Coding/Translating: Taking a fulfilling demotion
Before I had a thought of doing Bible Translation my first hobby and possible career choice was in Software Engineering.* I got diverted from that after graduation, but I like to keep abreast of what people are doing and learning in the programming and development world, and so I came upon an interesting article about a senior designer who followed her coding dreams and took a demotion from high level designer to coder. One reason I like reading about software engineering is that I have often noticed parallels or helpful insights which are relevant to the world of minority language development and [Bible] translation. I’ve written about this elsewhere (and just came across another relevant piece of research which I think will be helpful too), but I couldn’t help noticing some parallels with my own career path in translation.
After I got hooked on the opportunity and need for Bible translation and the untapped potential of undeveloped languages in Nigeria, the most strategic thing seemed to be for me to aim at translation consulting. That is where we increasingly heard the bottlenecks were, in terms of quality assurance for mother tongue translators. Rather than focus all your energies on building up one particular project (which may or may not succeed — and most software projects fail) it may be a safer and better investment of time to split between several projects, helping with pre-publication checking. It made sense and I prepared to go straight into that somewhat fast-tracked, with some helpful teaching on my Masters in Translation Studies course in Kenya before getting to Nigeria.
In my first 5 years in Nigeria (2011-2016) I attended a string of workshops and helped translators from perhaps 7 communities check their work for publication (Maya, Gworog, Nikyob, Ɓwaatye, Dũya, Ashɛ, Waci), touched on a dozen or so others and taught translators-in-training at the Theological College of Northern Nigeria. During that time many of us began to recognise that we had been expecting unrealistic things of the (mother-tongue) translators and the harder we looked the more disappointed we were. Keeping a hands-off attitude made it easier to persuade ourselves all was fine, but we weren’t satisfied with that. If I and people like me didn’t get deeply involved in training and language development with teams then we were likely on a frustrating hiding to nothing. We might churn out some publications that had been ‘approved’, but neither translators nor consultants would appreciate just how far short we were falling. The massive consultant bottleneck and shortage was actually in many cases a symptom of inadequate skill acquisition and insufficient applied research. Now some removed this problem ingeniously by removing consultants from the equation, but for me it seemed obvious to go the other way: down to being more of an advisor than a consultant.
To an outsider, the difference in status between software designer and developer may not be obvious, and similarly it may not be so obvious that many have considered ‘advising’ something that any old person can do, with ‘consulting’ being the high-prestige position. (Of course this is silly, but the older route was that other-language translators began being advisors and then after half a lifetime’s experience and a completed New Testamment graduated to being consultants, hence the prestige.)
In the Wycliffe Bible Translation world, we don’t get paid salaries so a ‘demotion’ in this case is just a matter of negotiating with your manager/overseer what it’s best to do with your time, and trying to communicate the same to supporters and other partners. I’m grateful I was given the freedom to do that. Since 2017 I’ve been focussed about 75% on the Koro Ashɛ translation team studying storytelling, applying what we learn to revising the translation for a first full-on public release (think Windows 3.11 or Macintosh System 7). Just as the developer above had to learn new ways of handling a massive codebase that she’ll never fully read, I’m having to figure out how to contribute usefully to a language I’ll never be fluent in. It’s often intimidating and like the said developer I often feel incompetent but it’s also fulfilling to get your hands dirty in real life grassroots language engineering.
Next up: the things Bible Translation people can learn from the Cynefin Framework.
* OK, that’s if we skip the ‘Train driver’ stage that my 8-yo daughter Abigail is currently fixated on, and ‘pilot’ stage that I thought about up till the point when a helpful teacher pointed out that you needed lots of high marks to do that, so that I turned my attention to aeronautical engineering… and then got rather absorbed in computers.