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Demystifying the Bible translation process

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Demystifying the Bible translation process

With more than 700 languages in Africa that still need a translation of the Bible, there is much work to be done in making the Word of God accessible to all people in their own heart language.  The Bible translation process involves many different skill sets and requires the buy-in of the local people to be a true success.

The process can be broken down into five phases: 1) Identify a feasible project 2) Decide on the best approach, 3) Translate the Scriptures, 4) Distribute the translated works and 5) Measure the impact the translated work has had on the community.

Identifying a feasible project

Although every people group needs God’s Word in their own language, some groups are more ready than others for a translation to begin. “What is most desirable is that a language community expresses an interest in Bible translation on their own initiative, and starts looking for partners. It may however happen that a language group has never been aware that they are actually entitled to ask for a translation”, explains Sebastian Floor, Director of Translation Services at Wycliffe South Africa. Some research before a project initiates is necessary. The first phase of upfront research includes a language survey to find out the total number of speakers of a language.  The research encompasses challenges that may be encountered, geographic or infrastructure issues, as well as the religious and political environment.  The research team will find out if there are any mother tongue speakers that could be trained as translators, and if the local church community is prepared to assist with the translation work.

Deciding on the best approach

“When it comes to language translation, there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach.  Each community is unique in its culture and way of life, which in turn impacts how the translation team will work with the people.  The strategy is therefore customised for each new translation started”, explained Karen Floor, CEO of Wycliffe South Africa.  

Translating the Scriptures

The team will work with the local church to identify the most-needed sections of Scripture that will have the greatest impact on the community.  In terms of distribution, the most culturally appropriate media will be selected for use, e.g. oral storytelling, audio scriptures, sign language or printed Scriptures.  The team will develop a project plan with a budget, a schedule for translation and a training programme for the translators. 

Once the plan is in place, the translation work begins, one word at a time.  Many of the languages that Wycliffe works with have never been written down.  They come from oral cultures that pass down their languages through stories.  In these instances, the team helps translators to analyse their own language, to create an alphabet and to compile a dictionary.  The translators then analyse each verse and put it into the words of the local language.  

The translated portions go through community testing to see how well the local people understand the translation and corrections are made.  After making any required corrections, the Scripture is translated from the new text back into a major language for an outside consultant to review for accuracy.  Finally, the translators proof every word, every phrase, every tone and every mark – to be sure that there are no errors before publication. 

Distributing the translated works 

As portions of Scripture are completed and printed, or recorded, they are distributed as soon as possible.  Milestones are celebrated during the entire translation process, e.g. completion of Bible stories and the dedication of each Gospel.  When a translation is completed, the team invites partners who have prayed and invested in the project to join them in a great celebration of what God has done.

The last phase is measuring the impact of the translated Scriptures on the local community.  The team will report on it quarterly to both financial and prayer partners of the project.  They look at the challenges, what the continuing needs are, and how the Scripture is being distributed.  Measurement allows them to make adjustments where required and look at how to improve for the next project.  

Measuring the impact

“The most rewarding aspect of the work we do is when we hear the amazing stories and personal testimonies from people who share about how the Scriptures have touched their lives and their communities.  Wycliffe counts it an honour and a privilege to be involved in bringing God’s Word to His people in their own heart language”, concluded Karen.

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