Testing Translations

Over the past several days, as Wayne Leman has posted Mark Strauss’ paper on the ESV, Wayne has made a number of comments about the need for English translations to begin going through the same testing processes that minority language projects go through. To illustrate what exactly that means, I’m borrowing from SIL’s website a simple outline of the process of a typical translation. Not all translations are done exactly like this, but it will be helpful for readers to see the different steps involved in translating as done by an organization that has been involved in 740 completed translation projects with hundreds more still in process.

Note below that testing the translation with other speakers is repeated in some form a number of times, whether with fellow translators or outside native speakers. I’ve marked these in bold and there are a good number of them.

First Draft Phase

  • Prepare the First Draft
    • Discover the meaning of the source text
      The translator and/or the facilitator study the meaning of the source text in detail, researching any exegetical, textual, translation, cross-cultural or other problems.
    • Make a first draft translation
      The translator makes the first draft, often working closely with a translation facilitator.
  • Improve the First Draft
    • Check the translation with the translation facilitator and with other team members
    • Prepare any supplementary materials needed to provide essential background information (e.g., book introduction, glossary entries, footnotes).
    • Keyboard the translation on a computer (if not already keyboarded).
    • Test with other speakers of the language. The translation should be tested at this point with at least two other individuals or groups.
      • For the first two or three books translated, the consultant check will come at this point.
      • For other books it will usually come at a later stage (see below).
  • Revise the translation in the light of suggestions and comments
    • Make a revised draft. This is done by the translators and the translation facilitator.
    • Enter the changes on the computer disk.

Second Draft Phase

  • Proofread and carefully check the corrections against the former printout.
  • Review
    • Prepare copies of the translation for Reviewers and for testing with other speakers.
      (These would probably be computer printouts or photo copies from the computer version.)
    • Send copies to Reviewers (with a system for gathering in comments).
      Sometimes the reviewing work is done most effectively through personal interaction as reviewers meet together to discuss the translation and make their suggestions for improvement.
    • Test the translation further with other speakers.
      The translator may think that the translation means one thing, but when he or she tests to find out what other people understand from the translation, he may discover that to the hearers the meaning is something quite different from what he intended. So plenty of testing with speakers of the language is needed to find out whether the translation is communicating the message accurately and clearly.
  • Check with a translation consultant (if not checked at an earlier stage)
    • Make a written back-translation. Where possible, the back-translation should be made by a mother-tongue speaker, someone other than the translator, so that it reflects what the text means to a speaker of the language.
    • Team check the back-translation, and revise.
    • Do a verse-by-verse check with a translation consultant.
      This is done by the translation consultant and translation team, with other mother-tongue speakers.
    • Incorporate revisions.
  • Test the translation
    • Prepare and distribute trial copies of the translation for testing in local churches.
    • Gather feedback.
  • Revise the translation in the light of suggestions and comments
    • Translators and translation facilitator revise the translation
    • Enter the changes on the computer disk.

Preparation for Publication Phase

  • Choose illustrations and maps (if used).
    The translation team and the reviewers or the local Translation Planning Committee decide on what is best. They also double check any other supplementary material.
  • Check for consistency in translation.
    For example, check that parallel passages in the gospels are the same where they should be the same, that all proper names are spelled consistently, that key biblical terms are, where appropriate and depending on the context, translated consistently. Also check for consistency in handling numbers, money amounts, weights and measures, et al., also translation of features such as rhetorical questions, figures of speech, genitive constructions, et. al.
  • Check the consistency of mechanical details
    • Section breaks, section headings and paragraph breaks
    • Spelling, and the transliteration of loan words
    • Use of capital letters, punctuation, and hyphenation
    • Chapter and verse numbers, and cross-references
    • Standard format markers, and special characters
    • Layout and format (indentation, style, etc.) of Old Testament quotations, poetry, and lists.

    For all these checks, computer programs are of enormous help, but a lot of painstaking human labor is needed, too.

  • Check the accuracy of the translation, comparing back carefully with the source texts. In the course of improving the clarity and naturalness of the translation, inaccuracies may have crept in. So a final check for accuracy is always needed.
  • Read through the translation. The translation team and church representatives need to get together to review and see whether they are all satisfied that the translation is really ready to go for publication, and to discuss and resolve any remaining problems.
  • Check prepublication requirements. The translation team need to make a last check with the translation consultant to make sure that all the final checks have been covered and to discuss any remaining problems.
  • Final approval from the translation consultant and Branch Director.
  • Proceed to the typesetting phase. Here a computer typesetting supervisor will guide the team through the stages of pre-typesetting checks, paging, placing of illustrations and footnotes (if used), until, finally, the photo-ready copy is ready to go to the printers.
  • Publish!