Orality and Bible Translation: A Whole New World

We always knew that Bible translation was a life’s work and that fruit from it would likely not be enjoyed for many years. We have contented ourselves in the fact that ensuring that the Word of God was translated faithfully and understandably was worth the time investment. Some things are too sacred to be rushed. Further, we know that not one of God’s elect will be lost.

However, since we have been in the States, three of our friends in our village have died. We know that in the 20-ish years that it’ll take to translate the Word of God, there will be many, many more who will pass away. Further, we have been told that in similar projects, only around 10% of the population ever learned to read. If that statistic holds true for the Bakoum, we could be leaving behind up to 90% of the people.

Compassion necessitates that special revelation fall into their hands as soon, and as effectively as possible. And yet a reverence for the Word of God demands unhurried, careful translation.

Is Oral Bible Translation the Answer? 
While we are committed to a written translation of the Bible, we are wondering if a parallel translation project using an oral method of translation could be what we have been looking for.

This past week I took a class called “Oral Drafting in Bible Translation” where I learned about the process of translating the Bible orally. Dave and I are considering taking a 2-month long class on the subject in July (via “Zoom,” which is like Skype). In this workshop I learned that when the Bible is translated orally, it is more readily available to the speech community.

How Does it Work?

I will describe how the process of oral translation could work in our project among the Bakoum, although this description is not indicative of every oral translation project being done.

The idea is to have a “Translation Advisor” which would likely be me in our context. The role of this advisor is to do the exegesis (AKA “study the passage well”). I would do the exegesis with Dave and with our small team of literate (in French and Bakoum) speakers. We would spend possibly 20 hours seeking to understand a passage of Scripture, looking at the original languages, consulting commentaries, translation helps, and exegetical aids. We would seek to understand the passage within its immediate context, within the context of the book, and within the context of the Bible as a whole. This “literate” team would then go on to do a written translation using a combination of oral and written methods.

I would then split from this team and work with four “Mother-tongue translators” (MTTs). This would be Bakoum people (possibly children…see next week’s blog) who are illiterate in both French and in Bakoum. Using the exegesis as the foundation, I would teach this team all that I know about the passage being translated. I would explain to them the meaning of the passage and the sequence of events. We would discuss the characters, the setting, “key terms” (like baptism), and even the geography of Israel, where applicable. We would also use this time to talk about what the passage teaches us about the character of God, man, and how we could apply it to our lives. As our teacher said in our workshop, this would be a time of discipleship and my role would be that of a shepherd.

Then comes the stage of “Internalization.” This is when the MTTs, with a good understanding of the passage, seek to take ownership of the passage to the point that they would be able to speak it themselves. They can act it out, draw pictures, use props to help them think through the sequence, or other types of mnemonic devises in order to get them to that place.

Once they are comfortable, this team of four world divide into two groups. Each group would recount the passage and it would be recorded. Once there are two recordings, each group would listen to one another’s recordings and offer suggestions. This would be the first draft. This process is different than “Oral Bible Storying” in that every concept present in the Greek or Hebrew would need to be present in the draft. In the same way, there would be no room for artistic license to insert ideas that are not present in the Greek or Hebrew.

Once there is an agreed-upon draft, then this draft would be played for members of the community and checked for biblical accuracy, understandability, connotations of various key terms, etc. When the draft has been tested two-three times (and edited accordingly), then the draft would be tested by an outside consultant. Once approved by the consultant, then the draft would be rerecorded to produce a final draft. This final recording could be immediately distributed, or the translation team could wait to distribute it once the entire book is completed. In the mean-time, Dave’s “written” team would be working to the end of a written translation and could draw upon work done in the oral translation (and vise-versa).

What I have outlined above is simply a working idea of how the process could work. We still would need to grow in our understanding of the process and propose this idea to the Bakoum community.

Advantages of Oral Bible Translation
I love this method of translation for two reasons:

(i) God’s Word for everyone, literate or illiterate. Educators and home-school parents know that teaching children to read is not for the faint of heart. Learning to read can take years and, unlike in America where it is illegal to not attend school, in Cameroon learning to read is optional. Among minority language groups, literacy will likely only take-off among a percentage of the population. Ideally, this percentage will read the Bible and teach the Bible to the others. But if the ideal doesn’t materialize, the Word of God can touch the remainder of the population through an oral Bible.

(ii) God’s Word is accessible sooner. Generally, organizations like Faith Comes by Hearing do a recording once the New Testament is completed in a written form. As I mentioned above, I simply do not want to wait that long for my neighbors to have access to the Scriptures.

This is a new method and so I welcome feedback from seasoned Bible translators. More than anything, we welcome prayer that the Bakoum would be people who tremble at the Word of God. We welcome prayer that the Lord guide us in wisdom as we seek to bring them the Word through the best methodology possible. And of all, pray that the Spirit of God use his Word among this people resulting in worship of Jesus. 


Author: Stacey Hare

Stacey is a servant of Jesus Christ as well as a wife, mom, linguist, and Bible translator among the Kwakum people of Cameroon.