When I talk to groups in the US about the accelerated pace of Bible translation, people often jump to the conclusion that the cause of the acceleration is technology. Technology has indeed increased the pace, but other things have increased the pace even more than technology.

One of them is clusters.

Translators from several languages in a cluster, praying during a training session.

Translators from several languages in a cluster, praying during a training session.

It used to be that the translation in every language was a stand-alone activity. A missionary-linguist moved into each language area and learned each language. Each one did research on the language to which they were assigned, trained local people and lead the translation effort. There was some cooperation between the translation efforts in different languages. It was often sporadic and informal in nature, depending on times when the missionary-translators would get together for another reason.

I’m not sure who discovered it, but a solution to a translation problem in one language can often be used in other languages. I saw it myself vividly. I was at a training course for national translators in Burkina Faso. They were all grappling with the same translation problem when one of the students – not one of the staff, mind you – came up with a solution they all could use. The solution had to do with how the passive voice is used in many of the languages. So the solution was not just for one verse, but for many of the of the times the passive voice is used in the Bible. That one solution could save days, weeks perhaps even months of work because the passive voice occurs many times.

Fabien Dapilla who leads two new clusters in Ghana

Fabien Dapilla who leads two new clusters in Ghana

From this kind of experience came the idea of clusters – doing translation with a group of languages together, all at once. It looked like that would make translation go faster and cost less. In many cases, it has. But it has done more. In projects staffed entirely by national translators in Congo, we found that clusters increased morale among the translators. Surprisingly, along with increasing morale, accountability was also increased. So we got speed increases, cost reductions, increased morale and increased accountability.

When we came to Ghana, we found that there were lots of opportunities to speed translation by starting clusters.

A word of caution. The clusters sometimes cost less in the long term and more in the short term. The cost of getting translators together on a regular basis meant that the budget for each translation for each year increased. However, the number of years needed decreased. So the cost per year went up, but the total cost for the translations went down. It is my experience that under-funded translation programs actually cost more, sometimes a lot more, in the long term even though they cost less in any given year.

What speeds up translation?

Translators correct translation on computerWhen I am in the US, people often ask how much technology is speeding up Bible translation. I don’t know of any formal assessment, but I have seen translations done before computers and now with them. My own personal estimate is that the computer shaves 1-2 years off a translation project. Furthermore, the time is saves was mostly spent doing tedious and uncreative tasks like checking spelling and consistency.

Bible translation for minority peoples is progressing at 2-3 times the pace it was two decades ago. What is producing that increased pace? Well, technology accounts for a small part of the increase. But the biggest increase is coming from elsewhere.

In an article entitled “The Vernacular Treasure” in The International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Dr. Harriet Hill of the American Bible Society says this about the increased speed.

Translation organizations are working more intentionally with partners, recruiting and training translators from all nations of the world, and working with clusters of related languages rather than with one language at a time.

So, she sees three changes that are increasing the pace of Bible translation.

  • working more intentionally with partners
  • recruiting and training translators from all nations of the world
  • working with clusters of related languages

Michael Serchie, Gilbert Ansre and EdI concur with her assessment that these are real causes for the increased pace. Technology is important. But it is the human connections (working intentionally with partners) and the building up of God’s people (training translators from all nations) that reflect God’s kingdom. We should not be surprised, therefore, that increases in the pace of translation come mostly from doing those things.

That is why our goals and activities, are built around partnering in a new way with the churches in Ghana and training their people to accelerate the translation of the Bible for all the peoples of Ghana and beyond.

How long

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?

Proposed alphabet for a language of the Congo

Proposed alphabet for a language of the Congo

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.

Congolese translators working together

Congolese translators working together

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.
Congolese translators working with a consultant

Congolese translators working with a consultant

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.