The Impact of Technology on Bible Translation

Bible translation has always been painstaking, laborious work. It is not just the difficulty of the work itself; there are also the technical challenges translators face. In the old days each draft had to be typed manually—four or five times!—before the project was completed. And once the text had received final approval, the entire manuscript had to be re-typed by the typesetter before it could be printed.

Changing Tools for Bible Translation
The revolution started around the mid-1980s, when more and more translation projects began making use of the personal computer. Thanks to the PC, a text had to be typed only once. After that, only the corrections needed to be entered and upon completion of the project, the text could be sent to the printer in digital format.

In the old days each Bible translation draft had to
be typed manually—four or five times!—before the
project was completed.

In those early days the software for typing and printing scripture files was designed almost exclusively by the Summer Institute of Linguistics (now SIL International). SIL also produced tools enabling translators to type special characters, check punctuation and accents, and create word lists.

Creating word lists is not the kind of task anyone would have seriously dreamed of undertaking until the personal computer arrived, but it is precisely its time-consuming and laborious nature that makes it so suitable for an electronic brain. What it involves is extracting all the unique words from a text file and displaying them in alphabetical order, or sorting them by the frequency with which they occur. This allows Bible translators—or editors of any kind—to improve the text by easily identifying spelling mistakes or literal errors and and correcting them.

But it was in 1997 that United Bible Societies (UBS) made a special new computer tool available to Bible translators. Called Paratext, one of its many remarkable features was that it allowed the computer to display the Bible’s source texts in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek side-by-side on the computer screen. Furthermore, it offered dictionaries of the biblical languages; translations in languages from all over the world allowed users to draft their own translations and incorporated many other tools designed to improve the consistency of the text.

Since 1997, a number of other tools have seen the light. A research team at the British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS) spent many years developing software that would eventually facilitate comparisons of two versions of the same text in different languages, examining the internal structure of the words in both texts, and, on the basis of statistical analysis, determine which word in text A corresponds to which word in text B.

In addition, a tool was created that displays the source texts of the Bible in an interlinear format, together with the analysis of the structure of each word and its definition in English. This program allows users to perform relatively complex searches in the biblical texts. It also allows them to keep track of the way they have translated each word—thus enhancing the consistency of their translation. Finally, it provides links to other helpful digital resources such as the Logos Libronix Library.

Another extremely important tool now available is called Publishing Assistant. Developed by UBS with assistance from SIL, this program takes the completed translation produced in Paratext and converts it to the format required for the software used by typesetters in such a way as to speed up the typesetting process significantly.

Paratext 7.0
Paratext 7.0 was released in summer 2009, and at a workshop held just before the UBS Triennial Translation Workshop in Bangkok in June 2009 some forty staff from the four UBS areas were thoroughly familiarised with its new features so that they in turn can now train the Bible translators working in the field.

This new version has integrated most of the other tools mentioned with its existing functions, making it a piece of software that facilitates a translation project from its early stages right up to the moment the text is published.

Paratext 7.0 was released in summer 2009 and is now
being used to train Bible translators working in the field.

Also, the security of the translated texts has been enhanced: it has become extremely easy to store a copy of the text in a safe place via the Internet or to back up the data on another device. All changes made in the course of a translation project are automatically documented and stored along with the project, so that different stages of the translation and versions of the text can be compared.

This new program benefits all three main categories of people involved in the process of Bible translation.

  • Translators have access to all the resources they need to do their translation in a responsible way. They can add notes to specific passages, explaining their translation decisions; they can also list the questions they want to put to the consultant on his or her next visit. Tools to check that the text conforms to the spelling rules are also available. The program also allows users to keep track of the way they have translated particular biblical terms, depending upon the context. The computer can assist them in building lists of equivalent translations for checking purposes, saving a significant amount of time.
  • Translation consultants can benefit from these tools as well. In addition to the features mentioned, they also have access to the so-called “interlinearizer,” a program that uses the calculations devised by the BFBS team to generate and format a back-translation of a given text. If the program miscalculates and offers an incorrect translation, the user can correct the data manually in order to “teach” the program how to analyse and translate each word or combination of words correctly. This enables the consultant, to a certain extent, to verify a translated text without having to depend upon either an oral or hand-written back-translation. This also means consultants can do part of their work from a distance.
  • Typesetters will receive a text that is almost completely ready to be printed and requires substantially less time of processing.

So, the impact of technology on Bible translation can be summarized under three headings: time, quality, and cost-effectiveness.

  1. Time. Thanks to the new technology, a translation project can progress faster. A word of caution is required though. Technology brings setbacks as well as advantages. Everyone who uses a computer knows about the frustrations of losing data when the hard drive crashes or a CD gets damaged. Software can even carry bugs that destroy important digital files. At the same time, using a computer carelessly brings risks as well. Making back-ups is essential, but it is something most people only learn to do—if they learn it at all—from hard experience. Efficient working procedures and proper training can help prevent unnecessary setbacks.
  2. Quality. Of even more significance is the way the quality of Bible translations can be improved by the application of advanced technology. The tools now available help to produce Bible translations that: are better renderings of the original texts, are consistent where they need to be consistent, and contain fewer errors in both spelling and formatting.
  3. Cost-effectiveness. It goes without saying that a translation project that is completed in less time is more cost-effective than other projects. There is more to say about this, however. One major factor in the high cost of translation projects is consultants’ travel. In many cases, the progress of translation projects has depended significantly upon how much time a consultant can give personally to the translators. Because of the financial problems affecting many Bible translation agencies in recent years, it has become more and more difficult for consultants to find the funds required to provide sufficient contact time with the translation teams. The new tools, however, can help remedy this problem. If a computer can generate a relatively reliable back-translation of a text, a consultant can do a lot of work at home. Meetings with teams will always be necessary—and desirable—but a combination of Paratext 7.0 and modern communication tools such as Skype can multiply the cost-effectiveness of a translation project in these increasingly difficult times.

Technology will keep on developing all the Bible translators’ tools, but perhaps the last word—for the time being—should be in praise of Paratext, firmly established as the jewel in the UBS crown as far as Bible translation is concerned.

Dr. Reinier de Blois lives in Reeuwijk, The Netherlands, and works as a translation consultant for the United Bible Societies. He is the editor of the Semantic Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew and a member of the software development team that created Paratext.