Category Archives: Language

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!

Research in progress: Making dictionaries serve translation

Here’s an abstract that has been approved for presentation at a Bible Translation conference:

Making dictionaries serve translation

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.

I thought I’d share some of my rough research and open up some questions and loose ends here in public while I’m preparing the paper.

Current Status of work: Literature & research review

I’m investigating times in the distant past right up to recently where dictionaries have made a contribution to Bible translation, whether positive or negative.

Some interesting stories so far

From translation consultants and translators.

The Curse of Assumed Similarity

Near-misses are the bane of the translator’s life and work.

In the same way that a falsehood is more dangerous when it contains a large element of truth, terms or thinking that seem nearly similar between cultures create a very dangerous translation environment.

One handy example of this is the term ‘curse’.

What is a curse? What is cursing? Some people (especially certain pastors) are tempted to consult a dictionary to answer this kind of question. As a sometime lexicographer I have a healthy skepticism about the good that can do for this situation, Continue reading The Curse of Assumed Similarity

I don’t really understand it so it must be great!

Journalists love writing about themselves and Nigerian journalists are no exception. I came across this gushing report on the Nation’s awesome achievements whilst searching for a turgid (but apparently award-winning) article on threats to Nigerian languages from the dash to English. I’m honestly trying not to be unfair here and to allow for the possibility of Nigerian English grammar and idioms being significantly divergent from British English, but I still would struggle to give this article more than a B–.

“But surely it deserves more,” I hear you cry, Continue reading I don’t really understand it so it must be great!