A Tale of 10 Languages

What a challenge, but also a remarkable privilege for me, to travel to countless locations in Southeast Asia — this land of variety and contrasts — over the past 10 years of my Bible translation consulting life.

The pace of life is crazy, the hustle and bustle and noise on the streets unbelievable! The colourful sights and unusual sounds are quite spectacular, and the variety of foods and architecture amazing — not to mention the 17 different alphabets used in the over 450 different languages spoken in daily life! Come with me on one of my trips there and see what a group consultation in Southeast Asia is like.

We arrive at a rural hospital where I am told that this is where we will be meeting and where I will stay. I am also told not to leave the campus, as the area is not safe for foreigners. After a spicy meal, disturbed sleep, and a morning shower shared with spiders and a slug or two, I head for the meeting room, filled with tables and laptop computers. People from 10 different language groups are clustered around these tables, all talking excitedly and waiting for the consultation to start.

The 10 teams will all get a turn to showcase their work as each team takes a chapter and reads it out verse by verse, and I assess its accuracy to the original Greek text. The verse is back-translated orally from one of the 10 mother tongue languages into English, so I hear exactly how the translation team have re-expressed the meaning of the verse. I ensure that there are no changes, omissions, or additions to the original or source text meaning.

If there are any problems, I discuss these with the team and they make corrections. I ask questions if I am not sure of their translation, and they too ask me questions if they need help. In this group method of consultation the teams learn from each other and the consultants in training (CITs) also give input, and after we are sure that all the required changes are made, we move onto the next verse.

Working as a consultation team, with CITs who have different strengths and weaknesses, we all learn together and add more expertise as a group to the consultant checking. We now have 5 nationals working as fully trained consultants in Southeast Asia, whom I have had the privilege to mentor.

The beauty of this method of group consultation is that all teams are served together. The stronger teams help the weaker teams to improve their translation. Because the languages are related geographically and linguistically, they can assist each other to provide more examples of local idioms and richer vocabulary to make their translations more natural and meaningful. And that is ultimately what we strive for: clear, natural, and accurate translation of the whole Bible into every person’s heart language.

By Dr. Barry Funnell, a full-time consultant with The Word for the World.