In the US, I am often asked how long it takes to translate the New Testament. Answering this question requires that we back up a bit. How long to do what, exactly?
Most languages without the Bible also have no alphabet. So the work of translation must start with some linguistics. After tackling the alphabet, then comes the grammar There are no books, so no dictionary, no description of the grammar. How is the past tense formed? The future tense? Many such questions must be answered.
No books means no theological books. So, what is the right name for God? The Holy Spirit? What are the best words to translate sin, holiness, spirit, synagogue, temple, adultery, and so on. There are many such questions. They must all be researched so that the translation will be accurate.
Then we need to take into account that the people may live in an area with poor roads or no electricity, which will make things take longer.
If you are very good and have the right circumstances, you can start from zero, go through all the steps, and complete the translation of the New Testament and a few Old Testament books in ten years. Most translations take longer. As a comparison, it took the translators of the King James Bible 7 years to translate the whole Bible, but they had some big advantages:
- There were 47 active translators, many more than the 2-3 who work on most translations in Africa
- English already had an alphabet, a grammar and theological works
- English already had other translations. Scholars estimate that a full third of the King James Version was taken word for word from Tyndale’s translation and another 50% was taken from Tyndale with small changes.
Today we have methods which can speed things up without needing 47 translators. Translations in several languages can be done all at once by having translators from several languages work together. In one case in Ghana, translations of the New Testament were done simultaneously in seven years. That’s less than 2.5 years per language. Not all clusters are that successful, though.
Finding ways to accelerate translation is something we are building into the plan to have translations in all the languages of Ghana, all while maintaining high standards.