The specific challenges that will come up in translating the Bible for a specific people group are hard to anticipate, and often don’t become apparent until a translation is tested in the community.
A recent example of this comes from Asia. An oral Bible storying project team (working in a language community where oral storytelling is the best way to introduce people to Jesus) was translating the story of the snake in Genesis 3, which begins: Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. After the team had spent several hours refining and then recording the story from beginning to end, it was ready to be tested in the community.
Interestingly, on listening to the story, one of the story crafters commented, ‘It's a good thing that the snake came along, because otherwise they might not have eaten the fruit and never turned into real people.’
Clearly, something wasn’t right! Somehow, their rendition of the story was communicating something other than what was intended. On doing some more research into traditional stories, it was discovered that in the local storytelling tradition, the hero is always introduced first, which meant the snake was automatically cast as the hero in their minds. The story was revised to ensure it retained its original meaning in this language.
This is one example of why, when we talk about Bible translation, we’re not talking about word-for-word or sentence-for-sentence swaps. It’s more than words.
Instead, the aim is to express clearly the message of the Bible so that it will be understood when read through the lens of another language and culture.
When we say Bible translation, we mean being true to God’s word by doing thorough research, promoting local leadership, and uncovering creative solutions so that people can not only access the Bible, but really engage with it and hear God speak to them.
Above all, it means committing our efforts to God, and making sure everything we do is built on a solid foundation of prayer, because Bible translation is all for his glory, and so that as many people as possible can come to know him.
This is adapted from a story that originally appeared in Evangelicals Now.
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