What does a bible translation consultant do?

Bible translators are my heroes! And I get to work with them! Most are whole-heartedly devoted to their challenging task – toiling day after day and year after year – often with hostile opposition.

Several tell me it’s the hardest thing they’ve ever tried to do – even those who’ve already accomplished big things as pastors or professionals. Translators need competence in a wide variety of fields. I mainly help them with just one of the many things they need to do well – how to come to a full and correct understanding of the original text. Then, they need to find the most accurate and clear way to express it in their language. 

As a translation consultant, I have three roles. One is to check translations of the Bible to make sure they are reliable and readable – ready for publication. No translation anywhere in the world is supposed to be published without the scrutiny and approval of a qualified consultant. 

How do I do this? The translation team sends me several chapters of their ranslation along with a written “back translation” in English that explains the words they have used. I check every verse and every word and compare them with the original Hebrew or Greek. I send questions and suggestions to the team and they reply with their answers or make the suggested changes. We then travel so that we can sit around the table together and go through every word and verse again orally. There are other speakers present who were not part of the translating process. It is vital to get feedback from them about how they understand each part of the text.

By asking them just the right questions, they can help us to find any places that might need to be said more clearly, especially if they could be wrongly understood. Once I know the team well, and their various strengths, I can do further checks at home by connecting with them virtually over the Internet while they all meet physically. 

I’m impressed by their patience and perseverance because most translations o through several drafts before they are approved. But this checking is a necessary and urgent task. Pray the Lord of the harvest for more qualified consultants so that the back-log of drafts waiting to be checked can be cleared! That’s why my second role is important. I jump at the chance to help train and mentor new consultants. This role is often combined with my other two roles so that they get on-the-job training.

My third role is my favourite – leading workshops in far-off places to upskill translators. Instead of telling them what they need to change after they’ve done it, I much prefer to equip them to get it right before they start.

Why do I travel so widely? People want more than just the last quarter of God’s book. They want what Paul called “all Scripture” so that they can use it “for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). So, they call in “the Old Testament guy” to train them. Somehow, I’ve even become known as “the Hebrew poetry guy”. How on earth did that happen to someone who didn’t even like poetry at school? Well, one third of the Old Testament (including the Psalms, Proverbs, and most of the Prophets) was written in beautiful poetry. Why? To express their messages with greater persuasive power and emotional impact. Appreciating poetry requires knowing the language very well. It helps that after studying Hebrew for five years in Dunedin, God designed for us to spend eight years in Israel, where Hebrew is spoken.

Let me take you on one of my recent trips to south-east Asia… 

Imagine you are being driven in a four-by-four to a tiny remote village. It’s hot and humid. You keep bumping your head on the window and ceiling as you rock and roll over deep furrows in the road made by vehicles when the heavy rains turn the red dirt into mud. You’re thankful that the roads for yesterday’s nine-hour trip were half-decent after all. As you approach the village you can spot a few wooden shacks among the lush, green vegetation. Each one is high up on stilts with steep wooden steps going up to the open doorways. Underneath are children playing in the dirt among the pigs, cows, chickens and dogs. You arrive at the church where the workshop is to be held. It looks just like their houses complete with pigs and chickens – just another hut on sticks! 

You notice 30 pairs of jandals at the foot of the steep wooden steps. So, you slip out of your sandals and climb up. 

When your eyes adjust to the dark, you can count 30 people sitting, ready and eagerly waiting. Most of them are ‘hill-tribe’ translators, who speak seven separate languages. And each of the seven translation teams also has an expat facilitator, who has come to live with them and help them. 

As you teach, you are constantly interrupted in a variety of amusing ways:

1) The power goes off. No pictures are on the screen to help describe the meaning. No fan is alleviating the heat and high humidity.

2) It rains so loudly on the roof that no one can hear themselves think. Fortunately, it does not last long –most of the time.

3) A loud dog fight erupts right under the church and we can even watch it unfold through the wide gaps in the floor boards.

4) The baby of one translator starts crying loudly for a long time

5) Your interpreter needs to hear it again due to all the competing noises – pigs, roosters, chainsaws, and motorcycles.

6) Your laptop over-heats and stops working. You have to borrow someone else’s for the rest of the workshop.

7) You have tried to be careful about what you eat and drink, but you get diarrhoea anyway. Imagine dashing for the basic ‘toilet’, but first you must scramble down the ladder-like steps and find your sandals among 30 other pairs!

Somehow, with God’s help, these determined learners manage to gain new skills for translating Psalms and Proverbs for their people-groups.

Why do they do it? Wherever I lead workshops (in 33 countries so far) I get them to take turns sharing their testimonies each morning. I can tell you that they’re not in it for the money. With their intelligence and training, they’d all earn much more elsewhere. Many responded in love and obedience to Jesus’ command to make disciples, knowing that the single most important resource for disciple-making is the Bible! And this command is for all ‘nations’ (people groups) because He wants all language-groups with Him in heaven (Rev 5:9).

They endure hardship and persecution because their main motivation is to bring glory to God! By bearing “fruit that will last”! They do not always see this fruit now. But the translators we worked with for nineteen years to complete a whole Bible for a national language (with 75 million speakers) keep hearing amazing stories out of their closed country, where church growth is the fastest in the world. 

When this planet disappears, only two things will endure: God’s Word and the souls of those who have responded to it. My heroes hold on to God’s promise that His powerful Word will accomplish the transforming purposes He has for it (Isaiah 55:11).

Murray | Day 11 GC3 Daily Prayer Guide