking session, we add him or her to the project users list, sync our work with their computer, and receive their questions in return. All this makes the work of translation much more efficient than it otherwise would be, and greatly increases the amount of work that can be accomplished during face-to-face work.”

Naylor forsees the development of better checking tools for “target languages based on algorithms looking for patterns of speech.” Smolders says, “I know that there are people currently working on software which will help translation teams produce first drafts of biblical texts quicker (that is, a draft which a human team will take and revise, not a publishable book). Often, this first draft is the most difficult part of the process, since it takes the most creativity. Think about it like the difference between changing the lyrics or tune of a song (editing a draft) and writing a song from scratch (producing a first draft). The latter is clearly the more difficult and time consuming of the two processes.

Stirche says Christians “need to know that Bible Translation is a task that takes a long time. This is important inasmuch that our society is at a fast pace. Even people in the church are often more interested in supporting projects where you see immediate results. There is a great need for people with perseverance and willingness to go and be uncomfortable!

People need to know that Bible Translation is fascinating and very exciting!”

Naylor applauds the collaboration of societies such as the Bible Society and Wycliffe in their cooperation and development of translation tools. The Bible Society’s Paratext program coupled with “exegetical resources in SIL’s Translators workshop which is delivered through the Logos Bible program and synced with Paratext” is one example of this.

Stirche says “One thing that remains the same is that a translation needs to be checked by real people who speak the language. Proper research on the language still takes a lot of time even with facilitating technical tools.

Another thing that remains the same: people still need to go FIRST to the people without the Bible, learn their language, analyze it and develop an alphabet, then start training people along the process of translating the Bible!

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