By Hannah Weiand
Hannah is a Wycliffe USA intern, attending Oral Roberts University. Hannah will graduate with a degree in Writing in May 2015.
People sometimes ask, “Why not just translate the Bible using Google Translate? Wouldn’t that save you a lot of time, money and effort?” Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
In today’s world, where technology is advancing rapidly and information is more accessible than ever, it’s important to realize that Bible translation is more than just a process of word substitution. There are approximately 7,000 languages in the world, and just under 2,000 of those languages are completely without Scripture. As intriguing as it might seem to use a tool like Google Translate to provide the Bible for those remaining languages, it simply doesn’t work.
First, according to Google Translate’s website, Google Translate uses a process called “statistical machine translation.” Google explains this process as the computer detecting patterns in documents on the Internet that have already been translated by human translators. The problem here is that language groups that still need a Bible translation are typically underdeveloped, at best, and some don’t even have an alphabet. So little-to-no material appears on the Internet in those languages. And even for those languages that Google Translate does serve, Google states that “For some languages, however, we have fewer translated documents available, and therefore, fewer patterns that our software has detected. This is why our language quality will vary by language and language pair.”
Second, there is a problem with the lack of languages that Google has to offer. While its program continues to grow, it currently only has 80 languages in its repertoire, making its benefits very exclusive.
Mainly, however, there is more to the process of translation than what tools like Google Translate can or cannot do. One thing that a computer tool like Google Translate cannot account for is culture. The process of translating the Bible for people who have never had it in their own language requires an understanding of their way of life. Only through that understanding can we properly communicate the complex, powerful concepts found in the Bible.
For example, we love God with all of our hearts and accept Jesus into our hearts. But in many cultures around the world, the heart is not considered the center of the emotions. Consider the Awa people of Papua New Guinea, who express feelings and importance with the liver. They wouldn’t say “I love you with all of my heart”; they would say something along the lines of “I love you with all of my liver.”
Cultural context aside, we must also consider the many complexities of language. For example, some languages have multiple ways to describe something that may be a single-word concept in English, while other languages may not have a word for that concept at all. And some languages take entirely different forms, like those that are whistled or signed. (There are nearly 400 different sign languages in the world, and most of them are without the Bible!)
All of these factors help explain why Bible translation takes so much time, dedication and personal investment. And in the end, nothing can replace that personal connection.
This post is part of our Wycliffe 101 series. Click here to read the previous post, or here to start at the beginning.
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