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