April 3, 2013
by Dave Brunn
This question was paramount in my mind when my wife and I first arrived in Papua New Guinea in 1980. As a new missionary-translator I was committed to translating God’s Word as faithfully and accurately as possible. I thought I had a good understanding of what that meant, but when I started translating into the Lamogai language, I quickly realized that my view of translation was incomplete and even a bit idealistic. Bible translation is an incredibly complex undertaking, but somehow I had developed an oversimplified view of the translation process.
It didn’t take me long to realize that some of my standards of faithful and accurate translation were based on English grammatical features that do not exist in Lamogai. If those standards were really God’s universal standards then Lamogai would automatically be disqualified from having a faithful or accurate translation of God’s Word.
One piece of the puzzle that I had not taken into consideration is the fact that English and koine Greek are related languages—both members of the Indo-European language family. That means the degree of literalness that exists in some English versions of the New Testament is largely due to the fact that the translators were translating from one Indo-European language into a distantly related language.
I realized that I had unintentionally made English the ultimate standard for Bible translation. This realization became even more noteworthy when I learned that only 6 percent of the world’s living languages are classified as “Indo-European.” That means 94 percent of the languages spoken around the world today are not related to koine Greek in the way English is. My view of translation was based on a pretty narrow segment of the worldwide linguistic landscape.
As I continued translating the New Testament into Lamogai, I frequently compared various English versions side-by-side. That is when my idealistic perception of translation really started to unravel. It quickly became apparent to me that the English Bible versions identified as “literal” versions are not nearly as literal as I had previously thought.
As a career translator, when I would hear Christians arguing about Bible translation, it was apparent to me that much of the debate was based on an incomplete, oversimplified view of the Bible translation process—similar to the view I held when I first started translating. So I set out to document some of the things I had learned about translation through my twenty-one years as a translator in Papua New Guinea.
During that time, I read a lot of books and articles that deal with the ongoing translation debate. I found that most of those books and articles focus almost exclusively on theoretical “ideals” and do not attempt to give an objective, comprehensive view of “real” translation practice. The authors would generally start by explaining their predetermined point of view and then use a few carefully selected translation examples to support their philosophical position.
As I continued to document the things I had learned as a Bible translator, I determined I would not argue translation philosophy, and I would not disparage any translation of Scripture. Instead, I resolved to humbly and respectfully present objective evidence that had often been left out of the translation discussion. My aim was to raise the light level of the average English-speaking Christian, allowing the truth about translation to dispel unwarranted disunity related to this issue.
Eventually, my writings came together as a book, designed expressly for the church in the English-speaking world: One Bible, Many Versions, published by InterVarsity Press. My prayer is that Christians will read this book with an open mind—sincerely seeking to gain a truer understanding of what translation is all about. When they do, I am convinced that their perspective of translation will be broadened, challenged and in some cases transformed.
Dave Brunn is dean of academics for New Tribes Mission (NTM) USA Missionary Training Center. A missionary, translator and educator, Brunn spent over twenty years in Papua New Guinea where he served the Lamogai people through church planting, literacy training and Bible translation and consultation. Among his works is a complete translation of the New Testament into the Lamogai language.
Posted by Nate Baker-Lutz at 2:59 PM