Greatest Need in Bible Translation

I saw on Twitter that someone used Google Translate to translate the words to Smash Mouth’s song “All Star” into Aramaic and then back into English. These were the results:

It is funny to read because you can kind of get a taste for what the original said, but it sounds so bad. It’s English, but it’s not.

Well, there is a reason that we don’t use Google Translate for Bible translation. For one thing, there is no Kwakum option on Google. But mainly because computers can’t do translation. You need people for that.

The Difficulty of Translation

At some point in the past I can remember asking myself: “How hard can translation really be?” The answer is simple: “really hard.” Translation is hard because languages are different, but also because cultures are different. And one of the most difficult aspects of Bible translation is dealing with unknown ideas: concepts in the biblical language/culture that are absent from the target language/culture. Though we have only started translation on 11 Bible stories, we have already encountered many unknown ideas. Here are some examples:

  • “bitumen” – when they build the tower in Babel, they used bitumen as mortar.
  • “altar” – everyone in the Old Testament builds an altar: Abraham, Noah, Jacob, etc. The Kwakum do not build altars and thus do not have a word for altar.
  • “gift/grace” – the idea of a gift, or grace, has been one of the hardest aspects of translation so far.
  • “covenant” – a covenant is a very formal kind of promise, something not present in modern Kwakum culture.
  • “cherubim” – what is a cherubim? Is it an angel? Well, the Bible never calls cherubim angels.
  • “angel” – speaking of angels, what is an angel? The Kwakum do not have a category, though there is a borrowed word that many people know.

We decided to skip ahead and translate the story of Jesus’ birth. In just this short story we encountered difficulty with all of these words:

  • “glory”
  • “Christ”
  • “manger”
  • “wise men”
  • “priest”
  • “scribe”
  • “gold”
  • “frankincense”
  • “myrrh”

Even if translation was just replacing a word in Hebrew/Greek with a word in Kwakum, what do we do if there is no word? Google Translate is not going to help us there. There are a lot of strategies for what to do with unknown concepts, which I will not get into here. But they are choices that must be made by people, then tested with other people. All of that to say, if we cannot use computers (alone) to translate the Bible PEOPLE are needed to translate.

The Greatest Need: Consultants

Of all of the people involved in translation, at present, the greatest need is for translation consultants. Consultants come in to a translation projects at one of the last steps. Basically, our team in the village wrestles to understand the meaning of the text. Then we wrestle to find ways to communicate the meaning in Kwakum. Then we go out and test our translation with other people who were not involved in the translation. By the end of our translation and testing sessions, we usually feel pretty good about what we have accomplished. However, there is a need for a final check, someone on the outside to look at our translation and let us know if we missed something. This is the role of the consultant.

Let me give you an example: One of the craziest aspects of translation is dealing with idioms. An idioms is when we say words, but the meaning is not in the words themselves. For instance, in the song “All Star” Smash Mouth said: “I ain’t the sharpest tool in the shed.” Google Translate eventually retranslated that as: “I am not the sharpest cutting implement in the storehouse.” While Google did capture the meaning of many of those words, it is unlikely that people would understand the MEANING of the idiom, namely, “I am not very intelligent.”

Chances are, no matter how it is translated, if you are from a different culture and we said “I am not the sharpest tool in the shed” in your language, you would not understand the meaning. This is an idiom, specific to English. We encountered one such idiom in the story of the great Flood. The Bible says, “the windows of the heavens were opened” (Genesis 7:11). This is an idiom in Hebrew. As we translated through this passage we translated it as “the windows of the sky opened.” When we got feedback from our consultant (Lisa Friesen) she asked to make sure that the Kwakum understood the idiom. We talked with our translators and it turns out they did not know what it meant. We had done a bad job of translating that idiom.

So we had to go back to the drawing board. First, we had to understand what the idiom meant. Though it might seem clear to those of us who know the Bible, for the Kwakum they could not imagine what it would mean to have a window in the sky. Thinking through it, we got to the meaning: it started pouring rain down on the earth. We asked how they would say that in Kwakum. It turns out, they have an idiom for that as well: the sky was pierced. We translated it this way (piercing of the sky), keeping the meaning, though losing the image of the window. Translation is often about making choices, sometimes difficult ones.

Your English translations do this too, by the way. In Exodus 4:14 the Hebrew says, “the nose of the LORD became hot.” However, all major English translations say something like “the anger of the Lord was kindled.” How can they do that?! Well, “hot nose” is an idiom that doesn’t translate well into English. They opted to translate the meaning, “anger of the Lord”, without an idiom. And it was a good choice.

All of this was to show that since translation is hard, we need all the help we can get. And specifically, we need someone who is on the outside (not in the translation sessions), who also knows the Bible well, and translation well. They are able to catch things that we miss. This is so important, most publishers will not allow you to print a Bible if it has not been consultant-checked by a trained consultant. Very few people have the background necessary for such a task. In fact, I was recently told there were only 300-400 Bible translation consultants in the whole world.

Wycliffe estimates that there are 2,731 languages in 167 countries with active translation or preparatory work begun. That means almost 3,000 translation projects for 300-400 consultants.

What Can You Do?

So there is a great need, but what can you do about it. Here are a few suggestions:

GO. You could work to become a Bible translation consultant. This is a great option for all the students out there who love the biblical languages. I have heard that more PhD students graduate yearly from one seminary than there are open teaching positions in the US. If you love the Bible, love the languages, there is a huge need for you!

SUPPORT. Another way to help is to support translation consultants. Pictured below are Kyle and Hannah, friends from California.

Kyle is currently working towards becoming a Bible translation consultant. If you would like more information about what the Kyle and Hannah are doing, or to support them, visit HERE.

PRAY. I have mentioned before that Jesus was well aware of the need for missionaries. In Matthew 9 Christ looked out at the crowds of lost people and recognized that “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” His response to this reality was: “pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” We are at a critical stage where Bible translation projects continue to grow, but the number of consultants is shrinking. Pray that the Lord would raise up many new consultants all around the world.


Author: David M. Hare

Dave is a husband, father of four Africans, and is currently helping the Kwakum people do Oral Bible Storying and Bible translation in Cameroon, Africa.