But How Do You Know If These Bible Translations Are Accurate?

Although I didn’t know what to expect at my first writer’s conference, I was surprised, pleased, and the first in line when a professional editor offered to critique our manuscripts. I gave her a tear sheet of a 2,500 word article I had written and which a magazine had published the month before.

“Every paragraph of your article throbbed with passion which made it publishable,” she told me the next day, “but here’s how you could have improved it,” and handed it back covered with red scribbles.

Every Writer Needs an Editor, Every Translator Needs a Checker

As we sat together at lunch to go through the manuscript line by line, I mined the corrections and picked her brain, meticulously writing down every comment in my note book. When we finished I told her, “When I saw all those corrections I thought I had made hundreds of errors. But I hadn’t. I just made half a dozen errors hundreds of times.”

It was a most satisfying and productive lunch. I learned so much and I told her so. She enjoyed it too, saying, “I was afraid you might get defensive and argue with me over every correction, but you are lapping this up which makes it fun. If you keep that attitude you will improve and become a good writer.”

The experience of having my writing thoroughly checked and corrected by a professional editor prepared my wife and me for plunging into translating the Bible into Canela where we leaned heavily on translation consultants to help us check, not just every line, but every phrase and word of the translation.

The Bible Translator

Every translator’s theology, beliefs, orthodoxy, and Christian life are thoroughly checked before he is ever assigned to translate. But even so, can Bible translators push their own theological agenda, ride their doctrinal hobbyhorses, and translate passages to reflect their own biased opinions? Yes, they can! That is why trained translation consultants check every part of the translation to make sure that it is completely accurate, with nothing inserted or left out.

People often ask, “But how can translation checkers do this when they don’t know the language of the translation they are checking?

Answer: Through back translation into the language of the consultant.

There are three ways for the translator to produce this back translation. Two easy ways—which are worthless—and one hard way—which is useful.

The Two Easy Ways

For example, the second part of Revelation 11:1, Rise, and measure the temple of God, and the altar, and them that worship therein.” is a very simple command.

One easy way is to simply translate idiomatically into fluent English, like this: “Go, measure God’s temple and altar and count the worshippers.” This is useless to the consultant since it gives him no idea how concepts like temple, altar and worship are expressed in the target language.

The other easy way to back translate is to simply do it word for word, like this example from the Canela language of Brazil:

“Attention, stand, go and with it, something-smoke-sweet-burning-thing that and our-inclusive-Father-about-they-themselves-into-their-ear-thing-house, with measure and they our-inclusive-Father-like-people those count.” This is practically unintelligible, and also of no use to the consultant.

The One Right Way

The third, and more difficult way, is like walking on a slippery rail fence: lean too far to one side and the translation falls into being too idiomatic, too far to the other and it falls into literalism. Staying on the fence, produces something a bit more useful like this:

“Listen, stand up and go and measure the thing for burning stuff to make sweet smelling smoke, and measure the house of the place where they meditate on Our Father, and count those people who love Our Father.”

This back translation gives the consultant some idea of the term for altar, temple, worship and God. Every verse of Scripture is backtranslated and checked in this way. By the way, currently over 500 Wycliffe personnel serve as trained translation checkers and consultants to thousands of Bible translators all over the world.

But one more important question remains. How can a consultant find out if a passage is properly understood by the indigenous readers? This requires the translator and the consultant to be joined by an intelligent, fluent speaker of the target language, one who has never read or heard the Bible passage being checked. This part of the checking process often produces startling, sometimes hilarious insights. Some examples coming next week.