I had an email from a friend recently who asked an excellent question about priorities for translating different parts of the Bible. He asks:
I’ve been reading over some of your posts that I have missed out on in the last few months, and was noticing that the Bible translation for the Sangu started with Ruth, Jonah, Mark, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon…and was wondering why you start there? Is there a “set” order that Bible translation tends to happen in, or is it that shorter books can be translated more quickly and so get scripture into the hands of the people?
That’s an excellent question, and one that I am often asked when talking to people about Bible translation. My answer would be that there is no set order, and that ideally the decision as to which books of the Bible are translated first would be made by the church leaders and others in the community who will use the Scriptures. They may have reasons for wanting certain parts of the Bible available in the local language first, because they meet a particular need in the life of the church at that time, or because they generally relate to the culture and situation of the church. It may be that certain New Testament letters address similar issues to those facing the church at that time, or that proverbs, Old Testament narratives, or even genealogies, are seen as being particularly relevant when presented in the language of home, the family and the community. Another factor is that sometimes church leaders and others may want to produce the Jesus Film in that language, in which case the gospel of Luke would need to be translated to be used as the script.
Having said that, another big consideration is a very practical one, namely what will be relatively easy to start with! The translators will be just learning their job – they may have backgrounds as pastors in their local area or in other church leadership, but translation can be a steep learning curve. So in reality a lot of the decision at least initially is based around what will be easier to translate, which tends to be narratives without too many complex thought processes, and also stories that are culturally similar to the culture of the target community. Ruth is a great example on both of these counts, hence it’s very often one of the first books to be translated, and also Jonah is a short narrative and quite easy to translate.
Even when the translators have finished these relatively easy books they’ll often end up going back later and revising the first translations they did, finding that as they gain more experience they would translate things differently. So the first books to be translated will often be revised after a couple of years as the translators continue with other parts of the Bible.
So decisions of translation priorities are generally made based on a combination of the desires of church leaders and the community, and practical considerations of the translation team. How this plays out in practice will vary from situation to situation… if you keep following our blog over the next couple of years, hopefully we’ll be able to keep you updated on the decisions and progress of the team in Katavi, Tanzania that we are looking forward to serving with!