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On International Translation Day, ‘embrace linguistic diversity as an enrichment’

On International Translation Day, ‘embrace linguistic diversity as an enrichment’

Photo: Ivars Kupcis/WCC

30 September 2019

Dr Alexander M. Schweitzer is executive director of Bible Ministry and director of Global Bible Translation for the Global Mission Team of United Bible Societies. On International Translation Day, Schweitzer shared his thoughts about the challenges related to translations, as well as how deeply they enrich our world.

How many different translations of the Bible are in the world now?

Dr Schweitzer: The full Bible has been translated into 700 languages, over 1,500 languages have translations of the New Testament and there are over 1,100 translations of portions (e.g. gospels, psalms, some books, etc.). With approximatively 7,100 languages existing worldwide, this leaves over 3,700 languages without Scripture translation. These figures include sign languages.

What are some of the newest translations?

Dr Schweitzer: Despite the fact that a translation of the full Bible or the New Testament takes several years, there are hundreds of languages receiving a first translation every year. Among last year’s translations were languages like Lusamia-Lugwe (Uganda-Kenya, 650,000 speakers), Kalanga (Botswana, 142,000 speakers), Rote (Indonesia, 30,000 speakers), Malto (India, 51,000 speakers) – all full Bibles. Among the New Testament translations were Northern Waray (Philippines, 632,000 speakers), Blin (Eritrea, 112,000 speakers), Korku (India, 550,000 speakers), Lemi (Myanmar, 12,000 speakers). In 2018, Bible Societies assisted in the completion of translations into 66 languages used by 440 million people.

What is the biggest challenge related to translations?

Bible translation faces challenges on multiple levels:

Cultural challenges: The biblical texts reflect specific cultures of the ancient Near East.  As cultural realities often do not translate easily into another cultures, the translators face a constant challenge as they attempt to preserve the Semitic cultural distinctives that are part of the message, and at the same time make sense of it for the receptor culture.

Linguistic challenges: The Bible exhibits many different literary genres. In addition, many languages do not have literature in certain literary genres that exist in the Bible. A second linguistic challenge has to do with theological vocabulary. Key terms as redemption, forgiveness, guilt, levirate, etc. do not exist in many languages. How to translate them when there is no literary or theological equivalent?

Church traditions, church theologies have a tremendous influence on the process of Bible translation. This becomes most evident when the language has had a translation done in the past and a theology has developed based on that translation. Oftentimes the previous translation is treated like a "pseudo original", which makes different approaches in a new translation very challenging.

Administrative challenges include the aspect of funding and in a special way the necessity to bring together the local request, desire, need and funders’ ideas and wishes. A deeper understanding of the complexities and intricacies of Bible translations and of the local situation can be achieved by immersion and exposure opportunities for the funders who often come with a northern, “1st world” background.

Do you have a special wish for the celebration of International Translation Day?

Dr Schweitzer: The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Year of Indigenous Languages invites us to recognize the unique contribution every language and culture offers towards a deeper understanding of the biblical text. My wish is that the International Translation Day remind us not only of the complexity of the translation task but that we take it as an invitation to embrace the linguistic diversity as an enrichment and a deepening of our understanding of the Word of God, wanting to incarnate itself in the various cultures.

What is your favorite verse in the Bible?

Dr Schweitzer: Trying to read the Bible closely connected to my life, my “favorite” verses or passages constantly change! There are some recurring “favorites”; apart from the usual suspects like e.g. the sermon on the mount. I often find these in the psalms. One of them Psalm 139 (138), particularly the beginning: “Lord, you have examined me and you know me. Where could I go to escape from you? If I went up to heaven, you would be there; if I lay down in the world of the dead, you would be there. If I flew away beyond the east or lived in the farthest place in the west, you would be there to lead me, you would be there to help me.”

United Bible Societies