Translation Strategies for English and Foreign Bibles

Translations need to be accurate, pleasant to read, and easy to memorize. Preferably, free with no licensing restrictions on how they're used. We need them in English and thousands of foreign languages. We also need to produce new ones for people groups whose languages we're learning. In some cases, translators have to create written languages or concepts for those people groups. We need to do all of this quickly at low cost. How to go about all of this?

Problem Statement for English Translation

Top-notch texts, such as ESV or NKJV, have great wording. They're also legally encumbered with large fees. Zondervan quoted one guy $10,000 for a license, then a per-copy royalty, and they dictated certain features in his app. There's nothing in the Word of God that suggests we should restrict Bible translations to that degree or charge that much. That guy made the World English Bible. It's often good enough but ESV has beautiful wording and flow. I had some questions:

1. Can we update translations like WEB to be ESV quality?

2. Can we do that by using synonymous wording and grammar? As in, where we mostly don't need Hebrew and Greek experts?

3. Other, public-domain translations exist that were closer to how we speak today. Many resources were created before the 1920's where copyright cuts off. Can we scoop anything useful from them?

4. Optional question: with all the Spirit gave us over time, how much of today's writings do we even really need? Or could we go on just older work?

Problem Statement for Foreign-language Translation

Far as foreign translations, there's organizations taking in hundreds of millions of dollars to make Bibles. Their progress seems way slower than it should be. Many of their expenses are on support costs, not translators. They describe their progress in vague ways with words that change a lot. There seems to be little accountability. Third-party firms that do non-Christian translation seem to be more predictable, consistent, and cost-effective. How can we handle the foreign language issue?

My Project Ideas

My ideas below will try to solve one or both of these problems. Here's a list with links to ideas that are in this page:

Rapid, Cost-Effective Translation for New, People Groups

Don't translate the Bible for them. That's a waste of time and money. Instead, do this:

1. Do the Gospel and key passages first. Who Christ is, our hope, and the basics of holy living. Enough so that, if no more money comes in, people are still getting saved and serving.

2. Pick passages that share words. You can translate the words in the first passage. Then, you've saved work on one or more others. It also has a mental effect of emphasizing things as they hear the repetition.

3. Don't create many words for few words. In English translations, they might use many, English words for one word in Hebrew or Greek. This often makes sense. Early on, try to avoid doing this where possible. If it's easy for a passage, go ahead and make it beautiful. If being selective, do it for hard-hitting verses.

4. Share that with people immediately. They'll have questions about it that might take more Bible passages to answer.

4. Translate those overtime as they're requested. You can be making steady progress on the rest, too.

Doing it this way might make salvation available to more people in more groups more quickly. Then, further resources will go to where demand is greatest. That is, where the Spirit is moving. This was my oldest idea in Bible translation.

Making Free, English Translations: Untrusted Translators, Trustworthy Checkers

In high-assurance software, we wanted people to write nearly-perfect programs. One way was using math to specify and prove their behavior. That took much expertise to generate, formed over a hundred thousand steps to check, and checking that each step was logically valid was tedious (or uneconomical). Eventually, someone figured out that it's easier to check that a single step is valid than to actually produce that step. They built "trusted checkers" to eyeball each step for correctness. These were tiny, simple, and easier to make bulletproof. Then, they'd use smart, complex tools to produce the work (or steps) with simple checkers. This design pattern was called "Untrustworthy Generator, Trusted Checker." That combination led to trustworthy proofs of large, real-world software.

I decided to apply that pattern to Bible translation. We'd use untrustworthy people to produce the alternative translations. Then, use expensive scholars to spot problems at a glance.

For English Translation of Specific Verses in New Testament (proof of concept)

1. Get people in low-cost areas who don't read modern translations to be the translators. They can't use modern translations to avoid infringing on them, even subconsciously. Use public-domain Greek text, English text, descriptions of grammatical-form of the Greek, and example verses for specific words.

(Note: Even in low-cost areas, still pay them well for whatever the job type is. We're being good to people, not exploiting them.)

2. They're given a list of verses with multiple, public-domain translations. They're asked to reword it in a way that matches original Greek. They produce a bunch of rewordings. They submit them all.

3. People in low-cost areas who know the Bible with advanced tools score the validity of that translation. As in, if it's valid at all with nothing else considered.

4. If something is valid, its words are put into a database for future translators to use. A public-domain database gradually forms this way.

5. People who don't read mainstream translations score verses on how pleasant they are to read, memorizability (if we can score that), and international comprehension. Use people from many continents.

6. All valid translations, the new database, and scored passages get published into new, public-domain work. It's officially published so Bible translations can use the passages or words while citing it as the source. That protects *them*.

My original concept for this was to use Amazon Mechanical Turks or something similar. That felt exploitative. It might not be if they're assigned a reasonable amount of Scripture with fair pay for it. The people doing M.T. work might find this job really fun in comparison to normal work on MT. I also thought about the freelancer web sites. The people who do proof-checking, subtitles, and other tedious work might enjoy this. They're also used to paying attention to detail. They'll probably do well checking on the Greek to English matching.

Gospel sharing opportunities! Include a paid translation of Christ-centered passages in John, Romans, or Ephesians 2. Include an optional link to my Gospel in English and their language. Most of my work uses WEB or other public-domain translations. They can read it. Pray that they want to know more about who Jesus Christ is as they do the translations. These become Gospel-sharing opportunities that also go to people in low-income, Internet-connected, English-speaking areas scattered all over the world. There's so much potential in this.

Test passage. This also gave me the idea for a test passage. We could assess people's skill by getting them to translate verses professionals already translated. If they fail at that, don't use them. If they succeed, then keep contracting them for their proven skill. Still rotate a bit to share the Gospel with more people. Also, some might be better at specific genres, esp poetry.

End goal: A pile of good material that translators with skill can mix and match from. Merge into existing Bibles like WEB.

Commentary Version

I think I changed first version to this by default later. It's just that it requires commentary notes that haven't been produced yet. See the "Study Bible" section for more on that. Add these possibilities:

1. Give the untrusted translators Greek, English words, definitions, sample verses, and helpful notes from commentaries.

2. Find commentaries or excerpts in common commentaries that paraphrase Bible verses. Make a list of those paraphrases. Maybe include any that are close to the Greek to give translators ideas for word or grammar transformations.

Scholarly Version

1. Same as above for generating the passages using low-cost, unskilled labor.

2. Scholars check each verse. They make notes, but not give terms, on what failures are occurring with what constraints people need to meet on specific passages.

3. The Greek, English, and these translator notes are given to the next round of untrusted writers. They repeat the process.

(Note: The cost of untrusted writing might go up with complexity. It might still be cheaper than scholars. It might also not be cheaper than scholars at some point.)

Study Bible Concept

Round One

1. Use text from WEB.

2. Use notes and cross-references from Scofield Study Bible. Just because it reduces the problem to people typing or pasting them in. New problem: it's only dispensationalist. Maybe add a pass spotting which notes are dispensationalist to remove them or mention other possibilities.

3. Use or link to cross-references from Treasury of Scripture Knowledge.

4. Book intros made using notes from whole-book commentaries like Spurgeon's.

5. Dictionary, maps, etc from older books. Use as is or have an artist make fresh ones matching their info (eg names and ratios in maps).

6. Link or QR codes that take them to online version with commentaries, sermons, etc.

Round Two

For each book, make custom notes to try to hit the level of the ESV Study Bible. Use Matthew Henry Concise and larger commentary first. From there, look at commentaries on BibleHub to add short versions of the best comments for difficult lines or passages. It might be easier to do that from the beginning.

Risky Possibility to Make ESV-SB-grade Notes

ESV Study Bible, or ESV-SB here, is a top-notch product. We'd like an open alternative whose notes are just as good. We'd like them to be almost equivalent but not illegally copied. Can we use the ESV-SB to drive an independent creation that's similar but not a derivative or infringing work? I'm not sure. Here's the process, though.

1. Each person involved buys a full-priced copy of the ESV-SB from Crossway. The laborer deserves their wages.

2. They read through their allotted passages in the ESV-SB looking at the notes.

3. For each note, turn what it says into a topic, question about the text, or something else. The goal is to step back from the copywritten work in a way where we're vaguely describing what to produce rather than the specific text. Then, an independent team can produce study notes from that what. This might not be legally independent enough.

4. If not enough, produce from that a list of topics, questions, definitions to address, and so on. Much more abstract. Stands alone away from specific sections. It would now take considerable effort to both produce answers, decide where to place them, and how to word them.

5. Independent team which never saw ESV-SB decides where to put what notes in the new Bible.

This sounds like a lot of hard work. You might think it's pointless. It's just that ESV-SB had a multitude of laborers. Unless being really generous, those who were on payroll might have been expensive. They definitely got what they paid for. The above process can be done with experienced Christians who are not the top experts in their fields. If top experts are used, their comments for difficult passages can become free for the creation of many other works. So, you have more material available, draw on history's best teachers, lower cost of labor in general, and specialist labor that pays dividends in other projects. The overall project might still be cheaper, too.

Crowd-sourced, Need-based Notes

1. Let new believers or casual readers read a public-domain version of the Bible. They all go through the same book.

2. Give them free, candidate notes on the passages from public-domain commentaries.

3. For each labeled section, they pick whatever notes taught them something that wasn't obvious in the text. They also pick notes that really drove the point home. If conflicting explanations, they pick what they like best.

4. For conflicting explanations, we also let well-studied believers from multiple theologies look at them. They choose whatever they think are good explanations for their and other theologies. Good presentations of the ideas.

5. For each book of the Bible, a list of candidate notes is produced that could go in a study Bible.

6. For a specific Bible, pick which ones you want on each page in the limited space. Maybe pick one of each topic covered with a combination that covers the most material. Maybe automatically do this.

7. For online Bible, put all of them in for each passage. Still link to a full exposition with life application for every passage, too.

8. Optionally publish this on sites or apps with lots of readers. They can upvote the notes they like the most. Factor that into the next study Bible. Don't naively just put in the most popular to avoid tyranny of the majority. Make sure popular points are in there, though.

Produce Better Translations with Sentence Rewriters

Sentence rewriters can make new sentences from existing ones that have the same meaning. A thesaurus can already give us synonyms we need.

1. Feed public-domain translations into sentence rewriters. Publish everything they spit out. Mix and match.

2. Use an open-source thesaurus with brute-force combinations of alternate words. Publish it all.

3. Combine a sentence rewriter with a thesaurus.

4. For the best outputs, publish them, pay people to rate them, and publish highest-rated equivalents. Merge them into Bibles.

Feed Top Translations into Machine Learning; Output New Ones

The best translations often have great wording and structure. It's hard to produce both. Public-domain translations, such as WEB, are often less pleasing. We can't directly pull words from those translations. We might be able to indirectly produce them from tools that we indeed don't control. We need to honestly say we aren't just delegating our plagiarism to a tool designed to do that. We do want to feed it what might produce patterns in the text that's just as good, maybe even the same. It has to be independent.

There's a good chance they won't allow this. They might, though. If they do, here's the method:

1. License the best, word-for-word translations of the Bible. Pay the laborers their wages. Start with ESV, NKJV, and WEB for sure. Maybe add dynamic translations in a selective way where we only use passages that are close to formally-equivalent but have good wording or structure.

2. Put in the Greek... whichever parts their translations actually use... in with those translations' English. Dump it all in like a pot.

3. Tune the algorithm so each book only gets a small amount of weight or influence. We do this specifically for legal reasons. We want to say our tool didn't overuse any one translation.

3. Have it output something for each Greek passage.

4. Keep anything that is better than public-domain versions.

5. Publish it all as public domain. Merge the best stuff into existing, public-domain Bibles.

Using Google Translate on the Bible (Yikes!)

Google Translate works really well for some languages. Spanish speakers usually understand what I put in. The way I checked my Spanish Gospel was to run it both ways. If it is the same, it's probably a decent translation.

There's a risk it produces incorrect doctrine. There's the potential gain that, since the word is living and active, what they do read pulls them to want more of it. God might raise up people to help with translation at that point. My position for now is, when Google Translate has good results, it's better than giving them nothing. They'll burn in hell later without Jesus Christ in their lives now.

1. Run each verse or passage through Google translate both ways. If it matches, keep it.

2. For what doesn't match, try running different phrasings of it using public-domain translations. Keep what matches.

3. Give the list of translated verses to a biligual person. Let them keep what matches and note what doesn't.

4. Whatever is good enough gets put into word databases. Publish the verses, too.

5. Whatever wasn't good enough is translated by a bilingual person using commentary notes.

6. Do the same with notes for an open, study Bible in that language.

Build or Imitate a Translation Service

(Not an original idea! I read somewhere that someone was going to try a third-party, non-Christian, translation service. I don't know any details about it. I'm building on that.)

Simple Route

1. Hire an expert on third-party, translation services. They must know them well enough to build one.

2. Pay them to build one. Do Bibles primarily. Do other work on the side to pay the laborers.

I said it was simple, not cheap.

Harder Route (Brainstorming Session)

1. Hire an expert on third-party, translation services. They must know them well enough to build one.

2. Get them to write up a document listing what functions are actually needed, where they get candidates, costs, and so on. This is public-domain.

3. Get them to write up how they'd do a sample, translation project in a new language. That's public domain.

(Note: These two deliverables might be used to hold Bible translation companies more accountable. That itself might be worth the price of this work.)

4. Hire someone to produce a free course on how to create a language out of thin air from an unstudied people. Especially a written language for people with oral traditions. How do you train them in it, too? There's organizations with paid versions of these trainings. We're democratizing it.

5. Get examples of this done with languages of many varieties. I remember one project was for a language with no abstractions and only verbs. Give many examples.

6. Online site where people can submit tricky situations, request help, and catalog known solutions to various problems. Makes it easier for people in the field.

7. Missionary-grade computers and satellite gear to aid in this work. What do people use in the middle of nowhere? What really worked and didn't? Need a list.

That's all for now.

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