Those of us who are not directly involved in translating the Bible will never completely understand or appreciate the linguistic challenges our translators face day by day.
That includes me.
I am giving my professional life to the Bible translation cause. But I am an administrator, not a linguist.
As a result, I approach the challenge of translation from a unique vantage point. I look at this topic as a father—and pastor of my own family. I look at it as an elder—concerned with right doctrine. And I look at it as someone who cares deeply for God’s Word—wanting everyone around the world to be able to have access to it in their own language.
Still, I can share some general insights on the matter.
One fundamental truth about translation is that there are no two languages that have an exact crossover of vocabulary. Most Christians in North America have heard in church at one point or another that our English word, “love,” in our Bibles doesn’t capture the meaning behind the four Greek words in Scripture: agápe, éros, philía, and storgē. Take a moment to consider the implications of using éros instead of philía in a translation. Sexual connotations would certainly be a stumbling block when “brotherly love” was intended.
English is a handy language in its use of generic words like “love.”
However, many languages have far more specific words. I remember a previous Word Alive story that explained that there are more than 20 different Inuit words that English attempts to encapsulate in the word “snow.”
But other languages have a more limited vocabulary. Wycliffe’s Ken and Mendy Nehrbass are Bible translation consultants on an island in Vanuatu, in the middle of the South Pacific. Ken once tried to convey to me the difficulty of translating into the Southwest Tanna language:
Translated Genesis 2-4 yesterday. You’d think that the difficulty with translating would be that there are so many ways to say something—how do you narrow it down? But every chapter of the Bible presents the opposite problem for a language like SW Tanna: there’s no way to say it! Like [in Gen. 4:15], “if anyone kills Cain, he will be avenged seven times” ([in SW Tanna, there is] no word for “avenge,” no number above 5, and no way to say ‘x number of times.’ (Gen.4:15).”
Our translators face a difficult and complex task daily. Even the “simple” verses can trip them up. We in English-speaking countries—home to 85 per cent of all Bible resources—have a difficult time visualizing the challenges. So let’s pray for translators like the Nehrbasses, working in isolated locations and struggling at times with a few other consultants to find the best solutions in each unique language.
How did Ken and Mendy end up solving their dilemma? They leaned upon their biblical, translation and linguistics training; Wycliffe’s translation practices based on more than a half century of experience; insights into the local language and culture from the Southwest Tanna people; and, no doubt, much prayer.
Recognizing that conveying the meaning of God’s Word is an ultimate goal, they chose the following: Nikam. Tukm yermam kirikrhopni ik, tukrir h narpinien ehu rapitanarpinien yame nakawh.
In English, this translation conveys the idea that if someone killed Cain, he’d receive a larger punishment than the punishment he meted out to Cain.
The manuscript of the New Testament is currently being printed and the Southwest Tanna will soon have God’s Word in a form they can understand.
I may never know everything that translators, like Ken and Mendy, face. But I do know this: Wycliffe Canada is just as committed in 2012 to accurate, clear and natural translation for every remaining language as we were 60 years ago when our personnel first starting serving in this amazing and life-changing work.
Roy Eyre is the president of Wycliffe Bible Translators of Canada.