by Willis Ott and JP
At least 1.3 billion people (one-sixth of the world’s population) still does not have a translation of the complete Bible in the language they speak best. After nearly two thousand years since the completion of the Christian canon, why are there still languages on our planet without translations of God’s word?
THE YOUVERSION BIBLE APP, a popular, free Bible app for digital devices, recently passed the one thousand-version threshold, with translations of the Bible in over seven hundred languages. These seven hundred languages include the world’s major languages, as well as a number of smaller languages. The majority of the world’s population can find at least one of these languages they can understand, and perhaps read.
However, these languages represent only one-tenth of the nearly seven thousand distinct languages currently spoken on earth. Although more than two thousand languages currently have translation in progress, over 1,800 languages do not yet have any translation work in progress.
According to Wycliffe Global Alliance statistics, only 513 languages have complete translations of the Bible and nearly two thousand continue to have “likely needs” for Bible translation, some because no translation work has been started, some because previous translation work has been discontinued, and some because an existent translation is no longer adequate.
At least 1.3 billion people (one-sixth of the world’s population) still does not have a translation of the complete Bible in the language they speak best. These people are often closely connected to the social networks of those of us who do speak one of the world’s major languages and are easy to ignore. But these too are “the nations” to whom Christ sent his disciples. After nearly two thousand years since the completion of the Christian canon, why are there still languages on our planet without translations of God’s word, even though they are living languages spoken by men and women, boys in girls, in countless villages and towns?
Of course, ours is not the first generation to realize the need to translate God’s word into all the languages of the people. From the Greek Septuagint to the early Syriac, Armenian, Ethiopic, Latin, and Slavic translations, to the European translations of the Reformation, to the Asian and African translations of the nineteenth century, Bible translation has been seen as a vital ministry of the Church.
From the apostles’ own use of the Greek translation of the Old Testament and the use of “Common” Greek in their writing of the New Testament, throughout the history of the Church many have seen the need for God’s people to have his word in the language they understand best. The Westminster Confession of Faith of 1646 argued that
…because these original tongues are not known to all the people of God, who have right unto, and interest in the Scriptures, and are commanded, in the fear of God, to read and search them, therefore they are to be translated in to the vulgar language of every nation unto which they come, that, the Word of God dwelling plentifully in all, they may worship Him in an acceptable manner; and, through patience and comfort of the Scriptures, may have hope. (§1.8)
But in our time, the enthusiasm for mother tongue Bible translation has reached a new level, with Christians in the East and the West, in the Global South, and the more economically-developed countries becoming involved in the effort to translate the Bible. They are doing it through churches, mission agencies, and Bible societies. Many are engaged in mobilizing human, financial, and technological resources for Bible translation work, making use of a wide variety of media, from oral storytelling to smart phone applications, from audio and video recordings to traditional ink-and-paper.
During the past two decades, several important shifts have occurred in the work of Bible translation. In many Bible translation projects today, the traditional picture of an expatriate translator sitting in a thatch-roofed hut typing the draft on a typewriter while a group of “nationals” looks on is long gone. A much more common picture is a high school or college graduate mother tongue translator (MTT) sitting at a computer or a digital audio recorder in a office, sometimes facilitated by an occasional linguist or translation consultant (possibly not an expatriate).
The traditional model of translating an entire New Testament before releasing carefully published print copies has increasingly faded away. It has given way to translation projects in which portions of both the Old and New Testament, sometimes in the form of oral or recorded audio stories, or in the form of complete gospels and other books. Such are checked with community members and put into use in oral, audio, video, electronic, or printed format long before the complete New Testament is complete and a published version is finalized.
Many Bible translation workers and organizations have welcomed these changes, and are doing all they can to mobilize and train mother tongue translators, making use of alternative methods and new technologies. From a variety of Christian traditions, the use of vernacular Bible translations in both personal life and corporate church life is being welcomed more now than in the past. Many denominations and mission agencies that previously worked predominantly in national languages are now encouraging minority Christians to use their own languages in evangelism, discipling in small groups, and in their own formal church services.
In terms of equipment and training, almost all translation teams now do most of their work on computers with various pieces of software designed for the translation work. Increased access to Internet connections is allowing remote translation teams to share their written or oral translation work with remote consultants. This does not reduce the personnel or financial cost of the project, since the remote consultants still require training, experience, and funding, but it does provide greater flexibility and can allow for more timely feedback.
Thanks to increased access to national language translations, commentaries, and other exegetical materials, many translation teams have the means to do thorough exegetical checking of their translations locally. New curriculums and courses allow motivated translators to study biblical Greek and Hebrew, often without having to be proficient in English.
So, with so many people involved from so many nations and churches, utilizing so many tools and approaches, how is that there are still almost two thousand languages in need of translation projects? We see six significant challenges to the completion of the Bible translation task:
1. Limited access to the location of the language groups due to government restrictions, violence, instability, poverty, geography, and hostility to Christianity.
Although technology, including the Internet, can aid translation work in various ways, it cannot meet the need for physical face-to-face research, mentoring, training, and checking, especially in the beginning years of a translation project. And yet many of the remaining Bibleless people groups are in places where long-term access is difficult. In some countries, government suspicion of foreigners or Christians makes long-term residency for outside linguists and translation consultants difficult.
In other areas, violence and instability disrupts the normal functioning of the church and the translation team, causing the translators to live as refugees outside the homeland. They cannot easily check the translation in the villages. In some places, poverty or geographic inaccessibility make it difficult for local Christians to be involved with a translation team. Even when funding and vehicles are available from outside sources, the use of them is complex. It is important to use these tools in a sensitive way, including in a way that doesn’t cause negative issues with local church workers, or make the fledgling Christian community look like “rice Christians” in the eyes of the dominant non-Christian community.
2. Lack of Christians who speak the languages. Some of the languages without translations already have churches—though not necessarily theologically sound churches that could affirm, for example, the Apostles’ Creed. Many of the remaining Bibleless language groups do not have any established indigenous church at all. Some have no known believers; others have only a few scattered Christians.
For such language groups, Bible translation will not begin without outside assistance, and any local church may not be able to take the leadership for some years. Beginning translation work in these “unreached people groups” will not be fast or easy. Bible translation approaches that promise translation in months and New Testaments in years are either misguided or they are building on the foundations that others have laid. Many of the remaining needs are in language groups where the ground is rocky and rough.
3. Lack of translation training and mentoring of translators. As mentioned above, most translation projects now rely heavily upon the work of mother tongue translators (MTTs) who are able to translate from a national language into their own mother tongue, with advice from experienced, trained, linguistic and Bible studies consultants. However, it takes a lot more than just a mother tongue speaker’s knowledge of the language and a Spirit-filled heart to do quality translation work that is accurate, clear, and natural. Even well-educated MTTs often need mentorship with trained and experienced linguists and Bible scholars.
4. Lack of adequate writing systems and literacy. Most of the languages still in need of Bible translation do not have a written tradition. Some may have secret written forms used by religious practitioners, designed specifically to keep religious knowledge discreet rather than to share truth with all. Some of these cultures are what can be called “oral cultures,” meaning that important information is preserved by memory and passed on orally. Other cultures have lived in some form of stable bilingualism of a few with a literate intelligentsia using written materials in a language of wider communication.
Although various types of oral and audio formats of scripture are needed to reach each individual with the proclamation of the gospel, at some point quality translation work usually requires an adequate writing system and at least a few literate speakers to revise and check the translated scripture.
5. Lack of qualified consultants. Although the number of mother tongue translators active in the world has grown significantly, the number of qualified translation and linguistics consultants has not kept pace. The Forum of Bible Agencies International (FOBAI) suggested minimum qualifications for translation consultants are quite extensive, including extended firsthand experience in translation work, graduate studies in linguistics, and biblical languages. The experience of translating into a previously unwritten language that has never before been used to communicate biblical concepts is quite different than translation between two related European languages, or even between two very developed world languages like English and Chinese.
Many MTTs and expatriate translators are currently getting the experience and training for serving as translation consultants. But the experienced consultants who began in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s have passed on or retired. Many who began their service in the 1970s or 1980s are retiring. Qualified consultants are needed for the newly-initiated translation projects.
6. Insidious human sin and spiritual opposition, interpersonal conflicts in a team, loss of motivation, organizational conflict or confusion, denominational rivalry or prejudice, illness, injury or death of translators.
The attrition rate in Bible translation work is very high. Many workers, whether mother tongue speakers or outsiders, who set out to do Bible translation do not complete a single book of the Bible, let alone the New Testament or the whole Bible, for all kinds of reasons. Many expatriate workers trained to do translation work and many MTTs who begin training or translation end up doing something rather than Bible translation. Sometimes, it’s serious illness. Sometimes, the workers are not adequately prepared.
God has entrusted his treasure to frail sinners, “clay vessels.” The perfection, unity, and glorification that we long for is not fully realized yet. Sometimes, organizations have internal disagreements that distract from translation work. Sometimes, interpersonal conflicts are not resolved and workers resign or are terminated. Sometimes, conflicts among churches or denominations hinder the progress of translation or its usage. And we have an enemy who opposes us as we bring light to places formerly in darkness.
We wrote this article to celebrate first and foremost the growing interest in vernacular Bible translation. Surely, the Lord has done this and it is he, and he alone, who should get the glory for the more than two thousand languages that currently have vernacular translation work in progress.
We also want to motivate Christians to pray for the work of Bible translation, and to understand they are praying for something that only God can do. If your response to the description of the challenges above is something to the effect of “This is an impossible mission,” your gut-feeling is exactly right! Even if all these challenges were resolved, the work of translating 31,103 verses into a previously unwritten language is beyond human ability and needs the intervention of God’s Holy Spirit.
Completing the Bible translation task for the entire world is surely beyond the ability of any one church body or translation organization. There is no magic bullet or secret solution, no new strategy or piece of technology, no new approach or super fundraising campaign that can guarantee the start of translation work in every remaining language. In fact, it will not happen in our generation unless God wills that this is the time.
Pray with us, that this is the time. Pray for more people to be involved in translating, checking, and consulting, so that his word and the news of Christ’s victory over sin and death may be proclaimed to every man, woman, and child in the language best understood.
Focus your prayers on the challenges we have mentioned, recognizing the fact that translation work remains a highly personal, human-oriented task—a form of discipleship. Our Lord himself often focused his teaching on a small group of disciples. In the same way, quality translation work requires a commitment to personal relationships that have been developed over time.
The growing involvement and leadership of mother tongue translators and the usefulness of technology do not change the fact that the calling to Bible translation remains a calling to personal discipleship and the patient and loving proclamation of God’s living and active word through not just shared words, but shared lives. Whether they be mother tongue translators or outsiders, Bible translators are called to go to the lost sheep where they are, to learn their languages and cultures, and to build relationships. If it is the Father’s will, then speakers of the remaining languages without the Bible will also become Jesus’ disciples, adopted by God as his precious children.
. . . .
Willis Ott completed a translation project for the Ignaciano people (Bolivia). He consulted in Bolivia, Botswana, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Kenya, the DRC, Peru, Mozambique, and Sudan. He has trained national translators in several countries as well.
JP (pseudonym) has worked for seventeen years in Africa and Asia in Bible translation. He and his wife have five children. They have graduate degrees in linguistics and are pursuing graduate studies in biblical studies while continuing translation work in a limited-access nation.
EMQ, Vol. 52, No. 1 pp. 46-53. Copyright © 2016 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.
Questions for Reflection
1. What are some probable outcomes of evangelism and church-planting efforts without vernacular scripture translation? What are some probable outcomes of vernacular scripture translation without evangelism and church-planting efforts?
2. Based upon your experience and observations, what are other significant challenges to the completion of the Bible translation task? What are some current opportunities in addition to those listed in this article? What are some appropriate ways you, as an individual, a family, a church, a team, an agency, can respond to these challenges and opportunities, and perhaps change your strategy?
3. How should we change our strategy as we engage in Bible translation work if we recognize that the goal of communication of God’s message is that the receivers gain a clear understanding of who God is and who they are as related to God, if we recognize that the goals of translation is being accurate, clear, and natural, being trusted by local congregations, being usable by local Christians, and being accessible to all who are interested, and if we recognize that these values are more important than speed?