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Transforming Translators

What comes to mind when you hear the word “missionary?” Many are repulsed by the portrait of rigid and unsympathetic foreigners painted by James A. Michener in his novel Hawaii. Others presume that missionaries, such as the venerated Dr. Livingstone, sport pith helmets and get lost in darkest Africa. No, today’s sent-ones are ordinary, middle-of-the-road people like you and me. God just happened to tap us on the shoulder one day and say, “Hey, I have a job for you.”

That job for many is Bible translation. True, some cross-cultural missionary-translators leave ivory palaces of learning and go to forsaken backwaters, despised by the world. Some work in dangerous, unmentionable places. But others get assignments near Waikiki beach. And some rub shoulders with PhD’s in linguistics in world mega-cities. No matter where they end up, you will find them at a desk beside the rest of their team, with computers, CDs holding numerous translations and translation helps (formerly, layers upon layers of books), and maybe a mug of coffee or tea.

Their work is hidden: hours and hours of study, discussion with national colleague-translators, trying this word and discarding that, typing and checking. They all pray; they pray their hearts out because they are touching something holy and dare not desecrate its re-creation. Bible translator James Moffat (1870-1944) said, “Translation may be a fascinating task, yet no discipline is more humbling. You may be translating oracles, but soon you learn the risk and folly of posing as an oracle yourself.”

That office where translators work becomes—for some—a safe haven. Thankfully, most of them are not being chased down by authorities as was William Tyndale in Europe in the early 1500’s. He fled from town to town as he worked on a translation of the Bible into English. But they are threatened by a foreign culture, just on the other side of the door, which can disrupt and, at times, distress. Sauntering over to a neighbor’s to “chew the fat” poses a daunting task for some. Such pure relaxation challenges the bookish-types among them.

Once a gifted, but shy, middle-aged French-speaking translator revealed his dilemma in a devotional presentation. The word for leaves of trees and sheets of paper in French is the same: “feuilles.” He recounted the story of Jesus examining the fig tree for fruit and finding only leaves. “Feuilles, feuilles, feuilles,” he said, “sheets and sheets of paper from translation work, but where is the fruit? Where are the human contacts of touch and talk, love and laughter?”

Other translators excel in those contacts and melt into their new culture. Walking dusty paths, working alongside farmers, eating strange foods, and sweating in the heat are taken in stride. Learning the language is a snap. When they mess up something as simple as “How are you?” they can laugh at themselves as hard as their neighbors do. The apostle Paul said, “I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so our joy may be complete. (2 John 1:12) Sometimes, there’s so much joy in face-to-face visits that a translator looks on the office as stifling and taxing.

As they wrestle with new cultures and words, they struggle too with their personal strengths and weaknesses. Clearly, they need a balance: study of the Word and touching the lives of people. Christopher Morley said, “When you sell a man a book, you don’t sell him twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue, you sell him a whole new life.” Translators hope to “sell” people on the life the Book of books talks about. They flesh out the oracles they are translating. Indeed, their own lives are being transformed just as those who hear the wonderful words of life for the first time in their own language.