Crowdsource the Translation

PREVIOUSLY: The Endangered Cultures List

The Seed Company is the advance guard of scripture translation. Their strategy is specially designed to jump-start the process by finding nationals to lead the work and prioritizing the translation of certain passages. It’s quite remarkable, really.

But there is more they could do to accelerate Bible translation.

Historically, scripture translation has been done by trained professionals. Involvement of supporters has therefore been limited to financial contributions. Give money, the strategy goes, and we will produce the translation. That’s not to say that Bible translations are being done through the tedious work of lone individuals- it’s a group effort. For every target language, translation efforts depend on a network of nationals, scholars, researchers, linguists, and writers to do the job. The Seed Company uses modern technology and its OurWord translation software (see video embedded in The Seed Company’s home page) to facilitate communication between translators and consultants.

As large and dynamic as these teams can be, I say they’re not large and dynamic enough. I would open them up to public participation; crowdsource the work.

Crowdsourcing is relying on the participation of volunteers to accomplish a task or maintain knowledge. Open source software is one example of crowdsourcing- its copyright allows users to makes changes to the source code, improving its compatibility, functionality, and usability. Wikipedia is another good example. Thousands of volunteer editors write the entries to the online encyclopedia that is accurate and up-to-date (and has put traditionally-edited print encyclopedias out of business).

The Seed Company should set up a wiki site that allows everyone from amateur linguists to phililogy students to national believers to aid in the translation of the scriptures. As with Wikipedia, users could write, edit, and maintain accurate translations of passages and books of the Bible in every available language. The source could always be available online to anyone who wanted to participate. The works-in-progress would provide tangible projects for churches to take on. Rather than holding potentially supportive churches at a “pray, give, or go” arm’s length, open source scripture translation would invite people in to direct and tangible involvement.¬† Churches could support individual translations and help recruit native speakers to assist with the work.

A greater base of locals would have ownership in the project, adding a level of indigeneity to what might otherwise be seen by supporters as patronizing efforts by outsiders. Regional versions could be accommodated, allowing for hyper-local translation in linguistically-diverse areas. The process would be maintained in an ongoing fashion; translations would no longer be considered either “in progress” or “finished,” and could instead keep up with the rapid changes all languages undergo. Curation of a translation by nationals could be an indicator of the viability of an indigenous church among a people.

Some have already turned to “the crowd” for projects related to the Bible. Crossway has tracked the highlighting practices of users of its online ESV Bible to find the most commonly highlighted Psalms. Self-described conservatives are crowdsourcing a “conservative” version of the King James Bible (what they call a “translation,” I’m calling an “interpretation.”) Nevertheless, their project shows that such an undertaking is possible and productive; the conservative New Testament was produced in about a year.

Sure, there are concerns and objections¬† (mostly on the part of professional translators)- can we trust the translation of the public? Of unbelievers? What about militant atheists who want to vandalize the project? How can we guarantee the accuracy and integrity of a translation done by strangers? What about the languages of isolated tribes who don’t have computers or internet access?

Well, for starters, technology can make this work. Version and editions tracking can make managing such a project viable. Those nationals who are currently regarded as “translators” would become editors. Their job would be to review and approve editions and proposed changes. Users could flag questionable or unhelpful translation wherever they run into it, and links could provide alternate translations. Source material could be viewed parallel to the target translation, and reference material could be easily accessed. All of this can be done on a text-based website designed to work on mobile phones.

At the very least, a raw translation can serve as rough drafts for professional translators rather than having them start from scratch. It would be the ultimate in accountability, as translation progress would be publicly visible. It would build community among participants, instill a sense of ownership, and give churches practical handles for supporting churches.

Crowdsourcing would greatly accelerate scripture translation.

NEXT: The Seed Company, Misunderstood

About E. Goodman

Ernest Goodman is a missiologist, writer, teacher, and communications strategist.