Discipleship in Data Bible Translation

May 4, 2022

Combining numbers and words does not just make for interesting algebra; it also makes for a chance to create more and better disciples—something Assistant Professor of Mathematics Brandon Bate ’04 knows very well. This summer, he was presented with an opportunity to interweave his Houghton students’ and his own love for mathematics and God directly into a meaningful project.

Bate was approached by former Houghton classmate Joshua Nemecek ’03. The SIL International data scientist presented Bate with the AQuA project, which seeks to use new advances in machine learning and natural language processing to make efficient tools for Biblical translation. After hearing about Houghton’s Data Science program, Nemecek proposed collaborating with Houghton faculty and students on the project. Bate agreed without hesitation.

“I could see how well this project matched with Houghton’s mission and the students God has blessed us with,” Bate shared.


The Houghton team, including Benjamin “Benji” Marmor ’22 and Christianna Fisk ’24, spent June and July tasked with developing tools to aid with back-translations of Biblical passages. “A ‘back translation,’” Bate defined, “is a Bible translation produced into a low-resource language that is then assessed by performing a translation of the low-resource Bible translation into a similar language, but with more language resources.” This sits at the heart of the AQuA project: the ability to develop tools that will help these consultants to more easily identify problematic back-translation verses in comparison to standard translations. Even if that back-translation cannot be understood, the work could still be done effectively. “I really like linguistics, although this project used that very little,” Marmor shared. “It was more the computer science side of things, meaning that there is plenty of room for just about anyone in translation work!”

Thanks to Houghton donors, the team was able to use a powerful data science server system that was recently gifted to the college. “We were exceedingly blessed,” Bate writes. “This system greatly expedited work that might have otherwise taken considerably longer and at greater expense.” Without the donors, this project—one that will impact not just those using the translations, but also those who worked on the Houghton team—would likely have not been able to be completed. “It was exciting to be a part of something really meaningful,” Fisk shared. “I really appreciated getting that glimpse to see if it’s something I really want to do in my future.”

By Molly Brizzell ’21