One of the highlights of our visit to Côte d'Ivoire was getting to see some of the translation work up close. We had the opportunity to sit in on one of the checking sessions for the Nzema language project.
Just so you're up to speed, there are many, many steps in the translation process. Not surprisingly, most of them consist of some type of edit--revise--repeat. To make sure that the Bible that we produce is true to Scripture and readable in the local language, it requires drafting, checking for accuracy, having other locals read it to make sure it can be understood, back translating to make sure nothing was missed, and re-checking against the original languages... just to name a few of the steps.
There is no shortcut to providing a copy of God's Word that will likely be the Bible in their language for generations to come.
Let's start from the beginning...
Because of the large number of projects happening in the SIL Côte d'Ivoire office, teams of Ivorian translators from other villages in the country travel to the capital of Abidjan to do their checking processes. They prepare by translating, maybe, a book of the New Testament, and then they come to the office to have their work checked.
They are currently working on 19 different language projects out of this office and have identified at least 20 more in the country that need to be started. In some language groups, there are three years' worth of translation work that is still waiting to be checked.
The need is definitely great and the laborers are few.
In this checking session, two men from the Nzema project were visiting the office to do back translation of the work they had already done in the Gospel of Mark. We jumped into Mark 9.
Here's the process:
A mother tongue translator reads the verse in Nzema.
His partner then translated what he heard into French. This works best when the middle man is someone who has not been a part of the project, so that they are not filling in any gaps they are familiar with because of their work in the project.
The translation consultant (in this case, Cornelia) has her tools open in front of her, including the original Greek, English and French versions, and any notes she has made in previous sessions or even other projects. She listens to the French translation, primarily checking to make sure that all the elements that are supposed to be there are there.
Meanwhile, they wanted us to understand what was happening, so another woman was translating on the fly from French into English to keep us up to speed.
(Oh, and did I mention that both translation consultants spoke German as their first language? And one of the mother tongue translators was a German teacher? So, the session started with the most surprising German conversation between the French and Nzema translators! My mind was blown.)
Back to Mark 9...
Very quickly, we were into the Transfiguration of Jesus! How do you translate this into another language? What words do you choose to describe this? How do you title this section to help a reader understand what is coming in the text?
The primary question that came up during this session was regarding the word "transfigure". The Greek here is a word resembling "metamorphosis". Was the Nzema word for "change" sufficient to convey the fullness of what was happening in these verses?
This is when we got to see how their culture helps decide the translation of a word!
They wanted to put a subtitle on this section that would help the reader approach this section. Subtitles in Scripture often explain something about what is coming. For instance, "Jesus' Triumphal Entry" is subtitled in most Bibles so that the reader understands the imagery of the story... even though nowhere in that text does the word triumphal or kingly appear.
However, in this case, the mother tongue translators wanted to do something a little different.
They explained to us that the word "change" in their language can sometimes imply that they are speaking of the occult. An Nzema reader seeing this word in the Bible describing Jesus would probably be surprised! So instead of explaining what's coming, their subtitle "Jesus Changed" piques the interest of the reader to spur them on to continue reading. They discussed this at length with the translation consultant, as they needed to be in agreement before moving on.
We got to sit in on a checking of exactly eight verses (which took around an hour), and we were given just a glimpse into how culture informs the way the Bible is heard. We saw the attention and care with which we must approach translation to make sure it is accurate and readable.
We have seen the need that exists in this part of French-speaking Africa and are getting excited as we get closer to joining the work that is happening on that continent!