Bible Translation In The Digital Age

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Making Advances in Bible Translation Through Technology

Pioneer Bible Translators, with whom we work, just sent out their May “E-News”, an electronic newsletter to keep people updated on what PBT is doing around the world.  The first article, reprinted below, immediately grabbed my attention as I too have seen over the past two decades just how much our work is being affected positively by the electronic technological revolutions of our day.

Thankfully I was not doing Bible translation in the time period where the translators had to do everything by hand or slow and sloppy typewriter copies.  When our family went to the small village in Papua New Guinea in 1997, we brought along our massively heavy IBM desktop computer and full-size desktop monitor.  What a beast of a machine.  And if we didn’t have good solar power days, then we still had to rely on doing some work by hand.

As you read the opening paragraph, you will see it mention the use of a box filled with cards.  In the earliest days of Bible translation work, they literally used 3” x 5” recipe or blank cards, and would file them by categories and by alphabet in their shoeboxes.  When one of the breakthrough computer assisted translation tools was created, they decided to lovingly call the translation software, “Shoebox”.

                                

A small brown box sat on a shelf in our village home. Filled with note cards, that box represented years of study and work; it was a handwritten dictionary. It came to us from a missionary who had spent decades ministering in that area, learning the language by keeping a record of each word on a card. With pencils and manual typewriters, a missionary labored to bring the New Testament into a language for the first time. It was a daunting task, but that didn’t stop him.

In the past 30 years God has brought about a transformation greater than anyone could have imagined. Drawn by a vision to see God’s Word changing lives in every language, missionary teams from numerous Bible agencies have devoted their lives to translation all over the world. Of course, it wasn’t simply Westerners drawn into the task. As Christian communities around the globe grew, they themselves recognized the need for a Bible in a language they understood well.

    

While the numbers of translators and translation projects grew, their tools also expanded and became more and more powerful. Instead of relying solely on handwritten work, translators gained access to computers. Suddenly, drafting texts, making copies, checking spelling, and revising all became more doable tasks.

By 1996 the New Testament was available in the languages of 84 percent of the world’s population.[i] Now it is estimated that only 700-900 million people remain in the world without the whole New Testament in their language, of which 350 million have no Scripture at all.[ii] 

New technologies have not simply opened the door to faster progress in the translation task; they have also created new possibilities for communication. Today digital Scripture distribution is a reality. Downloadable over the Internet, print-on-demand, live streaming audio, and text via cell phones—these abilities will only grow in the coming decades, giving people unprecedented access to the Bible in whatever their situation.

Over the coming decades, if the people of God will mobilize more Bible translators, innovate ever greater technologies for the task, and give more resources toward Bible translation, we have the chance to make the greatest contribution toward obeying the great commission in history. Lately, missionary recruits have been flocking to Pioneer Bible Translators, and we are praying that God will continue to add to our team so that we can double our number of teammates again by 2018.

Our goal is to fill the gaps in the Bible translation movement so that we and our partners will see churches with Scripture transforming every language group by 2050. Your support of Pioneer Bible Translators moves us closer to this reality and we thank you!

                                

I too want to thank so many people and churches who have stood with me and my family over many years as we have worked hard to help get God’s Word into the hands of the people of Papua New Guinea.  We know that there are literally hundreds of people who pray for us and for our translation work on a regular basis.  We also know that we would not be able to do as well as we are doing in this ministry work without this prayer coverage.

I would also like to thank the many people who have helped us financially to do this work.  PBT is what is known as a “Faith” mission.  By that we mean that every missionary (including us) do not receive a guaranteed salary from our mission, but rather, we live by faith trusting that God will prompt churches and individuals to help support our work financially.  Presently, we are receiving only 75% of our projected budget, but we are still moving forward by faith that God will supply the need at the time we need it.

Perhaps God may be calling some of my “Listening Post” readers to join us as financial partners as well as supportive readers of this devotional blog.  If God has spoken to your heart about helping support our work as I have written so much about in these blog articles, please send me an email to norm.weatherhead@gmail.com  and I can let you know how you could become a partner with us in this important ministry.  May God bless you all as you read these words.

                                

[i]Wycliffe Bible Translators 1996. Bible Translation Needs Bulletin. Dallas, TX: Wycliffe Bible Translators.

[ii]Forum of Bible Agencies. Forum of Bible Agencies International, 2011. Available from http://www.forum-intl.net

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Long Distance Bible Translation Checking

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Working Through Matthew While on Furlough

Very recently, one of my colleagues from Pioneer Bible Translators has taken a furlough leave from Papua New Guinea to come back to the States to visit with family and friends and her supporting churches.  As she mentions below, often when a missionary leaves the field for an extended period of time, the work of translation being done by the national people can come to a grinding halt.

This furlough break has been different this time as we have found an effective way for others to help with the project who then send electronic updates of the changes, and there is a means by which Comments, Notes and Questions can be sent back and forth by Internet connection.  It isn’t quite a “real time” event, but close to it.  Thank goodness for the electronic age in which we live.

Below is a little snapshot of what can come up during a Bible translation checking session.  What you will note as you read her story about the checking of the translation is that there are often many little changes that are made to help a story flow along more smoothly and to make logically coherent and understandable.  But there are still those few times when significant changes are also needed to be made.  Enjoy her story.

                                

“Why did they do that?  Was that change really necessary?”  I thought to myself as I looked at the revised text of Matthew 3:4.  The more I looked, the more I began to see the possibilities and soon I was chuckling at the image of John the Baptist in the rough draft.  The poor guy was eating one grasshopper and one bee egg [the cultural equivalent of honey in our language] – or at least the text didn’t specifically say that he was filling up on grasshoppers and bee eggs. 

The national translators had noticed this and decided that John probably would have eaten lots of grasshoppers and bee eggs to keep from starving and so they added little words that indicate that the items were both plural.  A minor change, but a good one since John’s diet was strange enough without being limited to one of each item.

    

In Mat 3:12, the poor thresher of lots of grain was left putting only one seed into the house for storing grain.  The national translators could not imagine someone doing all that work for one seed, so they changed it to putting seeds (plural) into the house for storing grain – again a wise choice.  

In a similar way, in Mat 6:30, the national translators caught the fact that Jesus was telling the people not to think about one set of clothing – that would have definitely been a bad scene with everyone fighting to get one thing.  Instead he was telling all of them not to think about all kinds of clothing – definitely better when a plural marker is used on the object. 

In Mat 7:17, however, they had changed a plural verb form to a singular and I wanted to say, “Why did they do that?” but I knew that I would find a logical reason – Jesus was just using one tree as the example and not talking about all kinds of trees.

    

I was relieved to see that there was finally a real content change in Mat 7:15 (changing “hair” to “skin”) rather than changing a singular to a plural or a plural to a singular.  The change from “pig sheep hair (singular)” to “pig sheep skin (singular)”, however, made me want to ask, “Why did you do that?”  

After further analysis (trying to envision what it would look like), however, I quickly decided that a wolf would be much better disguised by putting on the full skin of a sheep than by putting on one hair of a sheep or even a handful of wool and trying to disguise himself with it – picture a wolf in a little tutu of wool. 

After trying to envision things from their perspective, I decided to accept that change and many other changes they had made.  I did, though, reject some of the revisions as inaccurate and sent them back to the drawing board to “try, try again” on those passages.

    

Normally when I am back here in the USA, all translation and literacy work comes to a grinding halt, but this time has been different.  One of our other PBT translators just completed a 3 week work session with the our  translation team in which we shared the data regularly via a computer program that allows us to send and receive changes easily.  

I would write questions to her and she would write answers and more questions to me that I would then try to answer.  It generally worked well because while they were working, I was sleeping and vice-versa.  It still feels like “magic” to me because I remember the days of typewriters and carbon paper.  Praise God with me for technology that allows us to interact with work sessions on the other side of the world.

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