I had the wonderful privilege of attending The 6th Biennial Bible Translation Conference over the last several days. The conference brought together linguists, translators and consultants from all over the world to discuss topics impacting the field today. Overall, I was tremendously blessed by the interactions, discussions, presentations, plenary sessions and speakers. It is truly an exciting time to be a part of what God is doing through Bible translation and I look forward to attending again in 2013, Lord willing.
I now want to offer some reflections on the conference from the perspective of one who is relatively new to the field and new to the discussions the field is having. You can grab PDFs of pre-conference paper drafts, bibliographies and abstracts in this public folder. Go quickly, I don’t know how long it’ll last.
Formal vs. functional
The discussion between formal and functional equivalence is one that professional Bible translators are still very interested in having. It’s not clear, however, whether the issue arises with actual, genuine consideration in mind or merely to serve as an opportunity to reinforce/promote one’s own thinking on the matter. There does seem to exist a certain dismissive attitude toward formal equivalence to the extent that one presenter went so far (in my mind at least) to equate formal equivalence with bibliolatry. Such uncharitable equations are neither helpful nor further the discussion.
Coming from a biblical studies and theological background, I have observed a tendency for those focused mainly on biblical studies and theology to lean toward formal equivalence while those with (minority language) translation field experience to strongly favor dynamic equivalence or what’s increasingly termed “meaning-based translation” (more on that). This bifurcation leaves two possibilities in my mind: (1) biblical studies is lagging way behind translation studies in adoption of dynamic equivalency or (2) a synthesis is in order. I find the latter option most likely.
Increasingly, “meaning-based translation” is the phrase used to describe the Bible translation philosophy employed by many within Wycliffe and its partner organizations. I admit my ignorance of the genesis of the term, but I can’t help but wonder if it isn’t a strategic adoption which in a way sidesteps the formal vs. functional discussion. Does “meaning-based translation” proffer a tertium quid in name only? Is it implying that formal equivalency isn’t meaningful?
One presenter wisely noted that we must be careful in touting notions of accuracy, faithfulness, and meaningfulness as there are different degrees and different arenas of each. For example, in translating an idiom word-for-word a translator has captured the individual lexical meaning but missed the phrase-level meaning (the idiom). Is such a translation “accurate”? In a way…but we must be more specific: more accurate in what way?
The same presenter referenced the prefaces to both the ESV and the NLT wherein each make claims of accuracy. “Who’s right?” she quipped. “I think they both are, but in different ways.”
The overwhelming majority of conference attendees were age 50+ white males, matching the description of a missionary linguist as “an ugly farmer.” I fully expected more GIAL students to be in attendance as the conference was hosted by the school, offered at a deep discount and right on campus. It would be wonderful to see more student interaction in the future.
My feeling is that the Bible Translation Conference was not well-advertised (which isn’t to say it wasn’t well-attended. I think I heard that there were almost 200 attendees). There should have been ads in scholarly journals, ads on biblical studies blogs, and invitations sent to colleges and seminaries. My feeling is that there wasn’t any of this. If a conference is going to be truly challenging and beneficial, there must be a diverse mixture of interested attendees. Simply meeting with one’s work colleagues to confirm already established opinions isn’t a academic pursuit, it’s inbreeding. In the future, the conference would be greatly enriched by the presence of professionals and students from the fields of biblical studies, theology and non-SIL linguistics.
Lack of training in biblical studies and theology
The conference confirmed in part my desire to see a greater degree of training in biblical studies and theology for Bible translators. One attendee who works in OT translation projects was, as far as I could tell, unaware of textual criticism. Additionally, of the papers I listened to, only one explored the theological dimension of Bible translation and even that was somewhat in passing. There is much gold to be mined here and Bible translation will be greatly enriched when translators grow proportionally as theologians and linguists.
Challenge to stay current
A major challenge facing the above reflection about a need for greater training in biblical studies and theology is how exactly can translators working in remote locations stay abreast of current trends in those fields? This challenge matters because good translations depend on translators being well-informed. For example, one presenter explored the meaning of kataluma in Luke 2:7, Jesus’ birth narrative. Kataluma has traditionally been understood as “inn” while current scholarship (within at least the last 10 years) has found evidence suggesting that kataluma is better understood as “guest room.” (Read more about that here.) To my surprise the presenter was met with a great degree of incredulity in the question and answer time. Being familiar with the discussion before the presentation, the new scholarship was a closed-case for me. Others, however, weren’t ready to trade tradition for “scholarly conjecture.” The presenter was met with appreciation by one lady one said she had just recently been working through the translation of kataluma in her project and they were having trouble coming up with a good word for “inn.”
Fortunately, digital technology is making it easier to stay informed through blogs, ebooks, and mp3 and video lectures, if translators want to and make the time.
Funding will always be an issue
Bible translation is an expensive endeavor. May God provide!