Sunday, May 08, 2005

Computer-aided Bible translation

From an article by Ron Csillag. Excerpts:
With a few deft keystrokes and clicks of his mouse, "Mr. Le" (he asked that his full name not be used) can read about God cleaving day from night in Hebrew, English and his native Vietnamese, the texts arranged in three neat vertical columns on his laptop's screen.

Complementing the verse from the first chapter of Genesis is a palette of icons from which he can summon dictionaries, scripture commentaries, glossing tools and other instruments that once cluttered the desks of those who toil to understand the ancient words in their own tongue.

Alas, the last translation of the Bible into Vietnamese was completed in 1926. "We should do a new one," Le says with a smile. "There is a need for it."

Over in the Africa "section" of the room, Martin Ntambo of Malawi and Ayo Durodola of Nigeria cradle their chins as they scroll through a New Testament verse. There are more than 400 languages spoken in Nigeria, Durodola points out, and the Bible is available in just 17 of them. "Not enough," he pronounces.

Supply for the global demand is the main reason these and about 25 other "digital servants," as they're called, and Bible translation experts from a dozen countries gathered in rural Ontario this month.

For 12 days in a Mennonite summer camp outside Stratford, hosted by the Canadian Bible Society and its Institute for Computer Assisted Publishing, they honed their skills in a magical bit of software called Paratext, which the bible society helped develop and distributes worldwide.

The program not only provides access to biblical texts in the original Hebrew and Greek and permits users to create databases in dozens of target languages, but allows onscreen editing, analysis, explanatory notes and overall quality assurance. Most important, it provides what those in the Bible translation business call a smooth path to publishing — the last step before a clean copy of the Good Book can be read by the faithful around the world.

A computer's involvement, though invaluable, is limited to the technical.

For example, if an operator is stumped on a passage in a target language, Paratext will compare the Hebrew or Greek source text with a translated version, and purely on the basis of statistical probabilities, will suggest what equivalent words may be used. If a translator is working from, say, an English source text, the completed work is translated back into English. These "back translations" are then checked against the original Hebrew or Greek.

"Accuracy is always checked against the original," Wiens [Hart Wiens, Canadian Bible Society director of scripture translation] says.

It's left to people to overcome the many linguistic and cultural stumbling blocks in translations.

One of Wiens' favourite examples is the conundrum of rendering the fig, olive and palm trees of the Bible's arid landscape into languages spoken in Arctic regions, such as Inuktitut (in which a Bible was completed in 2002 after 23 years of work).

"They have one generic term for tree," he says of Canada's Inuit. "It's the same with many animals in the Bible. So we have to start with a base word and tweak it." Or explain it in a glossary at the back of the translation.

Another difficulty is whether nouns are masculine or feminine, as in French and Spanish, or whether they are animate or inanimate, as in many aboriginal tongues.

Gender-inclusive language and use of such pronouns as "he" and "she" is another big issue, but not for everyone. The African language Yoruba, for instance, is gender neutral. Asked how translators work around the many references to "he," "his" and "they" in the Gospel accounts, Nigeria's Durodola shrugs. "It's not a big issue," he says.

Sometimes, the simplest English words reveal the frustrating shortcomings of other languages: "Love," "believe," "give," (as in "God gave his only Son") even "God." Rather than simply transliterating the latter and mimicking the sounds the letters make, translators aim for local flavour.

Durodola and Vietnam's Le smile at each other on discovering that their words for the supreme deity have the same meaning: "Duc Chua Troi" in Vietnamese and "Olorun" in Yoruba both mean, roughly, "Lord of the Sky."

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