Our third semester students have recently taken a class on Semantics and Translation, where Bible translators have to do rigorous work in order to accurately take what the Bible says and translate that into another culture. For example, English might have the word “faith” as a noun, but other languages may only have the verb form “believe.” Therefore, unless you make up new words in the language you are serving in, you need to change the words from the English noun form into the comprehensible verb form. However, the translation process is much more that taking the one word in English and inserting the correct word in the new language. This is where semantics (meaning) comes in.

Originally, the biblical authors wrote down the inspired words of God in their own language, whether Hebrew or Greek. Later on, people took what was written and translated that into English, even if that meant changing or adding words. They did that because they understood that the underlying meaning was the important part that needed to be communicated. However, as people think about going and translating the Bible from English to another language, there is a hesitancy to even deviate a little from the specific words that are in the English Bibles. During this class on translation, the Emanate students were able to practice the process of translation and understand more of what it all entails. Let me share some of what we have learned with you.

To begin with, words have meaning. Sentences have meaning. The job of the translator is to take that meaning and encode it in the proper grammar and word construction of the intended language. But first, you need to decode what is being said. For example, take Mark 2:5: “And Jesus seeing their faith said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’” In order to properly translate this verse into the intended language, you first need to understand all that is being communicated.

After dissecting the meaning, our “translation group” isolated what was being said:

  • They believed.
  • Jesus saw it.
  • Jesus said to the paralytic:
  • You sinned.
  • God forgives you.

That is the meaning in its most basic form. Each language has its own construction and to do proper translation, we need to take that basic meaning and properly construct it in the recipient culture. To our ten-year old audience, we translated it this way:

“Jesus saw that they believed in him, so he said to the paralyzed man, ‘Young man, your sins are forgiven.’”

After you dissect the intended meaning, then you can encode it in the language your audience can properly understand. It takes time. This requires that you know the culture and language of your audience. But in order to effectively communicate God’s Word, this labour-intensive project is a necessity and the only way to communicate the truth in a way that they can understand.

During the translation process, after the missionaries have translated the Word, they take a draft of their translation and do a back-translation into English. They send this work to translation consultants who comb through it to see if all the intended meaning is included. They make notes on what is done well and what is unclear and missing. Then they send it back to the translator, who re-evaluates the comments and adjusts the translation as necessary. When the translation is nearly completed, they do a comprehension check by reading the translation to people in their audience from different walks of life—old, young, rich and poor. If the people do not understand, then the translators make more adjustments. If the people comprehend the intended meaning, then the translators move on to the next portion of Scripture.

Translation is a laborious job. Yet it is crucial in order that people from every tribe and nation can have the Word of God in their own heart language! That is our goal as church planters. Is it challenging? Definitely. Does it take a long time? Years and years. Is it worth it? Absolutely. May you be encouraged by the effort of our brothers and sisters who are devoting their lives to see translation happen and may you be challenged to pray that this work would continue on for the glory of God.