Gospel & Culture blog
If William Carey translated 6 Bibles and portions into 29 other languages, how good could those translations have been?
I began wondering about this when I considered debates about the locus of control of Bible translations.
Bible translation organizations face an internal struggle over the role of expatriate translators. Is it desirable for non-native speakers (often from the west) who are highly trained in translation philosophy and exegesis to have a direct role in translation? Or should indigenous communities bear much of the responsibility, and westerners take on a consulting role?
For the first 1800 years of church history, as the gospel came to a new setting, native speakers who converted became inspired to bring scripture to their own people (Smalley, 1991). This method can be traced all the way back to Ulfilas’ translation of the Bible into his childhood Gothic language in the 4th century AD. Smalley (1991) suggests that the Bible translation model is now coming full circle, and the responsibility of Bible translation is now moving back into the hands of the native speakers. Just under 500 translations of scripture had been completed between the first and 18th century; yet in the past 200 years, over 2000 additional translations have been completed. Still, more than 2500 of the world’s 7000 languages do not have a single verse of scripture.
The debate about the role of expatriate translators has to do with two realities: 1) non-native speakers may not understand the target language well enough to produce an acceptable translation, and 2) post-colonial sentiment suggests that expatriates should take on more of a “facilitator” role in all missionary endeavors, including translation.
William Carey epitomizes, in some ways, the “non-native” model of the Protestant mission era. Admirers of Carey point out that he translated the Bible into six languages and portions into another 29. Is such a feat possible, and if one did attempt to do this, would the quality be any good? What are the chances that Carey's translation philosophy and methods, in 1800, were able to produce the kind of meaning-based vernacular translations we produce today?
Smalley (1991) reports that Carey’s translation was “seriously flawed. If there had been competent Bible translation consultants in Carey’s day, they would not have approved for publication much, if any, of the translation work done by Carey and under his supervision” (p. 47). Culshaw;s (1967) review of Carey's Bengali translation concludes that Bangla Christians can understand Carey's text, but they don't actually talk that way. Culshaw suggests that this level of comprehensibility, alone, is a remarkable accomplishment for a missionary who was pioneering not only a translation, but a system of writing for these languages. Drawing on S. K. Das' critique of the Bengali translation, Culshaw provides some examples of issues that Carey faced (which Bible translators still struggle with today):
Also, it is questionable whether Carey actually epitomizes the “non-native” model of translation. He “passed the torch to “numerous translations done by Indian assistance. They would translate into their own languages, consulting with each other about problems as they did so” (Smalley, 1991, p. 46). This leads us to the second issue around the debate of “locus of control”: Are indigenous communities responsible for their own Bible translations? In addition to being self-multiplying, self-governing and self-funding, should ecclesial communities be self-translating?
Much of the discourse about indigenous translation projects is linked with the discourse of post-colonialism, as well as an emphasis on “acceleration.” Is it paternalistic for western-trained linguists to initiate and manage translation projects? And besides, highly-trained expatriate scholars can take twenty years to complete a translation - at such a rate, how would we ever complete the next 2500 translations? Could we ever finish the task, if “the number of people training in the West to do Bible translation on the decline” (Gravelle, 2010, p. 13)? A number of linguists in the Bible translation movement agree with Beine (2016) that the highest quality Bible translations result with a high level of cooperation between linguists, biblical scholars, native speakers and indigenous church leaders.
Beine, D. (2016). A continuing role for Western Bible translators? In R. Scheuermann & E. Smither (Eds.), Controversies in Mission: Theology, people and practice of mission in the 21st century (pp. 165–186). Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library Press.
Culshaw, W. (1967). "William Carey - then and now." The Bible Translator. 18 (2) April, 53-60.
Das, S. K. Early Bengali Prose from Carey to Vidyasagar. Booldand Private Limited, 1 Sankar Ghosh Lane, Calcutta-6, Rs 25
Gravelle, G. (2010). Bible translation in historical context: The changing role of cross-cultural workers. International Journal of Frontier Missiology, 27(1), 11–20.
Smalley, W. (1991). Translation as mission : Bible translation in the modern missionary movement. Macon, GA: Mercer.
© 2015 Kenneth Nehrbass. All Rights Reserved.
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor