Early Bible translation was done by nationals translating the Bible into their own language. It is also a fact that Bible translation done under the auspices of Bible societies has by and large typically been done by nationals.1
Some organizations who focused more on expatriate translators nevertheless made ample use of nationals (also called “mother tongue translators”). They were sometimes referred to as “helpers” or “informants” (or lately as “assistant translators”), when in fact they generally were the actual translators. The term “language consultant” is more acceptable when it refers to someone who provides data on a language. Applied to someone who does the actual work of translation simply because that person is a mother tongue translator, it is a misnomer.
Expatriate translation developed as a result of the missionary intention, which by itself is praiseworthy and was part of God’s plan. However, since the early second half of the twentieth century, there has been an observable change in the focus of who does what.
Nationals Translating the Bible for Their Own People
The year 1970 has come to be regarded as the start of the era of non-missionary translation. That was the time when articles about the training of nationals started to appear.2 This seemed to be in accordance with a global shift in missions in general. The following press release issued after the Global Consultation on World Evangelization in 1995 (GCOWE ’95) illustrates this shift very well:
The Global Consultation on World Evangelization marks a radical shift from the days of American/European-only missions. According to Luis Bush of Argentina, International Director of the AD2000 & Beyond Movement, which organized GCOWE '95, the consultation became “a rite of passage.” Not only were two-thirds of the participants from Africa, Latin America, and Asia, but the majority of the consultation's funding came from those nations as well. Western missionaries took notes as African, Asian, and Latin American leaders presented their successful methodology. They had become full partners in the task.
There are numerous advantages to having nationals translate the Bible for their own people. Among these:
- Nationals are culturally conditioned and sensitive in reaching their own people for Jesus Christ.
- Nationals don’t need to spend years of study learning a foreign language in order to communicate effectively.
- Nationals, being born and raised in the countries in which they will minister, are physically and psychologically adjusted to both climate and culture.
- Nationals have rights and privileges that might not be extended to a foreigner.
- Nationals are organizationally simple and able to live, minister, and function on a far more basic level than that of their foreign counterparts. Most have never known the luxury of cars, offices, telephones, computers, or video equipment. For many nationals, a bicycle is a great luxury!
- Nationals do not need to go on furlough every few years.
- Nationals are economically conditioned to live on $30 to $50USD a month in many parts of the world. By contrast, the average cost for sending and sustaining a foreign missionary family of four is $35,000-$50,000USD a year.3
Also, translations made by nationals are more likely to be free of “translationese,” and are much more readily accepted by the speakers of that language. This is due to the fact that a national speaks his or her own language better than anyone else can ever learn to speak it.
Of course, stressing the advantages of empowering nationals to do the work of Bible translation does not imply that expatriate involvement is not valuable and could be discontinued. Cooperation among all possible role players is the ideal.
With regard to the issue of skills and capabilities, it is a fact that nationals in many cultures (particularly multilingual cultures) possess tremendous linguistic skills as evidenced by their language learning abilities. Lack of experience of Western-type training may be a very real obstacle. However, this can be overcome by adapting the training procedures to suit the particular cultural background.
Two keys to successfully empowering nationals for the task of Bible translation are (1) training and (2) ensuring that an adequate number of Bible translation consultants are available. These two requisites are equally important. They must be applied to the empowerment of nationals as stringently as for expatriate translators.
In the mid 1990s The Word for the World (WW) began offering a diploma course on the field, where WW missionary Bible translators were actively engaged in projects in Zambia, Ethiopia, and later Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). WW personnel and church leaders participate in the recruitment of potential mother-tongue translators, who are then invited to enroll in the WW Diploma in Bible Translation (DBT). This program provides training for the different participants involved in the translation process, viz. prospective Bible translators (including mother tongue translators), project coordinators, testers, reviewers, and church leaders.
The DBT is a practical course presented over a number of years. It typically consists of intensive contact modules (in-class) completed in four weeks per year, for four years, as well as practical work and assignments done in the time between modules. Subjects cover studies in Bible translation (theoretical and practical), the processes of a Bible translation project, reading and understanding the Bible, applied linguistics, language and community, Christian leadership, intercultural communication, and computer skills.
Great emphasis is placed on a student’s active involvement and participation in a Bible translation project. One of the requirements for continuing in the program after the first formal training is active involvement in a translation project, or evidence that the trainee is passionate about long-term involvement in Bible translation as a translator, project coordinator, exegete, or future consultant.
Students are trained both theoretically and practically through all the phases of translation, from research into his or her language, to making a first draft, to final publication. Teaching nationals to do their own sociolinguistic research to determine prestige dialect, language vitality, and whether a definite need for translation exists has an added advantage. Because nationals have a natural intuition of their own language, they can do research straight after the training in that aspect in their own home areas. This speeds up the process and saves great expense.
The concept of on-the-job training is of prime importance, where the student can implement and reinforce on a daily basis what he or she has been taught in the contact modules and what he or she is learning throughout the course work assignments, which are very practical nature. Doing the DBT keeps translators on a learning curve, and continually sharpens their linguistic, translation, and Bible skills. Not only should their quality of work improve as their skills are honed, but their competency is enhanced. This empowers them to become project leaders, and eventually trainers.
One of the long-term goals of WW is to train nationals to become country directors and translation consultants. The former goal has been achieved, with nationals leading the work in the DRC, Ethiopia, and Tanzania. Training consultants is currently a high priority, particularly with the increase in number of Bible translation projects.
The most effective evaluation of the focus on empowering nationals as it relates to advancing scripture translation is to examine the results. The following summary of the progress in WW’s Bible translation projects provides proof that the approach is effective. To place the statistics in perspective, it is necessary to realize that all WW Bible translation projects are first-time translations. That means the Bible has never been translated into those languages before. All WW projects are aimed at translating the entire Bible. All translations are checked by trained and qualified consultants, often from outside WW’s own ministry (e.g., by the publishing ministries and outside academics).
The average translation time for WW's first two translations of the complete Bible (not necessarily including all checking, testing, typesetting, and proofreading) is 10.6 years (9.4 for the Sena Bible of Malawi, and 11.9 for the Taabua Bible of the DRC).The average percentage of the Bible translated per year per project in all WW’s projects is approximately eight percent (eighteen percent of projects are translated at less than five percent per year, fifty-three percent of projects at five to ten percent, and twenty-one percent of projects at ten percent or greater). Numerous translation teams have completed the New Testament in three years.
After two thousand years of church history, the complete Bible is available in only 438 languages. The rate at which the Bible is being translated needs to be radically accelerated. It has been proven that empowering nationals to translate the Bible for their own people is one of the keys to that acceleration.
1. See Smalley, William Allen. 1991. Translation as Mission, Bible Translation in the Modern Missionary Movement, 22-33, for an overview of the history of Bible translation, with comments about work done by nationals or by others for them.
2. Ibid, 33.
4. See Funnell, Barry. 2008. “A Holistic Field-based Training Program: The Birthplace of Multiple Translation Projects in Southeast Tanzania and Ethiopia.” In GIALens: Electronic Notes Series 2(1). www.gial.edu/GIALens/issues.htm