Interpreting and Translating

Posted on September 24, 2017


Not too long ago a good friend who read my column on St. Francis and the Crusaders (I know, it sounds like a 1960s rock group) reminded me that a lot rides on a translation.

Some folks believe quite sincerely that the only decent and true translation of the Bible is the King James version, done in the early 17th century when “thees” and “thous” were really popular.

The New Testament was written in Greek, and it has been translated, first into Latin (the Vulgate of St. Jerome done in the late fourth century) and then into dozens, scores, and finally hundreds of languages.

The latest count compiled by the Wycliffe Associates (Bible translators) is that the Bible has been translated in its entirety 531 times, the New Testament exists in 1,333 translations, and there are almost four thousand (3,955) different tongues and dialects without a Bible translation. Those languages with at least one book of the Bible in translation number 1,045.

As the latest Wycliffe flyer notes, “with more than half of the world’s languages without any portion of Scripture, the urgency to fulfill the Great Commission has never been greater.” You can find the Great Commission in Matthew 28:16-20.

For those of you interested in the ongoing efforts of the Wycliffe organization, I’ll save the story of a Marine Corps flyer, Drew Fitzpatrick, for a later column. A graduate of the U. S. Naval Academy, he flew with the Marines for about 20 years. Now he lives in Africa with his family working for Wycliffe.

I have been interpreting and translating between English and Spanish now for 30 or 40 years. My fluency — from different sources — in two languages was really tested first as a Fulbright scholar in Costa Rica and Peru in the 1980s where I taught university classes in Spanish on U.S. history.

Later I became an official interpreter in the penal system here in Alabama, translating for the courts, for public defenders, for attorneys, etc.
I preach and teach in the Tuscaloosa County Jail in Spanish when I find Hispanics there, and on mission trips to Honduras, I preach to Hondurans who come into the Baptist Medical and Dental Mission International compound for medical and dental attention. And, obviously, I also translate occasionally for the Alabama, English-speaking, doctors, dentists, nurses, and other members of the mission, although the Honduran churches provide us with translators.

Interpreting and translating can be a tricky business. I am no trained linguist or language expert. I just grew up speaking both languages because of family circumstances, and in my work as an historian over the past half-century ended up researching and writing in both English and Spanish.

Idioms can be daunting. I speak colloquial Peruvian Spanish (where I grew up) but if I hear two teenagers from someplace like Mexico, or Puerto Rico, or Costa Rica (anyplace really) yakking away in their own lingo, at a rapid pace like Cubans, I am lost. I can barely understand American teenagers, let alone Hispanics.

A few weeks ago, I was interpreting for an inmate at the Federal Correctional Institution for female inmates in Aliceville and in the interrogation by the lawyers I had to stop them.

“How much cocaine were you carrying in your car?” I had to ask the inmate, in Spanish. It sounded like she had said 20 kilos. I thought, I must be hearing things. Maybe 20 ounces, or 20 grams, or 20 anything other than kilos.

She was right. She was, as you may guess, a big-time trafficker and my cultural ear was not used to hearing those amounts of that drug. She might just as well have said 20 tons and I would have been as aghast as at 20 kilos.

I like to listen to or read my Bible in Spanish daily. Does it make a difference in how I understand the Bible? Yes and no. I discovered that in Spanish, the same word, justicia, is used to translate two English words, justice and righteousness. How can that be; don’t they mean different things? Or do they?

A serious scholar and theologian will of course then turn to the original Greek. I could turn to the Greek (it’s online), but it will be, as the old saying goes, “Greek to me.”

A lot rides on the translation, at least once and probably more than once removed from the original written maybe 2,000 years ago. ¡Buena suerte!

Published as “Interpreting and Translating Can Be a Tricky Business,” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday Sept. 17, 2017.

Posted in: Translating