Category Archives: Language

Languages of Wilder Confusion: hidden dangers for international collaboration

I’ve appreciated the numerous short, thought-provoking articles Jim Harries has written (and also here) on topics of cross-cultural communication. One that got my attention recently was Building Castles in the Sky: A case for the use of indigenous languages and resources in Western mission-partnerships to Africa, particularly in the light of 2 realities which are close to home for me:

  1. For my work as a Bible translation consultant (in training) I am reliant on using languages of wider communication (mostly English, with little bits of Hausa) to discuss the meaning of parts of the Bible and help translators check and improve their work. I am very aware of the dangers and pitfalls that this entails.
    1. (Why is this a reality for me? I’m rather slow and poor at learning to speak languages, and work with far too many languages to attempt it.)
  2. There is a real push amongst some Americans who want to “accelerate Bible translation” to resource and partner directly with local churches around the world and to cut out the missionary middle man, as it were. This is possible because more and more non-Western partners are able to communicate in Western languages of wider communication(English, Spanish, French).

Jim warns that great danger lurks here.   Continue reading Languages of Wilder Confusion: hidden dangers for international collaboration

Making dictionaries serve translation

My paper Making Dictionaries Serve [Bible] Translation is here on open for comments. Below is the abstract and introduction.

Making dictionaries serve translation

David Rowbory, Translation Consultant in Training, SIL Nigeria

A paper presented at the 2015 Bible Translation Conference hosted by GIAL Dallas, Texas, 16-20 October relating to the sub-themes Technology and other Tools, Theory & Practice and Translator Training.


John Roberts has lamented the tendency of Bible translators to ignore lexicography until after a New Testament has been completed and printed. The consequence is that while the translation process necessarily reveals much of the lexical richness of a language, few dictionaries are ever finished and little of the effort of creating such a dictionary ends up benefitting the translation itself. It does tend to be a peculiar minority of people who attack the task of lexicography with relish, but I want to outline the many ways that a working dictionary can and should support better writing. Recent developments have eroded many of the difficulties which have hindered the development and use of dictionaries. There is no need to typeset a full dictionary before it is used; software-based dictionaries can be useful even when incomplete. Rather than throwing knowledge away, every translator or pioneer writer should see the dictionary as a place to store the riches of their language and conserve the fruit of their wrestling with the language. Mother-tongue translators need dictionaries too. Where a diverse range of community members contribute their knowledge of the language to make a good, growing, living dictionary it can provide consultants, reviewers and translators alike with a wider evidence base for their decisions than mere individual opinion. I survey recent developments that make dictionary development more achievable than ever before, and propose procedures for Bible translators to use and maintain a dictionary with examples from projects that have done this.

Continue reading Making dictionaries serve translation

Letting go the familiar words and holding onto the real meaning

[This was first drafted in July – well before the C of E cinema ad controversy blew up. Still, perhaps it may inform a little and provoke some more worthy thought.]

Our Father who is in heaven…

What’s the first request of the Lord’s prayer? Can you express it in everyday language that you might genuinely use ordinarily with your 4-year-old?

I’m sure many can, but it’s not something I found all that easy. Still, I think it’s an important exercise. Give me a moment to say why. Continue reading Letting go the familiar words and holding onto the real meaning

Lessons from Software Engineering for Bible Translation

493_4018 Scaffolding
(Jos, Nigeria)

Some time I may get round to writing a paper on some cross-disciplinary lessons that Bible translators can learn from Software Engineering. (This is essentially trying to integrate my former and current career paths.)

My attention was caught by a slightly overblown headline on favourite irreverent geeky news site The Register: Most developers have never seen a successful project. Let me intersperse some quotes with some comments on how I see this relating to difficulties we face in the Bible translation world:

Most software professionals have never seen a successful software development project, continuous delivery evangelist Dave Farley said, and have “built careers on doing the wrong thing”.

Continue reading Lessons from Software Engineering for Bible Translation

Word for word

Here’s a half-formed thought for translation people.

It probably gradually dawns on us all that the way the English Bible normally uses ‘word’ is not the usual way that we use it in English. It’s generally used as a translation for λογος or ρημα or אֹמֶר or דָּבָר.
The problem is that the most common use of ‘word’ in English is to represent something separated by spaces, when printed. That is, this sentence has seven words. A word is a noun, pronoun, demonstrative, verb, adjective, adverb or something else. However, context makes it clear that this is not the meaning ‘word’ has in the Bible.

Rather than being grammatically described, ‘word’ in the Bible is just something said (or thought). Message, speech, saying, communication, thought… would do that sort of job. What I haven’t done yet is look through to see if indeed there is any (clear) instance in the Bible of ‘word’ referring to what we would normally call ‘word’ in English.

There are of course figurative and rarer senses of the word ‘word’, such as a report/news etc. But it has occurred to me that if we understand Biblish ‘word’ to mean what we understand in English by ‘message’ then ‘word for word’ translation is essentially conveying the same ‘message’ by different ‘words’. Literally then, word for word translation is ‘dynamic equivalent’ or ‘thought for thought’. How’s that for something that messes with Bible translation controversies?

Many holes in this, no doubt, but I was feeling like letting the cat out of the bag and setting it among pigeons.



(ps. and yes, I know, I haven’t finished my post on why ‘essentially literal’ literally means photocopying the originals and is therefore essentially nonsense when applied to translation)

On Glosses, GPS and Google Maps

The short version:

  • Place too much faith in a ‘gloss’ for a foreign word and you may well end up looking as foolish as the folk who follow their satnav robotically into oblivion.

An allegory from Google/Apple maps for all users of bilingual dictionaries:

As drivers become enslaved to their satnavs (in the well-mapped world) we increasingly hear ridiculous stories of people driving onto airport runways, into rivers and goodness knows what else. And it’s all the satnav’s fault. As always our digital servants have turned into digital masters and we blindly follow them. Continue reading On Glosses, GPS and Google Maps

A little plug for Wycliffe in Nigeria, from a British MP

A search on the internet often throws up surprising results and one was the mention of the work of Wycliffe Bible Translators in Nigeria, by Lib Dem MP Mark Williams, MP for Ceredigion.

In talking about why it’s important for Christians and governments to engage in international aid, page 59, he mentions “Wycliffe Bible Translators teaching literacy, helping to grow local cultures and educating people in their native language.”

I’m intrigued to know how he found out about it since it’s fairly quiet and long-term work.

Liberal Democrats Do God book cover
Liberal Democrats Do God


Newsletter 42: Not in Nigeria!

MM42 Cover Picture
Click to download the high quality version

Here’s some news for June/July 2015 from the Nigeria branch of the Rowbory family (High Quality Printable Version)

With a whirlwind of final meetings, David wrapped up his solo month in Nigeria and returned to the heart of the family at the start of May.  By then they had moved over from Northern Ireland to Glasgow and Rebekah had started at a local primary school. Continue reading Newsletter 42: Not in Nigeria!