Cultural Influences in Bible Translation

If translation is simply representing a text in another language, then there is no room for cultural influences, right? Not quite.

Imagine translating the Bible into a language that has never been written before. A native speaker is found who also speaks his country’s national language. The native speaker turned translator begins translation with the help of an expat consultant who has been trained for this very task. The translator and the native translator work together through the medium of the country’s national language, not the first language of either of them. How many cultural influences are at play in such a (common) circumstance?

United Bible Societies translation consultant Robert Bascom writes, “The task of cross-cultural communication involved in Bible translation is especially daunting in view of the multiplicity of cultures involved.” He identifies up to five cultures that may be at play in a given project:

  1. The culture of a given biblical text
  2. The culture of the translation consultant (often an outside/expat trained in the West)
  3. The culture of the language of communication (e.g., French culture in francophone Africa)
  4. The culture of the translator
  5. The culture of the country where the work is being done

Robert Bascom, “The Role of Culture in Translation” in Bible Translation: frames of reference, ed. Timothy Wilt (Manchester: St. Jerome, 2003), 81.