FPU prof faces the struggles of telling the eternal truth in new ways

For Hugo Zorilla, “the idea is to be a translator, not a traitor.”

A member of the biblical and religious studies and Spanish faculties at Fresno Pacific University, Zorilla takes that charge seriously while translating a manual for translators and parts of the Bible into Spanish. Seriously enough, that is, to devote years of evenings and weekends to sentence-by-sentence, verse-by-verse and sometimes word-by-word study. “It’s a schooling for me,” he said. “It gets me in touch with the reality of Latin America.”

Zorilla recently completed two years of work on A Translator’s Handbook Gospel of John, a guide for people translating the Bible into the indigenous languages of Latin American. This 300-page book is for the United Bible Society, based in Miami. The manual is awaiting publication.

Before that Zorilla translated the Gospel of John, Revelations, the Epistles of John, Acts, First Peter, the Psalms, Micah and part of Isaiah for Nueva Biblia Internacional, the first new edition of the Bible in Spanish since the 1500s. He was one of 16 scholars from the U.S., Mexico, Ecuador, Peru, Chili, Columbia and other parts of Central and South America. More than two million copies this Bible have been published since its release in 1998-1999 by the International Bible Society, Colorado Springs.

A native of Costa Rica, Zorilla came to FPU in 1989. His undergraduate degrees are from Seminaro Biblico Latinamericano and Universidad de Costa Rica. His master’s degree is from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and his doctorate is from Universidad Pontificia de Salamanca.

With snowy hair and a ready smile, Zorilla shakes his head at the problems translators have in telling the Bible stories in a way Latin Americans can understand. Talk of plows and shepherds, for example, mean nothing to people who have never seen them. “What does it mean to be a pastor in a country that doesn’t have a flock?” Zorilla asks.

Simply translating to Spanish isn’t the answer, since not everyone in Latin America speaks it. Mexico has about 200 ethnic groups, many with their own language. In Colombia, 75 percent of the people do not use Spanish as their first language. Even among those who do speak Spanish, words have different meanings and connotations in different countries, Zorilla said.

A change in imagery leads quickly to theological questions, so Zorilla and other translators must struggle to find alternate but accurate language. “We want to honor the Bible writer, but there’s so much that doesn’t make sense,” he said.