From Cards to Computers

by David Foris

An integral part of the translation process is building a dictionary of the language – especially of key terms such as hope, grace, peace, forgive, save, deliver, spirit, soul, world and many more. Often there is not a single word that precisely matches the nuances of the Greek or Hebrew, and so one must make a choice in each context which indigenous word fits best.

Literacy class in progress

Literacy class in progress

Prior to computers we did this all by hand. I would write down the Sochiapam Chinantec (SC) word on a card with its English definition and file it in one shoebox, then do the reverse (English word with SC definition) and file that card in another shoebox. This process was important because many of the key words were rarely used, so the first thing one did when hearing what sounded like a new word was to check the SC box to see if it had already been filed. I would go to the English box when we came across a key word but couldn’t recall how it had been translated in the past.

What a difference a computer makes! It is so much easier and quicker to check if a word exists in the database, supply example sentences to illustrate its nuances, add both English and Spanish definitions, and do a search through either English or Spanish to find an SC word that fits a given context.

Christine at the typewriter

Christine at the typewriter

Due to a lack of electricity in the remote village location in southern Mexico, typing the New Testament (NT) translation was done mainly on a manual typewriter although, when we were at the linguistic centre in Mitla, Oaxaca, my wife, Christine, was able to use an electric typewriter. I had to order special keys to be made for both typewriters to represent the sounds that neither English nor Spanish use, then sacrifice certain rarely used keys and solder on the replacement keys. It was an exacting process to get the height and angle right!

When we had translated a NT book, Christine would type it up in preparation for the consultant check for accuracy. Once all recommended alterations of the text were incorporated, Christine then had to retype the entire book, but this time it had to be perfect – no crossings-out. This typed manuscript then went to a typist in Mexico City who retyped the manuscript onto punched computer tape for the IOTA computer. We then had to proofread the printout and send the corrections back for incorporation. So Christine has typed up the entire SC New Testament at least twice, and mainly on a manual typewriter.

Now it is so easy to type up and modify translations on a computer, and use fonts that beautifully represent the sounds of the target language.

Marcelino & David translating

Marcelino & David translating

While translating, I had on my desk about 14 translations of the NT in English, three in Spanish, several commentaries and Bible dictionaries, and the Greek NT. It was a lot of weight to take into the village area, and take out again when attending a translation workshop. Now with computers all this valuable information is available on the hard drive, is easily accessible and editing is so much easier. What a blessing!


Return to Living Words March 2018


John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word

Verse for today

Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.