IBT’s webinar on the Minor Prophets
June 22, 2020

IBT held a translation workshop on two of the Minor Prophets via Zoom on June 11-18. This was the first time in IBT’s history that one of our workshops has been conducted as a webinar.

The online format of this workshop was necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic and the related quarantine measures. Nevertheless, its advantages quickly became apparent. Many IBT translators are university instructors, and for them, June is traditionally a very busy time, full of summer courses and entrance exams. Translation team members who would not have been able to come to Moscow for a face-to-face seminar were still able to find time in their busy academic schedules for full participation in the virtual workshop. The webinar participants and lecturers were in different time zones, ranging from Yakutia to the United States, so for some the online meetings were in the early morning, while for others, they took place late in the evening. Despite this scheduling difficulty, everyone was able to participate actively. The participants included translation team members from eighteen Bible translation projects (those of IBT Russia, IBT Finland, and partner organizations): Adyghe, Avar, Balkar, Dargi, Evenki, Kabardian, Kalmyk, Kyrgyz, Kumyk, Lezgi, Mari, Mordvin-Erzya, Nogai, Ossetic, Russian Sign Language, Tabasaran, Tsakhur and Yakut.

The workshop focused on Malachi and Habakkuk, two short books of the Minor Prophets. IBT director Vitaly Voinov introduced the topic. Dr. Andrei Desnitsky (IBT translation consultant, biblical scholar) and Yevgeniy Shved (translation consultant-in-training and exegetical advisor in several IBT projects) then lectured on theoretical and practical issues regarding the translation of the selected books, interspersed with guided discussions of these issues with the participants.

One of the main problems that translators face when working on the Minor Prophets is the lack of narrative in the book. Without narrative, it is difficult to convey the context in which the prophecies were spoken. Desnitsky summed up the problem, saying that “there was a certain movement, a tradition, behind the prophetic books of Israel. The Israelites already had certain associations with certain words. They understood these expressions at a single glance, while we do not have these associations today.”

The instructors therefore focused on the historical context of both books -- what was happening in Israel at the time these prophetic words were originally spoken. For example, in the first two chapters of his book, Malachi speaks about how priests neglected the proper way of offering sacrifices.  As for Habakkuk, the precise time of writing is more difficult to determine, so a thorough analysis of the context was required in the text itself.

As is usually desired in IBT workshops, theory was subordinate to practice. The lectures provided a detailed analysis of the texts, chapter by chapter and verse by verse, focusing on textual difficulties, comparison of various translation solutions, and possible translation options into the recipient languages​​. Desnitsky and Shved both paid special attention to prophetic metaphors and potentially ambiguous expressions.

During the analysis of Habakkuk 1:3, for example, one of the participants asked for a more detailed analysis of the meaning of the Hebrew word awen, which in some translations is interpreted as “misfortune”, although it is more commonly understood as “villainy”. In response, Shved explained that the personal aspect is very important in the prophet’s dialogue with God. The prophet asks, “Why are you letting me look upon misfortune / villainy?” This is not a scene of war or famine, but of ordinary, daily life. The book’s audience sees life playing out normally, and they do not find anything especially evil about either idolatry or the oppression of the righteous by the wicked. But when the prophet sees all of this from God’s point of view, the world begins to look completely different.

For the most part, the lecturers did not give set recipes for how to translate. They merely highlighted the issues and allowed the translators to put into practice their own creative thinking and linguistic skills. In addition to examining the semantic content of the texts, the instructors also discussed the issue of how to handle the poetic portions of the prophetic books, and how to translate biblical poetry into other languages. Shved mentioned that it was desirable to preserve the poetic nature of the psalm at the end of the Habakkuk 3; several workshop participants, for example, the Dargi and Yakut translators, even decided to translate the entirety of both books as poetry. They read excerpts of their translations aloud for the group to hear the rhythm in their languages. Over the course of the seminar, the concept of “contextualization/domestication” also came up repeatedly. This is when translators replace a new or unknown concept in the text with a familiar one from their own culture.

Zoom enabled participants to prioritize their practical work on the text. Following each lecture, the translators and exegetical advisors from each project were able to move into virtual breakout rooms, where they continued working together on incorporating everything they had just heard into their translation drafts. On returning to the general discussions, each group summed up their work and brought up difficulties and discoveries. Sometimes, these consultant-led discussions took even more time than the lectures themselves!

Thanks to this format, almost all of the projects were able to achieve the goal set at the beginning of the workshop: to complete a rough translation of both Malachi and Habakkuk. In some projects, including Dargi, Kalmyk, and Mordvin-Erzya, exegetical checking has already been completed. In the Tabasaran project, the workshop was attended not only by the translator and exegete but also by the philological editor, so the team was able to also complete philological editing of these books, which can now progress to the field testing stage.

Over the years, translation team members have become used to meeting together as friends, and though they expressed regret at not being able to be together face-to-face, they were joyful at the opportunity of seeing and hearing one another at least via Zoom. The one thing that seemed beyond the possibilities of a virtual format was the traditional “fun night”. But, as it turned out, genuine talent cannot be hindered. At the end of the workshop, the Kyrgyz translator delighted his fellow participants with a humorous poem he had composed on Zoom webinars, bringing a festive end to a fruitful meeting.

 Thus, as a result of otherwise difficult pandemic conditions, IBT was able to discover and test in action a wonderful new format for conducting training events. The next workshop is already planned for 2021; it will be on one of the poetic books, either Lamentations or Song of Songs.