The Scariest Job in the World: Bible Translation Consultant
A colleague cleverly described his occupation as "the scariest job in the world." His apt description of the role of a Bible translation consultant especially caught my attention because I am currently training to do just that!
‘I have the scariest job in the world. I’m the person who has to sign off a translation as being the word of God.’
-Gareth Mort, Bible Translation Consultant
Bible Translation Consultant: Guide or Gatekeeper
The task of a Bible Translation Consultant is to check the translation draft for accuracy, clarity, and naturalness. Consultants are not translators. Instead, they act is guides, teachers, or advisors to the translation team by providing specific expertise in biblical exegesis, linguistics, and translation principles.
There are lots of people involved in the process of a Bible translation - beginning with the local community and church, centering on mother-tongue language translators, and a whole host of partners who are crucial to each project's success. Projects begin with a translation brief (an outlined plan for who will do what, how, and when) so that by the time a draft gets to a translation consultant, it has been planned out, pored over, and reviewed by many people.
Towards the end of the process, a Bible Translation Consultant meets with the team to do a consultant check. Together, they make sure the translation is an accurate representation of the biblical source texts, that it communicates the intended meaning clearly in the target language, and that it sounds natural and acceptable to its intended audience. Once a translation consultant approves of the draft, the Bible translation moves to the final stages of publication.
Because the consultant check takes place right before publication, it often feels like the consultant is the final gatekeeper before the translation is released. But this isn't necessarily a helpful way to view the consultant check.
From a consultant perspective, as Gareth pointed out above, that's a lot of pressure for one person to bear! (I have been unsure about the way a team has translated biblical passages plenty of times!) From the translators' perspective, viewing the consultant as a gatekeeper can carry a level of impatience: just one more hurdle to jump through before the translation can be published.
Thus it's better to think of Bible Translation Consultants as guiding the translation along on its way to publication instead of gatekeepers who hold the keys to its approval.
Spirit of Humility
No matter how the consultant check is perceived, it is a necessary part of the Bible translation process. So how can it be done well?
Before each consultant checking session, the team starts with prayer. The consultant and the translators together ask God to guide them in translating his Word accurately, clearly, and naturally into the target language. They also pray for humble spirits to be able to listen to each other's input.
Having a spirit of humility is key to being a good Bible Translation Consultant (or any kind of consultant, for that matter!) The consultant is there to guide, and she does so by asking questions more than by giving answers. This is especially true in the context of Bible translation-- I consult for teams whose languages I don't know. I need to rely on them to tell me what their draft says. While I can make suggestions on how it might be improved, the translators and their community are ultimately the ones who decide how best to communicate the meaning in their language.
In a sense, practicing humble listening - to the Holy Spirit and to each other - takes a lot of the scariness out of consultant checking a Bible translation draft. It reminds me that even though I don't know all the answers, the Lord has given us his own Spirit of wisdom and all of the people on a translation team so that we can work together in faithfully translating his Word.
That's also why I have the words of Mary Oliver taped to the wall in my office:
Let me keep my distance, always, from those who think they have the answers. Let me keep company always with those who say, "Look!" and laugh in astonishment, and bow their heads.
As Christians, we believe in a God whose ways and words are "much higher than our own." So while I solemnly hold the considerable weight of saying whether a translation draft is the word of God, I can also carry it with open hands, knowing that God is the one who speaks every language accurately, clearly, and naturally.