Why discourse study makes great translator training

2018 was something of a departure from normal patterns for Ashe and for me. To the surprise of many, I did almost no checking of translation with Ashe, but focussed on studying 6 Ashe stories – some true, some folk tales. I had reasons to think this was absolutely necessary, and even though it’s taken much longer than I had hoped to get this far, I’m encouraged by the fruit and the potential we are starting to approach to do better Bible translation as a team.

The Frustration of Skipping the Discourse Study

I (David) had checked a lot of the translation of Luke’s gospel in Ishɛ from 2016-2017. We used back translations (explain it in English) to understand what the Ishɛ language was meaning, but often I really wanted to ask questions about translation choices that the translators were not able to answer adequately. All they could do was to say ‘this word in Ishɛ means this in English’. I was never satisfied with that but there was no more we could really do. 

Ashe Translation checking in Jos in 2016 with David, Arams and Gideon (L-R)
One translator would read the Ishɛ and another express it in English.

For example, I noticed many uses of amma (originally a Hausa word, understood to be the same as English ‘but’), which I considered suspicious, and we removed many of them but without a solid basis other than just observing that it worked fine without the amma. Nothing of the meaning was changed, but the text could flow better. I noticed very frequent use of ni between clauses in the translation before but had no way of knowing how helpful this was. I now think we have some justification for seeing it as being possibly overused, but this is related to the issue that long sentences of short clauses are more common in Ishɛ than English-style short sentences of few complex clauses.

If a language seldom uses a connective in narrative (in other words, the default means of conjoining is by juxtaposition), then the PRESENCE of a connective is significant, and may even reflect a discontinuity. A common error in translating into such languages from Greek and Hebrew is to use too many connectives, sometimes with disastrous results.

Self-Instruction Materials On Narrative Discourse Analysis, Stephen Levinsohn 2004:86 (ch 6)

We successfully identified some places where there was confusion about the meaning of certain words, but it wasn’t possible for us to talk very fruitfully and clearly about the flow of the text, or focusing on one element or another, or indicating the main point.

Ere Koro, the paramount chief of half of Ashɛ people, reading some of the pre-discourse checked gospel of Luke at a church event in Kurmin Jibrin

When I observed people reading the text I often noticed stumbles – sometimes to do with tone/intonation, and sometimes to do with other issues that I didn’t know much about. At a more recent public reading it was very striking how often full pronouns were used far more often in the translation than is natural in the stories we have collected and now I start to suspect that possibly one reason for the lack of fluency in reading is that the pronouns were being used unnaturally. There was no way to notice this or suggest an alternative before we studied natural stories.

There were lots of ambiguities in the writing system related to tone information being ignored, but my attempts to determine how better to write Ishɛ clearly were unsatisfying because we were relying too much on questionable elicited statements or translated texts rather than natural texts, so it was hard to make sure that English categories, semantics and pragmatics were not skewing our observations. I think we have now a good body of evidence for finding answers to these writing system issues. (Since we have studied the texts thoroughly this is better than just a back translation approximation for what a particular expression might mean.)

Finally, I had given up trying to do anything with commas and full stops in my checking because I could see no definite rules for when there should be a comma and when a new sentence. The translation tended to follow the punctuation of the NIV, but while I knew this was unlikely to be helpful there was no other pattern I could suggest to the team. We’re starting to see better patterns now which are not entirely English-based.

Kathleen using the whiteboard to clarify what’s in the historical text, together with translators Arams and Moses and linguist Mike

Training translators, not just discovering language features

My own goal in nurturing the Ashɛ translation team is to equip them with the skills and resources they need to be able to make informed translation decisions based on evidence that everyone can agree on rather than just unsupported personal preference or assertion.

By building a good body of studied texts I believe we lay a good foundation for resolving issues and making it possible to defend any good translation drafts from the damage that may come from uninformed team checking, reviewer contributions and consultant checks.

Studying a folk tale about tortoise and the birds (with props) hosted by the chief of the southern Ashe people in Kube
A village head (left) looked on for a while until exhausted from the intensity of the thinking he had to take a break!

By involving the translators in this work we establish some skills that should bear fruit as they continue to grow in understanding how each language they use arranges things differently. This should make them able to nurture others and develop solid evidence-based rationales for translation rather than the arbitrary opinion-based approach I have seen characterise other translation teams.

As a consultant/advisor I have enjoyed calibrating my own expectations of Ishɛ language from natural texts so that I can start to notice things which are unusual. I think it’s essential that translators have the same experience. 

Ashɛ translator Arams Zechariah explains something at the whiteboard as we study an Ishɛ language story

Just as practising a musical instrument isn’t primarily about playing a piece of music well, discourse study isn’t just something you do to a language, but something that shapes you the analyser. So to leave translators out of the picture—or just to give them the finished fruit of our research—would be to cheat them of a formative experience which can sharpen their awareness of how their language works and how it (legitimately) differs from English and other languages. Like many things in translation it takes longer but ultimately leads to better work, as long as those trained actually use what they’ve learned.

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