Photo: courtesy of Casey Ellis
Beyond Words

Will it Be Acceptable?

Acceptability is achieved when Bible translators have mitigated all (or most) of the reasons that people might reject the translation they produce.

(Above) Speakers of the Paama and Southeast Ambrym languages in Vanuatu eagerly accept Scriptures in their mother tongues.

"What Bible translation do you prefer the most?” It’s difficult for me to answer this often-asked question, because there are so many “flavours” of English Bibles available.

I tend to jump between many translations. Maybe an interesting way to approach the question is to think about the translations we dislike and specify reasons we avoid them. In the past three issues of Word Alive, I’ve discussed accuracy, clarity and naturalnessas necessary qualities of a good Bible translation. In this issue, I want to move on to a fourth quality—acceptability. And if you’ve started pondering why you like or dislike certain translations, then I’ve succeeded in getting you to think about this topic.

Acceptability is achieved when Bible translators have mitigated all (or most) of the reasons that people might reject the translation they produce. Acceptability can be affected by many factors internal and/or external to the translation.

Let me give you an internal example. I’ve always marvelled at the survival of the Hebrew, idiomatic expression in most English translations of Proverbs 25:22, which instructs us to “heap burning coals on the heads” of our enemies by giving them food and drink. (Paul also includes this in Romans 12:20.) Not growing up in a Christian tradition, you’d likely have no clue what the idiom means. A better translation for today might be to use a modern, idiomatic equivalent: treating your enemies nicely is a great way to “kill them with kindness!”

Of course, I would not be surprised if you balk at my translation suggestion, because it fails the acceptability test. It’s just too colloquial.

But acceptability can reach way beyond word choices, touching on external, even social, factors. At the front of the 2007 New Living Translation, the publishers extol the scholarly approach and the academic qualifications of the translation team. Publishers do this in an effort to improve our confidence in their work and thereby improve its acceptability among readers.

I’m reminded of a time when we looked for mother-tongue translators in a language project I served with in northern Tanzania. We chose a quite gifted man, but when he began working on the translation, some church leaders quickly asked us to find someone else. I soon learned that the man was well known as a drunkard. We had to let him go; his lifestyle would have blocked acceptability of the Bible translation.

Acceptability must work together with accuracy, clarity and naturalness, but sometimes it can actually work against it. For example, some expect that for a book to be considered “holy,” its language should be archaic, difficult, and even not understandable! This kind of thinking plagued John Wycliffe and William Tyndale as they translated the Bible into English 400 years ago. Their critics insisted God’s Word remain in Latin.

Acceptability, however, is not just about eliminating detractors. It also drives a Bible translation team to produce something highly desirable—something a language community will be proud of. Bible translation expert Eugene Nida says that as translators, you must find a way to convey “the tone, spirit, and the genius” of the original source text into the target language they are translating for. If you fail, the text is robbed of its value and the receiver is cheated, explains Nida. If you succeed, the translation is “a masterpiece.”

Accuracy, clarity, naturalness and acceptability are the four main qualities that Bible translators must strive for and balance. All four are necessary for a translation to be valued, read and impactful. I hope that these past four columns have helped you appreciate the importance of Bible translation being done with great care and respect.

Significant time must be invested to produce a translation that is of high quality—time spent not only in the work, but also in the training of those involved. There is simply too much at stake if a Bible translation effort fails.

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

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Beyond Translating the Bible

Language development is foundational to our ultimate vision: that all peoples will be transformed by encountering Jesus through the Word of God.