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Stages of Translation

January 12, 2013

Bible translation is a long, complicated process. To help get a handle on a HUGE goal like “translate the Bible into a new language,” it helps to break things down into their component steps.

The first breakdown that we can do is with the scope of our project. Even though our long-range goal is to bring all 66 books of the Bible (plus the deuterocanonical books for an interconfessional edition) into Nsenga, it helps to start a little smaller. So, technically, we are now working on the Nsenga New Testament.

Father Tembo

Father Tembo

After that, we can decide on which order to translate the different books of the NT. We were advised to start with an “easy” book, but not to save all the hard books for the end. Switching genres (between epistles and Gospels) helps keep things fresh as well. So, we decided not to begin at Matthew and go straight through to Revelation. (Hopefully in the future I can post on the order of our books, and the rationale we used to pick that order.)

After that, though, the real work begins. We sit down in the translation office with our chosen book in front of us. What do we do now?

Through long experience, the United Bible Societies (UBS) has developed a series of “stages” through which every book of the Bible has to pass in order to be approved for publication. I’ll detail those stages below, with the additions we’ve developed for our specific situation at the Nsenga project.

STAGE 1: Drafting

In this step, the mother-tongue translator (MTT) studies his/her text in various translations and commentaries and sits down to write a draft translation that is hopefully accurate, beautiful, and clear in Nsenga. Tricky passages can be talked about with others, but in general this step is the work of one individual translator. Since there are three MTTs on the Nsenga project, we usually have three books at a time in the drafting stage.

STAGE 1.5: Exegetical Checking

ParaTExt software for Bible Translation

ParaTExt software for Bible Translation

This is the first of our added steps. Every Bible translation project has to include a step where the translation is compared to the original Greek to insure meaning has been preserved, theological biases minimized, and wrong interpretations excluded. Our procedure at the Nsenga project has three distinct steps: (1) The MTT and the exegete (Chris) work out an interlinear Nsenga-English “back translation” of the book, (2) Chris closely looks at the Nsenga draft, compares it to the Greek, and digs into the commentaries to resolve any questions, (3) the MTT makes adjustments to the draft based on Chris’ recommendations and discussion.

STAGE 2: Internal Review

After a book has been completely drafted and exegetically checked, all three MTTs (with Chris) read through it aloud verse-by-verse, usually a paragraph at a time. We’re looking for things like punctuation, spelling, and word choice, but also listening for good Nsenga. The main thing that is being checked here is the beauty and clarity of the translation – accuracy might have been checked in the exegetical check, but is the meaning clear, especially to “regular” Bible readers (who are probably Bible listeners)? Does it sound beautiful in a way that would make people want to keep listening? One big issue that also comes up in this step is vocabulary: often the translators will discuss whether a certain word is “really” Nsenga, or if it has just been borrowed from Chewa (the related majority language of the area). If it’s borrowed, is there a better “deep Nsenga” word? Or is the clearest way to communicate simply to use the borrowed word? A long discussion came up about “doctor Luke” – the Nsenga word for “doctor” seemed to unavoidably mean “witch doctor,” so we ended up borrowing the Chewa word for “medical doctor.” The trade of pure Nsenga for clear meaning was deemed essential.

Fani Phiri

Fani Phiri

STAGE 2.5: Style Check

After the three translators are happy with the draft, we print several copies and invite into our office two or three other reviewers. One is an Nsenga folklorist and storyteller who is known in the community for his good Nsenga, and the other is a lay reader in his congregation who has a great “feel” for how Nsenga should sound and flow. Sometimes another local pastor who serves in several rural congregations also comes in. These reviewers read through the translation with the MTTs, making essentially the same types of comments as in the above step. The translators feel like this second read-through really helps improve the overall quality of the draft, and gives them a chance to solicit outside opinions on some of the word choices they’ve made during the drafting, especially in technical religious terminology and culturally unknown concepts (like “circumcision”).

STAGE 3: External Review

After this extensive drafting process, more copies are printed and taken to review committees in various parts of the Nsenga-speaking area. We have not yet had official training for these committees, but the Bible Society of Zambia will be coordinating that with us in February. The idea is to have teams from different areas read to check for comprehension, dialect issues, word choice, and the ever-important accuracy, beauty, and clarity. An important part of this step (and indeed for all the steps) is to involve as many people as possible from different churches, to insure that the translation is acceptable to all denominations and to stir enthusiasm and participation for this project from the ground up.

STAGE 3.5: Village Checking

The first public reading

The first public reading

Alongside the external review, the translation also needs to be checked in face-to-face situations with different groups of people. The template for these checks is to travel to an Nsenga village, read a section of the translation, and ask “comprehension questions” to insure that the translation is communicating the things we think it is. It’s one thing for well-educated readers in town to understand a passage; it’s another thing altogether for untrained people with little familiarity with the Bible to get the same meaning out of a text. I hope to have many stories from village checks in the future!

STAGE 4: Consultant Check

After the review teams have given their OKs, and the translators have made appropriate changes based on their input, the translation draft is checked by the Translation Consultant for the Bible Society of Zambia, Dr Misheck Nyirenda. He has many years of experience and special training in Bible translation issues. Dr Nyirenda is actually involved in the process from the drafting stage, since he is able to spot-check our translation via the internet and answer questions. This stage allows him the chance to have back-and-forth with the translators to decide how they have chosen to solve certain translation issues, and why they chose that method instead of some other.

Stansilas Lungu

Stansilas Lungu

STAGE 5: Printing

Although not technically part of the UBS procedure timeline, the step we’re all looking forward to is the final printing. Since we use computers from the very first rough draft of the translation, many of the “publishing” issues (cross-references, footnotes, hyphenation, versification, etc, etc) are taken care of early in the process. Still, there are a lot of final checks and things to do to go from a working ParaTExt project to a printed Bible. But this is the thing for which we are all working and praying – an accurate, beautiful, and clear Bible in the Nsenga language which can be read, heard, and understood by all Nsengas to the glory of God.


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