Step By Step: How a Translation Consultant Checks a Bible Translation Draft
What is a Bible Translation Consultant?
After years of education and additional field training with translation teams and mentors, translation organizations certify highly trained individuals as Bible Translation Consultants. The translation consultant's main responsibility is to check translations for accuracy, clarity, and naturalness before they are published.
But many organizations are realizing that there is a dire shortage of translation consultants available for the hundreds of translation projects currently underway. Because consultants are one of the key accountability measures to ensure the quality of published translation, not having enough of them is a huge problem for the world of Bible translation.
Some translation teams wait months for a consultant to become available to check their translation draft. The shortage also leads to current translation consultants being spread thin and working in regions, cultures, and language groups that are outside their scope of expertise and experience.
This is why consultants are often checking translation drafts in languages they don't know. Whenever I receive the text of a translation from a project that is new to me, I still think, "How am I going to make sure this says what it should?!"
The answer: Use available resources and ask a LOT of questions.
Step By Step: How to Check a Translation Draft
This past year, the process of checking a translation draft looks a little different than it did pre-pandemic. But as we've all learned, more can be accomplished over video-conferencing than we ever realized was possible. Ideally, consultant checking sessions should be conducted in person for communication, relationship-building, and team dynamic reasons. But most of the process can be adapted to remote checking sessions, which is good news for projects with high security concerns, difficult-to-reach areas, and you know, during a world health crisis.
Step One: Greeting the Team
Translation consultants need to develop trust and rapport with a translation team in order for their suggestions and expertise to be best used. Without first developing a trusted relationship, translators can either ignore the consultant's advice as an ignorant outsider or follow it blindly because the consultant is incorrectly viewed as an infallible resource. Neither is helpful to the translation draft or the team.
When I begin working with a team for the first time, I try to learn a greeting in the team's own language or the language of wider communication in their region. I've never met a translator who didn't appreciate the outsider's stumbling attempts to learn at least a little bit of their language! This does often mean that I sound like a toddler or an idiot. But that in itself causes amusement and lifelong language learners know that you need to be willing to leave your pride at the door.
It is also helpful to ask about the team's well being, the health of their families, and any struggles or successes of their recent work. Depending on the security concerns for translators themselves, it is important to be discerning and cautious about asking personal questions. Sharing from my own life is also helpful in this regard, and working remotely from home brings more opportunities for my life (read: children) to spontaneously wander into the conversation at any time. While such interruptions are usually considered unprofessional in Western work contexts, they're usually welcomed by my coworkers elsewhere who don't always have the space to divide work and home life.
Step Two: Pray for the Session
Translating the Bible simply cannot be done without prayer. A group of people from different cultural, linguistic, educational, and societal backgrounds are attempting to translate ancient texts faithfully into another language, often for the first time, in a way that accurately communicates the Word of God for the target language community. There is no way that can happen without the wisdom and guidance of God himself.
Praying together further develops the relationship between translation consultant and translators, but also establishes a foundation of humility. Together, the team acknowledges that the project is not in human hands and no one person can claim authorship or ownership of it. It is in God's hands, so we can say with the Apostle Paul, that:
"All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness."
Step Three: Read and Listen to the Translation Draft Out Loud
One of the aspects of translation that a consultant is checking is naturalness in the target language. As you might expect, it's nearly impossible to know if a translation draft sounds natural simply by looking at it when the consultant is not familiar with the target language! Reading the draft out loud allows everyone on the team to listen for naturalness.
Even if I don't understand the language being read or spoken, I can hear when the reader stumbles over a phrase, pauses where there is no punctuation in the text, or even stops to say, "That's not right." Sometimes reading the draft aloud allows translators to catch mistakes and discuss changes before the consultant even suggests them. If editing does not happen organically, the consultant can also try to find out why the reader hesitated or mis-read the text, and whether there is a more natural way to phrase it.
Step Four: Ask Questions
After the text has been read aloud, the team will read one section or verse at a time. Depending on whether the translation consultant is familiar with the language, each verse can also be back translated into the language of wider communication (English, French, Russian, Mandarin, Arabic, Portuguese, etc.)
The translation consultant compares the translation draft to the original source texts to check that the same meaning is communicated. They can then ask questions to make sure the target audience will understand the correct meaning as well. These are intentionally open-ended questions to promote discussion (not yes/no questions) such as:
How would a speaker from your community who is unfamiliar with this passage understand this phrase?
Where would you use this word or phrase outside of the biblical context? In what situations do people say this?
Does this word or phrase apply to some other situation or context? Why or why not?
Another translation of this passage communicates this differently. How would it sound to say it this way in your language?
Tell me more about why you translated it this way! (Not a question... but useful to gauge understanding of the text!)
Step Five: Allow for Discussion
It is important for translation consultants to refrain from suggesting changes to the translation draft without first letting the team discuss how to address an issue. When translators collaborate, brainstorm ideas, or get additional feedback from their own community, they will often come up with a solution. I love it when translators have even called someone over (a family member or passer-by) to ask their input on how to phrase something in their draft! Not only is this a good way to elicit natural language, it also encourages the translators in their own skills and the wider community to be involved.
Leaving room for translators to discuss their own ideas and observations can also be done before the consultant's questions by leading off with, "Do you see anything here that you want to change?" When one person on the team is doing most the talking, the consultant can ask others for their opinions to encourage more collaboration. Bear in mind that no two speakers of a language will phrase an idea the same exact way every time!
Step Six: Document Changes Made
The translation consultant keeps notes of questions asked and changes the team made so that there is a record of issues discussed for future collaborators to look back on.
These reports of checking sessions are very helpful for new team members who join the project at a later date or for final reviews before publication. They're also useful as research data of the language itself. Consultant notes can even be referenced by other languages' translation teams who are working on the same passage.
After the consultant checking session is complete, translation consultants usually submit a consultant report to the translation committee and field partnering organizations that will make recommendations about what the team did well and skills they could improve upon or further training needed.
Step Seven: Section Headings, Footnotes, and a Final Read-Through
After completing a section, translation teams need to review the section headings and other peripheral text to the translation known as paratextual information. These are not original to the ancient source texts (which were not even divided into chapters and verses) but aid in the target audience's understanding.
Footnotes and illustrations can also give the audience further background information about key biblical terms. The project translation brief will usually detail how these types of aids to the text are meant to be used in any particular project.
Finally, the team will read the edited text aloud to listen one more time and agree that everyone on the team is satisfied with the draft.
Step Eight: Identify Next Steps
While a consultant check is one of the last steps in the translation process, it's not the end! Teams need to discuss what will happen with their draft next.
Often there may need to be further community testing, where the team will have other speakers of the language who have not previously worked on the translation read or listen to the draft and answer comprehension questions or give feedback on phrasing.
Key biblical terms need to be constantly evaluated by translation committees to make sure that they are acceptable to the intended audience. Finally, Scripture engagement efforts should be included along the way: engaging the community with the translation throughout the process.
Once a plan is made for the draft's next steps, the consultant check is complete... until the next drafted book is ready for checking and we start all over again!
Depending on the passage being checked, meeting for a consultant check usually takes anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. Of course, this doesn't include the preparatory work beforehand or the follow-up reporting afterwards. Pray for God to call more people to the work of translation consulting so that teams around the world can move forward in translating the Bible into their own languages.