The multifaceted task of the Bible translator
Spring 2020 Newsletter

At translation workshops, many translation teams gather together to work on a practical task and exchange their experience with their instructors and with one another. The entire process resembles a massive brainstorm session. The intensity of the work gives birth to new translation decisions and sometimes even to completely new approaches to translation. Talking to translators at such workshops gives us a glimpse into the complexity of Bible translation. In this newsletter, we would like to share with our readers several such glimpses, gleaned from IBT’s recent workshop on the Minor Prophets, with Haggai, Zephaniah and Joel in focus.

The very first task of a translator is to understand the Scripture text correctly. This implies understanding not only the words, but also the reality behind them, which often contains a meaning that is not immediately clear on the surface. The Kumyk translator shared that he was much impressed by the description of the locust invasion in Joel 1: “When we open the Bible in different languages, we see that there are different ways of translating these verses. In some texts, there are different stages of locust development, while in others, different types of insects are given. The Kumyk reader knows what locusts are and there is no difficulty in translating the passage literally, but what I couldn’t understand was verse 7, which says that the branches of the fig tree become white. It was only after the instructor’s explanation that I understood that the gnawing locust may eat even the bark off the trees, so that the tree branches become white. As a professional literary critic, I clearly see that the device of gradation is used here: through the image of locust invasion, the prophet shows that the disaster is intensifying, so this is what should become clear from my translation.”

Another example from Joel 1: in verse 13 we read, “lie all night in sackcloth.” When the workshop participants were asked by the instructor how they understood these words, the majority suggested the most obvious interpretation: “The prophet tells his hearers to wear sackcloth all the time, so that you even sleep in sackcloth.” It was the Avar translator who offered a completely different version: “This is a call to vigil, not to sleep, because it is the process of penitence that is symbolized by sackcloth in the Old Testament tradition. The sackcloth is merely an external sign, and the translation should reveal the idea, ‘Cry out to God all night long, don’t fall asleep!’ When the process of penitence is real, there is no time to sleep, and to translate this as ‘sleep in sackcloth’ would convey an awful misunderstanding. When we come across idioms or images in the Bible text, we should identify them in order to not translate too literally. Otherwise, our translations may turn into nonsense.”

After the meaning of the Bible passage becomes clear, the second hard task is to render this meaning adequately in the recipient language. Sometimes the problem is that various genres are rendered very differently in different languages from the point of view of style. This is how the Yakut translator explained the problem she faced: “I need to grow into the texts of the Prophets in order to transmit them into my language. The Yakut language is oriental, flowery. For us poetry is plentitude, but in ancient Hebrew, poetry is highly compressed. The style of the Prophets is understatement, and I can’t get a hold of it. I am very afraid of giving my own emendations, because the Yakut language requires singing, it requires verbal eloquence and plenty of colors. If I render the Bible text as it is in the Hebrew, for the Yakut ear it may seem very dry. On the other hand, the very fact that the Prophets wrote primarily in poetry may save the situation. I just need to find the right style of translating, and this is my task for the near future.”

And sometimes the problem is just in a word usage. The Kyrgyz translator, who is now engaged in the Kyrgyz Liturgy project and has translated several Psalms for use in the Orthodox church service, shared a funny example. The team was translating Psalm 103, which is sung at the very beginning of a celebration of the Liturgy, and in the very first verse they had to change a direct address of the soul – “Bless the Lord, o my soul” – into a simple description: “I bless the Lord with my soul.” The reason for such a change turned out unexpected. When Kyrgyz speakers heard “Bless the Lord, o my soul”, they understood this line as speaking to a woman, because “my soul” is a typical Kyrgyz way of addressing a beloved woman.

One more task of a Bible translator touches upon something very significant, but almost imperceptible. This is how the Avar translator puts it: “We seek knowledge all the time, and certainly this is very important. For example, there are fewer than 10,000 distinct words (lexemes) in the Hebrew text of the Bible, while there are tens of thousands words in our contemporary languages. Thus, one and the same word in the Bible may mean different things in different contexts, and some rare words are used just once in the Bible, and there are plenty of opinions concerning their meaning, so we can never stop learning. But besides ongoing study, there is one more thing: it is very important to walk with the Lord in the process of Bible translation, and to translate out of one’s close relations with God.”

And there is one more side to the process of Bible translation: helping the translated message to make its way to readers, a process known as Scripture Use or Scripture Engagement. Sometimes Scripture Engagement is achieved due to the heartfelt striving of the translator himself, even if he is a Muslim scholar and not a Christian believer. Here is a brief testimony from the Kumyk translator: “There are quite a few Kumyks who don’t accept anything connected with the Bible. And with certain potential readers one has to prepare them, direct them, and explain some important points to them. Consider this point: one of the pillars of Islam is trust in the Books. Not just in one Book, but in the Books in the plural. Although it was clear for me that this means the Torah, Injil (Gospels) and Zabur (Psalms), I still approached a Muslim theologian with this question, and he gave me the same explanation. And when I meet someone who totally rejects the Bible, I ask him, ‘How do you understand this pillar, ‘Trust in the Books’?’ Usually this is understood properly. Then I ask the following question, ‘Then what is your problem with the Bible?’ Usually I get the answer, ‘Well, yes, there is trust in the Books, but these Books have been distorted by Christians, their contents and everything.’ – ‘Distorted or not distorted – how will you know this if you don’t take them and look with your own eyes, and find the answer for yourself, and not just take for granted what you are told by somebody else? Shouldn’t you make your own decision instead of appealing to abstract categories?’ I have to engage in such discussions.”

Thus the multifaceted task of any Bible translator involves bridging gaps: between the Bible and one’s mother tongue, between the Bible and a different worldview, between the Bible and one’s own life, between the Bible and one’s fellow citizens.

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