The Steadfast Translator
Interview by Mitiku Adisu
Recently, Ethiopianchurch Blog caught up with Dr. Loren Bliese who retired in 2006 after 44 years of serving in Ethiopia as Bible translation consultant and trainer of translation workers. Dr. Bliese now resides in the State of Oregon and continues to work on a part-time basis on checking the Afar Old Testament and speak about his work in Ethiopia. The significance of his long service is that it spanned three governments beginning with Emperor Haileselassie. He also had the unique privilege of observing the nation undergo a generational shift from the imperial days to the tumultous 1970s and 1980s right up to the end of the Cold War and the beginning of a multi-centered environment. Dr. Bliese holds a Ph.D in Linguistics from the University of Texas at Austin.
EthC: Thank you very much for agreeing to do this interview for Ethiopianchurch Blog. Why is Bible translation important at all? Why is the Bible so important that it deserves a new hearing in either new languages or in fresh translation into older languages?
LB: The Bible is God’s word which shows what he has done in creating us and saving us from sin through Christ. It is the true guide for faith and life in this world, and leading to eternity with God in heaven. The Bible was written in Hebrew, Greek and some Aramaic. It is important that the message be understood, so that it can work in the human mind with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This requires translation into current languages, and revisions or new translations as those languages change over the years.
EthC: What are the special challenges of translating the bible into Amharic/English/whatever? Are there particularly Ethiopian realities [as opposed to European] that one needs to be aware of? And how did you overcome them?
LB: There are linguistic and cultural differences in every language, which are special challenges. The goal of a translation is to convey the message so that it will be understood clearly and powerfully, as the original audience understood it. This requires making things that were understood by the original audience clear to an audience unfamiliar with the Biblical setting, such as geography, history and culture. For example modern Western culture does not relate to nomadic shepherding as described with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Many Ethiopian ethnic groups have no experience with ships and oceans. Care must be taken to make the unknown clear. In order to do this, single words in the source languages become whole phrases, or are explained in footnotes and a glossary. Care must also be taken to be natural with the grammar. The Biblical languages have the verb near the front of the sentence, but most Ethiopian languages have it at the end. Many other linguistic features are tied to where the verb stands in the sentence. It is important to change these features to the grammatically natural form in the translation. Therefore, translation courses are given before a translation begins in order to guide translators in recognizing these challenges. Further training is given in other courses, and in regular checking sessions where consultants review the work of the translators.
EthC: What did you find were the most difficult books of the bible to translate, and why?
LB: Leviticus with the Jewish ceremonial laws, and 1 Kings with the description of temple construction. These are difficult because many of the details are not known in the culture.
EthC: What should an Amharic/Afaan Oromo/whatever reader look for in his/her modern translation? LB: Faithfulness to the original message as it interacts with faithfulness to the receiver language in clarity and naturalness.
EthC: What current English Bible translation is a true translation from the original manuscripts?
LB: All translations try to be true translations from the original manuscripts. King James Version was the best in 1611. The Abu Rumi translation in Amharic came in 1840. The Onesimos-Aster Oromo Bible came in 1898. Since then new discoveries of manuscripts, and better understanding of Biblical languages and Bible interpretation have brought the Revised Standard Version (1952) and the New Revised Standard Version (1989) in America. The 1962 Royal Version in Amharic shows this trend, as well as the development of the language. In England the New English Bible and Revised English Bible reflect similar developments. All of these have a goal of translating each word from the original consistently into a receiver language word wherever the meaning allows. This type of translation is called “literal.” In the mid 1900’s the United Bible Societies and Wycliffe Bible Translators developed a meaning based theory of translation. Dynamic equivalence and functional equivalence are the terms used to describe this goal. The goal is to convey the meaning not only accurately, but clearly and naturally. Consistency is based on each of the various meanings of a word, rather than trying to fit all the meanings of the original language word into a single receiver language word. Unknown idioms are clarified. Implicit information which was known to the original readers such as historical and geographical details are made explicit. The best known example of this type of translation is the Good News Bible (1976). The Contemporary English Version is a more recent translation. The New Amharic Version of 1988, and its 2005 Revision fit these categories. The 2005 Revision is less dependent on the Good News Bible restructuring, which was done to make the message clear in English. The New International Version in English (1978) is a mixture of literal and meaning-based translation. More Bible knowledge or church language is assumed than in the meaning-based translations, which have the goal to include non-churched readers. The Medibenya translation in Amharic follows the New International Version style. The 2007 translation of the Septuagint into Amharic for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is different in that the other versions base the Old Testament on the Hebrew Text. Differences between the Septuagint and Hebrew or Geez are in footnotes. The Septuagint is a Greek translation done around 250 B.C. for those who did not know Hebrew. It was the scripture used by most by the early Christians and many New Testament writers. Those translations based on the Hebrew use the Septuagint only when the Hebrew is not clear.
EthC: What are some of the challenges translators encounter? LB: One major challenge is to make sure the translation is not ambiguous. If it can mean something other than the correct message, the chances are it will be misunderstood by at least some of the readers, even when the translators know what it should mean. Testing is done before publication to find such places with double meaning, and revise them.
EthC: Is translating into Amharic/Afaan Oromo/Tigrinya any different from say translating into English?
LB: Culturally it is easier to translate into Ethiopian languages than into English. Semantic categories are often closer. Linguistically the sentence structure of Hebrew and Greek are closer to English than to Ethiopian languages with the verb at the end of the sentence.
EthC: Ethiopia is culturally and linguistically perhaps closer to the Hebrew world; how does the fact that you as a translator are removed from this culture affect the level of translation?
LB: Working in a different culture presents many challenges. Because of this, United Bible Societies’ translation consultants are required to have graduate studies in linguistics and anthropology as well as Bible. They are also placed under supervision of full consultants for several years to give them time for orientation. The current goal is to have local consultants rather than foreigners. I am pleased that Dr. Haile-Yesus Engdashet is the present translation consultant for the Bible Society of Ethiopia. I have been working in Ethiopia since 1960, and have been doing linguistic and anthropological studies until the present, so hopefully my input avoids many pitfalls. In January 2009 I was awarded an honorary doctorate in language development by Mekane Yesus Seminary. I believe this shows a positive evaluation of my service as translation consultant for the Bible Society of Ethiopia in some 20 Bible translation projects since 1976.
EthC: Is the Bible the inspired and wholly reliable Word of God, and if so, do you think you as a consultant and the translators have faithfully reproduced what the original Scripture writers wrote, in language that people could read and understand without difficulty?
LB: As my statement of faith concerning Scripture I’ll quote from the constitution of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, of which I am a pastor. This church accepts the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life. Yes, I believe we have faithfully reproduced what the original Scripture writers wrote, in language that people could read and understand without difficulty.
EthC: How would you describe your input as a consultant?
LB: My role has been to train translators before and during their service, and to verify that they follow the guidelines of good translation by regular checking of their work. My visits have been an encouragement to them in this wonderful work.
EthC: Have you had feedbacks and what changes might there be in the next edition?
LB: Yes, every translation is tested by a reviewers’ committee and often by special testing procedures developed by experts. There are always things that can be improved, so files are normally kept for changes to be made in future revisions. Many recommendations come from the readers after a translation is distributed. Readers can help with future editions by sending their recommendations to the Bible Society or translation team.
EthC: Is there a danger that a translation might be perceived as merely reflecting the theology of one group?
LB: Yes, sadly translations are often perceived as reflecting the theology of one group. To avoid this the Bible Society of Ethiopia normally requires that there be translators from more than one denomination in new language projects in which it contributes to the project budget.
EthC: Are there Amharic Bible translations that you appreciate or recommend in particular?
LB: The more recent translations are more easily understood, both because of using more modern Amharic, and because of the principles of translation which focus on meaning. For new believers and outreach I recommend the revised New Amharic Translation. For those acquainted with the Bible and church language, the Royal Version and the International Bible Society’s Medibenya translation will be more familiar. They also give opportunity to get closer to the original language idioms and vocabulary. It is good to have both types available in Bible study, the New Amharic Translation to better understand the message and others to study the original form.
EthC: How long did it take to complete the translation you oversaw? What did this involve?
LB: In the projects I worked on it usually took between five and ten years for a New Testament, and another 10 years or more for the Old Testament. Projects were especially slowed down when translators were changed, since it takes a year or more for the translator to become skilled and efficient.
EthC: How did you come to be a part of this project?
LB: In 1976 when the Derg made rural mission outreach impossible, the Bible Society of Ethiopia arranged for me to be the advisor of an Afar scripture translation project. I had been working part time among the Afar and on the Afar language for 13 years prior to that. When the previous translation consultant retired in 1979, he nominated me to replace him for all the Bible Society of Ethiopia projects.
EthC: What fond memories of Ethiopia do you carry with you?
LB: I thank God that I have had a part in helping with the translation in the following scriptures in Ethiopia: Bibles: Western Oromo, New Amharic, Revised Tigrinya, Wolaitta New Testaments (most continuing toward a full Bible): Aari, Afar, Anuak, Arsi Oromo, Bench, Borana, Burji, Eastern Oromo, Gedeo (training), Guji Oromo, Gumuz, Gurage, Hadiyya, Kafa, Kambaata, Konso, Kunama, Koorete, Maale, Me’en, Sidaama, Silti. Read Part 2 here.
Note: Those interested in Afar language translation and an extended bibliography could access it here and here. Please let us know if you have specific questions on the preceding interview so we can have Dr. Bliese respond to them. Thanks. EthC. Top picture: Dr. Bliese testing the Book of Ezekiel with his Afar friend. Copyright by The Ethiopian Church Journal. ll Rights Reserved.
Great interview, we are in oregon and would like to meet Dr. Bliese. My email is [x] we are heading to Addis with Wycliffe and would love to meet with him Thanks