What is needed to become a Bible translator? Among very small ethnic groups that speak an endangered language, sometimes it is enough to simply have a good command of one’s mother tongue, even if it is only the spoken form of the language. But for larger languages with a well-developed literary tradition, IBT’s translators are usually professionals in the spheres of linguistics or literature. Such is the situation in IBT’s Dargi (or Dargwa) project. The team presently consists of two translators and a third, potential translator, all of them specialists in their language. But professional language interest alone is not what leads someone from a different religious tradition into a project to translate the Bible. What motivates those who become Bible translators to choose this path?
Several years ago the translator who was first to join the present team (let us call him Ibrahim) shared his attitude to IBT’s work as follows: “What is most interesting for me in this work is the translation process itself. Second is the opportunity to see how the world’s languages have a similar, miraculous capacity to express even the most difficult meanings found in the Bible, although they do this in very different ways. It’s a pity that I don’t know English, but praise God, I do know Russian well, and still greater praise to God that I know Dargi well enough to pass on to my people the powerful texts of this Scripture. And the third reason is my own self-interest, since I am a scholar specializing in lexicology, and am working on the Dargi-Russian dictionary. Bible translation helps a lot in this work. Thanks to my Bible translation experience I have found dozens of old Dargi words and archaic expressions; this work helped our team to start using Dargi vocabulary more extensively. And we even coined several new terms. Why not? After all, translation work is an art form of sorts. In the IBT translation process, I especially love field-testing. I personally did my post-graduate work in Dargi studies, but there are many people who don’t know the Dargi literary language very well and who don’t know the Bible either. Moreover, they don’t know any Scriptures at all, whether Muslim or Christian ones! And when these readers discover the very existence of such translations, it’s like a revelation for them. They get excited. They get acquainted with these texts for the first time in their lives and wonder how such a thing could even exist.”
Two years ago a second translator joined the team. Let us call him Sulaiman. He is a philologist who had been working for a Dargi literary journal for many years and was thus no less proficient in literary Dargi than Ibrahim, but at the beginning of his work with IBT he had no experience with the Scriptures. The project’s exegete watched the new team member’s first reaction upon reading the Bible, and was delighted to describe it: “He plunged into the text and started exclaiming, ‘This is where the real thing can be found!’” Two years passed, but this translator’s initial joy has not gone away. During these two years Sulaiman succeeded in translating Jonah and Ruth and has recently been working on Esther. He demonstrated his newfound passion for these texts: “In Esther the characters don’t mention God directly, but you feel His presence throughout the story. Why did I never know these things before? What a pity indeed that earlier I was not aware of the significant things that I see here. If only I could have come across these texts 20-30 years ago to study them then! This is the spiritual nourishment for which I’ve been thirsting many, many years. This gives me wings to fly!”
Interestingly, at the recent IBT-hosted seminar on the Pentateuch, where this conversation took place, Ibrahim felt just as elated as his colleague, but for him the reason was purely professional. His deepening involvement in Bible translation work made him thirst for learning the languages of the original: “During the past two years together with our new exegete we’ve done a large amount of work on revising the books of the New Testament. We checked each sound in the text, each and every letter, and we found terms that are even more precise, more fitting and clear to the reader than the terms in the first version of the translation. For example, in the previous version the Dargi text said that John the Baptist was “purifying” people with water, but now he is “immersing them in water”. During field-testing, people found the new version of the text easier both for reading and understanding. Their approval is a high evaluation of what we’ve done. Due to our intense work I came to the conclusion that translators are in dire need of mastering the original languages of the Bible. I found that Greek syntax is much closer to the Dargi syntax than Russian is. Of course we do have exegetes with a good command of Greek, and we have a special computer program (Paratext) for Bible translators, but if I could read the words of the original directly, without intermediaries, it would be easier for me to translate. We need a methodology for studying the basics of elementary Greek, and then we will be ready to proceed independently – we will fly towards our goal fast, like birds!”
Since the topic of our most recent training seminar was the Pentateuch, which is in the Dargi team’s plans for the near future, from Greek we naturally went on to Hebrew. “Of course we will not coin artificial new terms for words that everybody knows from the Koran”, Ibrahim continued. “For example, here at the seminar we had the task of finding terms for expressing the ‘clean/unclean’ distinction in our languages, and for Dargi these terms are evident since everyone already knows the words haram and halal from the Koran. Some Biblical proper names are also well-known by all Muslims, such as the name of the prophet Noah. But there are also words which we simply lack in our language. For instance, there is no such a word as ‘parable’ in Dargi. When we were working on the Gospel Parables edition, we took the Dargi word for ‘proverb’, which doesn’t reflect all the needed shades of meaning in this context. But later I found out that the Turkish Bible translation uses the word ‘mashal’, which is related to Hebrew משל. It struck me that we also have this word in Dargi, though it sounds a little bit different. It came into our language from Arabic and literally means “for example”. Now I have the idea that we could make a compound term from both of these together that will mean “proverb, which serves as an example.” This could be used when we translate the Old Testament book of Proverbs.”
This is when the third team member – a potential new translator (let us call him Ismail) joined our conversation and shared his vision of the Bible translator’s task: “The main task of the translator is to be honest. Without an editor, one may stretch a point, but this is a sin against one’s readers. If you sow a cucumber seed, you should water it enough and fertilize the soil. Otherwise it will not grow. The same is true about translation: you should sort out all the words of your language and produce such a good environment for the seed that it would be able to blossom into a flower and not wither prematurely.”
So what motivates one to become a Bible translator? In each project the answer may differ. But for all three Dargi team members, their work is an attempt to follow “the way of truth” (Ps 119:30) in their lives, whether by striving to know the essence of the original languages, or through seeking and recognizing “the real thing”, or by pursuing honesty in one’s translation.
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