What it takes to translate the Bible

Today is International Translation Day. To celebrate, Eternity reveals how to bring the Bible to different language groups – with the help of some of United Bible Society’s top translation consultants.

Ever wondered how Bible translations are made? We asked some experts. But, first, we had to check their credentials.

Marlon Winedt: What languages do I personally speak? My own mother tongue is Papiamento … Then, I do speak Spanish, French, English, Dutch, German, and some other Creole languages which I won’t list now. Then, the languages of the Bible that we can read, so Hebrew and Greek and Aramaic and stuff like that… and the languages I’ve been involved with translating … over the last 30 years, I’ve been involved with maybe 18-20 languages.

Okay, so Marlon’s credentials check out. Like Marlon, Brigitte Rabarijaona and Edgar Ebojo are translation consultants: they travel around the world advising on different Bible translations.

Edgar: Bible translation is exciting! You are open to new worlds, new communities, new practices, new cultures – and a lot of different foods!

Marlon: It is a very enriching experience … It’s a very synergetic thing … we grow a lot and learn a lot. The translations are done by local people; ministers, scholars, anyone interested in seeing the Bible translated into their own language.

A translation team usually consists of a manager, two translators, an editor and an outside consultant.

Marlon: That’s the nice thing about this ministry is you’re always learning … Then, you give what you have; it’s nice because you’re always keeping up with academic stuff but you learn a lot from your translation team too, because [of] the way they look at the Bible.

The translators tackle the Bible book by book, with the consultant giving guidance from the original Biblical languages. After the first few drafts, the translation is presented to the community that speaks the language, who gives its feedback. More checks are then undertaken, and an editor, who is an expert in the language, reads the text and makes changes. The consultant then checks the final draft against the Biblical languages.

When the consultant and translators are both satisfied, the consultant signs off on the translation. The community gets the chance to decide on the layout and design of the translation. At this point, it’s time for the first print.

The process is slow, usually taking years and sometimes decades. But the finished product is worth the wait – God’s Word in someone’s heart language.

Edgar: It’s a totally different world when you read the Bible in your own heart language because it affirms you ethnically, personally and also you understand the word of God better.

The United Nations estimates that in the next 100 years, 2,680 of the world’s languages could become extinct. The most vulnerable languages are those with few speakers and no written translations.

A Bible translation helps ensure that the language can continue, and become stronger. Brigitte is a translation consultant from Madagascar, and she’s seen the powerful impact that a Bible translation can have.

Brigitte: We have multiple benefits of having a Bible translation. First, the Bible was the very first written literature in Madagascar, so it helped to set the grammar, the rule of the language … it is helping keep the language alive and keeping that language as unique as it is.

The missionaries spoke English. The French colonisation, also they wanted to impose English. But because the Bible already got notoriety and importance in the daily life of Malagasy people, it remains the language of religion, the language of everyday … the language was already strongly established.

Because of the incredible impact Bible translations can have, the responsibility can often be daunting.

Marlon: When I became a translator … I remember the first day I was in the office … I was the first translator of the New Testament in my language, so I’m sitting there with the Greek, with the commentaries I’m going to translate – and I just got a sense of fear come over me. I just was afraid. Because I realised that day … in some sense, you are taking a responsibility on you to say you are going to be used by God to bring God’s Word to others in your own language

I mean, it’s not like I translated it and went away [laughs]. I mean, if people have criticism about it, they can find me.

For some translators, it’s not just a heavy responsibility; it’s also dangerous to translate the Bible.

Marlon: For some translators it’s more than tricky, it’s even dangerous to translate. There are countries where translating the Bible is not done – or it’s a dangerous thing to do – because people don’t want you to translate the Bible.

Edgar: It’s … a dangerous task in some ways … We have a few, very few, instances where you have some translation consultants [who have] lost their lives in performing their duty.

But despite the dangers and challenges, more and more people around the world are taking up the task of translating the Bible into their heart language.

Edgar: As we translate the Word of God, the translation team also becomes deeper, experiences deeper relationship with God and his Word – as they go through the process of making the Word of God available to their language.