Living Language: The Necessity of Revising a Bible Translation
A completed Bible translation is cause for celebration. Often, churches, community partners, and even field partners from other areas of the world travel to celebrate the dedication of a new Bible translation. This event commemorates the achievement of a translation goal through teamwork, prayer, and many years of hard work.
As exciting as completing a Bible translation is, it does not mean the translation work has ended. All translations, provided they are being used by their target communities and those communities intend to keep using them for many years to come, require revisions.
Living Language = Living Translation
What does it mean to say a language is alive? Languages that are used regularly by a community of speakers or signers are considered living languages. Just like an organism, they move and change based on the needs of the community using them. There are branches of linguistics devoted to the study of how and why languages change, examining everything from Proto-European roots to the current use of emojis in conversation.
You can probably think of ways your own native language is currently changing, whether you notice it or not. When someone uses a word or phrase in a new way, uses a different pronunciation, or even a new gesture, these are all examples of language change.
In the past year alone, we've added plenty of pandemic-related language to our everyday usage. Now we use these words every day, because our community has a need for them and lo and behold, our language changed to rise to the occasion.
Even without a global event, language changes. Simply compare the language use between generations of speakers. The same word might have a different meaning to a teenager than it does to her own grandmother. It's likely that when that same teenager has her own grandchildren, they will astonish her with their own bewildering vocabulary in turn.
Unlike other published written works, translation revision work goes on long after publication is complete. This is because the goal of translation is to convey meaning from a source language to a target language - and when language is alive, that target is constantly moving.
Revisions to English Bible Translations
English-speakers have plenty of examples of Bible translations that have been revised again and again. If you have an English Bible, it's likely to indicate its revision on the spine or title page - words like 'Revised,' or 'New' are now common in English translation titles.
Many of us read our English Bibles without much thought to the origin of their translations. Others hold fast to one particular English translation to the exclusion of all others. Let's remind ourselves that no translation exists in a vacuum, and as the Bible has been translated into English hundreds of times, most English versions are daughter- or sister-translations to other English versions. This is the case even for those like English Standard Version who don't claim the 'new' or 'revised' titles, because translation teams often consult those previous versions.
How and When to Revise a Bible Translation
After the completion and dedication of a Bible translation project, the translation committee does not disband. It is their continuing responsibility to monitor how the translation is being used by the church and community. This is helpful for planning future projects as well as knowing when a translation revision has become necessary.
As every language community is different, so will their need for revision be different. Some indicators that a revision may be necessary are when a translation is not being used, a different translation (such as in a language of wider communication) is preferred, or the translation is only used by a select part of the community (such as church clergy, the elder generation, or the highly educated).
Local translation committees may want help determining the best way to revise their translation in order to reach their target audience most effectively. Bible translation organizations have resources to aid these decisions and help the committee work through a strategic plan to achieve their goals.
Revisions to an existing translation do not always mean the original has failed in some way. Most often, they are the result of language change, new insights from biblical scholarship, or a revised approach that allows the translation to be more effective. The ultimate goal of Bible translation is to impact lives through the message of hope found in God's Word. What a joy to be involved in that ongoing process!