Translation of the proper nouns in the Bible is an issue that is rarely controversial and not very exciting. But, it is important. Studies show that proper nouns are the biggest hindrance to reading the Bible fluently. You don’t need a fancy study to reach that conclusion. Just hand a Bible, any translation, to someone and ask them to read out loud a passage full of names of people or places, especially the Old Testament. Almost everyone will stumble while reading the names.
So, one of the easiest ways to increase the readability of a translation of the Bible is to put a little work into the translation or transliteration of proper nouns. It is too late for English. The English spelling of names in the Bible has been set for a long time We are just going to have to keep stumbling over those strange names. But, we can make a bit of a difference when translating the Bible into a language for the first time.
So, one of the mundane but important tasks in translating the Bible for the first time into a language is to develop an approach toward proper names that will cause readers the fewest problems. A good Bible translator uses the science of linguistics to develop a solid approach which is both accurate and respects the structure of the language.
Consider proper nouns used to describe people from a specific place. English has a complicated system. Depending on the place, English adds “ers” or “ians”, as in New Yorkers and Oregonians. But how to choose? A person from the town of Kumasi in Ghana would be what? A Kumasian? A Kumasier? Then there are the irregular forms. People from Greece are Greeks, those from Japan are Japanese, and those from Bangladesh are Bangladeshis.
Dayle and I started our career in Bible translation learning the Cerma languages in southwest Burkina Faso. In comparison to English, Cerma is a model of predictability. If the name of the place ends in a consonant, add a vowel and then “taamba”, otherwise, just add “taamba”. Presto, the name for the people who live in that place. In Cerma, Oregonians are Oregonitaamba.
A number of books of the New Testament are named after the people to whom they were first written. For example, the book written to the people in the city of Colossae is called Colossians, the one to the residents of the city of Philippi, is called Philippians. These names follow the English practice of adding “ians”. So how did the translators name these books in Cerma? Simple, they just added “taamba”.
Just take a look at the table of contents for the New Testament in the Cerma language. You can see that many of the books that would end in “ians” in English end in “taamba” in Cerma.
Not only does using taamba make it easy to read, but without being taught, even an uneducated Cerma reader will know that Galasitaamba means the people who live in a place called Galasi. A little effort put into studying the language and apply that to translation produces a translation where proper nouns are easier read and understand.