I (Jeff) was in Asia consulting for two translation teams last week, and supervising a translation consultant-in-training. We were checking Genesis 10-23 in one language, and 11-17 in a related language.
In Genesis 12:7 we came across the word for 'altar', and one of the things translation consultants check is how teams handle words for items in the Bible that modern cultures don't have. The two people groups we were checking the translations for are Buddhist, and they do have altars. A related-language translation that both teams used as a resource already had a word for altar, and that term seemed to work for one of the two teams we were working with.
The consultant-in-training happened to know that the related-language translation team was reconsidering its word for altar. The word seems to mean a small altar: these altars can go in houses or in temples, and they're used for offering various food offerings or incense to their gods. The altars in the Old Testament, however, were used for offering entire animals on, and there's no way a sheep or an ox could fit on one of the altars this word describes.
As we talked about it with the team that was using that word, they agreed that that kind of altar was small, and typically located inside a room, so it was not an appropriate word to describe the Old Testament altars. They laughed at the idea of putting an animal on that kind of altar. They also have larger, outdoor altars, and they were happy to switch to using the word for those.
Problem solved. Or so we thought, until a couple days later when we brought in someone else from the community to test how well the translation communicated. She suggested another spelling for the term we’d settled on, and as we talked about the term, we realized that it really meant a place where incense or fragrant branches are burned as an offering. It’s big enough to fit an animal on, but this people group doesn’t sacrifice animals; would this word work well enough anyway? She didn't think so.
Sometimes you have to pick a word that doesn’t quite work, and hope the rest of the translation helps readers make sense of it. A few chapters later when Abraham puts Isaac on an altar, and then sacrifices a ram on it, does this word still work? This team doesn't have that chapter ready yet, so we couldn't test it. The team will have to do more testing with people in the community to see if they can use this word, or if they’ll have to coin a new phrase, like “thing for doing sacrifices on”. (Incidentally, that's how the other team we were working with handled 'altar'.)
I wouldn't have checked the word for altar so carefully myself. As far as I knew, the related-language translation team, whose work has been carefully checked and approved by a number of consultants over the years, had settled on a good word, and it was no problem for other translations to use the same word. But when we got the right people together and asked the right questions, we were able to identify this translation problem. If only the solution were as easy to find as the problem was!
This team thanked us at the end of the week with these words: “We had a good time and learned a lot. Our translation has become more idiomatic and accurate because of your help. Your sacrifice and hard work are greatly appreciated.”