For some people, putting together a puzzle is a way to pass a snowy winter day. For others, it is their job.
Sidnie White Crawford compares the translating and editing of religious texts to putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Except in her translating jigsaw puzzle, there are missing pieces, no picture on the cover to look at, and the pieces are scattered across the room.
Crawford, the chairwoman of the Classics and Religious Studies Department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has been involved in the translation and editing of many religious documents, most notably the portions of the Dead Sea Scrolls and several manuscripts of Deuteronomy.
The process of translating these manuscripts brought many difficulties, but above all, the work was time-consuming. The translating and editing of Crawford's portions of the Dead Sea Scrolls took her from 1986 to 1994.
Spending this much time on a translation is not unusual.
"It takes a long time, probably a year or more, to produce a good translation," said John Turner, a professor of classics and religious studies at UNL.
Turner has done extensive work translating manuscripts of the Gnostic gospels, and the process he goes through can be very tedious.
First, Turner said, you must try to reconstruct the papyrus, which can date back centuries or millennia. This means taking fragments and trying to piece them together to form a whole or nearly whole page.
Once the reconstruction process is as complete as possible, a transcription is made. This is where incomplete letters and sections are filled in with possible options and educated guesses.
Only after this is done can the work actually be translated into a language that will be readable by the general public. Often ideas and inspiration found during this step will lead the translator back to step one: rearranging the fragments.
Though the process is difficult and lengthy, translators like Crawford and Turner get some help from new technologies.
"Computer technology and digital imaging is very big right now," Crawford said. "It certainly helps with reading these manuscripts. But there's nothing that takes the place of seeing the original."
Turner has found some assistance with technology that allows him to look through several layers of papyrus to see what's underneath. This is especially useful since manuscripts that have been exposed to moisture will often stick together.
Despite the challenges of translating and editing religious texts, Crawford said she thinks it's important and relevant to the general public.
"What people read in English translations of the Bible today is the result of the type of scholarship that I do," Crawford said. "It actually comes down through the publishing process into what people read in church."
The Rev. Fritz Lampe, a pastor at the Lutheran Student Center, takes this scholarship into account when looking at Bible translations.
"I'm very concerned with people thinking that the Bible just dropped out of heaven," Lampe said. "It's been a process of years worth of translation."
Lampe uses the New Revised Standard Version because "it's a translation that's a product of a large group of scholars trying to parse out the most careful but readable version of the text."
Readability and accuracy are the main factors to look for when choosing a translation of the Bible, Lampe said. Which is most important depends on what you are using the text for. Readability is more important for introducing the text to someone, but for studying, accuracy is imperative.
When it comes to translating other holy texts, accuracy is always the primary concern.
Anas Bouzid, a junior electrical engineering major and president of the Muslim Student Association, uses a Koran that has both an English translation and the original Arabic side by side.
Bouzid believes that because the Koran forbids any changes to itself, it's important to be able to compare English translations with the original text.
"When you change something, that human error factor comes into the picture," Bouzid said. "They pile up, and eventually, you don't have what was originally said."
Eliminating or reducing the chance of error is very important in the translating process. Translators have to be careful in understanding their own limitations, especially since many of the texts are written in dead - no longer used - languages.
Translations should preferably be done into the translator's native language, Turner said.
"I can read several European languages, but I'd never dare to translate a text into them."
Although the translation of holy texts is of great importance to their religious followers, the process used is generally no different from translating secular texts, Turner said.
"These are all ancient texts and the main of (translating them) is to let someone from the ancient past speak again. Everyone has a right to be heard."
cf: How to Organize a Group Translation Project - WikiHow