Part One – Translation Advisor

It was just over one year ago, on March 17th, 2010, that I returned to Canada after working with a team of national men in Papua New Guinea on their translation of Matthew.  These men are part of what we call “Group Directed Projects”.  From one perspective, you could say that their project is currently functioning without having an expatriate (“foreign”) missionary directly assigned to work with them.

A more positive way to look at it is to say that with some limited guidance and support, national Papuans are working at getting Bible translation and literacy efforts going for the people of their own language.  By this I mean that our staff in our Madang office will help train them to learn the principles of Bible translation and literacy.  We will also help provide outside Advisors and Translation Consultants to come and look over the text and point out places where corrections or some revisions might be needed to be done.

My task last year was to come and work with one team to help them with their translation of the Gospel of Matthew.  The man who had been assigned as their translation Advisor was not available, and so I was asked to step in.  There are quite a few steps involved in the translation process, going from a rough draft of the text all the way to publishing the book of Scripture that you are working on.  It would take me a few articles to outline clearly all of these steps, but in time I should be able to write enough stories to help people understand what is involved.


Now before I tell you more about the checking sessions that I did last year with the AK language, I must share with you what  makes this project very interesting and unique.  Most language projects, and especially the ones in Papua New Guinea, can take years if not decades to get the translation of the New Testament entirely rough drafted.  But incredibly, the AK language project had a complete New Testament drafted in just over a half of a year.

How was this possible, and what does this mean?  Well, this project was not begun by a missionary going to live among them like PBT’s other projects, but rather it was started at the initiative of the people themselves.  And the key to its quick beginning was the fact that is was closely related to another language which lived nearby, the AR language.  And since the AR language group had recently printed New Testament, it was decided to use a computer program called ‘Adapt It’ to try to speed up the translation for the AK group.

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Basically what happens is that first a dictionary is created for both languages while using a third language to be the bridge between the other two.  When the bridge language definition of the AR and the AK language is the same, then we know that we can substitute the AK term at the place where the AR term was used in the verse.  So after building dictionaries for all the languages, then we can figuratively say, “We pour the AR language into the computer and it spits out a rough translation of the text in the AK language.”

That is so cool, isn’t it?  But before we get too excited, there in no possible way in the world that we can have a complete one-to-one word correlation between two languages.  Sometimes we must try to put a tightly bound word phrase, or a figure of speech through this dictionary filter and the result at the end is anything but comprehensible.  So although Adapt-It can produce a rough draft text very quickly, some parts will sound very strange, and other parts will just simply not be understood at all.

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And that is where I came into the project last year.  The AK text of Matthew had been put through the AR filter already, and they saw that there were so many awkward and incomprehensible portions of the text that a second filter pass through was necessary to get a workable text.  Then a couple of the men went through the newly drafted text carefully and cleaned it up as much as they could.  This made the text ready for me to be able to do some basic comprehensive and exegetical checking on it.

To help you distinguish between these two kinds of checks, think of comprehensive checking as asking simple straightforward questions such as “where did Jesus tell Peter to go to find money to pay the temple tax?  What did Peter do?  Where did he find the temple tax?”  These are straight forward questions to help establish the facts of a story.

But what about the more complicated questions like “What is the Temple?  How much is the Temple tax that every one needs to pay?  How did Jesus know where the tax could be found?  What was the value of the coin and its denomination?  How was this a dire threat to the Roman law and  to the Jewish ways and the religious institutions of his day?”  These are the kind of questions that need to be asked by either a Language Advisor or a Translation Consultant to see if the translation is accurate, natural and clear.

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And so for five weeks I worked with the AK people going slowly verse-by-verse in order to identify where there might be some language problems which would then need to be revised.  It was tedious work going as slow as we did.   In this instance, I was playing the role of being a Language Advisor.  There were enough grammar and key term differences between the two languages that we needed to go slowly to  ensure we had a good translation.

I hope from this short article that you can see some of the challenges I face in being a Language Advisor to a foreign language project.  Five weeks to work through Matthew may seem a long time.  And in fact, we only got to finish 20 out of the 28 chapters of the book.  And so the team’s usual Advisor set up one more session with them to be able to finish it.  But praise God, it is now ready to go to the next level, the Consultant check.

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