Avoid frustration: Choose your translation brief to suit the multilingual situation

Somewhat late in the day it is dawning on me that a lot of frustration can be avoided if Bible translators (and their supporting personnel) agree and make their translation brief* explicit early on in their work. Secondly, that translation brief would best be informed by understanding the sociolinguistic/multilingual situation the translation is entering.

Translation brief: a plan for how you are going to approach a translation consistently (rather than haphazardly); the principles that guide a translation.

Perhaps I’ll get round to writing more about this, but let me give some examples. (If some seem flippant, it may be that I have done that deliberately, to provoke thought.)Pick your situation:

  1. Pioneer monolingual. No church yet exists and there’s little (friendly) contact with other languages.

    1. This translation is going to be the missionary’s major tool and the complete basis of a new church.
    2. It needs to be clear and natural enough to ensure people understand it well and don’t establish their understanding of the gospel on misunderstandings.
    3. In time a variation – more literal – might be helpful for pastors who want to use other resources too.
  2. Pioneer multilingual. There’s no established church, but multiple languages are in use perhaps for education or as a trade language. The Bible is already translated in that trade/education language.

    1. Some missionaries may prefer to use the Bible in another language instead of waiting for a translation into the home language. It may be that mission can start like this, but also request a local translation which seeks to make things clearer where understanding of the trade language is weak.
  3. Retrofitting a foundation for the church. A church is fairly well established, with many people using a translation in Hausa (where 3 translations exist), but few can read it fluently or at great length, and the language of church doesn’t overlap very much with the language of everyday life, and pastors/evangelists are troubled by the fact people don’t engage very deeply with the scriptures (or with English-language education)…

    1. We need a translation which obviously connects with the non-Hausa (or ordinary Hausa) areas of life, which can be read in large coherent chunks without fatigue and which uses the target language in a way that is clear and normal. This all requires decent
    2. It doesn’t need to stick so closely to the Hausa or English or Greek/Hebrew that it is hard to understand or be certain of.
    3. It doesn’t need to try to replace/supplant Hausa or English versions entirely.
    4. It may need to explain differences that people may perceive (rightly or wrongly) between it and the Hausa/English versions that people regularly use, quite often to correct abuse of those Hausa/English versions.
  4. Language Revival. A church is fairly well established in an area where most people use Hausa for all aspects of life, except schooling which is in English, and their local language is nearly extinct. Only some old people speak the language but their neighbours (and rivals, whose language they understand) recently celebrated the completion of a New Testament. The educated English-speaking people want to turn their backs on Hausa, the language of their oppressors, and don’t want to be inferior to their neighbours, so people want their own translation.

    1. A hasty, literal translation with no serious testing, language research etc may do the job and meet felt needs just as well as a careful, sensible translation, especially if it is read for novelty value rather than for understanding.

So then, what’s your multilingual situation? And what does that mean for Bible translation into your language?

What might this mean for the limited pool of technical people who have to figure out where they should expend their efforts in supporting Bible translation?

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