A simple example of how/why The Bible Translator’s Assistant works

Daniel 1:2 “And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand.”  KJV

What are the potential difficulties with translating this verse into other languages? Let me count the ways…

  1. “the Lord” – is this a name, a title? Is it referring to God? You probably know the answers, but the computer is stupid. In this case, “The Lord” is the KJV translation of “Yahweh” – God’s name. Now, whether you think this should continue to be translated as something like “Lord” (in our target languages) or if you think that some transliteration of “Yahweh” should be used – in either case, the computer needs to know that this refers to God. It needs to know this for a number of reasons, but one in particular: many languages use a system of honorifics, and God would get the highest honor.
  2. Jehoiakim – the computer needs to know that this is a human name for a male. Some languages will put different affixes on the verb or add different words to the sentence depending on whether the name is for a male or a female.
  3. “Jehoiakim king of Judah” – the computer needs to know that “king of Judah” is a description of “Jehoiakim.”
  4. “Judah” – the computer needs to know that this is the name of a city
  5. “his” – who does this refer to? If you, as a human, had just read verse 1, you would know it refers to Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon. But again, computers are stupid. We need to specifically tell the computer to whom the pronoun is referring. And see the next point for more about “his hand”
  6. X gave Y into Z’s hand: this is an idiom in English and would not make sense in many languages. A literal, word-for-word translation would be confusing (at best) and completely misleading (at worst) – think of Nebby carrying around Jehoiakim in his arms! This is what a “must use word for word translation” approach fails to realize – we need to make the target readers understand the same thing that the original readers understood (in this case, the original Biblical Hebrew language speakers). THAT is meaning-based translation, and it is critical in Bible translation. In this case, we need the computer to understand that the Lord (Yahweh) caused/enabled Nebuchadnezzar to capture Jehoiakim. And even more specifically, it is the kind of capture that happens, for example, when police capture a criminal, or a soldier captures an enemy soldier. It isn’t the kind of capture like when my pet gerbil got loose and I re-captured it.

SO – for that simple verse, there are at least 6 things that most of us probably took for granted, but would cause my stupid computer to start spewing steam. Each of those six things (and thousands of other issues, especially ambiguities that we don’t even notice) are VERY hard for computers to figure out on their own. That’s why there are so few good computer translation programs – and the ones that do exist were developed over many years and with millions of dollars. But at TBTA – we bypass that REALLY HARD STEP by telling the computer what each verse means – by hand. We use a semantic (meaning-based) representation that unambiguously and extremely accurately encodes the meaning of each verse in a code that the computer understands. We have an underlying “semantic language” that these meaning representations are written in.  THEN, for each target language that we want to translate into, we “just” need to tell the computer how to translate the different elements of the semantic language – which has its own unambiguous dictionary and syntactic patterns.

In a nutshell – that’s what TBTA is and why it works so well. We bypass the step that is impossible for the computer to do well by itself.  That leaves us with the much simpler (and technologically feasible) task of “just” having to tell the computer how to translate the meaning language into the target language. That might sound like a bit of mumbo jumbo to you – we still have to tell the computer how to translate the meaning language into the target language. But since the meaning language is completely clear and unambiguous, it is much, much, much, MUCH easier to do than trying to translate English, or Hebrew, or Greek directly into a new target language.