The Word of God born among the nations

What Christmas means to Bible translators

by: Melody Kube

The Christmas season can be difficult for Bible translators. They often live far away from their families and sometimes in climates and settings very different to childhood memories of this special holiday. Most are adventurous folk, willing to try new foods and new cultural forms, but for some at least, Christmas is a little harder than an average day. 

But, it’s also brilliant! Filled with so much hope and encouragement for the true task of Bible translation. Because, Christmas and Bible translation are pictures of each other. 

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. 

We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, 

who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. 

John 1:14 NIV

Jesus came and was born on earth as one of us. As the testimony of Him is translated into new languages it is also like a new birth of the Word of God in each separate nation. 

Some of us have had the honour of being there as the very first verses from the Bible became incarnate in the words of a new language that had never had Scripture before. It can be a difficult and arduous task, but its also incredible to watch this miracle happen! 

Earlier this year Miliwanga Burben saw the Word of God take its first breath in her own Rembarrnga language. The verses she translated were from Luke 2:6-12 about the birth of the Holy Infant. Miliwanga recorded these verses in the sound room at Nungalinya College, with Paul Kube (Bible Society Australia), and when they were played back for her she broke down in tears of joy, which quickly spread to us all. For the first time ever the Word of God had taken on Rembarrnga flesh. Paul, himself a father of three, said it was like watching a baby being born. 

This is why I am especially excited about the AuSIL Christmas project. It is very appropriate that the first verses translated into languages that have waited so long be the story of the long-awaited Messiah. This is also why Bible translation is so important. The message of Christmas is that God found it good to come and be one of us, to bring us his word and to redeem us. Giving people the Bible in their own language gives them the opportunity to see that God has come to them as well. 

Because Jesus is born for all of us! 

Standing Armies

The uncomfortable truth that Bible translation is never completely “done”

There’s a pair of natural questions that everyone wants to know when they become interested in Bible translation in Australia. How many languages are there? and How many have already been done? These are good questions, and they seem straight forward, but the answers are anything but. 

As humans we like measurable goals. We like to know what we are aiming for and break it down into steps. We want to know what we have accomplished and what remains to be done. Who doesn’t love the feeling of ticking a task off an important list? So, as Bible translators, we feel the need to make a Master List of languages and start ticking them off. It seems strategic, organised, achievable, if daunting. 

But, what if the translations refuse to stay “ticked”? 

Languages are living things and always changing. Sometimes the change (or loss) is rapid and by the time a translation is complete, the younger people are speaking a different form. This is true of Warlpiri, for example. Warlpiri is a Western Desert language of the Northern Territory, one of the largest Indigenous languages in Australia by the number of speakers. A Shorter Bible (complete New Testament plus some Old Testament books) was completed and published in 2001. But, the Warlpiri people are greatly flexible in their language use. The Bible translation completed just twenty years ago is reportedly only usable now to those over 50 years old. The younger people continue to innovate in their version of the Warlpiri language, remixing it with other languages they also speak, forming what has been called light Warlpiri and they now struggle to understand the Bible available to them.

Warlpiri is not the only language experiencing change. Similar stories are heard amongst Tiwi, Garrwa, Gurindji and many other communities.

In fact, Indigenous Australians generally are, and always have been, multi-lingual, and their languages are more open to change than we might expect. It might even be this flexibility that has meant the survival of Australia’s ancient languages. But it does pose a problem to our ability to “finish” Bible translations, doesn’t it? Honestly, it’s enough to cause a rising feeling of panic when we realise how many fewer members AuSIL has now compared to when these translations were begun. We are probably losing ground, not gaining. 

But yet, we take heart. By letting go of the Master List and the frustratingly “untickable” boxes, we open ourselves to simple obedience. As Bible translators we must remember that we are not called to produce a result, we are called to serve. Sometimes we are taught in Christian circles to measure success in terms of “what we leave behind us”. But what if what we build doesn’t outlast us? Does that mean we’ve failed? Not at all! We should instead look for results in the fruit that is ready right now, and more importantly, focus on our obedience in the present. We should be willing to serve without understanding what God may do with the big picture. The boxes, and the Master List itself, are up to Him. Sometimes God is strangely “unstrategic” (in our view), lavishing his love and attention on people groups whose language may be labelled “unviable”, or whose population is shrinking, showing again that He is nearer to the brokenhearted, preserving the crushed reed. It is not ours to know what criteria God uses in assigning his servants to the tasks he deems worthy.

Letting go of the boxes also releases us to consider updates and revisions as part of the perpetual process of Bible translation rather than an extra chore, or criticism once we are finished.

Revisions are a positive contribution to Bible translations. David Blackman, who has been working for many years on the Alyawarr Bible translation, comments that by the time someone has translated several books of the Bible, their translations improve, become more readable and are a better communication of the originals. A translator naturally wants to revise their earlier work, but they don’t want to delay publishing either. Part of being human is that, by God’s design, we get better at doing something when we continue to practise. I imagine it might feel discouraging to look back on work done years ago and not have it measure up to what you can now do (though I don’t think God is surprised or saddened by this). The project seems to roll on like a treadmill, what you have set behind you comes full circle and lands at your feet once more. If we gave perfectionism too much reign, it would prevent us from ever publishing anything! 

So, if we can’t expect the boxes to stay neatly ticked, what can we do? We can publish frequently, in small volumes, and keep doing so. The mini-Bible is a homegrown AuSIL concept. It’s a publication of whatever books of the Bible have been translated, released and made usable to the community, even while translation continues. (Mini-Bibles are often missing many large Old Testament books and might not have all of the Gospels or all of the Epistles) We can also publish individual books, or even smaller portions. What if just one chapter wet a community’s appetite for more? And we can consider more ways to distribute the Word of God than only traditional print options. 

The perpetual process of near constant revision has become the norm in modern English translations, though we may not be aware of it. The NLT, NIV and NET versions all have standing armies of scholars, committees who are continually considering improvements to their respective versions. Available resources and translation techniques continue to grow, and the English language continues to change, meaning our English translations are not static. The NLT you bought 10 years ago is not the same one sold today. We are all grateful that English was never ticked off as “done”, or we might have difficulty understanding our Bibles, wouldn’t we?

The situation is obviously different for minority language groups, who may only dream of having the resources available to modern English translations. The Pitjantjatjara Bible Translation Project has a battalion of translators persisting over large sections of the Old Testament. They are set to be the second Australian Aboriginal language group to have a translation of the whole Bible, yet the timeline to completion is also an unanswerable question. David Barnett, Bible Society of Australia, sympathises especially with financial supporters who long to see the project reach its goal. But he is also keen that we see the work of translation, and the discipleship that goes along with it, as valuable in its process, not only in its completion. We hope that the Pitjantjatjara team will stay strong, and become the standing army that their translation will need, even after they complete the Old Testament project. In surprisingly little time the ongoing work of revision will begin, prompted by the certainty of language change and the fact that translations can almost always be improved on each pass through. 

Ken and Lesley Hansen worked for many years with the Finke River Mission and the Pintupi and Luritja people. The first translated Bible portions were published in 1969 and the early 1970s as several small booklets. The Hansens carefully labelled these “preliminary translations”, perhaps anticipating that the project would continue to develop. They also published stories and other materials, supporting a growing literacy in the community. The Pintupi-Luritja language was changing at that time and it has continued to change since. The Hansens with many Aboriginal translators helping, went ahead with the translation and the Bible Society published the New Testament in 1981. In the early 1990s the Hansens began a complete retranslation of the New Testament and abridged Old Testament into younger more modern language. The church and the pastors used photo copied versions of the gospels and the other books available, as the translations were completed.  In 2006 the Bible Society published a single volume containing the New Testament and abridged Old Testament.  The pastors and groups of Christians have been using these scriptures on each of the communities since then. The Hansens served two generations, each with their own translation. It’s not hard to imagine that the Pintupi and Luritja people may one day be in need of another. And it may present a wider truth, that each generation needs a new translation.

Kathy Glasgow, long time translator on the Burarra language Bible translation project, rejoices that the completed New Testament (1991, reprinted in 2009) and some Old Testament portions are still being used by the community, yet she acknowledges with a laugh that “the work is never done!” Some Burarra Old Testament portions are currently being prepared for printing in a new illustrated format.

New technologies certainly make revisions an easier process, says Phillip Townsend, the new director of the SIL Australia Timor Group. Digital files are much easier to update, adjust and print. But, it was the advent of smart phones and tablets that completely changed the game for the distribution of new versions. A Bible app means that anyone who reads through this technology is always reading the newest available version, without having to buy it again like we do with books. The publication of revisions is now possible, even without new print runs. 

The never-ending nature of Bible translation doesn’t have to be a discouragement. At AuSIL, the huge size of the task before us, and the small size of personnel committed to the work, leave us under no delusions of accomplishing everything in our own strength. This gives us the opportunity to adjust our thinking. We would love to have more people, and do more, so we pray and share the needs, hopefully from a place of passion rather than desperation. As long as we are doing what God is asking, we are part of the standing armies that He is building. As such, we have a role and a job to do. And so we stand, knowing that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. 

Image credit: Michael Meier

In translation, audience is everything

By: Melody Kube

Where I grew up, in Saskatchewan, Canada, it started snowing each year sometime in October, and didn’t start melting till sometime in March. Snow was a big part of my experience. Everything from clothing to transport to architecture included a thought of how snow would come into the picture. We thought about snow often. Which is why it might surprise you that I never really connected with the way the Bible uses snow as a metaphor. 

“Though our sins be as scarlet they shall be white as snow” Isaiah 1:18

As a child I found this image confusing and not very helpful. You see, snow is not always clean. It’s often muddy, dusty or stained. People walk in it, cars drive in it, animals live in it. And once it’s dirty you can’t clean it, it sits there till spring. Because of this I didn’t immediately associate “snow” with “clean” or even white. So, the metaphor as it was used didn’t reach me. 

But that’s not the whole story. There is also this magical experience of fresh snow. Particularly after a cold snap, when the temperature comes back up, but not above zero. In those conditions fresh snow can come down thick and heavy. The snowflakes are almost unrealistically large and fluffy, and seem to fall slower than gravity should allow. It comes in slow and soft and blankets everything. Deep enough that objects like cars, fences or outdoor furniture, become indistinguishable, all the corners rounded out by heaps of fresh snow. Fresh snow carries with it a gentle quiet, pulling down background noises as it falls. And this fresh snow reflects light in an amazing way. Flashes can be so bright they hurt your eyes. Whole fields of fresh snow are hard to look at. 

I have decided that this snow is what Isaiah must have meant. “our sins shall be as white as fresh snow”.  He would be referring to fresh snow as it falls, and for a short time covers over everything. In those parts snow didn’t stay around long enough to sit and get dirty, as it did in my experience.  I can tell you that that one word makes all the difference in meaning for me. Some languages even  have different words for these different types of snow. I’m not criticising the translators mind you, as my experience is not shared by all speakers of my language.

A friend of mine who translates documents and literature from English into her native Russian, surprised me when she said that the most important factor to good translation is not how well you have learned your second language, but how well you know your own language, specifically a large vocabulary in your own language. The main task of a translator is communication. Understanding a foreign text is only the beginning – the real work comes in finding the right words to share the meaning with others.  If you are like me, when we imagine the work that goes into quality Bible translation we tend to think first of the Biblical languages and the subtlety of meaning that good translations should illuminate. We might even think that the best translations are the ones that are most like the Greek and Hebrew they were written in. A good understanding of the original is vital, but it isn’t the whole story. Understanding what it means is pointless without a grasp of how that is best communicated in the target language. In translation knowing your audience is everything! This is one of the reasons that there is so much variety in English Bible translations. It’s only rarely because the original is understood differently or that there are questions about what it means. The differences are to do with how that meaning is best communicated in the vocabulary and forms available in the target language, and how it will be understood. 

The audience for translation work in the Northern Territory is Aboriginal Australians, whose English differs to standard English in many more significant ways than just their vocabulary for snow or lack thereof.  The Kriol Bible was largely done before television became common in Aboriginal communities. The translators skipped the meaningless reference to snow and explained the metaphor; that even though you and I are “properly dirty ones”, we will be made “properly clean ones”. This also avoids the easily misunderstood correlation of “white” and “clean”. 

Det nogudbalawei blanga yumob meigim yumob jidan brabli dardiwan, bat ai garra meigim yumob jidan brabli klinbala na. Aisaiya 1:18  

David Blackman, part of the translation team for the Alyawarr language, shares that while most metaphors don’t translate well, occasionally he has been fortunate enough to stumble on a local metaphor. People don’t usually think to give them; you hear them, almost by accident.  When it comes to the “white as snow” metaphor, in most Aboriginal contexts the metaphor is removed in favour of a straight forward rendering. Other times other white things can complete the meaning. One desert language uses “white like clouds” to describe Jesus’ appearance in Revelation 1:14. Another chose “white like the stars” in the same passage. 

Each of these choices are made in an effort to chose the best expression in the target language; it’s all about knowing the way your audience communicates.  

Attention to the English language as used by Aboriginal Australians is the crux of the PEV, the Plain English Version, currently in development at AuSIL in Darwin NT. This translation is careful to disambiguate words and phrases that are unclear to an Aboriginal audience. I easily missed the point of a Biblical concept because of a different understanding of a single word. It is multiple times harder for speakers of Aboriginal languages to understand and use standard English translations. The translators working on the PEV are more than competent in Biblical languages but more importantly they know their audience. They carefully choose vocabulary used by Aboriginal Australians and take the time to explain concepts that would be misunderstood. The results are beautiful. The straight forward and direct language is a fresh breath even for those of us well acquainted with standard English translations. Often times the PEV hits hard, where we can sometimes hide behind the complexity of abstractions. Take, for example, the well known passage about the characteristics of true love from 1 Corinthians 13. Instead of the multi-layered complex words that we usually see in this passage - from patience to perseverance, in the PEV we read each one described as an action, with fantastic results. 

 If we love people, we will be good to them, and we will not get angry with people that give us trouble. If we love people, we will not be jealous of them. If we love people, we will not reckon we are better than they are, and we will not think we are really good when we are not good. If we love people, we will not be rude to them or shame them. If we love people, we will think about what they want, not just what we want for ourselves. If we love people, we will not get angry with them quickly, and we will not keep on remembering the bad things they did to us. If we love people, we will not be happy if they do things that are wrong, but we will be happy if they do things that are right and true. If we love people properly, we will keep on loving them, no matter what happens. If we love people, we will keep on believing good things about them, and we will keep on hoping good things for them, and even if we are getting trouble, we will not give up.  

1 Corinthians 13:4-7

Translation is communication. Accurately expressing the meaning of the original is the goal, but to be an accurate expression the word choices must also be natural and meaningful in the target language, or they might not carry the intended message. It’s a delicate process. And it is done well when it comes from a heart of listening to your audience, knowing them, and loving them. 

Photo credit: Donnie Rosie via unsplash.