Why Dictionaries Matter in Bible Translation

Here’s a disclaimer:
I first came to Nigeria in 2001 on a short term trip to help people finish off a dictionary as part of a Bible translation project. I thought that might be the last of my dictionary-making, but even though it’s not really my job now I reluctantly find myself drawn back to it.

Bible translation projects require a good foundation of linguistics to work out a decent writing system and to help writers stay as faithful as possible to the natural grammar of the language whilst staying as faithful as possible to the meaning of the biblical text. Along the way some translators and advisors collect words into a dictionary. Most are never completed, never published. Some Bible translators eventually get round to working on a dictionary after the Bible has been published. Well surely that priority is right for a Bible translator, isn’t it? Yes and no, but mostly no, I reply.

The fact is, words are slightly slippery things and one of the biggest dangers to faithful translation can come when you are too easily satisfied by equivalences found between languages without really testing out the range of meanings and usages that a word can sustain. Unfortunately the most common conception of translation (whether it’s Westerners or Africans) is somewhat akin to simple word-swapping; we just try to find the closest equivalent word as we see it for what we understand of the source word.

Well, apart from the fact that it’s sometimes difficult to be very precise about what is a word, what’s a ‘particle’ or an affix and what’s a phrase, such word-for-word correspondence doesn’t really work. Words, like the people who utter them, don’t thrive in splendid isolation but live in communities of meaning. That’s how we learn new words!

So to describe one word in a Nigerian language with just one English ‘gloss’ is often misleading. You don’t believe me? Well take a nice simple example from the human body.  Surely this is going to be the simplest case, since we all have bodies which are largely the same. Let’s take ‘hand’. Ask a Nigerian what ‘hand’ is in his mother tongue and he’ll tell you. Easy. Not really! Ask him exactly what he means by hand and you’ll get a variation somewhere between the tips of the fingers up to elbow or shoulder. It’ll include what my English means by ‘hand’ but a lot more. But then Nigerian English ends up taking the meaning from the mother tongues and hey presto, misunderstanding results!

So while a decent multilingual dictionary should use glosses to quickly and concisely convey as much meaning as possible, it must go further and use a bit more space to explain the range of meanings and the limits. We haven’t even begun to look at figurative uses.

But I began by complaining that it’s no good thing to leave making a dictionary to the post-Bible phase. That’s because a dictionary – especially a dictionary organising words by  meanings, or a thesaurus – can help the translator and any advisors think of alternative words or phrasings that otherwise might not occur to them. And it can help consultants check that the real sense of the original passage is being conveyed well, just as Biblical Greek/Hebrew dictionaries are much more helpful than glosses in understanding the range of uses of a Greek or Hebrew word.

Quite often absolutely needless conflicts arise because we assume one-to-one word-to-word correspondences between different languages which do not hold up. We each are coloured by our home culture and to some extent see the world through the lens we grew up with. So it may seem obvious what ‘father’ and ‘son’ mean, but in actual fact some languages may have much richer or subtly different collections of kinship terms all with their own generality or specificity and range of uses. To ignore the linguistic riches available and use a smaller vocabulary that appears to match English is an unnecessary constraint. But it may be that it is taking the time to develop rich dictionaries that will let us move beyond that constraint.

With programs like WeSay it’s easier than ever now to recruit whole communities to build dictionaries, so it’s no longer the preserve of elite linguists, but so that dictionaries can become a repository of the linguistic knowledge of a community. And thus dictionary-making doesn’t need to hold up (delay) a Bible translation programme but can actually hold up (support) better translation.

Thoughts? Please share below.

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