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Outsourcing Bible Translation?

Using Translation Service Providers To Speed The Bible Translation Process

Editor’s Note: To listen to this conversation, click here.  This transcript has been edited for clarity.

The Bible translation industry takes in about $500 million per year in donations. With all that money, it produces about 15 completed Bible translations each year.  That comes to more than $30 million per completed Bible translation. At this pace, it will take $60-billion and more than 130 years to translate the Bible into the remaining languages that do not yet have a translation.

Still, Bible translation organizations continue to raise money making ambitious claims that are either verifiably false, or – more often – impossible to verify because of a lack of transparency in the industry.

These are some of the reasons an effort by Strategic Resource Group (SRG) caught my attention. They have embarked on an experiment to see if a secular company – a Translation Service Providers, or TSPs – can translate the Bible.

The project leader for this initiative is Jane Schoen, the director of Strategic Initiatives for SRG.  The goal of Schoen and SRG is to translate the Bible into 31 languages to reach unreached people groups in the Middle East and North Africa, the so-called MENA region of the world.  They are starting with three languages – two in Saudi Arabia and one in Pakistan.

I wrote an article about the beginning of this effort in August of 2021, and now, almost six months later, I check in with Jane Schoen for an update.  I plan to continue checking in periodically to see how the project is going.

Warren Smith: Jane, I appreciate you spending some time with me. In my original story I wrote that you had hired a company called LinguaLinx to pilot a new process for translations of the Bible. My first question, my main question is:  How’s it going?

Jane Schoen:  It’s going probably better than I initially expected, but not without challenges. We have learned along the way, and we’ve actually started a second project, so we can talk about that too.

WS:  Let’s start with the first project.  Can you say what the first project is?  I know there are some security issues in the parts of the world in which you operate, the so-called MENA region – Middle East and North Africa — but say as much as you can.

JS:  We’re translating scripture for the very first time into the language of Hijazi.  It is a language of Saudi Arabia and it’s historical because the scripture will be there written for the first time in history. The batch we have completed contains the four Gospels plus the Book of Acts.

WS:  You mentioned you have had some challenges.  Can you share some of them? Can you give me some examples?

JS:  We have people in different parts of the world.  Some of the reviewers are in Saudi Arabia but then some are virtual in the U.S. and Canada.  The translators are in places that are unknown to us, but we believe some of them are local. The project leader from LinguaLinx is in the U.S., but he speaks Arabic. So it’s a very interesting puzzle of players coming against this challenge.

And some of the challenges have just been managing the dynamic of everybody through COVID. We’ve had to adjust some of the roles.

I guess the biggest thing that we’ve adapted is the process itself. We’ve put in more checks into how’s it going with the translation.  There were five books in batch one. The first drafts of three of them were superb. We couldn’t believe the quality. And we moved those three books on, through review.  But two were of a lesser quality.  So we paused the whole thing and we got everybody together and asked why there is this difference.  Did different people work on it?  We sorted that out, reconfigured some of the translation team and redid those books that were of lesser quality, and then moved them through.

So I think that kind of trust-but-verify mentality is really going to be key.

WS:  You’re doing both a linguistic review and a theological review. I think one of the objections that traditional Bible translation organizations have to your process, the process of using a TSP, or Translation Service Provider, is this:  The Bible is a different kind of book. There are theological considerations in the selection of words. Are those the kind of reviews you’re talking about when you say you’re moving a draft into review?

JS:  Whether it’s with a traditional Bible society or a more modern company or a secular company translating a novel, there is a drafting part to the process and a review/revise phase that is just a normal part of the process.  And that’s what we’re doing in our TSP project.

We’re drafting with the TSP and making sure that draft is as high quality as we can. The review then has several components. It’s highly iterative and you can review as long as you want, so there’s an art and science to how long you do that before you say, “Okay, this is version one.”

Review and revise does include theological review, linguistic review and community review, where you’re showing it to people who speak the language every day, and they’re giving you a thumbs up.  They’re saying, “Yes, this is the language. This is what I hear. This is how I say it. The nuances are right.”

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WS:  I realize you still have many miles to go before you sleep, to borrow from the old Robert Frost poem. But are you feeling hopeful that this process is going to work?

JS:  Yeah, we are. We believe we have proven the concept. You’re right. It’s too early to claim victory on the entire Bible. We have seven more batches to work through, so I don’t want to start waving flags prematurely, but we have four Gospels and the book of Acts done in a language in which that has never existed before. That’s something to write home about. I think the concept is totally validated. Our working premise now is that this is a very viable process where traditional partners simply aren’t present.

WS:  One problem with traditional Bible translation organizations is that there’s not a lot of transparency.  And one of the things that you wanted to do was to create that additional transparency. Having this conversation with me is, of course, one indication of that. I can’t get some of the traditional Bible translation organizations even to talk with me.

But in our original conversation you talked about monthly reports, and scrutiny of the work in progress to make needed corrections. Is that happening?

JS:  I’ve never had to demand transparency in this project because it’s there. The reason it’s there is that this company company’s culture is to have custom intimacy. That’s an old business term where you know the needs of your customer and you’re seeking to meet those needs. So every time we get them on the phone, the conversations are very open and straightforward. We get to the heart of the matter.  There’s no smoke and mirrors. When we talk about process details, they are very forthcoming.

WS:  Talk to me a little bit about budget. One of the things we said in the original article that I wrote back in August was that you expected to get a complete Bible translation from LinguaLinx for about a quarter of a million dollars, and then about another hundred thousand dollars in order to go through the review process, project management, community review, and all the stuff that we’ve already been talking about.

How do those numbers feel now, five months later? Were those realistic numbers? Are you discovering that you are or are not going to be able to get it done for $350,000?

JS: The numbers are really not wavering at all.  We pay by the batch and it’s a fixed fee right now. Now, if things go wildly different within a batch, we would have a conversation about the cost of the batch being different than the estimate.  That hasn’t happened yet. So our costs are right in line with what we expected them to be.

The schedule has been elongated a bit in batch one because we took more time and didn’t want to start batch two until batch one was totally done. But we’re now in a place where we’re staggering the batches.

WS:  Let’s talk about an end game.  Let’s assume that these three languages, two from Saudi Arabia, and one Pakistani language, go well. That’s great. We’ll end up with three new Bible translations for a million and a half dollars within a couple of years, which is dramatically better than the traditional Bible translation organizations do.

But you’ve also had the luxury of picking languages for which LinguaLinx has translators.  So given that, my question is this:  Can you scale this process?  You might be able to do 10 or 20 or 30 or even 50 more because you can cherry-pick languages that fit your process.  But there are literally thousands of languages that do not have Bible translations right now. Is this process scalable all the way to the end game? Or is this scalable just to a certain extent, and that’s it?

JS:  It’s scalable in several dimensions. It’s scalable, as you’ve said, in the number of languages we can cover with LinguaLinx.  But LinguaLinx is a finite company. So we went back to the marketplace to look for their competitors.  We’ve asked for samples from four other TSPs.  In some cases we’ve asked about the same language from a couple, so we get comparative samples.

Another dimension of scale is doing things beyond the full Bible. Other content that you need for a faith journey.  Discipleship material, leadership material, worship material, dramatization of scripts. That type of content is easier than doing the Bible. So once you’ve done the Bible and you’ve developed some muscle memory in a language, doing the other things will be, you know, just go, go, go.  So I do think when we talk about a next wave of this strategy, it is doing other content.

WS:  Jane I know that this effort is in some ways not in cooperation with, but alongside, the traditional Bible translation organizations. It’s not that you’re antagonistic towards them, or not that they’re necessarily antagonistic towards you, but what you are doing is outside the normal Bible translation community, at least in some ways. First of all, is that an accurate characterization?

And, secondly, what are you hoping for regarding your relationship with the traditional Bible translation world? Are you hoping that they will see that if what you’re doing is successful, that they will start adopting some of these same methods and tools?  Or are you thinking that’s probably not going to happen and this will become a parallel structure?

JS:  That’s a really good question. I don’t know.  We got affirmation very recently, last month, from IllumiNations, a consortium of traditional Bible entities. So that to me was a great vote of confidence that they’re not balking.  They are watching and praying with us. And allocating funds to support this endeavor. So that’s where we are.

WS:  So what’s next?  What I’m asking is when can I check back in with you? In another six months, where do you expect to be?

JS:  I do think there will be news often and six months is a reasonable timeframe. We still have the goal of doing the rest of the translations [the Strategic Resource Group goal of 31 MENA languages] in five years. So that’s a pretty aggressive goal. We need to find partners to do those projects. We need to find translators and we need to find reviewers. That’s one huge stream of work.

WS:  Jane, bottom line: Is this an incremental step forward or is this a real game changer for the Bible translation industry or — again — is it too early to tell?

JS:  It smells like a game changer. I know we used that word in the first article. I have no reason to say differently at this point. I’m cautious just because I’m a realist and I know we need to keep working as we go ahead, but the story is very positive right now.

Warren Cole Smith

Warren previously served as Vice President of WORLD News Group, publisher of WORLD Magazine, and Vice President of The Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He has more than 30 years of experience as a writer, editor, marketing professional, and entrepreneur. Before launching a career in Christian journalism 25 years ago, Smith spent more than seven years as the Marketing Director at PricewaterhouseCoopers.