The Importance and Process of Roma Bible Translation
The Importance of Bible Translation
It is estimated that there are about 90 languages spoken by Roma in Europe and Eurasia, of which only a dozen have any portion of the Bible translated. Of these, only a few have the entire Bible translated, which means that the other languages have only the New Testament or perhaps one of the Gospels or some Bible stories. So today, there is still a great need to get the Bible translated into many more Roma languages.
Bible translation is vital since each person needs to understand what God has said in His Word, and yet not everyone currently has access to the Bible in the language that they know best, which speaks to them with clarity, and which impacts both their minds and hearts.
Let me illustrate: If someone were to read to you directly from the Greek New Testament or Hebrew Old Testament, you might not understand any of it.
Now, if someone were to translate that same verse into English but were to follow the same word order and structure of the Greek or Hebrew original, you would understand more, but it still might not be clear to you what the author was seeking to communicate.
Listen to the difference in the following translations of Luke 7:28-30. The first translation uses older English and follows the form and structure of the Greek, while the second one seeks to make the message clear in natural English. The first translation gives only what is explicitly stated in Greek. In contrast, the second one adds some of the implied information which first-century Jews would have intuitively understood and spells it out more clearly for people like us and like modern-day Roma, who would not know this information:
Luke 7:28-30 (Young’s Literal Translation): 28 “for I say to you, a greater prophet, among those born of women, than John the Baptist there is not; but the least in the reign of God is greater than he.” 29 And all the people having heard, and the tax-gatherers, declared God righteous, having been baptized with the baptism of John, 30 but the Pharisees, and the lawyers, the counsel of God did put away for themselves, not having been baptized by him.
Now see if this other translation makes the meaning more clear:
Luke 7:28-30 (New Living Translation): 28 “I tell you, of all who have ever lived, none is greater than John. Yet even the least person in the Kingdom of God is greater than he is!” 29 When they heard this, all the people—even the tax collectors—agreed that God’s way was right, for they had been baptized by John. 30 But the Pharisees and experts in religious law rejected God’s plan for them, for they had refused John’s baptism.
The process of Bible translation
A Bible translation should always be done by those for whom it is the first language, usually the language they grew up speaking and that which they use daily in the home. Bible translation is a team effort and often requires foreigners or outsiders who can give training and advice for translating the Bible, yet the actual wording of the translation must always be decided by mother-tongue speakers, not by those who have learned the language as an adult or as a second language.
It is preferable that translators be strong Christians who are mature in the faith, have a good understanding of the Bible in a language of wider communication, and who believe that God has called them to the task of translating the Bible, even if they have not yet received adequate training to do so.
Then the translators need to be taught the principles and practices of translating, some of which we will discuss briefly in this paper.
They usually should begin by translating simpler materials. For example, it is quite common for a new translator to start with a simplified Bible story rather than with Scripture. And when they do begin with Scripture, it is best to begin with simpler books, such as the Gospels or the Old Testament historical books, like Genesis, Ruth, or Jonah. More complicated books, such as Roman or Hebrews in the New Testament, and Job and Isaiah in the Old Testament, should not be attempted until they have had experience translating easier books. Even when beginning with a Gospel, it is best to start with narrative sections, rather than with teaching or poetry. For example, when we began translating Luke, we started with chapter 4 before we ever began chapters 1-3. The reason is that chapters four and following tell about the life of Jesus, what his actions were, and what he taught and are thus easier than chapters 1-3, which have a lot of background information about what was happening in the Roman and Jewish world at that time, and a lot of poetry celebrating the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus. Translators were much better prepared to translate those difficult chapters after they had already had practice translating easier stories.
When making the first draft, the translators translate from another language they know, such as English, French, or German, or in our case, Serbian or Croatian, since most of us do not speak biblical Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic every day. The translators should always read at least two or three versions in a language they understand. For example, they might read one older Serbian translation which follows the form of the Greek New Testament, so they can get an idea of what it literally says, as well as one or two contemporary Serbian versions which have attempted to put the same Scripture into words more easily understood by modern speakers of Serbian.
Translation is a team effort, so after an original draft has been made, one or two people who speak that language as their first language should read it and give feedback. One of them should then make a very literal translation back into a language of wider communication so that an exegete who has been trained in Greek or Hebrew and linguistics, even though he or she does not speak the Roma language, can see what the meaning is. For example, in our case, we have a Roma who speaks that language make a literal translation back into Serbian so that I or others who speak Serbian but not the Roma language can read it with understanding.
Comparing with that back translation, the next step is for the exegete to read what the Greek text says, what other translations in Croatian, Serbian, and English say, and what translation handbooks and exegetical commentaries say about the verse.
Using that knowledge, the exegete points out where the draft might be inaccurate or unclear and the Roma translators take that into consideration and decide whether or not to make the suggested changes.
Throughout the process, the translation team must always keep in mind who it is that they are translating for. In other words, the target group or intended audience is a key factor when determining how to translate.
For example, if in a certain Roma language there are many believers, and many trained pastors, and a large enough group of Christian who are more mature in the faith, then the translation should probably be more literal since the intended audience will be able to understand it better. They also will have pastors and teachers who can explain verses to them and help them to understand them better. They are in a better position to read and study the Bible themselves and have access to other books and teachers to help them understand the Bible.
If, on the other hand, in a certain Roma language, there are no or very few believers, or if most of the believers are young in the faith and do not have access to trained pastors and teachers, then the translation should probably seek to be more explanatory. By that, I mean, what is in the Greek or Hebrew original text, which might not be understood, should be spelled out so that the unbeliever or young believer will know what the writer meant.
Throughout the process, the translators are guided by four principles. They want the translation to be accurate, clear, natural, and acceptable.
When we say accurate, we mean that we must always make every effort to ensure that the meaning of the original Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic text is accurately communicated. Much attention must be paid to the context of the original text, and the original languages must be thoroughly investigated to make sure that we translators have understood the meaning accurately. It will not do for us to translate something we do not correctly understand.
When we say clear, we mean that the meaning of the verses must be communicated in such a way that the Roma reader will know what it is talking about. If the reader does not understand what the translation is saying, then we have not done a good job of translating. The Roma who read or listen to a verse of Scripture should understand what it means.
When we say natural, we mean that, as much as possible, the translation should not sound like a translation. Translators should seek to express ideas in the everyday speech that speakers of that Roma language normally use to express themselves. In these steps, the native speakers are always the ones who decide what sounds natural or normal in their language.
And when we say acceptable, we mean that it should be translated in such as way that it is appropriate for reading in public and church. Terms that would be considered rude, immoral, or inappropriate for public conversation should not be used.
I have been referring to “readers” of the new Bible translation, but the reality among the Roma is that, for the most part, they will probably listen to rather than read the Bible. From my observation, most Roma are not readers, so it is imperative to offer the Bible in audio format as well as in writing. This fact has an enormous impact on how we translate as well. It means that even though there are times when we must include footnotes, pictures, and glossary articles in the Bible to help people understand the meaning, we realize that many people will never see those because they will be listening to, rather than reading, the Bible. For that reason, we often need to put more information into the text of the Bible translation rather than put it in a footnote which non-readers will miss since these footnotes are not included in the audio recording.
After the Roma translators have listened to the feedback of the exegete, they then read through the passage of Scripture again aloud to make sure that the passage makes sense and flows well and that there are no spelling or grammatical mistakes.
The next step is for the translation to be tested out with other speakers of the language. This step, called field testing, or community checking, is often overlooked but is essential. It involves having two or more Roma speakers of the language, who have not been involved in translating, read or listen to a passage of Scripture and give us feedback on it. We want to find out whether they understand what it means, or if something is unclear, or if there is an expression that they would say differently. If they are reading it rather than listening to it, did they stumble over reading something hard to pronounce, or was it not the word or phrase they were expecting? This step is crucial because even though the translation team may understand the translation and feel like they have communicated the verses correctly, it will be of no use if the average Roma cannot understand what is meant. The feedback given by the community of Roma speakers is essential.
Additionally, there should be an advisory board of pastors and language teachers, if possible, who can also evaluate the text and give their feedback. A Bible translation is an activity that includes the whole church of that language community if there is one. The church should be excited about the project and gladly invest the time and money it will take to make it the best translation possible.
As one of the final steps, a specialist, called a Bible translation consultant, is called in. He or she is a person who has had extensive training in biblical languages, exegesis, and linguistics and normally has previously worked as part of a team translating the Bible into another language. Usually, this person will not know the Roma language, so another back translation needs to be made into their language, such as English, so they have access to the meaning of the Roma translation. Using a back translation and an interlinear with the Roma translation, the consultant then studies each verse and compares it with the original Greek or Hebrew, with translations in other languages and with exegetical commentaries. Then the translators and the exegete meet with the consultant to read every verse to ensure that it meets the goals of being accurate, clear, natural, and acceptable.
The translation must also be checked to make sure that all the formatting is consistent. In other words, is the punctuation correct, does the text format correctly on the page, were we consistent in the way we translated the subheadings for the various sections of a book of the Bible, are the style and format of the footnotes consistent, and does the glossary explain all the words it needs to define? In reality, during a translation process, every verse is checked 10-15 times to ensure a quality translation.
After the translation is completed, then an audio recording is made. The text, as well as the audio recording, should then be made available on the Internet and in apps, shared on social media, and made available by every means possible.
A translated Bible that is never read or listened to will serve little purpose, so every effort should be made to make sure that Roma begin to use the Scriptures on a regular basis. They need to be taught to have a daily reading or listening plan where they read or listen to a portion of Scripture daily for their own spiritual learning, and also read or listen to a passage of Scripture with their spouse or children in daily family devotions. They should also be shown how to read or listen to a passage and discuss it in the setting of a home Bible study. Additionally, pastors should preach from the translation and use it as they teach the congregation.
The Holy Spirit will use His Word powerfully in the lives of those who read and listen to it. He will use a translation that is accurate, clear, natural, and acceptable to teach men and women, boys and girls, who Jesus Christ is, and how they can follow Him, obey Him and glorify Him. The goal of Bible translation is life transformation. In other words, our vision is that through a translation of the Bible, God will transform many Roma into the image of Jesus Christ for His great glory.