We expect that a surgeon would spend years in training and apprenticeships before he ever attempts his first surgery. Likewise, a lawyer would spend years in law school before he ever represents a case in the courthouse. Should a missionary go to the field without training? Should a translator translate the Scriptures with no preparation? The work of a missionary, whether Bible translator or church planter, is a work that requires the utmost care and training.
All-Nations estimates 2 to 4 years of training in various fields. Let me point out a few areas of study in which a New Testament translator would expect to be trained and how it benefits the work of translation.
- Linguistics. This is the study of language and its systems. Linguistic studies range from a study of phonetic sounds to the study of how culture and language interrelate (sociolinguistics). This aids in the area of language and culture acquisition. For example, what if you noticed that the language you are studying is reversed compared to what you are accustomed to hearing in English. They might say “John - with” rather than “with John.” Is that possible? Linguistics teaches that postpositions (like this example, in contrast to English prepositions) are a very common phenomenon that occur in the world’s languages. Therefore, a trained linguist will not be surprised when encountering phenomena like this.
- Translation. Translation is usually considered a branch of linguistics, but I would like to treat it separately to give it proper emphasis. The Bible uses many figures of speech that may or may not translate into the target language. Luke 2:4 says that Joseph was of the “house and lineage of David.” What if the reader in the target language literally thinks he lives in David’s house? Figures of speech like this one may lead readers to a wrong understanding. The study of translation theory and practice teaches both how to find potential problems and how to best deal with them.
- Biblical Language. For a New Testament translator the study of Greek is essential. No, just reading a passage in Greek will not help him find a large golden nugget, but the careful discipline of studying a passage in the original language may help a translator pickup on small nuances that can be missed in a translated text. Maybe the word used in Greek may correspond to a word in the target language more closely than what you would have expected if your understanding is based fully on English.
- Biblical Studies. Classes can include things like a New Testament survey or a study on biblical hermeneutics (interpreting the Bible). Background historical information can be helpful in understanding the meaning of a passage. For example, why did John write to the church of Laodicea about water being hot or cold? Research the geography of the area and you may find that there was a reason!
—David S, New Testament translator