Translation Resources of the Future

I attended a meeting in Misano, Italy in September to discuss Translation Resources of the Future. I was representing SIL International along with two others, and there were partners from United Bible Societies and The Seed Company, both of which are heavily involved in translating the Bible.  The goal of the meeting was to try to spearhead a new initiative to produce the types of Bible translation aids that will answer the needs of a new type of Bible translator.

Traditionally, the translators were Westerners who moved in with a group of indigenous people and invested years of time and effort to learn the language, develop a writing system, teach literacy, and eventually produce literate materials, including the Bible or portions of it.  Those Westerners were typically well educated with some knowledge of Greek and Hebrew.  The translation aids that were produced often had those translators in mind.  We have two notable series: Translator's Handbook, by United Bible Societies, and Translator's Notes, by SIL. These are both excellent resources and are very different from typical Biblical commentaries in that they spend a lot of space suggesting ways to translate Biblical concepts where equivalent terms are lacking.

Today, however, fewer and fewer people who speak English as their native tongue are the ones doing the actual translation work. These resources are primarily in English, although a number of individual works have been painstakingly translated into Spanish, French, and a few other languages.  Such books are notoriously difficult to translate, given all of the language-specific examples used in them.  

The missions workforce is changing at a very fast pace and is becoming less and less dependant on Westerners. The church in other parts of the world is growing and sending missionaries both home and abroad. Many of these have not had access to Bible colleges and seminaries, nor do some have access to higher education. The kinds of materials these translators need will look significantly different than the ones we have been providing in the past.

My role in attending this meeting was to provide a perspective on what the technology might look like to deliver a new set of translation resources.  Going back to the book series, both series listed above were produced first as printed books.  Over time they have been transferred to digital format and delivered on the computer rather than on the printed page.  Yet if you look at the electronic version of these books, they still look like books. This takes us only part way towards what is possible with modern technology. Think for a moment about the Sears catalog. In order to discover all the things that might interest you, you had to page through the Sears catalog from cover to cover. Sure, there was an index that would help you get to the appropriate section, but it was still difficult to locate exactly what you're looking for. Contrast that now with the website. When you go to the site, Amazon remembers a lot of information about you and your particular interests. When you search for an item, you are presented not only with the specific item you searched for, but you are presented with similar items that according to your profile might also interest you. Since these search result pages are built on the fly, no two people see exact same results.

If we take this model and apply it to the translation resources of the future, we would expect to see a large database of all kinds of notes for translators that would live in the cloud (shared database). Each note would be tagged as to its relevance. Some notes would be relevant to translators who worked in specific families of languages. The Bantu language family in Africa, for example, has over 500 languages or dialects. Anyone working in the Bantu language family would automatically see notes that are specific to that family.  Some notes would be tagged as exegetical information, some as translation rendering suggestions.  Only teams that had a need for those specific types of notes would see them in their display of notes.  Oh, and of course, translators who who understand French and not English would only see notes that were written in French on their display of notes.

In order to make this happen, we need a collaborative system for creating these translator's notes.  As it stands, our agencies have hundreds of translation consultants all over the world who are experts in Bible translation and they are constantly writing up notes as they check translations for accuracy.  If we were to harness these people to help author notes, and provide a way for them to enter their notes in the cloud, then we would have a much larger workforce of people.  This system involves open collaboration on translation resources, and all of the materials would be freely available for other translation teams to use, and to translate -- a note at a time -- into other languages.

Currently, Tim Jore of Distant Shores Media has a similar plan for discipleship resources.  I hope to dialogue further with him to see how we might use his open collaboration tools to build the next generation of resources for Bible translators.