Today, September 30, is International Translation Day 2017. Bible translation is at the core of what Bible Societies do. Welcome to world of the Bible and the culture of its translation.
A translator from francophone Togo once said:
“I was always told that it was normal and efficient to translate the Bible directly from a French modern translation. After all, we knew French. But now, after my Biblical Hebrew courses, I see that this did not make sense at all. Any French translation is only an interpretation of the original text. It’s consciously or unconsciously adapted to French grammar, style and concepts. It’s consciously or unconsciously embedded in modern Western European culture, intended to reach French people. It would have been much easier and quicker for us to translate straight from the Hebrew, without any interference from French culture. Ancient Israelite culture and my Togolese culture are actually quite similar. Now I can see the similarities between narratives in the original and storytelling in my culture! Now I can see the similarities between Old Testament (terms for) sacrifices and (terms for) sacrifices in my culture!”
It may come as a surprise, but a modern Western concept like “soul” does not occur in the Old Testament. The Hebrew speaks of “breath, throat, life’s force”. This has been turned into “soul” only in European translations, portraying a different view of a person than in the Hebrew. If the Togolese translator had not discovered Biblical Hebrew in time, he would have continued to struggle to find a Togolese (non-existent) equivalent of “soul”, whereas the Hebrew original concept nephesh alerted him to what is in fact the same concept in his language!
So we cannot just translate from an existing modern translation as if it could serve as a substitute for the Hebrew and Greek source texts. Instead, translators need to be well-acquainted with the world and cultures of the Bible. At the same time, translators need to be sensitive to the culture and concepts of the people for whom the translation is intended. After all, they are the people who should appreciate it.
As United Bible Societies, we try to equip translators by conducting seminars where we look into the world and cultures of the Bible and compare these with the culture and concepts of the translators’ own language group. Our translation advisors also help translators with Biblical Hebrew and Greek where this is needed and when specific translation problems come up.
From time to time we have the opportunity to take groups of translators to Israel. There they can see with their own eyes the landscapes mentioned in the Bible and a number of relevant archaeological sites where temples, palaces and synagogues have been found. All this will help translators to visualize the biblical texts and find the right terms in their language when they translate the texts.
The Bible Societies serve the Churches. Established Churches in affluent countries are not satisfied with anything less than a translation of the Bible that is faithful to the source text. In the same way, Churches in the rest of the world are taking Bible translation standards very seriously. At our seminars, we help translators to become aware of how specific texts are sometimes read and understood by the Churches in the area where the translation will be used. This is actually part of the culture in which the translation will be used.
But there are also new groups of interested Bible users which we serve. Non-print media are now widely used. Bible translation into sign languages for Deaf communities has taken a much more prominent position.
Pray on International Translation Day 2017
Please join us in prayer today:
- We are giving thanks for all the Bible translations in the world. They are making the Word of God available to billions of people in their heart language.
- We are praying for the continued work of Bible translation around the world and for the Holy Spirit to guide the translators in their important work.
By Lénart de Regt, Global Translation Advisor.