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How bible translations happen

Since last week, the Uganda Bible Society has been running an exhibition to promote the King James Version of the Bible in celebration of 400 years since it was first published.

The exhibition has featured different translations of the bible into Ugandan languages that the Society has undertaken. In total, the Society has translated the complete bible, that is, both the new and old testament, into nine Ugandan languages. The New Testament alone has been translated into 14 languages. Uganda has over 50 languages.

Bible translation is by no means a piece of cake. Consider, for instance, that the KJV was translated by a team of 54 expert theologians and Bible historians highly fluent in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic and Ethiopic. Some knew many more languages. The project lasted seven years, was reviewed by an unspecified number of bishops, then presented to the Privy Council and lastly ratified by the Royal authority, before it could be read out in public.

In comparison, the Society usually uses two to three translators and a team of between eight and 15 reviewers. This is mainly because it is constrained financially, operates in an environment with very limited language and bible experts and little development of the majority of Ugandan languages. According to its publishing manager, Peter Serumaga, “a translator must be an expert in a receptor language and at least one must be an expert in the bible capable of carrying out a bible exegesis [critical explanation and/or analysis of a religious text].”

While the KJV was informed by the need for a uniform translation to establish theological compromise between competing doctrinal bases for the interpretation of the Christian faith, bible translations at the Society are primarily inspired by the need to render God’s word in ways, or languages, that many people can understand. After all, as has been said before, God is closest to people if he can speak the language they easily understand.

The other reason is to maintain the language so that it doesn’t become extinct, says Serumaga. Translation of a complete bible is a long and arduous process lasting, all factors remaining constant, at least 12 years, that is between three to five years on the New Testament and eight to ten years on the Old Testament.

Bible translations are either literal or meaning-based, which puts the bible in context and exposes the meaning of what was intended to be communicated. The Bible Society mostly does literal translations and leaves interpretation to church leaders or other people with expertise to do so. The first bible translation into Luganda took 30 years, partly because of instability.

But there’s another unusual exception for which the Society couldn’t be happier: the translation of the bible into Kumam, one of the languages in eastern Uganda, will be done in eight years, a record on the African continent. The process of translation usually begins with research to find out what denomination or sect has the highest number of people in the language the Society intends to work on.

Initially that was because the Bible Society intended the translations to have a wider reach. This, however, is changing since it started translating inter-confessional versions that cater to all denominations. All translations currently underway are being done under this new initiative. But even then, the Society has stayed away from languages with few speakers, a task that the Wycliffe Bible Translators has taken up.

Bible translators are recommended by church leaders as are reviewers. This team works within their communities as opposed to being taken away to, say, Kampala or some other place. It’s the Bible Society’s way of letting the community own and support the project.

Where the language is undeveloped, the project begins with writing and approving the rules of the language. Then simple books, technically called primers, containing simplified biblical stories follow particularly to get people used to reading the language. Thanks to advances in knowledge, the work of translation today is more simplified than four centuries ago when the KJV translators went to work on that version.

Serumaga says the United Bible Societies developed Paratext software that is very helpful in achieving clear, accurate and natural translations. A translation, noted Serumaga, shouldn’t feel incoherent. It should feel as God’s real word.

“God inspires translators. We pray for them that they maintain what is original as much as they can. We aim to have translations perfect. If anything happens, then that’s really an error.”

Even the KJV, with its legion of experts, had errors, some of which were introduced by printers. That’s why revisions exist.


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