Computers and Translation

When we started with Partnership Development a question often came up when people found out I was a computer guy working with a Bible Translation organization, “Do computers do the translation?”

We see programs that help us learn another language. We see programs that even translate from one language to another. During a Google search, if a resulting page is in another language an offer is made to translate the page for us. If Google can do this for free, then why are we spending so much time and money sending missionaries to translate the Bible?

Because computers do not do translation. Computers are inherently dumb and know nothing unless you tell them. Major languages such as English, French, German, and Chinese have been studied and analyzed for centuries. Over the course of decades highly trained professionals have taken what we know about these languages and written programs that convert the words and sentence structure from one major language to another. Even with all of this work, there are still some interesting sentences that come across. We have all read instruction manuals that were obviously written in another language and translated into English such as the following instructions for using headphones: (1) Please tune up power volume to aproposity, before put it into the jeck (2) Take for you clothing the plastic.

Imagine if that was Scripture? We want people to fully understand what they are reading. In the languages that we work with often no linguistic analysis has ever been done. It is faster and much more accurate to do the translation manually than to try to program a computer to do it for you. I will note though that in cases of strongly related languages, programs such as CARLA (Computer Assisted Related Language Adaptation) have been developed to do the initial translation. These are initial translations that still need a lot of work.

I think that some confusion comes in because people think of translation as simply a word for word replacement. If the English word is “rock” then we find the word for rock in the local language and substitute it and move on to the next word. Translation is much more complex than that. To illustrate this, below is an example of a back translation. During consultant checking, translators provide a word for word translation from the local language back into English. The example below is Hebrews 1:1-2 from Sekpele which just dedicated their New Testament in April 2009.

Sekpele: Koko lefee, Onanto édi bo banamǝ etiki sesia sesia sesia, nya lǝ esu kpǝ ǝsuǝ tsyaa, ɛyɛ lǝ wǝ bǝnyɛlǝkǝtidi ǝsuǝ. Fɛɛ, lǝ eyi fɛfɛ nyamfo ǝsuǝǝ, údi bo etiki ɛyɛ lǝ Wǝ Ubi ǝsuǝ. Wǝ ǝsuǝ Onanto lɛyɛ úyifo kawunsiǝ, nya wǝ ni nwǝ Onanto dílǝkǝ nkǝ udi wǝ bikǝ kenke nɛ.

English word for word: Past time, God ate our ancestors words many times, and in ways many in too, it pass through his prophets on. But, in theses last these on, he ate us words it pass through His Child on. He on God walked he did world, and he is who God selected that he eats his property all so.

English Standard Version (ESV): Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.

I am sure that you had trouble understanding the word for word translation. Some of this was because of a different word order in the sentence. Some was because of a different word than we may choose to use. When was the last time that you described an heir as one who “eats the property”?

There are three things that we refer to as the ABC’s of translation. It must be Accurate, Beautiful, and Clear. Although the word for word translation above could be considered accurate, it is neither beautiful nor clear. To get this result, each translation team needs at least the following members:

Exegete: This person’s job is find the meaning of the original text. This Biblical Scholar will spend many hours doing research before a single verse is translated. They will spend time with Bible Commentaries and translation aids and depending on their training will often delve into the original Greek or Hebrew text. It requires not only an understanding of the words of the text, but also the culture and events around when the words were written or spoken.

Linguist: This person needs to understand how the local language works. This spans from obvious things like word order, spelling, and grammatical markings to less obvious issues like discourse analysis and poetry. Each language has different styles of speaking depending on context. A simple example is that if I start out by saying “Once upon a time…” you will know immediately that I am about to tell you a fairy tale. Of course the Bible is no fairy tale, but it goes to show that when a language incorporates certain conventions to show what kind of text will follow, we need to use that in the translation.

Anthropologist: This person needs to understand the local culture. Culture and language are two sides of the same coin. Take for example a people group in the Philippines whose livelihood depends on the sea and fishing. They have 36 verbs for fishing. A single word means fishing at night with a night and using a lantern. The opposite was true of the Kuwaa people that my parents worked with in Liberia. They had no large bodies of water and so therefore no word for boat. The process of translating Jesus telling the disciples to cast their nets on the other side of the boat would be completely different for these two languages.

Of course each of these areas could use a lot more explanation, but I think my point is clear. Translation is about much more than substituting one word for another and is not done by a computer, although computers have become indispensable in the process.

Frankly, no computer ever built is smart enough to translate the Word of God. Translation takes an understanding of Scripture that a computer will never have. Only a human can experience the saving power of the gift given to us by Christ’s death and resurrection, and only a human can communicate that to another human.

I am grateful that I can use my knowledge and skills with computers to help others work on Translation, Literacy and Scripture Engagement. Stay tuned for more blog entries about various software programs that I support to enable other workers in God’s kingdom to accomplish their tasks. You may also want to take a look at Rev. Nathan Esala’s blog post on what is involved in translation from a translator’s perspective in “The Translator is Translating”.


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