How many books I’ve translated from English into Portuguese? Lost count! Well, if I sit down and concentrate, I’m sure the numbers will show up on what has been one of my major jobs for the last forty years (besides being a pastor’s wife and mother of three, voracious reader, Bible student, English teacher, cook and dishwasher, sometime gardener, not such a neat cleaner and a few other mundane activities). Lots of experience still leaves me stymied with some texts. I don’t make the same mistake of translating a Christian sex education book for pre-teens (Ken Taylor’s Almost Twelve) substituting “Eustachian tubes” for “Fallopian tubes” as I did in the early seventies. I’ve had several ear surgeries since and don’t mix them there  tubes with those of the reproductive system. Bilingual from the time I learned to talk, having majored in English and Portuguese, I thought translation would be a cinch. The editor caught my mistake in the galley proof. So began my experience as book translator.

That first publishing house had a monthly meeting for translators and editors, which contributed to smoothing out and improving most texts. These meetings with peers forced us to go beyond formulaic translation, using our imagination to produce quality work.

I gained writing experience in the process—often re-writing ten times and still not getting it to “sound” right. I also became immersed in published works by established writers, learning to distinguish good writing from bad. I have always learned about writing from translation. For instance, my first attempts were with a few chapters of textbooks that classmates at seminary had trouble reading. I translated almost word for word, resulting in an incomprehensible Portuguese text that caused as much trouble as the English original. A couple of medical students asked me to put a few chapters of their dense textbook (where I had to consult a medical dictionary at almost every paragraph) into readable Portuguese, on which I labored almost a month, and they, “in gratitude, paid me with a box of chocolates”! À propos, the difference in payment between secular and Evangelical publishers is still humongous, so we do Christian books as ministry, not money making. The money made is minimal.

Translation in history

From the time of Babel in Genesis to the flames of Pentecost in Acts, language, meaning and understanding another cultural context have moved and revolutionized all people that on earth do dwell… The drama and dialogue between Joseph, his brothers and all others concerned was done through translation, because Joseph hid his true identity until his youngest brother had arrived in Egypt (Genesis 42-47).

When young Jewish noblemen were transported to Babylonian captivity, besides the well-known story of refusing the rich food of a pagan king, physical transposition and cultural translation is an even greater emphasis: “young men in whom there was no blemish, but good-looking, gifted in all wisdom, possessing knowledge and quick to understand, who had ability to serve in the king's palace, and whom they might teach the language and literature of the Chaldeans... God gave them knowledge and skill in all literature and wisdom; and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams” (Daniel 1.17). The book of Daniel also relates a divine translation narrative in which the untranslated words MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN spoke of the doom of Belshazzar’s Chaldean rule (Dan 5.17-31).

Bible translation

Ever hear of the lady who wrote to a Missionary agency saying “I never got beyond eighth grade and don’t know nothing but English, but if you can spare me an English-Spanish dictionary, the Lord will help me translate the Bible into Spanish to help all those Mexicans be saved”! Translation work is as varied as the types of texts to be rendered into a new language. Guess that is why it took over seventy scholars to translate the Bible from Hebrew into Greek in second century BC. I would say that producing the Septuagint was one of the major cultural-religious feats of the interbiblical period. This translation of the Old Testament plus Apocrypha was only translated into English by Sir Lancelot Brenton in 1851. Jerome (347-420) took twenty years to translated both old and New Testaments from Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek (using Origen (185-254)’s translation of that Alexandrian VXX as well as the Torah, Neviim and Ketuvim in original Hebrew, and koiné Greek for the New), producing the Vulgate translation into Latin which the Bible Christians had in hand (though only a few erudite people had access to it) for the next few centuries. The birth of the Reformation could be described as a season of translations: Erasmus of Rotterdam translated from Greek into Latin. Meanwhile, Martin Luther used Erasmus’s Greek-Latin translation to translate the New Testament into German (1522), and by 1532 had finished translating the entire Bible. This translation helped develop a standard for the German language and added several principles to the art of translation. William Tyndale lived for a time under the wing of Luther and, stimulated by the German reformer, produced the first Bible translated wholly into the English language. Then in 1611, James I of England (James VI of Scotland) ordered a new translation, which was to be accurate and true to the originals. He appointed fifty of the nation's finest language scholars and approved rules for carefully checking the results, insisting that the translation use old familiar terms and names and be readable in the idiom of the day. This was to be made readily available to be read in a land where seventy per cent of the population was illiterate and a single book cost the equivalent of a year’s salary for a humble laborer or even a tradesman! A good part of the King James Version of the Bible (1611) was actually translated by Tyndale. Very quickly translations into almost all the modern languages were being made and the Bible was spread throughout the world. Today there are translations of the Bible in over two thousand languages!

Translation as transmitting the Gospel

"Translation is the church's birthmark as well as its missionary benchmark," say Lamin Sanneh, of Yale University. "The church would be unrecognizable or unsustainable without it... Translation is profoundly related to the original conception of the Gospel: God, who has no linguistic favorites, has determined that we should all have the Good News in our native tongue." The writer of Ecclesiastes said there is no limit to the writing of books (Ecc 12.12), but that was translated from Hebrew. Without translation it could not have reached English, Portuguese, Swahili or Chinese ears, as it has for hundreds of other languages. Gods Spirit made the Good News understandable to “devout men, from every nation under heaven” – the multitude came together, were confused, everyone heard his own language spoken by ignorant Galileans (from Acts 2 throughout the entire New Testament). Some of the sharers of Glad Tidings were well-versed in  Scripture and secular literature (Paul, Apolos), but others such as Peter had been sub-literate until the Holy Spirit invested them with power to preach, teach and live out the Word. Communicating God’s Word turned people and their world upside down!

Modern translations into previously unknown languages

Several of our friends are missionaries involved in translating the Word into native Brazilian languages, the result of dozens of sending churches, seven missionary agencies, 66 translators and more than 150 native speakers directly involved in the translation process. There are two complete Bibles (in Wai-Wai  and Guarani-Mbyá) and 32 New Testaments translated into indigenous languages in our country alone. A great part of these translators have difficulty simultaneously dedicating their time to translation and evangelization – even though the only means of evangelizing will be through the written word which they produce. It usually takes over twenty years to translate the Bible to native tongues, and these may be read by a population of three hundred to three thousand people! Not what you would call a popular edition!

Modern Translation foibles

I admire those dedicated translators mentioned above, but confess falling short, by far, of their abilities and goals. Two Western languages with similar enough cultures suffice for me. I have done a couple of translations from other languages (French and Spanish, and in a pinch could try my hand in German), but English and Portuguese keep me on my toes and my arthritic fingers to the keyboard. Though English is an Anglo-Germanic tongue and Portuguese Neo-Latin, about 70% of the vocabulary used  in English texts is of Latin origin, so it’s relatively easy to translate into Portuguese – though some words with the same origin took on different or even contrasting meanings. “Exquisite” in English is uniquely marvelous, while “esquisito” in Portuguese is strange, weird. ”Pretend” in English is “make believe, fake” while in Portuguese “pretender” is synonym for “intend, plan”. Even in the same language, some things are interpreted differently: as an English teacher in Brazil, I was valued for being a “native speaker”, but when I wrote about “sharing the gospel to the natives” I was definitely politically and vocationally incorrect! The germ of this blog was planted by observing my peers’ translations – even having two cultures one can make serious mistakes, such as:

• In a book about Augustine, where the author wrote “be content” the translator wrote “be chaste” and mixed continuance with continence – though the old saint was dealing with sexual purity in his Confessions, the modern author was talking about being content (happy) in the Lord’s commandments, which surely implies all of that but was not the gist of the book in English.

• A translator used a computer-generated translation for an important document on airport enhancement and support, declaring that the suite of computers which commanded airplane traffic control  “wore a modern suit”(“usou um terno moderno”)!

The translator must have thought of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings when he was doing The God who is there’s “the ring of truth” into Portuguese, because he translated into “o anel da verdade” -- substituting the idea of bells pealing to announce truth with a golden circle to be placed on a finger!

• For every time the original author mentioned that someone was raised in a God-fearing home,  a recent translation I saw had rendered into “levantado”, or “lifted ”, (So and so lifted his good house) --changing the sense and making the translation nonsense.

A dictionary-sized book could be written about translations that do not make sense, or contradict common sense, or lose tract of what the original author really meant to say. But as long as people are diverse, translations will be needed. I would like to see more Brazilian authors published here, because communication – whether Biblical or biological -- is clearest within the cultural context of the people being addressed. For me, translation was a beginning place, an initial interpretation of ideas to another group. It should also be my end, in whatever language I write, to communicate and interpret from one framework of thinking to another – relaying the truth of the Written and the living Word of God to people like me, in order to understand God’s eternal truth in fresh language, so that “all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and His kingdom the one which shall not be destroyed” (Daniel 7.14 NKJ).

Elizabeth Gomes

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