Computer Technology to Leverage the Bible Translator's Linguistic and Exegetical Skills

BibleTrans is a computer program that translates the Bible into languages that don't have it yet. This web page tells how that works and why you need to know about it.


The Need for Bible Translation
How to Translate the Bible
How BibleTrans Works
What Needs to be Done
What About Wycliffe?
How You Can Help
How to Reach Us
Personal Note

The Need for Bible Translation

There are about 7,000 different languages in the world. Half of them have no part of the Bible in that language. These tend to be isolated people groups with a few hundred or thousands of speakers, for an estimated total of about 300,000,000* people (approximately the same as the population of the USA) with no Bible in the language they know best.

In some cases the language is dying (very few native speakers left) and/or everybody also knows another language well enough to read the Bible in that second language. Sometimes that Bible in a second language is poorly understood, so people cannot really hear the saving gospel of Jesus Christ in it. We really don't know exactly how many people groups still need a Bible translation, but we do know it's at least 2,000.*

* Please note that some of the numbers here may vary from time to time, depending on who you ask and what criteria they use in deciding which languages count as "Bibleless". Continuing surveys often revise figures up or down as new dialects are discovered, or smaller groups become assimilated into their national culture and stop teaching their tribal language to children. For current numbers, see the Ethnologue.

How to Translate the Bible

Translation of any kind is a difficult process, consisting of two parts: First, clearly understanding the original message in the original language, then saying the same message in the other language.

With Bible translation the first part is particularly difficult, because the original languages (Greek and Hebrew) have been dead for nearly 2,000 years. Modern Greek and Hebrew are quite different from the Biblical languages, much like modern English is different from Chaucer. We carefully train pastors and Bible translators in how to read Greek and Hebrew, so they can correctly understand the message of God's word. Mostly they succeed, but you probably noticed that different (English) translations of the Bible say the same thing slightly differently -- and sometimes the differences are significant! Maybe the Greek text implies all of those different meanings, and sometimes one or more translators made a mistake. Committee translations like the NIV, NLT, NASB, RSV, and KJV are less likely to make those mistakes, because the different scholars and translators on the committee can check each other's work. Translators in the field often don't have that kind of support group.

Saying the same message in a different language means that you must know that language well enough to say anything in it. If you don't know the language well, it comes out strange, like the instructions you get with appliances made in Taiwan or Singapore. Modern Bible translators spend a lot of time checking to see how well the native readers understand the translated text. More recently, Bible translations are being done as a team effort involving both "expat" (foreign) linguistic experts and native-speaking members of the local church.

How BibleTrans Works

Machine Translation (the technical term for using computers to translate human languages) still needs to do the same two steps: understand the source text, and say it in the target language. Computer scientists have been trying to do that for more than 50 years, and we still are not much closer today than when we started. The really hard part is understanding the source text, because computers don't understand. They are just machines. BibleTrans is different, because we have that part done by smart people.

BibleTrans does translation in the same two steps: First we get Greek and Hebrew scholars to extract the complete meaning from the Biblical text and put it into a language-neutral semantic database. Where there are theological differences of opinion about the meaning of an obscure verse, we put them all in. Where there is implicit information that the original readers of the Bible would have known, and which makes the meaning clear, we put that in also (but marked as implicit). This is a very big job, and we have only done a few chapters so far, for testing. It cannot be automated.

Once this semantic database is built, then for each language, the linguist puts in the grammar and vocabulary for that language: How do you say this concept in that language? How do you say that concept? What is the correct form for sentences? How do you shape the nouns and verbs? What special literary forms are used for historical narrative, for teaching ideas, for poetry? And so on. There are about 7,000 semantic concepts for the Greek New Testament, and maybe a few hundred more when you add the Old Testament. Then BibleTrans applies all these rules to the database, and out comes a Bible in that language. For more details, see Details on BibleTrans and BibleTrans Rationale.

Actually it's not quite that simple. There will be mistakes in encoding the language data. You still have to test the result with native speakers -- in fact the testing and editing is all the more important, because no human person was involved in generating it. It's not church-ready, but our tests show that the result is better than those Taiwanese instructions. Here is John 3:16 as actually translated by BibleTrans into English:

God so much loved all people so that he gave them his unique son so that any person who trusts Jesus won't be destroyed but the person lives forever.
As you can see, it's not what you are used to reading, but at least you can understand the message. The "mother-tongue translators" can easily understand it well enough to clean it up and make it usable in their own churches and homes.

What Needs to be Done

We have been working on this for more than three years, and we have a working prototype. The BibleTrans translation engine works well on the tiny snippets of database we have coded up, and we have done some field testing in three different non-European languages with credible results (see BibleTrans Translation Samples).

The weakest part of the software is the mechanism for encoding the linguistic data for each receptor language. We have what I call "GrammarWhiz" working, which lets the linguists describe the language in a form they are accustomed to thinking in. This is cutting-edge technology, and it remains to be seen how well it will work, but at least it exploits our strengths in computer science. There is also some work to be done to make the program support Hebrew.

The biggest part of the job in making BibleTrans useful is encoding the Greek (and later, when we are ready for it, Hebrew) into the language-neutral semantic database format. The tools for doing this have been working well for several years, and the only hard part is just understanding the Greek text and saying the same thing in BibleTrans. Experience over an extended passage suggests that it takes a couple days to do one verse right, including peer review and corrections. As we gain more experience we expect both to get faster at this, and also to pick up on more of the subtle issues we are still leaving out at this early stage, so the net effect will still be that it takes an experienced Bible scholar a day or two of full-time work to encode a single verse.

Do the math: there are 7,942 verses in the New Testament, 31,218 in the whole Bible. This is a huge job, but not too big for God and His people. Six months after we finish (or even before we finish), we can have first-draft translations of the Bible in 1,000 languages that have nothing today. The Old Testament is free!

What About Wycliffe?

Wycliffe Bible Translators is a body of the world's leading experts in linguistics and translation. They have thousands of people around the world learning languages and doing Bible translation (the old, manual way), and supporting those translators with technology and administrative facilities. They do their work well. It used to take 25 years to translate a New Testament into a new language, but the average is now closer to 12 or 15 years.

Wycliffe also has pioneered the use of computer technology to support the production of Bibles, for maintaining the reference materials the translator needs to consult, and more recently in analyzing the linguistic data in previously unwritten languages. These are important and useful activities, no less necessary because of BibleTrans. Wycliffe has also pioneered the use of computers in adapting existing translations to closely related languages (CARLA, for Computer Assisted Related Language Adaptation) by vocabulary and grammar forms substitution, but this requires substantial manual correction to account for differences that CARLA cannot handle.

Before BibleTrans, Wycliffe was doing nothing with computers in actual translation (except for word processing the translated text). We expect Wycliffe translators to use BibleTrans as part of their repertoire of tools, to speed the overall translation effort, and we are working with Wycliffe in every possible way to accomplish this goal.

In 1999 Wycliffe Bible Translators announced their "Vision 2025" goal to have translation started in every language that needs it by the year 2025. With BibleTrans we believe they can finish those translations by 2026.

How You Can Help

PRAY the Lord of the Harvest to send out laborers to do the work. Pray for the people doing this work. We have observed that when people pray, BibleTrans makes progress; when people stop praying, we get stuck. Don't stop.

PRAY that God will show you how you should get involved in Bible translation. Maybe you can have a part in helping BibleTrans with what we are doing, and maybe God wants you to work with Wycliffe or one of the other Bible translation efforts around the world. God only knows what He has in mind for you -- until you ask Him. Pray about it.

Donate Your Labor to BibleTrans or another Bible translation agency. If you have studied Greek and have a teachable spirit, we can train you to build the database. Retired pastors and translators are particularly welcome, especially if you really want to spend some time on it.

If a dozen active translators each took a year off their current projects today to build the BibleTrans database, they could go back to their projects three years ahead of where they would have been if they had stayed, and at the same time they would take 1,000 years off Bible translation worldwide.

How to Reach Me

Tom Pittman
RoyseCity TX 75189

Personal Note

Tom Pittman has a PhD in Information Science from the University of California at Santa Cruz (1985). I spent most of my 40-year career developing high-performance computer software in embedded systems. My dissertation is in compiler optimization, and shortly after I began teaching Computer Science in a midwestern state university, I realized that the same technology I was teaching could be used in Bible translation. BibleTrans is the result of my full-time (60+ hours/week) effort betweem 1996 and 2014, except for a couple years off to replenish my bank account.

"BibleTrans" is a trademark of Itty Bitty Computers, the ministry of Tom Pittman for using computers to make the world a better place. It is my intent to license the BibleTrans technology to any person or organization at no charge (other than nominal copying costs) for the purpose of translating the Bible into languages where it does not yet exist, and I have put the intellectual property into trust for that purpose. There are costs associated with achieving this goal, but God will provide.

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rev. 00 Dec.22 (contact info updated 04 Feb.7, 08 Jan.23, 15 Nov.5)
rev. 06 Oct.23, minor clarifications
rev. 15 Feb.6, added disclaimer about the numbers