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Beyond Words

What Really is Translation Accuracy?

Accuracy gets easily confused with literalness, even though they mean different things.

Danny Foster

As a cross-cultural worker, one of my greatest frustrations when I served with Wycliffe in Tanzania, Africa, was having to speak through an interpreter. But it wasn’t the hassle of always having to depend on someone to communicate that frustrated me. The real problem was the mistakes you start hearing from the interpreters as you learn the language and then have the constant feeling of being misrepresented.

This frustration has become a strong reminder for me of how important it is to translate Scripture well. Bible translators stand between God and man, Spirit and flesh. Through language, we bridge the gap across cultures, time and even worlds. Getting translation right is essential and that is why Wycliffe Bible Translators is committed to processes that safeguard translation quality. In this and subsequent “Beyond Words” columns, I will address individually the four qualities of good Bible translations: accuracy, clarity, naturalness, and acceptability.

Let’s start with the issue of accuracy. 

If you ask just about anyone—even someone with no linguistic training—what makes a translation good, most people will tell you that it has to be accurate. But what does accurate mean? Surprisingly, while most people can identify that accuracy is important in translation, very few understand what it is. That’s because accuracy gets easily confused with literalness, even though they mean different things. Literalness has to do with the degree of similarity between linguistic forms (e.g. words and grammar). Accuracy, on the other hand, has to do with the similarity of meaning. 

Here’s a humorous example that illustrates the difference quite well. Years ago I invited some Tanzanian friends over for dinner. I put the food out and said, “We’re going to eat ‘Canadian-style,’ so come to the table and just help yourselves.” All of this was stated in Swahili, but unfortunately, as a novice speaker, I translated it literally (i.e. word-for-word). Now you may see no problem with what I said. However, my Tanzanian guests broke out into an awkward mix of laughter and horror. That’s because “help yourself” translated literally into Swahili has the same meaning as “relieve yourself” in English! So, yes, my translation was literal. But accurate? No way! A much better translation would have been for me to tell my guests, “serve yourselves.”

When we talk about accuracy in translating God’s Word, we’re talking about meaning and the rule is: nothing should be added, deleted or changed. But it can be difficult to see how this gets applied if you’re only looking at the words. A good translation will, on the surface, look very different from its source text. That’s because meaning emerges out of a larger context than just single words or phrases. The translator must consider that readers bring a whole set of assumptions to the text.

Think about the Old Testament book of Ruth. At the outset, Naomi loses her husband and both of her sons. For some people groups around the world, these tragic events would suggest that Naomi was a witch. Of course, we know that she wasn’t, but the Bible does not state this outright; the author of Ruth had no concern about the Hebrew audience jumping to this conclusion. 

Translators must make every effort to understand the assumptions that people will draw on to fill in the gaps. They must find ways to ensure that the translated text in the target language means—as much as is possible—the same as it does in the source texts (more than one source text is always used). Sometimes then, preserving accuracy in Bible translation requires making certain things explicit right in the text itself, or relying on other means, such as introductions, glossaries, illustrations and occasional footnotes to help readers.

So at the end of the day, the language used will be very different in a translation, but the original meaning is still preserved. The translation, therefore, is accurate. ***

Danny Foster is president of the Canada Institute of Linguistics (CanIL), a partner of Wycliffe Canada that trains personnel to serve in language work, including Bible translation. CanIL operates at Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C. and Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto, Ont.

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