It is no secret that Bible translators invest a lot in the translations they do. It takes years of education, language and culture learning, and other preparation before a project can begin, and then years (or even decades) are devoted to the translation process itself. What if, after a lifetime of investment, the finished Bible translation is rejected by the people it was intended for? This is a fear many Bible translators have. It’s a legitimate fear, as this kind of rejection has happened many times.
Acceptability – it’s a lesser-known discussion in Bible translation, but this doesn’t mean it’s not important. There are multiple reasons a Bible translation might be rejected: a poorly translated text, offense caused by the Biblical message, a simple lack of interest, or a translation that differs from how the target group thinks it should be. A poor translation can be improved through further work, and offense or disinterest are largely outside the control of the translator. The discussion of acceptability centers therefore around the last issue – when a translation differs from what the target group thinks it should be.
For Bible translators the acceptability question is this: Should a less-accurate translation of a Bible word/phrase/passage ever be used in order for the result to be more acceptable to those reading it? The obvious answer appears to be “no,” but let’s think about it in an English context before we are too hasty in judgement. There are hundreds of Bible translations in the English language, a few of them older, most of them recent. The translation choices made by the translators of the older versions have a significant impact on the translation choices made by translators of newer versions, even when these choices run contrary to what recent Bible scholarship would suggest. An example of this is found in Luke 2:7 where the majority of English translations say there was no room for Joseph and Mary in the inn. The KJV began this wording tradition, and it has persisted in modern translations despite changes in the English language. Bible scholars agree that the Greek term refers to a guestroom in private home, not a motel where travelers pay to spend the night. So why do modern translations continue to misrepresent this? It’s for reasons of acceptability. Joseph and Mary’s inability to find space in the inn is part of our children’s songs, Christmas pageants, Christmas cards, etc. It’s such a part of our understanding of the Christmas saga that it would be very difficult to change. If a modern translation were to choose accuracy, it could affect how many people buy/read that version. Therefore modern English translations persist in a less accurate (but more acceptable) translation of this concept. Is this permissible? It would be interesting to hear what you think.
Many people groups that lack a Bible in their language have still read or heard of the Bible. Bibleless language communities can often access the Bible in a language of wider communication, though their understanding of it may be limited from reading or hearing it in their second or third language. Because of this exposure, they may have opinions about certain translation decisions based on the traditional rendering in another language. This can make it difficult for a translator who is committed to communicating the meaning of the original manuscripts as accurately as possible in the target language. If he chooses a less accurate rendering because of tradition’s dictates, he is fudging on that commitment to accuracy. If he chooses the accurate option, he may risk the final translation being rejected. (Sidenote: All this is not to imply that tradition and accuracy are always at odds. In the vast majority of cases, the traditional rendering is accurate.)
If a Bibleless people group rejects the translation done for them, they remain functionally Bibleless. This would be a quite unsatisfactory outcome. What can be done to minimize the chances of such a rejection happening?
- A foreign translator should never work in isolation. He/she should collaborate with a team of mother tongue speakers. Not only will this ensure the final translation communicates clearly, but it will also lead to the team understanding the difficulties of Bible translation and why certain translation choices were made. This insider understanding should lessen the chance of rejection.
- Footnotes placed in the Biblical text can explain certain wording choices. Whether the translation team chooses traditional wording or a more accurate rendering, the alternative version can be given and the choice explained in a footnote.
- If a traditional but less accurate wording does not significantly affect the readers understanding of the Biblical message (like inn versus guestroom), it may be okay to choose the traditional wording. A blanket decision should not be made to always go with the accurate wording or always stick with the traditional wording. Each situation must be considered in isolation and prayerful decisions made.