“This was our toughest consultant checking session yet!” confessed Vitaly, IBT’s former director and still a consultant for a North Caucasian Scripture translation project which for safety reasons we were asked not to name. Let’s simply call it “the T-language”. Vitaly then shared some of the difficulties in the checking session and how most of them were overcome, leaving behind a sense of joy for a job well done by all the translation team members.
The T-language lacks many of the more abstract words that are found in most European languages. Moreover, these are words that at first seem essential for Bible translation. For example, there is no T word for “love” (as also in other related languages, which use “desire” instead), no word for “pride,” no word for “truth.” However, the T translator aims to avoid using borrowed words from the dominant language of his country whenever possible: “Our poetry has become so boring to read as of late, because our poets are borrowing a great number of words and don’t even stop to consider that these words are not fully ours! When translating Biblical texts, we try our best not to use borrowed words, but to look for our native words. Field-testing provides a way to check readers’ comprehension. If it turns out that people no longer understand some word or find it obsolete, only then do we choose a borrowed word.”
The approach to field-testing in this project is quite serious. During field-testing, a pair of team members travels together through the mountain villages. One reads the text aloud to listeners, while the other asks comprehension questions. I asked the translator, with whom does he get to talk about his Scripture translations, since his people are all Muslims. “We talk with anyone,” he responded and then added: “With any good person.” He continued: “Mostly we talk with our acquaintances, but among our respondents there are shepherds, teachers, schoolchildren, and older people. They don’t ask questions about why we’re translating the Bible. They don’t object ‘This is a foreign book!’ nor do they ask ‘Why are you doing this?!’ Often, they ask us: ‘When are you coming again? Here’s where you stopped reading – we need to remember for next time. Please hurry up and come again soon!’
The translator’s family members are all involved in the T project. His father is the philological editor, his mother is the primary respondent in field-testing, and his wife’s role is very special as well: she is a UNS (uninitiated native speaker). This means that the text is kept completely secret from her until she sees it for the first time at the consultant checking session and tells the team how she understands it. People who take part in field-testing usually do not sacrifice too much personal time, but the UNS is typically present for the entire consultant check of a book. The translator’s wife (let’s call her Arina) is happy to participate in this role. Being a Muslim, she has never read the Bible in any language. All the biblical stories unfold before her eyes for the very first time at the checking session. An added bonus is that Arina was born far from the Caucasus, in Siberia, which means that she is a native speaker of a different dialect of the language. With her help, other team members immediately learn what is incomprehensible outside of the Caucasus. They try to make the text as clear as possible for as many native speakers as possible, no matter where they live.
During the checking session, Arina was giving the consultant a Russian oral back translation of an unfamiliar Scripture text, the Gospel of John. The team reached Jesus’ words in 14:27: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you.” Arina proceeded fluently and without any hesitation to translate the T text, “I leave you joy. I give you my joy.” Here’s how Vitaly, the translation consultant, describes what happened: “I marked the spot, we got to the end of the chapter and then went back to discuss potential problems in the translation. I said: “Friends, I see here you have the word ‘shadwala,’ which Arina apparently translated as ‘joy.’ This is very interesting. Did she really translate it correctly?” “Oh, yes,” they confirmed, “she translated it absolutely correctly, because this is what it means. ‘Shadwala’ is indeed joy.” “Well, but what made you translate it this way?” “We couldn't figure out how to translate ‘peace.’ We have ‘peace’ as the absence of war, but that’s not what Jesus is talking about here. We tried this and that, but we couldn’t find any means in our language to express the idea of inner peace of mind.” Thus we found one more common abstract concept for which there is no word in the T-language.”
For 45 minutes the team struggled with this passage but could not make any progress. Then the consultant suggested: “Let's turn this idea inside out, trying an ‘apophatic’ approach: we can’t express what Jesus gives, but what would disappear as a result of Jesus’s action?” The expression “Not as the world gives” means that the world also has a capacity to offer something to people. But how does the world do this? For example, it shouts: “Make more money so you’ll have a safety cushion in life.” The world is actively offering something of its own, trying to put some kind of band-aid on a huge wound, while Jesus says, “The way I do this is not the way the world does it.” But what is the specific wound we’re talking about here? We have something in our hearts that deprives us of what we call “peace” in Greek, or Russian, or English, but the T-language has no word to express this. So the T team made an effort to identify the negative property, and the following rendering was offered: “From your hearts I remove consuming thoughts. Not the way the world does it...” Arina immediately understood this: “Yes! Those are the thoughts that disturb a person, that keep us awake at nights.”
When the checking session was over, Arina added on her own initiative: “This text is amazing! How differently Jesus speaks to different people, and how very differently people respond to Him. Some totally oppose Him, some fully accept Him by faith, and some seem to accept Him by faith, but then it turns out that this faith is not genuine, not deep.”
“As she read, I saw in her eyes and in her questions that she was struck by this text: how deep it is, how powerful it is, how it shows the image of Jesus Christ, with whom she as a Muslim had previously only come into contact a little bit. And now the full Gospel image of Isa Masih had been revealed to her,” shared Vitaly.
The checking session was over. Unlike Arina, the consultant had read through John’s Gospel plenty of times: in the original, in his native language, and in many translations. But something changed for him too as this new translation was being birthed before his very eyes: “Traduttore – traditore: to translate is in a sense to betray, as the Italian proverb expresses it. But at the same time, we know that new textual connections are created with each translation. And these are not wrong just because they’re new. To a native speaker, these connections can make the thought clearer than even in the original. There is no peace in the world now; it is difficult to travel and unsettling to cross borders. Of late, I’ve had plenty of consuming thoughts myself, and indeed they did keep me up at night. But after working through this verse during the checking session, I realized that God is offering me His peace; He wants to take away my consuming thoughts so they wouldn’t devour me. So why do I still have these thoughts? Could it mean that I’m not giving Him what He would gladly remove from me? Why am I not accepting His loving offer? So the translation of this passage into the T-language has renewed my own prayer: ‘Lord, I do want what You have to offer me. Here are my consuming thoughts. Please rid me of them once and for all.’”
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