translation training

My mind is occupied with preparations for my mother’s funeral, but I’d like to ask some questions to get discussion going on this blog on a topic that is near and dear to my heart.

1. What kind of training, if any, should a Bible translator have to help produce adequate translations?

2. Can any native speaker of a language adequately translate the Bible into their language if they have studied the biblical languages enough to do scholarly, accurate exegesis? Or does adequate translation require something more than scholarly understanding of the biblical languages?

3. Should members of English Bible translation teams be required to take training in how to translate?

4. What topics should be included if there are translation training courses for Bible translators?

30 thoughts on “translation training

  1. Carl W. Conrad says:

    In my opinion, “adequate translation” DOES INDEED “require something more than scholarly understanding of the biblical languages.” I think it requires a sound ear and a profound sense of the common usage of the target language as well as of the literary traditions of the target language. It probably requires a good deal more than that, but the notion that anyone who understands the Biblical languages well is thereby equipped to translate is ludicrous.

  2. Ted Janiszewski says:

    I’m with you, Carl. A translator with any pretension to create a book that people will read, meditate on, and pray should have training in poetry and literature. If that isn’t possible, he should collaborate with someone who does.

    In the (paraphrased) words of Robert Alter, the problem with the KJV is its shaky sense of Hebrew; the problem with more recent versions is their shaky sense of English.

  3. Mike Sangrey says:

    I wonder if a translation team should have a minimum percentage of people who are fluent in more than one modern language and the languages are from different language groups. The idea is this: I would think a bilingual person has a bit more sensitivity to (or intuition of) how one transfers meaning from one language to another. And by fluent, I mean capable of conversing with the hoi polloi. I mean more than the ability to read scholarly journals in the other language.

    O!, I just had another thought for a topic for a translation training course (though this is somewhat tongue in cheek). They should be taught a modern foreign language in a 2 semester course in the same way we teach Greek (which typically fosters a literalistic approach to translation). Parallel to this would be introductions to Relevance Theory and Pragmatics. Then they should be flown to that country, dropped off, alone, and left for one month.

    I’d put a smiley here or perhaps a wink, but I’m not very sure the above is funny. The insights into language use and communication theory the student would gain (not to mention the anecdotes) would be invaluable.

    Also, we need some way of testing or measuring a translator’s ability to transfer meaning from one language to another. Perhaps they would be required to get a short story published in a foreign language, one the student doesn’t initially know. It could be a translation of another short story or an original creation. But, it would have to have publishable quality measured by the mother tongue speakers.

  4. David Ker says:

    It’s a great question.

    I assume we’re talking about mother tongue translators (MTT) and not people like myself who help MTTs do their job.

    First, I’ve found that a team needs people with differing skills. You tend to end up with a techie person, a manager, a good speaker, etc. They all work together to get the job done.

    People skills are very important. An ability to work on a team.
    You need a plugger. Someone who will show up every day for a decade or more.
    You can never get enough training in Biblical languages and culture.
    I think an experienced preacher or radio announcer is going to have an advantage since they learn to communicate well to uneducated audiences.
    Salesmanship is a plus. A new translation faces so many obstacles that you need someone who is going to market the translation and the need for it day in and day out.

  5. Mike Sangrey says:

    On the way into work this AM I thought that there should also be a theology course which would discuss the impact of the Incarnation (God took on humanness in order to communicate–John 1 and Hebrews 1-3) and Resurrection (continued humanness in that Jesus ate fish and had scars) areas of theology on translation method. Inspiration would also be important to discuss (for example, how does the idea of ‘verbal and plenary’ affect translation?).

  6. Wayne Leman says:

    Yes, David, my questions in this post are about people who are native speakers of the language they are translating into, including native speakers of English translating to English.

  7. Jon says:

    Every bible translation project needs someone who knows the original languages inside out. An expert, in the language being translated to, should also be a second pair of eyes who makes suggestions. If the suggestion works, and does not depart from the text or limit the range of possible meanings (let what is ambiguous remain that way, and let the reader struggle!), then keep it. Avoid relegating literal meanings to the footnotes unless absolutely necessary. Kidneys is a good example of this. I wouldn’t want to read that in the main text, and a less idomatic expression like “inward parts” than “heart” would be preferable. Then reader could then ask “what inward part” and check the footnote. But if it’s understandable, then leave it in the main text, and relegate the more readable option to the footnote as an explanatory note.

  8. exegete77 says:

    All good comments. I think the translators need to be experts in the original language texts. Also, I think an oral stylist is a necessary role in the translation team. This person would be responsible for catching those places especially that “read well on the paper” but cause problems when read aloud.

    Rich

  9. T.C. R says:

    A Bible translator needs adequate training in Biblical theology as well. What good is there in knowing a language but not what feeds that language, if you will?

  10. Rich Rhodes says:

    I’m sitting in a train in DC waiting to head to Baltimore for the Linguistic Society meetings. (I booked a cheapo flight thru Dulles.) But I thought I’d drop my two cents in, too. I’m very wary of the theology piece. A really big problem with current translations is that they go to theology to resolve textual questions. I’d rather have someone with a deep understanding of Roman era Palestine, and an extensive familiarity with extra-Biblical Attic. And, it goes without saying, a solid background in contemporary linguistics. There are a few classicists who fit this bill, but not very many.

  11. T.C. R says:

    Rich,
    Of course I would grant your objection if the Bible itself was devoid of theology and consequently its theologically laden-language.

  12. Gary Simmons says:

    As to the fourth question: topics should include
    1. explaining the tension between traditional wordings and accurate renderings (including no-no words like “slave” in America),
    2. consideration of (and familiarity with) the LXX
    3. awareness of priorities in a given translation (target reading level, concordance, philosophy on thought-for-thought vs. word-for-word, gender issues, liturgical use)

    I’m sure several others could be added. Just my two lepta.

  13. Iver Larsen says:

    Lots of good comments so far. Let me add my perspective as a bilingual mother tongue translator and linguist.

    Many of us work with 4 basic criteria for a good bible translation:
    1. accurate
    2. natural
    3. clear
    4. acceptable

    To obtain one, the translator should have a thorough knowledge of both the original languages including discourse and the original culture and context. The way institutions in the past have been teaching Greek and Hebrew does not quite qualify a graduate in this respect, because there is usually inadequate input from modern linguistics.
    A thorough knowledge of the Bible and the basic tenets contained in it is also necessary. A degree in theology is not necessary. It may be helpful, but may at times be a hindrance.
    To obtain two, the translator needs to have a thorough knowledge of the receptor language, both spoken and written, including discourse and poetry. (We really had fun translating Hebrew acrostics into Danish acrostics.)
    To obtain three, it is an advantage to have a degree in mathematics or another of the sciences that focus on training in logical thinking. A degree in rhetoric and the receptor language literature would be a great advantage.
    For all three the translator needs thorough training in linguistics as well as translation theory and practice.
    To obtain four, the translator needs to know the expectations of the receptor audience, but it is also a must to have lots of footnotes that explain the background for the exegetical and translation choices made, including giving alternative interpretations and translations. This is especially important for key theological passages. (Footnotes are geared to the “upper level” reader, such as pastors and bible students.)
    Finally, to obtain acceptance, a lot of PR work must be done outside the translated book itself in order to educate the receptor audience on communication and translation principles.
    Iver Larsen

  14. Ernst Wendland says:

    As someone quite interested in the “literary” (artistic-rhetorical) character of the Scriptures and a corresponding literary (or “oratorical”) rendering in the world’s languages, I was very happy to see this subject emphasized so frequently in preceding comments. This is not an easy Brief(or Skopos) because so much depends on the human and other resources that a project has at its disposal. Thus in many contexts, it is simply not possible—a bridge too far to even attempt to cross. In my area of Africa (Zambia-Zimbabwe-Malawi) we do not have many translators available who know enough of the biblical languages to do them any good when attempting to translate the Bible. So we must do what we can and learn to depend on methodology (e.g., a multi-text comparative approach) and good teamwork (as was mentioned), plus the technical tools that various translation agencies have developed (e.g., Paratext, Translator’s Workplace, Adapt-it). Once a competent team is in place and functioning well together they may be used to train reviewers, or even a novice team working in a related language, by apprenticeship—working closely together for a period of time (as long as possible!) in an actual translation setting, one that emphasizes the oral-aural dimension of communication.

  15. Arun Prabhu says:

    Hi All,

    Im looking for a Greek native speaker who have experience in translating Biblical studies potentially on New Testament Greek. I was wondering if you can send me a copy of your or refer this oppurtunity to someone whom you think is capable of handling this job.

    Thank you in advance.

    Wish you all a Happy new year.

    Kind regards,

    Arun Prabhu
    Resource Relationship Manager
    arun.prabhu@appliedlanguage.com
    +44 (0)870 225 1533

  16. Rich Rhodes says:

    T.C. R,
    I think there is a lot less theological language in the Scripture than is normally assumed. There is a big problem of anachronism. The unexamined assumption of theology is that Paul had it all worked out. I’d argue just the opposite. For him it was an evolving revelation. He was grasping for the right words to communicate what his understanding was, and he drew on concepts that were ordinary in his world. We’re the ones who have theologized those concepts and the words labeling them. I’ve posted about a couple of theological terms before, about ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ here and, in the middle of a longer post on nature of word meaning, about the word family ἱλάσκομαι, ἱλασμός, and ἱλαστήριον that label the concept for which we use the modern theological term propitiation here. The modern theologically loaded terms the Word of God and propitiation were not precise theological terms at the time they were used by the writers of the NT. So in Romans Paul chose to talk about atonement/propitiation not using the OT technical term ἐξιλάσκομαι but using the metaphor καταλλαγή which evokes the frame of atonement/propitiation — usual NT word ἱλασμός — but also was in common Koine use for reconciliation of relationships. (Someone should sit down and work out the whole frame for ἱλασμός, à la FrameNet. Louw & Nida just isn’t close to adequate.)

    Some years back Wayne sent me a book by some very bright young Bible scholars who imagined dialogues with Paul talking about his thinking when he wrote his epistles. (Unfortunately I lent the book out and have lost track of it.) When I read it, I was horrified. The authors made the mistake of reading 2000 years of theological thought back into Paul. It was the kind of mistake that C. S. Lewis warns of in his least read work The Discarded Image.

    My wariness about theology comes in this form. We must NOT read back into the Scriptural text that which we have worked out on the basis of the text. The text is ALWAYS primary. Anything that compromises that primacy creates a serious problem — and sometimes hard to identify — problem.

  17. T.C. R says:

    Rich,
    I do agree with your charge of anachronism. But without getting into a discussion of the meaning of some of the terms you’ve mentioned, I’ll simply add that your take on Paul is ill-conceived and reveals a lack of understanding of Paul as an interpreter of Israel’s Scripture.

    But I do agree with the follow:

    We must NOT read back into the Scriptural text that which we have worked out on the basis of the text. The text is ALWAYS primary. Anything that compromises that primacy creates a serious problem — and sometimes hard to identify — problem.

  18. Gary Simmons says:

    @Rich: I see your point about theology now. It is indeed a double-edged sword, and I’m afraid that “the Word of God” and other such terms are misleading (cf the KJV-only argument for inspired preservation). I’m glad you clarified your position here.

    There are some points where theology does seem to get in the way. I wonder why, for instance, the TNIV translates Eve’s statement in Genesis 4:1 as “With the help of the Lord I brought forth a man?” If “man” in the TNIV refers to an adult male (and any other use is generalized to “human beings” or “mortals” etc.), then why not “person” here? [I won’t discuss potential motives, but I find this odd]

    I discussed this and Genesis 6 TNIV in my latest post. I tagged you guys but I guess blogspot doesn’t ping back very well.

    @David: me too. I get the feeling that what we’re asking for here is an ideal that very few single scholars could attain within ten years of training, though a well-rounded group may have the skills mentioned here.

    Not that I have control over the flow of comments, but I’d like to revise Wayne’s question: what is absolutely essential for each individual translator to know? And, secondly, which skills are necessary within a committee of translators that go beyond those essentials?

  19. Rich Rhodes says:

    T.C. R,

    When I say that Paul didn’t have his full theology worked out before he started writing, I’m NOT saying his thinking is not deep. It is very deep. Nor am I saying that he is unconnected to the OT, or that he is not thinking in terms of OT concepts. No, he understood the OT very well.

    I AM saying that Paul’s thinking in Romans was more developed in Romans than in I Thessalonians.

    And I AM saying that what passed for theology when Paul sat at Gamaliel’s feet is a very, very different creature than the thing the Christian church today calls theology.

    I’m a little surprised at the strength of your reaction. Granted I am raising an important (and potentially threatening) question about the assumptions behind the mounds of theological work done on the Pauline epistles. Those assumptions govern how we read (and, I would argue, misread) the text. If you believe that Paul had the same kind of theological understanding of what he was writing about that we have in the twenty-first century, you will find plenty of reasons and connections in the text to reinforce that view. But at the same time, it’s hard to imagine that he actually did. Think of the two thousand years of thinking and debate by hundreds of thousands of people that underlies our theology. One man, even with the kind of revelation Paul had, is not capable of working it all out to the level of sophistication we have — let alone that, as I mentioned above, theology to Paul was a very different thing than it is to us.

    So I’m saying if you read the text fresh asking, “What did the language Paul chose mean to the ordinary, non-Jewish Greek convert to whom most of his epistles are addressed?”, the answer is very, very different. Throw in that some of the Pauline epistles are very likely pseudoepigraphic, and there is more than reason enough not to view them as the thoroughly worked out product of a single mind.

    Notice that I am not questioning the canon or the authority of Scripture in any way. To the extent that my view is calling anything into question it is the validity of the directions of our current theological thinking and our attempts to manufacture Pauline endorsement for it.

    And I’m saying that calling my position “ill-conceived” is not helpful. I’m willing to debate on the merits, but only on the merits. “Ill-conceived” is a bit too close to name calling.

  20. Mike Sangrey says:

    Gary wrote: @David: me too. I get the feeling that what we’re asking for here is an ideal that very few single scholars could attain within ten years of training

    This is why I (somewhat tongue in cheek) suggested a more experiential approach that will embed into one’s thinking-grid a sense of humility that leads to asking the right questions. The translator needs to be able to ask the right questions. But, that’s impossible to teach within a classroom setting with multiple choice tests and all the rest. One has to experience those “I did not expect that!” moments–ones that generate a crisis–which enable positive change in one’s understanding of the text.[1]

    Rich’s comment about theology applies here. If a translator comes to the text with a theology already somewhat calcified, the translation will gravely suffer from his or her inability to ask questions of the text and also of the original language and communication event that (when accurately translated) would change his or her thinking.


    [1] Condoleezza Rice once said: “Now, we have an opportunity and an obligation to move forward together. Bold and comprehensive changes are sometimes only possible in the wake of catastrophic events — events which create a new consensus that allows us to transcend old ways of thinking and acting.”

  21. T.C. R says:

    Rich,

    I so sit at the feet of Paul that my response was of an emotive kind (forgive me).

    Yes, there is obvious development in Paul’s thought, from the penning of 1 Thessalonians to Romans (I don’t think any Pauline scholar would disagree, not that I’m one – just a gleaner, mate!).

    And I AM saying that what passed for theology when Paul sat at Gamaliel’s feet is a very, very different creature than the thing the Christian church today calls theology.

    Have you done any work in the New Perspective on Paul?

    Those assumptions govern how we read (and, I would argue, misread) the text. If you believe that Paul had the same kind of theological understanding of what he was writing about that we have in the twenty-first century, you will find plenty of reasons and connections in the text to reinforce that view.

    So we read a Richard B. Hays today and wonder where he was 20yrs ago when we first began to read Paul.

    So I’m saying if you read the text fresh asking, “What did the language Paul chose mean to the ordinary, non-Jewish Greek convert to whom most of his epistles are addressed?”, the answer is very, very different.

    Now to pose this question in the light of the undisputable Pauline Letters would be to question the many OT echoes that pervade. This assumption has been turned inside out by the NPP. It remains unconvincing.

    Throw in that some of the Pauline epistles are very likely pseudoepigraphic, and there is more than reason enough not to view them as the thoroughly worked out product of a single mind.

    Grant Pauline pseudoepigrahic, then I must agree with you.

    Notice that I am not questioning the canon or the authority of Scripture in any way. To the extent that my view is calling anything into question it is the validity of the directions of our current theological thinking and our attempts to manufacture Pauline endorsement for it.

    So the Pauline dialogue continues in the light of more critical scholarship.

  22. iverlarsen says:

    If we combine all the things suggested for translator skills it becomes an ideal that no one probably will fulfill. But it is an ideal worth striving towards, and it helps me as a translator to continue my training rather than sit back and say to my self that now I am fully trained.
    If you have a team, their combined skills will hopefully bring you closer to the ideal.
    What is most essential of all of these? I would not vote for the original languages, but for training in linguistics and translation principles as well as a thorough personal knowledge of the Bible and its cultural and religious background.
    Iver

  23. Ernst Wendland says:

    As Gene Nida once told me (guess that pretty well dates me!): “Translators are born, not made.” Over the years, I have learned to appreciate the value of that insight. Yes, good training in the biblical languages, in linguistics, in translation theory, in the use of electronic tools (e.g., Paratext), etc. is needed, but without that essential Sprach-gefuehl and facility to express the essence of the biblical text naturally in one’s mother tongue, a translation will always fall short—accurate perhaps with respect to basic content, but not dynamically or idiomatically so. A biblically literate and gifted word-smith in the vernacular is not easy to find or, once found, to obtain her/his services for a particular translation project. Integrating such a person on the team (or translation committee) may also prove to be somewhat of a challenge, for example, when questions of exegetical versus linguistic accuracy arise (Exegete: “This is what the Hebrew/Greek text says!” – Stylist: “Perhaps, but nobody will understand it if you say it that way in our language!”). However, if such a cooperative, mutually respectful scholarly and interpersonal integration can be accomplished within a translation team, the project will be one that is most rewarding to work with.

  24. Joel H. says:

    Very good questions.

    My experience has been that a team is almost always necessary. The skills that seem to be required are:

    1. Understanding the original language(s).

    2. Understanding the original context(s).

    3. Appreciating how translation works.

    4. Facility in the target language.

    Not many people have all four. More to the point, the more one studies a foreign language (Skill 1), the harder it becomes to appreciate what a translation sounds like to people who don’t know that foreign language (Skill 4). In other words, working at Skill 1 degrades Skill 4.

    When I look at published translations, I can often see which of the four skills are missing.

    Joel

  25. Michael Nicholls says:

    I concur with David Ker: After reviewing this list I realize I need a lot more training… 😉 😉

    My wife and I, before joining Wycliffe, were accepted into the Biblical Exegesis program at Wheaton grad school, but we decided not to go, because we felt we’d already had enough training to do what we intended to do – help bibless people to get the Bible in their mother-tongue. In a perfect world I’d love more training in many different areas, but for now there are far more languages needing a Bible than there are translators or translation advisors or teams working on them.

    In answer to 1 and 2 of Wayne’s questions:

    1. What kind of training, if any, should a Bible translator have to help produce adequate translations?

    Some linguistics training, training in discourse, some basic Bible familiarity and ability to work with biblical languages tools, and computer training in relevant translation software. The key word here, though, is adequate, not ideal. But I might have missed something.

    2. Can any native speaker of a language adequately translate the Bible into their language if they have studied the biblical languages enough to do scholarly, accurate exegesis? Or does adequate translation require something more than scholarly understanding of the biblical languages?

    Adequately – maybe, but probably not. Sometimes ‘scholarly understanding’ of the biblical languages is more of a hurdle than a help. Discourse, linguistics and anthropology would be more helpful, IMO.

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