How Do You Know If the Translation is Understood by the Readers?

Last week I described the difficult and complicated back-translation process that helps the Bible translation consultant determine if the translation being checked is accurate. This week I want to explain the next checking procedure, discovering if the readers understand the translation. It is equally important, and a lot more fun.

The Process

The translator and the consultant are joined by an intelligent, fluent speaker of the target language, one who has never read or heard the Bible passage being checked.

The consultant asks a question which the translator repeats in the language of the translation helper. The translator listens carefully to the helper’s answer which he then translates for the consultant.

The answer usually show how well the hearer understands the passage. What he understands, however, is sometimes strangely different from what the passage was supposed to say.

The Fun Part

When a translation consultant and I checked the rather simple story of the conversion of Saul in Acts 9, a highly intelligent and excellent Canela storyteller helped us. He couldn’t read and had never heard of Saul before, so I read the passage to him. Then the consultant asked a question which I interpreted.

“Why did Saul become blind?” I expected our helper to say “God blinded him,” or “The bright light from heaven blinded him.” Instead he said, “He banged his head on the road when he fell down.”

Huh? My translation said, “He fell to the ground.” No mention of his head, let alone of banging it. More questions got the answer. Once upon a time a man in the Canela village had fallen out of a tree, hitting his head on the hard ground and was blinded for a while. Every villager knew the story.

I had to change the translation to “God blinded Saul,” making the information explicit.

Where Did He Get That Idea?

Another question, “Why didn’t Saul eat or drink those days in Damascus?” I expected, “He abstained from eating food to show God he was sorry for how badly he had treated the believers.” Instead he answered, “Because he had suffered a bad fall, and he was obeying the food restrictions. How else could he expect to regain his sight?”

I should have known. Canelas believe that in addition to medicines, recovery depends on the sick person, along with his closest blood relatives, restricting themselves to eating only certain kinds of foods, or abstaining from food entirely. So I had to change the translation to make clear that it wasn’t his obedience to the food taboo rules, but that God healed him after Saul repented.

Executioners in their Underpants

One of our Bible translating colleagues works with an indigenous group in southern Mexico. The story of the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7:57-58 was being checked with two men who often went hunting.

When they got to the part about taking off the clothes, the consultant expected to hear, “They took off their coats and outer robes so they would be free to pick up and throw heavy stones.” Instead they said, “Oh, we do that too. When we shoot a deer, we take off our clothes before we butcher the carcass to avoid getting blood on them.”

They thought that the stone throwers stripped down to their underpants to avoid getting Stephen’s blood on their clothes. Another helper thought the clothes belonged to Stephen, the executioners stripping him naked before executing him, in the same way as had been done with Jesus a few months before.

Building on a Rock? Not Very Smart!

Our Canela translation helpers were totally confused when we began to translate the story of the wise man building on a rock and the foolish man building on the sand. Canelas build their villages on packed sand or sandy soil mixed with red clay. The only rock in the area is volcanic, very sharp, and painful to walk on. They would never dream of building a house on rock. And how could they dig holes in rock for house poles?

Canela Pole & Palm Thatch Houses on Firm Red Clay

We had to abandon the sand and rock metaphor. We could choose to translate more generically, “The wise man built on a safe place, far away from where the river might flood the house. The foolish man built it in the path of the flood water.”

Or we could switch completely to a Canela cultural metaphor. “The wise man cut down all the tall trees around his house, but the foolish one left them stand. Then the wind came up and blew down some trees, but no falling tree could reach the wise man’s house. Some trees, however, fell on the foolish man’s house and crushed it.”

(The metaphor we eventually used was solid red clay versus loose, dry sand.)


People automatically interpret everything in Scripture by their personal or cultural experience. It is not enough just to learn the language, the translator also needs to understand the culture. And even then every passage needs to be checked with probing questions.

Yes, it’s a lot of work, but God’s Word is worth it.