Beyond all those things, enjoy of delicious that your proper mind can create.
When together placing parts surrounding until work never hears.
Tomorrow then to you all dreams wanting.
If you’ve ever tried to read the directions to a cheap imported product, perused a desperate travel brochure, or used Google Translate, you’ve felt the effects of poor translation technique.
We’ve received a lot of questions over the years about how all this translation business works (many of which I still don’t know the answers to), but my favorite goes something like this: “Why does translation take so long? Couldn’t a computer do it if you gave it a dictionary? Does it really have to take 10, 15, 20 years or more?” Seems reasonable; after all, every language has a word for “Jesus,” “love,” and “world,” right? How hard could it be to get the Gospel message out there in all the languages? Right?
Most of us have endured at least one High School course of some foreign language or another, so of course we know that this is not the case. If words, structures, and mental categories mapped neatly from one language to every (or any) other language, this would be a much simpler job. But God never does anything halfway, and He really did a number at Babel. Each of the world’s 7000 or so languages has countless features that make it unique and beautiful — and make it impossible to do a quality translation without a huge investment of time and energy.
So how do we go about this process? We are blessed in this workshop to have six instructors with us (two Papua New Guineans and four expatriates) who have worked with a New Testament project from start to finish. Two of them have been teaching on the translation process for the last several weeks, and I thought I’d save you a trip out to one of these workshops and give you a crash course in Translation Principles. I think this will answer several of the questions we’ve heard, but maybe (hopefully) it will raise a few more. Here are the 9 steps of translation:
Step 0: Prayer. Everything we do hinges on it. Before we start, as we’re working, when we’re finished. Nothing happens without the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And it’s not just us praying; many of you are praying for us. Hopefully this will give you more specific ways to pray!
Step 1: Exegesis. We need the Holy Spirit to guide us to a clear understanding of the source text. The New Testament is written in Greek, so that’s the ultimate source text, but we also consult trusted translations in English, Tok Pisin, and sometimes in nearby and related languages. We spend a lot of time reading a passage in as many versions as we can get our hands on, and we have commentaries and other resources to help us with the difficult bits. Once we feel we have a good sense of the meaning of the passage, we move on.
Step 2: Drafting. This is the hard one. We do our best to communicate the same meaning in Mamusi. This step has several sub-steps to it: After discussing the main point of the passage (we’ve been doing 6-8 narrative verses at a time), we’ll construct an event line of all the action that happens in the scene, then sometimes act it out to get a tangible sense of what happens. Next, with all our books and resources closed, each translator will record an oral retelling of the passage in Mamusi on a little digital voice recorder. We then listen to each of their renderings, select the best one, and write it down on paper, incorporating better words/phrases from the other’s version.
Step 3: Team Check. After we have something on paper, we as a team put it through a series of tests to make sure it meets the 4 essential qualities of a good translation:
Accuracy: Is the meaning of the translation faithful to the meaning of the original? It may use more or fewer words, longer or shorter expressions and sentences, even rearrange the order ideas, but the meaning must be accurate.
Clarity: Is the meaning of the translation communicated clearly? Does information which was implied in the source text need to be explicit in the translation, or vice-versa? Do we need to add a footnote or a glossary entry to clarify potentially confusing words or phrases?
Naturalness: Is the wording good Mamusi? Does it sound as if a Mamusi speaker was telling the story, or does it sound like a foreign translation like those at the beginning of this post?
Acceptability: Does the translation reflect the goals of our intended audience? Will church leaders want to use it in their services? Will people have a desire to use it in their private walk with the Lord?
Step 4: Testing. Once the above features have been checked and corrections made, we take our draft to the villages and churches where we want it to be used. With a spirit of humility and cooperation, we share the translation as widely as we can and actively solicit feedback, with the 4 goals above in mind. This not only helps us improve the quality of the translation by getting a variety of perspectives, but it also gets the communities involved, invested, and excited about the project. Village testing is done 2 or 3 chapters at a time, so there will be a whole lot of those over the course of the work.
Step 5: Back Translation. We now take the translation, and translate it fairly literally back into English. This back translation is not meant to be published, but to be used by a consultant (see the next step) who doesn’t know Mamusi. Reading the back translation allows someone unfamiliar with the language to see how we’ve worded key terms and get a feel for the structures of the language.
Step 6: Consultant Check. Once one or more books have been village checked and back-translated, we meet with a specially-trained translation consultant to do another check. This consultant will bring an experienced perspective, having seen many translation projects and knowing what problems often come up in what passages, that we may not have considered before. The consultant will suggest more changes, which we will incorporate at our discretion.
Step 7: Final Editing. Since it’s now been looked over thoroughly by lots of people and we’ve received lots of feedback and ideas, we go through everything again and make sure we’ve incorporated all our help in an appropriate way. We look for extra-textual things like chapter/verse numbers, titles, page formats, and make sure it’s all correct.
Step 8: Final Read-through. Finally we’ll gather a group (or several) of Mamusi readers, speakers, and listeners, and read through everything out loud all together. Any changes at this point should be minimal, but reading through whole books will give us a better sense of continuity than the previous checks of smaller sections.
After all the steps are complete, our files get sent off to a print shop to be typeset and professionally printed and bound. Then comes the work of distribution, Scripture use, church engagement strategies … but those are posts for another year.
Today (Thursday) we wrapped up the drafting phase of our first chunk of Scripture, Luke 1:5-25, by doing a mock-up of a consultant check. After the course is over next week we’ll head out to do some village checking. Between courses we’ll be working on the rest of the narrative portions (we’re skipping the songs and things like that for now). We’ll have another course in September-October to tackle some more advanced translation issues, then we’ll continue the pattern of two workshops a year for four years, by which time we will have completed Luke and produced the Jesus Film in Mamusi.
It struck me that in just these 21 verses, we ran across the following words, that you and I take for granted in English, but which have no direct equivalent in the Mamusi language: king, priest, righteous, ordinances, blameless, temple, lots, incense, angel, altar, wine, wisdom, vision. We had to use descriptive phrases or borrow familiar words from other languages to express these concepts. It’s not because Mamusi is deficient. There are some great Mamusi words that require several English words to translate, like toluala, which means “to meet someone on the road and exchange food with them,” or kalolong, meaning “y’all listen up to this here story.” There’s a wealth of vocabulary related to things that have traditionally been important in the culture. Significantly though, the cultural backgrounds of the Bible were many miles and years away from where we’re standing here today, so the vocabulary is naturally focused on a different set of concepts and values. If you’re reading this, you’ve had the benefit of living in a culture and speaking/reading a language that has been influenced by these very backgrounds for thousands of years. Here in Papua New Guinea and in several other parts of the world, the Gospel has only come in the last couple of generations. So for example, Mamusi speakers all use the word Pater (Latin for father) because that’s what the Catholic church calls its priests here, but the only way we could come up with to say ‘king’ was kemana usongana, “man big,” denoting anyone in authority. Lucky for us, translation is about communicating meaning, not substituting words. It’s a lot of work, and we will continue to struggle and argue and make mistakes. But is there any other meaning that’s more worth communicating?
If you’ve got questions, I’d love to hear them. I likely won’t know the answer, but I’m surrounded by brilliant people that probably will. Send us an email, or ask them in the comments below so others can benefit from the discussion!