Not just anyone can translate

Because I am involved in Bible translation, I read about translation – all kinds of translation, not just Bible translation. These days, that means reading on the web. I came across an important article by a professional translator and researcher in translation issues, Nataly Kelly. It is entitled “Clearing up the Top 10 Myths About Translation“. A number of the 10 myths are not very applicable to Bible translation, but one is applicable not just to Bible translation, but to all kinds of Christian ministry in places where there is more than one language – which is most of the world. So what is this myth?

Any bilingual can be a translator or an interpreter.

Nataly goes on to write:

The ability to write in English does not make a person a professional writer. The ability to speak English does not make a person a professional speaker. Likewise, the ability to write or speak two languages does not mean that a person can translate or interpret. Plenty of people who are perfectly fluent in two languages fail professional exams for translation and interpreting. Why? Being bilingual does not guarantee that a person will be able to transport meaning from one language and culture to another without inflicting harm in the process.

Why do I think that this is important for Christian ministry in areas where there is more than one language? Well, because it seems to me that many missionaries, evangelists, pastors and even whole churches do not know it. Churches in settings with more than one language pick a person from the congregation to translate the Pastor’s sermon. They do so only on the basis that the person speaks both languages. The interpreter receives no orientation or training, nor is his or her interpretation evaluated.

Short term missionaries come and pick just any person who speaks the local language and English to be their interpreter. The interpreter may even be interpreting Bible stories in the VBS classes run by the short-term missions team. The result is the message gets lost in poor translation. But that is not what God intended, because we read in Deuteronomy chapter 30:

11 “This command I am giving you today is not too difficult for you to understand, and it is not beyond your reach. 12 It is not kept in heaven, so distant that you must ask, ‘Who will go up to heaven and bring it down so we can hear it and obey?’ 13 It is not kept beyond the sea, so far away that you must ask, ‘Who will cross the sea to bring it to us so we can hear it and obey?’ 14 No, the message is very close at hand; it is on your lips and in your heart so that you can obey it. (NLT)

Congolese translator candidates

A leading Congolese Bible translator teaching potential translators selected by their churches. Out of this group, only one or two will be chosen. Photo by Doug Wright

We need to be wary of making God’s message difficult or far away. Unfortunately, naïvety about language causes some to do just that. When churches and missions were offered (they did not ask, we offered) training for their interpreters in Burkina Faso, they came back afterward to say how much more people understood of the sermons, thus affirming that the interpretation of sermons needed improvement and that they did not know that improvement was needed.

Here in Ghana and most places, all Bible translation is done by native speakers of the languages. But not just any native speakers. Churches send a group of at least 8 potential translators matching a specific profile to a short course in translation. In 5-10 days we can see which are gifted in translation and which are not. The gifted ones are chosen as translators. It is not just any person whom God has gifted to translate into his language.

Bible Translators receiving specialized training in Tamale, Ghana

Bible Translators receiving specialized training in Tamale, Ghana

But we do not stop there. Bible Translators receive specialized training and that training is renewed regularly. For example, if the national translators in a language has translated the Gospels, and they plan to translate the Psalms next, then they will get special training on translating poetry before they start. The need for training is why we made it a priority to help a Christian University in Congo start a training program for Bible translators.

It will seem odd to those of us who speak English or another major language, but it is not uncommon to have pastors trained in English in Africa who do not know the names of the books of the Bible in their own languages, nor the correct words for key concepts like faith, salvation or repentance in their own languages. The Ghanaian responsible for pastoral training for a large denomination here in Ghana confirmed this to me just this week. This is because their schooling and training is entirely in English. If you take someone like that to be an interpreter into his language, you will not get a good result, even worse if you just take any person off the street.

Interpreting the pastor’s sermon, or for a short terms team does not need the same degree of rigor as Bible translation, but they do need more than just choosing anyone. Businesses, governments, book publishers, Nataly Kelly and many more know that they need professional translators with specialized training to get their message clear. Sometimes we Christians don’t, proving Jesus’ words:

For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. (Luke 16:8 ESV)

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10 thoughts on “Not just anyone can translate

  1. Thanks, as always, for your insightful words. I have experienced exactly the problems you describe when using even professional translators for my classes, when they are not skilled in the technical aspects of my work.

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