The Role of Mobile Technology in Bible Translation

The growth of mobile technology, smart phones and tablets for example, has radically changed the way that people interact with computers.  In this post I will explore how the explosion in consumerization in the use of smart phones and tablets can benefit the work of Bible Translation.

First, let me clarify that I am using a broad definition of Bible Translation.  It takes into account the other areas that are also necessary to make the translation available to the target audience including language development, literacy, vernacular media, etc.

Not too many years ago smart phones were for high powered business people in the west, now you can go into a rural village in Ghana and see devices that provide internet access.  Sign boards from cell companies in Ghana advertise free access to a mobile Facebook app.  It can be argued that Africa has skipped a generation of technology.  We went from cassette tapes to SD cards, from no phones to smart phones.

There are a number of reasons that I think smart phones and tablets are the wave of our work in the future:

  • For about the same price as a netbook, you get a sturdy device.  ARM processors run much cooler which saves power, but just as importantly for northern Ghana, running cooler usually means a longer life of the device.  Solid state storage is also a plus.  We really do not need 100 GB on most devices any more, I would rather have less storage that is more reliable. New computers of overpowered for what we need them to do, but old ones don’t last long enough in this climate.  We end up having to over-buy on power to get quality.
  • Mobility is a huge plus.  Instant-on makes a device infinitely more useful for unexpected data gathering situations.  Front and back cameras provide a lot of flexibility for recording events.  Low power means the possibility of charging off of a backpack solar panel.  Solid state storage means being able to use it in a moving vehicle on rough roads.  Touch screens really reduce the barrier to entry for new users.
  • Most of all, I have been amazed by the number of devices I have already seen in Ghana, both Android and iOS, both phone and tablet.  At church on Sunday, two of the three Bible Study leaders have tablets.  I see them on planes, I see them on buses.  There was a large number of iPads at the recent conference on Translation in Accra.   If we have apps that run on mobile devices there is the potential for more involvement from people that already own their own devices.

There are a number of areas where I see mobile computing being very effective:

  • Data collection is a difficult task.  The researcher needs to go out with pen, paper, and an audio recording device.  Once they have collected the data, they then have to come back and enter all of it in, errors and all.  A few days after the iPad was announced in January 2010, I wrote an email with the following paragraph, “But think about a program like WeSay.  Say a person takes the iPad to a village to collect words.  He has a picture to show what he wants to find more words about.  He hands it around so people can see the picture.  No matter how somebody holds it, rights side up, upside down, the picture always shows correctly oriented to them.  The word collector gets the device back and pulls up the onscreen keyboard, which instead of using Keyman actually has the special characters on the keys, and types in the word.”
  • The time it takes to produce vernacular media could be greatly reduced.  The same device could be used to record the audio or video, edit it, and then play it back.  There is no need to download it to a high powered computer, convert it to an easier to edit format, edit, then determine what media it will be output to.  Don’t get me wrong.  There is a place for high quality professional productions (I am a strong advocate of that), but sometimes a little quick and dirty field editing can have a lasting affect on the people involved.
  • Translation is often viewed as just the process of “creating” new text in the target language.  In a previous post I took a look at what really goes into a translation.  Reviewing the translated text is also extremely important.  This is the Word of God, and it needs to be accurate.  Once a translated verse is written down, it is reviewed by the other translators, a committee, consultant, perhaps a second consultant, and local church leaders.  One translator that I asked mentioned that a single book of the Bible was reviewed 50 times before it was printed.  One of the problems with reviewing is that it needs to be printed out and all of the changes need to be entered back in.  If there was a version of Paratext for reviewers, they could use the Send/Receive feature to always have the most recent version of the text and be able to add comments directly.  Pastors who live a distance from where the translation is being done could still be involved.  When a translated book is finished, it could be used in the churches rather than waiting years, perhaps decades, for the full translation to be finished and printed.

It is probably obvious at this point that I am excited about the possibilities that mobile technology provide. I do however still have a couple of concerns:

  • There is a lot of fragmentation in the mobile world.  There are several major operating systems out there: iOS, Android, Windows Phone, WindowsRT, Symbian, BlackBerry, plus the number of various Chinese phones that we have here.  Is there a way to write an App that will handle all of these?  HTML5 is supposed to be the savior, but it does not run like a native app on most devices.  Facebook just dropped it for their mobile apps.  What I hear about in the mission community is Android, but what I see in Ghana is iOS and Symbian derivatives.
  • Current devices assume western countries.  Although internet access is becoming more prevalent across Ghana and the rest of Africa, apps cannot rely on an always-on connection.  I recently wrote about the problems of setting up an iPad for a user in Ghana without a credit card.  Although developers can offer free apps, if the user cannot even get to the app store, that is going to be a problem.

Where do you see mobile technology affecting your work?  Is it over-hyped?  Share your thoughts in the comments section.


3 thoughts on “The Role of Mobile Technology in Bible Translation

    1. I have seen the article but not the device. One of the issues with Android is that there are so many different types of devices out there that compatibility becomes an issue.

  1. Interesting article on the rapid adoption of mobile phones in general, smart phones in particular, and now the tablet.

    “It took almost a century for landline phones to reach saturation, or the point at which new demand falls off. Mobile phones, by contrast, achieved saturation in just 20 years. Smart phones are on track to halve that rate yet again, and tablets could move still faster, setting consecutive records for speed to market saturation in the United States.”

    “According to the International Telecommunications Union, in 2001 the developed world had six times as many mobile subscriptions per capita as the developing world. By 2011, that gap had collapsed to just 50 percent more phones per capita, and it continues to narrow substantially. Of the world’s six billion mobile-phone subscriptions, 73 percent are now in the developing world, even though those countries account for just 20 percent of the world’s GDP.”

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