When Jo and I began working as linguist-translators among the Canela people of Brazil we did not arrive unprepared. Experienced experts had taught us how to learn an unwritten language and Wycliffe had supplied us with the latest mid-1960s technology—pencils, notebooks, a manual typewriter and a high-quality reel to reel portable tape recorder.
During our first furlough we bought a used electric typewriter and some cassette tape recorders. That was pretty well it for most of our 22 years of working as translators. We started using the very earliest computers, saving files on audio cassette tapes, during the late 1970s and by the time the Canela partial Bible was being prepared for printing the translation was all keyboarded in DOS on a computer. The disk drive was nearly the size of a washing machine, but much more expensive, and the 18 inch removable disk held 2MB of information. (Reality check: the little $10 flash drive in my pocket holds over 8,000 times the information.)
Bible Translation Focused Software
We all know how computer hardware systems have changed since those years. But that is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The most profound changes affecting field linguistics, and Bible translation have been in the area of software.
Currently thousands of Bible translators are using software programs to quickly and accurately compile dictionaries, analyse texts, and organize cultural data, all things we and our colleagues did by hand on little slips of paper. Today linguists analyze the sound system of an unwritten language by recording native speakers and graphing the sound visually to determine phonetic differences. We used to have to peer inside a speaker’s mouth with a flashlight to see what position his tongue was in so we could replicate the sound ourselves. Who developed this specialized Bible translation focused software? No, it wasn’t Microsoft.
There is even a program that will translate a Bible book from one language into a related language producing a pretty good first draft. And believe me, it is incredibly easier, faster and better to start translating with a good first draft than with 1,000 sheets of blank paper. Who developed these marvels of technology and programming? No, it wasn’t Apple either.
And what about those hundreds of weird scripts? Scores of them are so complex, using stacked diacritics, split glyphs and contextual shaping, they could only be written by hand or laboriously typeset for printing. There was no way to type them on a computer. But now there is. Specialized word processing programs currently let translators type their linguistic data and their Bible translation on a keyboard and the symbols and scripts appear, running from right to left or from the bottom up, or from the middle in both directions, whatever the language demands.
Gifted and Called by God
So who developed all these programs that so greatly speed up and improve Bible translations today? Mostly Wycliffe missionaries, highly trained Christian men and women, gifted and called by God to give their lives to this challenging pioneer work. The work is ongoing and demanding, I know. I have seen some of these folk at work—long hours, much prayer, much thought, and much study, research and sharing of ideas.
Obviously these specialists are not motivated by money, but by a love for God, and a love for the hundreds of millions of people who still do not have any of God’s Word translated into the language they understand best.
When I see the amazing tools available to current linguist-translators, I wish I were five decades younger. I would so join those translators! Oh yes!
(Editorial addition by Jack’s wife, Jo, “And so would I!)