On the Translation Process

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?

The guys hard at work, Oscar and Boniface (Mamusi translators) in the foreground.

The guys hard at work, Oscar and Boniface (Mamusi translators) in the foreground.

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.

An early draft - we've gone through a couple of those erasers already!

An early draft – we’ve gone through a couple of those erasers already!

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.

A section of our Luke 1 draft, with the back translation in parallel

A section of our Luke 1 draft, with the back translation in parallel

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.

Oscar and Boniface are doing an incredible job. It's a lot to learn!

Oscar and Boniface are doing an incredible job. It’s a lot to learn!

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?

I taught several sessions on study skills - how to use the various research helps.

I taught several sessions on study skills – how to use the various research helps.

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!


  1. Barbara Hepler · · Reply

    Are the names used in that segment (Sakaria and Sampet) familiar Mamusi names or translations? Just wondered.

    In awe of what God is doing through you all!


    1. Yes, I’m glad you asked about that. Two different answers. Sampet is the Mamusi version of the name Elizabeth, much like John is the English version of the Greek Ioannes. In the case of Zechariah, we don’t have the Z sound at all in the language, so all Zs become Ss. Then basically we spell it the way they pronounce it, using their own pronunciation/spelling conventions. Sometimes for familiar names such as John, we just borrow that name directly into Mamusi, even though there’s no J sound or letter normally in the language. Place names follow the same general (and sometimes inconsistent) conventions: Yutia (Judea), Serusalem (Jerusalem), etc.


  2. JoNelle · · Reply

    Love seeing your post on fb & reading your newsletters.
    Pray for you all often as God continues to use you all for His glory! Your faith encourages my heart! Run the good race & keep your eyes set on Him and let you light so shine before all men.

    I did want to ask you about one of your boys. Did I read that he had/ or has Malaria? Hoping I misread that. Praying for you all.

    He Is Able~



    1. Hey JoNelle! Yes, Abel and Evie both got malaria toward the end of our village stay last month. But we were prepared with good medicine and were able to get it knocked out in just a few days. Thanks for your prayers!


  3. Sue Roberts · · Reply

    what kind of time frame are you anticipating to translate the entire bible? And in what particular order do you translate and how do you determine what that order is? Obviously starting with the Gospel.

    We are certainly praying for you all and miss you terribly! Lake is not nearly as much fun without you all there.


    1. Hey Sue! The whole Bible project can take anywhere from 20 to 50 years (sometimes more!), depending on a huge variety of factors. The biggest thing is the attitude of the churches and communities in the language group. If they are solidly supportive of the project, it will move forward much faster with their cooperation. As far as my involvement is concerned, the general pattern we typically follow in our organization is this: I, the expat advisor, will be directly involved in the New Testament part of the translation project, generally 10-20 years. After that, with the skills and training the national translators have received, they are able to move forward and take the lead on the Old Testament, if the desire is there. That may take another 10-20 years. I would remain their advisor, but my involvement would likely be remote at that point, from the States or while working on another project somewhere else.

      Every project sets its own schedule as far as order of books. It seems most common to start with Mark, 1 John, or Ephesians, which all have fairly straightforward Greek. Revelation is almost universally saved for last! This project is starting with Luke because of the ability to produce a dubbed Jesus film, whose script is taken directly from Luke. The idea here is to get Scripture products in the hands of the community as early on as possible, to act as a catalyst for church and community support, thereby driving the project forward.


  4. Donald Trew · · Reply

    Praying for your Bible project as it goes forward.
    The Trews

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Donald & Barbara Courtley · · Reply

    Thank you for your update and explanation of a very HUGE undertaking. It truly helps us pray for you and yours going forward. You all are being obedient to God’s call and He will Bless you. Our love to you, The Courtleys


  6. Sandy Houser · · Reply

    After visiting Wycliffe in Orlando a few months ago, we came away with a new awareness of languages and the importance of correctly translating the meaning, not the words. We love to read your updates and especially like to see how the children are growing and adapting to the culture. What a marvelous adventure your family is living. Sandy and Carol Houser

    Liked by 1 person

  7. The Shepherds · · Reply

    Curious if that culture has any other gods or religions that you have to compete with? Are people there generally open to the resurrection?
    Are people in that culture consumed with self as in America?


    1. Hey guys! The traditional religion here was animistic, honoring spirits of nature and of ancestors. The Catholic Church is strong here now, and most of the old worship is just a memory. But it is still remembered and has subtle influence on some areas of life. For example, some people still resort to magic in times of drought, death, or planting new crops.

      About self-centeredness, it’s overwhelmingly a collective society (as opposed to individual), so the emphasis is almost always on the good of the family, the clan, the church, or the community rather than the individual. Still, now that transportation and communication are opening up the area to the outside world, western materialism is sneaking its way in. I’ve heard it said that this culture has gone from Stone Age to 21st century in just a few generations, without the benefit of the Enlightenment, industrial revolution, and other western transitional periods. That’s a fairy ethnocentric view, but it gives some perspective on the odd juxtaposition of traditional and modern life we see here.


  8. Hello Aaron and Rebekah!

    Thanks for the Translation Process! Until one understands the critical steps involved, you can’t really appreciate what you and others are doing. We continue to pray for God to provide wisdom, discernment, encouragement, protection, sensitivity to His Spirit and GREAT JOY as you touch the lives of so many for God’s kingdom.

    Our department looks forward to your continued progress. In addition to prayer, is there any other specific need that you/family have?

    To God be the glory!

    David Littlefield

    Liked by 1 person

  9. […] the first Luke Partnership workshop in May–where our two Mamusi translators came to Kokopo along with translators from 6 other language […]


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