There are a lot of things I don’t understand: physics, the general logistics behind air traffic control and why I turn down the radio when I’m driving so I can see better.
Another skill my brain has never fully been able to grasp is the ability to learn different languages. It’s always been a challenge; just ask my high school and college French instructors!
Artificial intelligence translation programs like Google Translate are used all over the world to interpret everyday conversations, website content and more. But what you end up with can often sound closer to one of my second grade attempts at writing poetry than intelligible thoughts.
The work of Bible translation is complex, and it requires teams of passionate and talented individuals working through unique scenarios on a daily basis. Don’t just take my word for it, though! Here are five real-life reasons why human translators, not computer programs, are needed for clear, accurate and natural Bible translations.
1. How complex can one word be?
Quick: What’s the longest English word you can think of? Maybe it’s a scientific term or the name of a specific phobia. For me, it’s probably the nonsensical phrase my favorite fictional British nanny tends to sing about. (That counts, right?)
Whatever the case, the longest word you can think of probably can’t compete with this one:
That’s a single grammatical word in the Wanca Quechua language of Peru. It’s made up of 46 letters containing a root and a series of suffixes.
That one word in Wanca Quechua roughly translates to a full (though not grammatically correct) sentence in English: “Furthermore, I’m not sure I’ll even be able to be helping you turn it completely black or not, sir.”
And you thought your elementary school grammar class was hard!
2. Wait, this word doesn’t even exist!
Something that fascinates me about different languages is that they don’t always share the same words. It feels like we have a word for every situation and item in English, but that’s not necessarily the case.
For example, mencolek is an Indonesian word that describes the action of tapping someone on the opposite shoulder to get them to look in the wrong direction. Tartle in Scots refers to that moment of hesitation before introducing someone because you can’t remember their name. I know I’ve been there!
There are also words in English that don’t exist in other languages.
The Chuka speakers of Kenya don’t have a word for “ambassador.” This became problematic when the Chuka Bible translation team was translating the verse: “I am in chains now, still preaching this message as God’s ambassador” (Ephesians 6:20a, NLT).
The team consulted community members about the word, and they determined the closest options were words for “spy,” “spokesman,” “messenger” and “representative.” The team decided to replace the noun “ambassador” with “messenger” and reinforce the word with the verb “represent.” The verse was translated: “I am in chains now, still representing this message as God’s messenger.”
In a culture without ambassadors, the translation team found a way to preserve the meaning of the verse in a way Chuka speakers can understand.
3. This is why we edit.
Editing usually includes verifying that the text is grammatically correct, the sentences are structured well and that everything makes sense. It usually doesn’t include wondering if something that makes total sense should actually be communicating something entirely different.
For the Mbe translation team in Nigeria, this became an issue when they were reviewing Luke 2:7, where Jesus is described as lying in a manger. The team had used the word ókpáng — a traditional cradle used by the Mbe — for the term “manger.” The problem is that an ókpáng is something every Mbe mother wants her newborn to be placed in, so the meaning was lost.
One translator said, “We feed our animals out of an old worn-out basket that is not usable anymore except to feed the animals. We call it ‘ɛ́dzábrí.’” The team tested it by reading the story of Jesus’ birth to church groups and individuals in Mbe villages. As the Mbe listened, they were visibly moved. Picturing the newborn baby lying in the animals’ feeding basket, they understood that Jesus was willing to do whatever it took to reach them.
4. Digging beyond the dictionary.
When I’m learning a new skill or subject, I’ve found that discovering consistencies can expedite the learning process. Inconsistencies on the other hand aren’t so helpful.
For example, if you were studying English for the first time and learned that the plural of “goose” is “geese,” what could you logically assume the plural of “moose” is? (See how fun English is?)
But Hdi translators in Cameroon learned that for almost every verb, they could consistently find forms ending in -i, -a and -u.
But when it came to the word for “love,” they could only find forms ending in -i and -a: dvi and dva. So why no -u? The translators learned that in Hdi, that kind of love — dvu — couldn’t exist because it meant that you’d love someone no matter what. That’s when the translators realized this is how God loves people.
With one simple vowel, everything changed. For centuries, that little word, dvu, was there — unused but available, grammatically correct and quite understandable.
5. Verbs that are more detailed than I’ll ever be.
As a writer, sometimes I’ll whip out a thesaurus (not really, I’ll just type into a search engine) when I’ve overused a word. In other languages, people sometimes have even more choices for different words — but with very specific meanings.
If I was looking for a different word in the sentence: “I carried the baby and walked around the room,” I could probably exchange the phrase “carry” with “to hold.” But the Tzeltal language in Southern Mexico has 26 very specific verbs for “to carry.” Lat’ means “to carry in a plate or container,” cats’ means “to carry tightly gripped between two objects” and tuch means “to carry in a vertical position.” And that’s just three of the options!
It’s important that these verbs are used correctly or the entire meaning of the sentence could change. That makes Bible translation a little tricky, but it adds a great layer of visual detail we can miss in English. Imagine how a Tzeltal speaker would feel about our one English word for “carry”!
Bible translators constantly amaze me with their skills and perseverance. Someday, the last word of the last bit of Scripture for the last language will be translated, and everyone will be able to understand the story of God’s love. But until then, thank God for giving translators the unique gifts and passions they need to participate in this important work.