• Jack

Can Computers Translate the Bible?

One of the most common questions we get about translation is how computers are affecting our work. Are they taking over? Will we even need human translators? Can't you just stick the text into a computer and get a pretty good translation?

Well, yes and no.

Computers bring huge advantages today that were not available to us even 10 or 20 years ago. SIL, a partner of Wycliffe and the organization we will be actually working for in Africa, writes most of their own software, and one of my classes this semester has been devoted to teaching me how to use the tools that are literally at our fingertips.

It's pretty unbelievable. I'm able to teach these programs how a language uses grammar and phonology and it starts to piece together things and help consolidate the words and rules of the language. We can use that to speed up Bible translation and help to develop tools that will develop the language in sustainable ways. Other programs can analyze the specific sounds of a language down to the frequency of each tone or pitch.

It's exciting to be learning how to use these tools and I'm getting excited to utilize them on the field!

But, contrary to popular belief, translation is way more complex than just words and rules. All the rules to determine what we actually mean when we say something are way more complex than we realize. One example is rhetorical questions. In some languages, the same question that might assume a 'yes' answer in English will assume a 'no' to those native speakers.

On top of that, languages are inextricably tied to the cultures that use them, meaning there's a history behind what is being said that can change the intended meaning.

I encourage you to watch this video below on the topic. He does a much better job of explaining where computers fall short in translation (although I might have chosen a classier name for the video).

And so, for the foreseeable future, I'll still have a job in translation, but with a lot of help from computers!

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