Technology & Bible Translation

The first really cool peek for me into the emerging technology for Bible translators happened in 1994.  I had seen a little bit of the old program called “Shoebox” where linguists and translators would store their language data and enter their vernacular text which could then be interlinearized to have English gloss words under the vernacular text once you had a good amount of words entered into their dictionary file.

Let me pause here before going on and tell you why this linguistic computer program was called “Shoebox”.  Think back to the time before computers.  (If you can do that easily, you are my age or older, but if this is hard for you, then you are definitely part of the younger generation.)  😛  Now imagine that you have been doing language learning for a few years in a remote part of the world.

What would you do to help you keep your data all organized?  Even to divide words into basic verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs.  Well, the pioneers of Bible translation actually did use the old file card system and would put one word, and its description/definition, on to one card, and then “file” it in long shoeboxes to be retrieved later when needed.  (Some translators would have piles of shoeboxes in their houses full of words and linguistic notes in the early days.)

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Thank goodness for the advent of the computer.  Now we no longer need to put all of our research into old musty shoeboxes.  And we no longer need to fear that our work will all go up in smoke if the house burned down or would get all chewed up, by all the cockroaches in our village houses.  Though we do need to worry about hard drives crashing, and wondering where we put that information in the thousands of files on our hard drive.

But back to where I started.  “Shoebox” was very handy for us to organize our linguistic data and do basic translation work.  In 1994, when I was at a training week of orientation for Pioneer Bible Translators, I was introduced to the neatest, most cool and intuitive linguistic program at that time which was called “Lingua-links”.  It could add words, analyze words, interlinearize words, and so much more with just a click of a button.

When I was able to tell Jill later about this, I summed it up by saying, “That was SO AWESOME!”  Very professional, wouldn’t you say?  I think that is when I knew for sure that I wanted to be a Bible translator, because I would be allowed to buy the best model of computer out there, and make it perform some awesome linguistic feats, and be able to call it “work”.  I was in love!!  😀

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In the past decade, there continues to be great advances made in the area of marrying linguistics together with computer technology.  There were a number of versions of Lingua-links over the years, each being able to do more than the last version.  But the basic ideas remained the same.  And then came along a program called “Paratext”.

When I first heard about Paratext, I thought that it was just another program that was doing pretty much the same things I was already doing.  I was wrong.  It did still have much (and even more) of the computing power of the old programs.  One common feature with modern linguistic programs is the ability to open a large number of windows within the main window.  Here, let me show you what I mean:

Paratext Windows (800x450)

 Going from top left down and then middle top to bottom and right side top to bottom, I have these windows to work with just in this one program:
  1. My Hebrew text in which I can add notes.
  2. The Hebrew/English interlinear text.  I can add rows within this to give me the lemmas, the transliteration, and the parsing of the Hebrew words.  All of these are hyperlinked to one or more Hebrew Lexicon and Dictionary.
  3. A text comparison of a variety of English versions.
  4. A Key Term rendering window which will grab specialized biblical terms and show you the equivalent vernacular term which will add up over time to become your “Key Term List”
  5. A rendering tool based off of algorithms of the Greek and English text and looking into the vernacular text to produce a computer generated guessing and interlinearization of the vernacular to English.
  6. The “Back Translation” of the vernacular text.  We want a reverse translation from the translated local language back into a fairly literal English version of their text.  I use this the most to judge if something is missing, added or wrong in their translation.
  7. Peeking out at the top right is the Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew Lexicon.
  8. The NIV larger window box.
  9. Finally, the actual vernacular translation that I am checking.

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What was really exciting though about Paratext was that you did not just work on this project by yourself in your local village any more.  Of course you want to save to your local hard drive as you go along.  But Paratext is part of the global work of United Bible Societies and many other linguistic organizations who share their project information and their translations with others around the world.

So when you do an “Internet Server” back up of your work, it sends the data to the Paratext server on the other side of the world, and can be made accessible to anyone else who has been approved to work on the translation.  So we have literally gone from doing local translation projects to doing global translation projects.

There is so much more I’d like to tell you about this, but that will have to wait until the next article.  I hope that some of you who have read this have found this very interesting.  And who knows, maybe you’ll fall in love with what I am showing you, just like I did so many years ago with the joining of technology and linguistics.

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