translation checking

Early in my work with the Cheyennes, one of the church elders told me he had a recording made many years before. He wanted me to listen to it. He said there was a big mistake on the recording. The recording had been made by a well-meaning group from the outside. They spoke no Cheyenne. They wanted  to record Bible stories and church songs that Cheyennes could listen to. They asked if anyone knew the story of the prodigal son. One man said he did, so they recorded him. The recordists went back to their studios and copied the recordings for distribution on vinyl records to Cheyennes.

There was a problem with the story about the prodigal son: as it was told on the recording and distributed, it was about a prodigal pig! Hmm. Should the recording have been checked in the language community before it was distributed?

Early in our own work with Cheyennes, I asked a fluent Cheyenne speaker to translate 1 Cor. 13.  She translated a phrase in the middle of verse 2 as: “if I have faith to move to the mountains.” If I had not checked the translation, that is how it would have remained for other Cheyennes. Personally, it takes little faith for me to move to the mountains. I grew up with a spectacular view of the mountains and miss seeing them. It would take a great deal of faith for me to move mountains.

A few minutes ago, as I was checking a translation of the Gospel of Luke in a tribal language found in southern Asia, I reviewed the correspondence between the translation team and me of Luke 15:30. I receive the translation as a “back translation,” a literal translation to English, since I don’t speak the languages in which the translation I check are made. Here is our exchange:

BUT that child of yours who just returned, who just went and wastefully threw-away your goods/possessions on women whose behaviour was not good, you slaughter a cow for him!?
wl-8/24/10: Is this a different word from the one used earlier for the fat calf? 
April 13, 2011: Yes, oops! Changed to a fat calf.
wl-6/1/11: approved

I enjoy checking Bible translations, both in my own language, English, as well as in other languages. Every team I have worked with has done a good job. But usually a few things fall through the cracks. Sometimes there are actual errors, such as translating about a prodigal pig instead of a prodigal son. Sometimes wordings are used which, when flagged by a checker, a team will decide can be expressed with words closer to how people actually speak and write.
What are some things you have noted in any Bible translation, in English or another language, which you feel could be improved to make a better Bible translation? Please cite specific examples with chapter and verses so we won’t get too generic in our comments.

7 thoughts on “translation checking

  1. Bill Poser says:

    I’m curious as to the origin of the “prodigal pig” error. Do you know what happened? The only thing that occurs to me is that someone might have mis-heard “son” as “sow”.

  2. Theophrastus says:

    My favorite was a version of the KJV that printed

    “that women adorn themselves in modern apparel” (1 Timothy 2:9)

    replacing “modest” with “modern.”

  3. Wayne Leman says:

    Bill, that’s possible. Also, since the prodigal son ran out of money he had to feed pigs. He was so hungry he wanted to eat the corn husks they were eating. So it’s possible that the story-teller got the son mixed up with the pigs, just by association in the same story.

  4. Wayne Leman says:

    Interesting, Theo, I don’t think I’d heard that one before. I have heard about the KJV edition printed without “not” in one of the Ten Commandments so that it came out as “Thou shalt commit adultery.”

  5. Donna says:

    I was checking an oral story translation of the exodus narrative. Obviously the storyteller was not familiar enough with the story, because when she got to the part where the Israelites were trapped between the pursuing army and the sea, she forgot what happened and just said “so they got into boats and crossed over to the other side”.

    Hmmm… loses some of the punch of the original, to say the least…

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