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Saturday, May 21, 2005

Field testing Bible versions

It is my impression that most English versions of the Bible were never field tested before they were published. This is unfortunate, for field testing of any important product is an important step in making that product as helpful to users as possible. Today all computer programmers know that their software must undergo field testing before it is released. Of course, field testing is not the final step; it must be followed by adequate revision based on the results of the field testing. Software which is full of bugs does not sell well and creates disgruntled users. The best software is that which is not only useful, but also user-friendly. We who accept the challenge to translate God's Word for others must pay just as much attention to be sure our product is accurate, useful, and user-friendly. Our translations must be field-tested before they are released to the general public. Translators of tribal languages call this "community checking". Or we might use the computer term beta testing. Only we Bible translators not only have beta tests, but we must test the "alpha and omega," the entire translation, from beginning to end!

An adequate explanation of translation field testing requires more extensive description, but, in brief, we can point out that testing of translations is a commonsense approach to discovering what hearers understand from our translations. Then, as with computer software, revision must take place until further testing indicates that the hearers' understanding lines up with the intended meaning. Field testers should not ask questions which can be answered with a simply "yes" or "no". Such questions and answers often do not give the information necessary to understand what is really understood. Besides, if we ask a hearer, "Do you understand what this Bible verse means?" many hearers will give the socially preferred response of "yes," regardless of what they actually understand. Better testing questions model the traditional questions asked (and answered) by journalists, with content questions that begin with What? Who? When? Where? Why? and How? Let's try an example.

In the newly released ISV (International Standard Version), 1 John 3.18 reads, "Little children, we must stop loving in word and in tongue, but instead love in work and in truth." (Note: the latest edition of the ISV revises "work" to "action," which is much better. A footnote to "action" states "Or work.") The average reader of this page will likely immediately spot several places in this verse where the translation is not adequate, that is, that it does not use an accurate (and natural) combination of words to express the meaning. But we can also bring greater objectivity to our initial subjective reaction by field testing this verse from the ISV with average speakers. To increase the reliability of our field testing, the hearers with whom the translation is tested (we should never test the hearers, only the translation) should be of a wide range of ages, social backgrounds, and knowlege of the Bible. The phrases in the ISV rendering which are most problematical are "loving in word," "loving ... in tongue," "love in work," and "love in truth." We want to find out if these phrases are grammatically and semantically acceptable in "standard English" and, if so, what they mean. Besides testing in the field with average hearers, we can also comb through collections of standard English writing to see if these phrases have ever been spoken or written by speakers of any standard English dialects. (I suspect the answer will be no, especially for "loving in tongue" and "love in work.") To field-test these phrases we can say to the hearer, "I need to test some translation to see if it has good English or not. I would appreciate your help." Then read them this verse. Then ask some questions which will, hopefully, give informative answers, such as, "When would you say you are "loving in tongue"? Most hearers will probably answer by saying they don't know or that it sounds odd or doesn't sound like good English. Hearers often try to make some sense out of any utterance, so do not be surprised if some creative hearers answer that they might say something like this if they show love with their tongue using a technique said to be used by the French!

Similarly, you could ask, "When might you say that you 'love in work'"? Some hearers will simply say that they would never say that, that it doesn't sound like English, or at least not like any English they have ever heard. Others may say they can think of a situation where they might say something like this. Your followup question can then use What? as in "What would you mean if you love in work"? And they might respond by saying that it might mean they really enjoy their job, but, even then, they might add that something still sounds odd, like whoever said that must not be a native speaker of English. The careful translator will then evaluate their response to determine if it indicates a correction understanding of the meaning desired in this verse. (The responses suggested here would not, of course, since the meaning desired in the tested phrase is that a person's love should be shown in loving actions. The English word "work", as it relates to the other words in this verse, is an inaccurate translation of the original Greek.)

After we have tested the translation with a sufficient number of speakers of a variety of ages and backgrounds, we use the results to guide our revision. We then test our revision, or more likely, revisions, since an adequate translation can often go through ten to thirty cycles of testing and revision. Only when a translation passes field tests should it be released to the general public. We honor God's Word when we treat it with this kind of care and respect; we must not use less care in our translations than computer programmers do when field-testing and revising their programs. We must test our translations until they are as accurate as possible, at all levels of accuracy, not simply at the word level. A more thorough explanation of translation testing is in the final chapter of the excellent book Meaning-Based Translation, by Mildred L. Larson. All Bible translators, regardless of their target language, would do well to assimilate the translation principles and techniques described in this book. The author was herself a translator of the Bible for a tribe in Peru, South America.

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At Sat May 21, 09:49:00 PM, Blogger Glendon M. Gross said...

I think your example from the ISV is an interesting one. I would wager that if you began field testing the phrase "love in work", you would encounter quite a few people who would think you were talking about sexual harrassment. The idea that "love and work don't mix" is a fairly common one, and if we are expected to be effective in the workplace, "love in work" is usually something to avoid.

Now as you say, "love in action" sounds much better. And yet I suspect that the words are still not being used in the usual grammatical sense that would be expected in standard English usage. "Love in action" sounds quite vague, and actually is vague in English. The modern English usage of the word "Love" to refer to sexual love, and also to friendship, and also to a preference for a particular kind of food makes the word almost meaningless when taken out of context. But in the verse we are contrasting merely talking about loving someone with the actual act of loving that person.

So how are we to field test a verse like this? I'm not sure that merely asking the hearer to say whether or not the phrase is good English is sufficient. I would think that an adequate field test should be detailed enough so as to be able to determine whether the type of confusion I have referred to above with "Love in work" is taking place in the hearer's mind.

On one point I definitely agree with you. It seems clear that many bible versions are not adequately field tested. I believe that is because the translator can become so preoccupied with word for word accuracy to the original Greek or Hebrew that he may temporarily develop a kind of "Tunnel Vision" in which he forgets that the English words he has chosen are not really representative of the way people think and speak. This can have terrible consequences for the readability of the translation he is working on, as it means that his translation will probably be divorced from everyday usage and therefore quite difficult for his readers to understand.

At Sun May 22, 07:30:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Glendon, I agree. It is usually not sufficient to ask a yes/no field test question about whether something sounds like good English or not. I say this, even though I have a poll on my blog which does exactly that. But that poll is not a true field test. True field testing must test for understanding of content. There have been some good descriptions of how to word appropriate test questions. I hope the link to those descriptions showed up in the previous sentence. Thanks for your good comments, as always.

At Sun May 22, 07:43:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Here is a good description of field testing which is available for free downloading.


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