How Technology is Transforming Bible Translation

by Roy Peterson and Gilles Gravelle

Rather than assume Bible translation can only be done the way it has always been done, it is time to use Internet technology in new ways so people groups can complete Bible translations for themselves.


Photo courtesy Wycliffe Bible Translators

Bible translation dates back before the time of Christ, yet it has taken on a remarkably new form in the early twenty-first century. This change has much to do with the shift in translation leadership from the Western Church to the Global South Church. With change typically comes new ways of doing things.

Change also has much to do with new tools available to carry out a task. One significant change these days is how Global South believers view Bible translation. For the West, it has been mostly a Great Commission activity. This is still true for Global South believers; however, they also view scripture translation as an urgent theological necessity that requires acceleration because of pressing day-to-day social issues they are grappling with and the worldview crisis confronting their people.

These days, change also means translation is taking on more of a communal way of working together. With increased involvement comes a greater sense of community ownership. But how widespread can community involvement be?

Bible Translation Then
In the past, even if Western mission agencies wanted to apply more of a communal practice in doing translation, it was difficult to generate such involvement because of the limitations imposed by communications, travel, and meeting space.

Indeed, generating broader involvement from community members, such as women and young men working in the same location, was limited by cultural rules that did not allow them to speak freely into a translation project. Religious and political sensitivities have also been a limiting factor. Finally, timeframes for completing translations were long because of the lack of regular onsite exegetical consultant help, among other things. All of these are no longer barriers because of technological developments.

Bible Translation Now
A mark of the early twenty-first century is hyper-innovation. A key reason for this is that Internet tools are allowing more people to do things through broader group collaboration than ever before. Consequently, why not change the way Bible translation projects are designed, implemented, completed, and distributed to fit with the times and people’s needs? This means finding ways to:

1. Accelerate the translation work by providing more frequent interaction between translators and their advisors and consultants.
2. Involve a far greater portion of the affected community in all aspects of the translation process to ensure a greater aggregation of gifts, experience, and wisdom applied to the translation project (crowdsourcing; Surowiecki 2005).
3. Produce broader scripture communication methods and delivery platforms.
4. Generate a richer feedback loop from diverse members of the community throughout the process.

The goal is to increase the range and depth of impact that scripture translation can achieve at any given time on people and their culture because of these four activities.

It is not a simple coincidence that this shift to broader community-oriented Bible translation work, coupled with the need for acceleration, is happening at a time when our ability to work together “glocally” through Web and mobile phone-based tools is a reality.

Translation work is being accelerated by the use of Internet technology, and organizations such as The Seed Company believe this acceleration can increase with more of the community-connected virtually through the Internet and mobile phones. The solution is to:

1. Establish good Internet connectivity in all of our translation projects.
2. Provide culturally-fitting social networking tools to enable and further enhance local and global collaboration in every translation project.
3. Open up the process of translation to the larger community, especially the diaspora groups, in drafting, reviewing, testing, and distributing their translation work via the Internet and mobile phones.

Translation Acceleration and Technological Advancement—a Correlation?
Many things have added momentum to the acceleration of Bible translation over the last several hundred years. One significant factor is the correlation between technological innovation and the acceleration of Bible translation. The graph below illustrates the growth of translation projects over ever-shorter spans of time (The Seed Company).

The timeline below shows who was doing translation over the last two thousand years and the technology they used to reproduce it for distribution.

Correlating the timeline with the graph, we see how both the people doing the bulk of translation work and the technology they used to communicate their work influenced the pace of translation growth. Now in the twenty-first century, it is apparent that Web and phone technology on the one hand, and broader global partnership on the other hand, should result in greater (possibly hyper) acceleration and completion of even more translation projects. Today, it is quite possible that the remaining two thousand-plus Bibleless language groups can have some scripture completed within the next ten to fifteen years.

Decreasing Cost while Increasing Pace and Quality
Not only do these new translation methods accelerate the pace of work, but they can also reduce the cost of a translation project significantly. During the twentieth century, Bible translation projects took much longer to finish because of the small team of usually one expatriate translator working with a few people from one language community.

The translators needed to have expertise in many areas. They had to divide their time to ensure that all of the inter-related areas of a translation project were progressing well. This strategy required fifteen to twenty-five years (more than thirty years in some situations) to complete a New Testament translation. The first scripture portions were typically delivered to the community within three to four years.

This has been a very expensive way to work because of the high cost of maintaining a foreign Bible translator and his or her family for so long. The average cost of one twenty-year translation project under this model for the translator/family alone was roughly $960,000. But the model also required Western workers for administration, government relations, school teachers for the children, consultants to check their work, and pilots to fly them around. The additional costs added approximately $100,000 to every translation project.

The cry of Global South Church partners is, “How can we get more scripture-based tools sooner?” In the twenty-first century, the communal approach with first-language (i.e., native) speakers doing translation is reducing the time it takes to complete a New Testament with Old Testament portions to about seven to eight years. The first scripture portions are being delivered to the community within a few weeks or months. The average lifetime cost of this translation model is roughly $100,000, not counting service-in-kind contributions from the community. Including outside self-supporting help (agency consultant/trainers) adds about $25,000-$50,000 to the cost of the project.

We are already seeing that adding Internet-based collaboration can reduce the length and costs of a translation project even more so that needed scriptural solutions to pressing social needs are provided sooner. The use of Web-based open sourcing allows far more people to freely contribute their time to the project. This increases participation with a minimal cost increase, if there is a cost at all. Internet technology is making this acceleration possible. Broader participation is making the translation better.

Paradigm-based Assumptions    
Some Western agencies and individuals assume tribal people with low education levels would not be interested in working collaboratively over the Internet. Some also believe their lack of exposure to computer and Internet technology requires a steep learning curve.

In every situation where The Seed Company has provided Internet access for the translation work, the indigenous people (translators) have proven to be early adopters. That is, they have quickly grasped the benefits of the technology for their work and gladly use it.

Recently in Western Papua New Guinea, village workers with a high school education learned to use a laptop computer, enter data, and send and receive emails in only ten days. When the consultant returned to her home country, she already had several emails from the translators waiting for her. They were wondering why it was taking her so long to respond to their emails.

Internet connectivity accelerated a New Testament project in Southeast Asia that languished for years due to a lack of regular help. The connectivity allowed this indigenous church translator to finish his work within sixteen months. In regions of the world where Bible translation can be a dangerous activity for religious reasons, translators are receiving more help where they live via the Internet. In the past, they had to leave their home, and sometimes country, to find a secure place to work with each other and with translation consultants. In Nigeria, one translator shared that he no longer needed to make the eight-hour trip to town to send and receive emails from his translation advisor at the Internet cafe. Now he can do this several times a day right from his village.  

As a result, scriptures are being completed and distributed sooner through a broader array of media methods. Below are a number of examples of how this has impacted different regions of the world.

• In Northeast India, oral and written scriptures were provided during a catastrophic flood. Hundreds of people have come to faith, and new churches have been planted as a result of this translation acceleration.
• In the Congo, local church leaders have benefitted from scripture-based trauma healing.
• In Nigeria, the wider communal approach in translation is helping to heal rifts between tribes.
• In Kenya, translation is applying scriptural solutions to the HIV/AIDs problem.  

We are seeing greater community ownership of the translation projects. What was once the work of “outside” experts is increasingly being seen as the work of the indigenous community for accelerated impact.
Evaluating Impact
It is one thing to design and implement innovative experiments, but learning how to more effectively monitor and measure desirable impact from the experiments is also a critical part of innovation. Therefore, as The Seed Company continues with this strategy, we are figuring out ways to better measure the outcomes and impact these innovations provide in order to confirm value and validate the methods.

The aim is three-fold: experimentation, implementation, and evaluation. We are willing to take thoughtful risks because even failure typically produces valuable information that influences the next iterative experiment, which leads us closer to our goal: greater scripture impact on people and their cultures.

Envisioning New Ways Forward
At one time, Bible translation was the work of small teams of predominantly Western experts. Because they were cross-cultural workers, they needed a unique set of skills to achieve good translation results, and at a high cost per translation. They sought native speaker input in their translation work to ensure accuracy. Even so, this methodology could only achieve certain results within the limitations this strategy imposed. That was then.

Now, with indigenous-led teams, the Internet provides a new way to do translation. The idea is that more people from a community can work together on a Bible translation project through Internet-based social networks. It does not replace face-to-face meetings. Instead, it allows more of the effected community to work together on “their” translation in ways they never could. Translation consultants living anywhere in the world can review the translation team’s work, even while the team sleeps, so the translation is literally being worked on twenty-four hours a day.

Online community collaboration for Bible translation still requires the involvement of trained translators and exegetical experts. Now, because of Internet access, translation teams can expand to aggregate more giftings, wisdom, and skills.

Johannes Guttenberg re-arranged printing press technology to make printing more accessible to the masses. His use of existing technology made it possible for more people to have a Bible translation completed and printed in their own language. In the twenty-first century, rather than assume Bible translation can only be done the way it has always been done, let’s use existing Internet technology in new ways so people groups can complete Bible translations for themselves in the last languages still needing it.

Significantly, a community that produces a Bible translation together views the work as their own rather than something done for them by a foreign expert. This is the indigenization of God’s word within a people group. It happens in ways that foreign cross-culturally-produced translations have rarely, if ever, achieved. Now it can be achieved with greater community ownership.

1. It seems we are seeing the reappearance of oral and literary communication peacefully co-existing for the first time since about 450 BC when Plato’s heretical thinking and the Greek alphabet would begin to shape the Western bias toward literary ways of learning (see Havelock 1986, 1-23).

Havelock, Eric. 1986. The Muse Learns to Write. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Surowiecki, James. 2005. The Wisdom of Crowds. New York: Anchor Books.

Want to Translate? Here Are the Tools You Need

Internet connectivity: Linking translators in remote regions with translators, translation trainers, and consultants in other places. Where there is no land-line, small, light solar-powered satellite terminals provide broadband connectivity so first-language speakers can do translation where they live. They can interact immediately with a translation consultant rather than traveling away from their home or waiting months for a face-to-face meeting. This is reducing the amount of time a translation team typically spends on a translation project.

On-line collaboration systems (OCS):
Developing web-based social networks to enable a larger virtual team of people to work together on a translation. Some of the ways of working together include:
•  Translators and translation consultants working together from a distance with shared documents to review and improve the translation team’s work.
•  Translators posting their translation work on a secure and monitored website for the larger community of end users to review, comment, and even correct aspects of the translation work.
•  An open-source approach allows the involvement of an entire community in the work. This allows for a greater aggregation of skills and experience that benefit the translation work.
•  Ongoing training for the translation team is available through Web-based learning.

New media delivery methods: Smart phone technology is rapidly becoming the primary way people living even in isolated regions organize their lives and access and share information. Various teaching and evangelism tools—delivered through video, audio, and literary media—are accessed through smart phones. Bible translations are already utilizing smart phone technology, especially in places where open access for religious and political reasons is not possible. Soon, people in some communities will be using their smart phones to participate in reviewing and commenting on Bible translation work in progress, as well. This shows how the traditional computer desktop and Web browser have moved to the cloud. Kindle and Nook and tablets like iPad are already showing their technological advantages for scripture distribution in any language.

Roy L. Peterson has been president and CEO of The Seed Company, an affiliate of Wycliffe Bible Translators, since 2003. Between 1997 and 2003, he was president and CEO of Wycliffe USA. Roy and his wife, Rita, have three children and three grandchildren.

Gilles Gravelle, PhD, is The Seed Company’s director of research & innovation. His research, writing, and speaking focus on missiology, theology, Internet technology, strategic planning, and strategic giving. This interdisciplinary learning is for the purpose of helping partner organizations plan mission projects that are well formed, outcome and impact-oriented, and well-aligned with twenty-first-century realities.

EMQ, Vol. 48, No. 4, pp. 456-464. Copyright  © 2012 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


Related Articles

Welcoming the Stranger

Presenter: Matthew Soerens, US Director of Church Mobilization, World Relief Description: Refugee and immigration issues have dominated headlines globally recently. While many American Christians view these…

Upcoming Events