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Singaporeans on the TBTA Team!

Victor* and Linda* are members of Wycliffe Singapore based in Canada, working on the Bible translation software, TBTA (The Bible Translator’s Assistant). The TBTA team currently comprises about 25 people, mostly part-time, from Canada, US, UK, New Zealand, Singapore, Philippines and, soon, Australia. A few volunteers started work on the project about 12 years ago, but a concerted effort was launched 2 years ago in concert with Wycliffe Bible Translators.

We asked them to share about their work.

What is TBTA and How Does It Work?

TBTA is a computer software that aims to help speed up the process of Bible translation. It does this by combining templates of the text of the Bible with grammatical analysis of the target language to produce a good first draft. This draft is then edited and polished by mother tongue translators (MTTs, native speakers of the target language) for naturalness before testing and eventual publication.

The process can be divided into roughly 4 stages:

Stage 1: Prepare templates for the text of the Bible.

Linda and her team prepare these templates which express the meaning of the Bible text using simple words. This makes it easier to translate the meaning into a target language. They also put in detailed linguistic information. For example, in Acts 8:22, the word “repent” is explicated as:

You(Simon)(imp) change your(Simon’s) thoughts and your(Simon’s) actions [so that your(Simon’s) thoughts and your(Simon’s) actions please God].

All these explicated words and sentences are checked by a translation consultant to make sure that the templates remain true to the original text. Victor and his team then encode all the linguistic information for each word in the TBTA program database.

About 35% of the templates have already been completed. The New Testament books that have been completed include the gospels and Colossians, with Acts targeted to be done by end-2023. The Old Testament books completed include Genesis, Exodus, Proverbs, Ruth, Jonah and several others. The aim is to complete the templates for all the 66 books of the Bible in the next two-and-a-half years.

Once prepared, these templates can then be used with any target language.

[Stages 2-4 will have to be done for each target language.]

Stage 2: Analyse the grammar of each target language, and compile a lexicon of words found in the Bible.

A team, usually comprising a linguist and a MTT, will use everyday sentences to work out the grammar rules of the language. They also compile a lexicon of all the words that are used in the Bible. These grammar rules and vocabulary items are then also entered into the TBTA program.

This is already being done for some languages. At present, 24 languages of wider communication (LWCs) have been identified, such as Tagalog, Indonesian Malay, Hindi, Swahili and Khmer. The grammar rules of these LWCs can be tweaked relatively easily for groups of related languages, speeding up the process even more.

Stage 3: Generate first drafts.

TBTA will produce first drafts using the templates, the grammar rules and the lexicon. At first, the linguist will continue to add to and fine tune the grammar rules of the target language. Eventually, TBTA should be able to generate good drafts without any additional assistance from the linguist.

Stage 4: Edit and polish the drafts.

The first drafts are edited and polished by the MTTs to make them sound natural. This will also involve various rounds of testing and consultant checking before eventual publication.

Sounds Good, but How Well Does It Work?

Initial tests with groups of translators have shown that the first drafts produced by TBTA are as good as those produced by experienced MTTs. The MTTs were relieved from the work of producing the initial drafts, and so were able to focus on community testing and naturalness.

Ayta Mag-indi, Philippines: The Tagalog grammar rules were tweaked for use with this language. TBTA then produced drafts for the books of Jonah and Ruth.

Pastor Dino Abuque, an Ayta Mag-indi translator, said, “[Before TBTA] we would translate the word of God from Tagalog into our language, and it was a long process. Not like now where right away it is in our language and we just have to make it good.”

Hear this project:

Gichuka, Kenya: After a few months of online grammatical analysis, the TBTA team visited the MTTs on the field to test run the TBTA generation of a Bible passage.

TBTA generated a draft that was so good that Jacob Njagi, a Kenyan Bible translator with 20 years’ experience and who has used other computer-aided translation tools, was amazed. He said that the generated text was “far beyond a first draft”. He judged it to be 90-95% accurate!

Hear what Jacob Njagi said:

A Gichuka MTT (left) working remotely with a TBTA team member (right) on grammatical analysis. (Photo:

Key Benefits of TBTA
  • Reduces the time needed to complete Bible translation for language groups still waiting for God’s Word in their heart language.

  • Enables the MTTs to work more independently.

  • Reduces translation consultants’ workload, enabling translated materials to be consultant checked and published more quickly.

  • In the future, TBTA could be used to help create other materials in minority languages such as literacy tools and health booklets.

Victor and Linda’s Future Plans?

Victor and Linda are open, when the right time comes, to move on to work on a grammatical analysis of one of the identified LWCs or some other language that is in need of translation. They have some knowledge of one of the identified LWCs, so that is a possible future assignment.

Victor completed a Master of Arts in Linguistics at the Canadian Institute of Linguistics to be equipped for Bible translation. Linda* pursued a Certificate in Biblical Studies with a focus on Biblical languages (Hebrew and Greek) at Trinity Western University. They live and work in Canada with their teenage son who is attending a local public school.

*Not the real names.

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