I admire the work of those who translate the scriptures into different languages. Indigenous church simply isn’t possible without a version of the Bible in the local language. Groups like Wycliffe Bible Translators and The Seed Company mobilize translators around the world to produce reliable working translations of the Bible into the languages of the “unreached.” Their work assists missionaries and local churches alike in making disciples of all nations.
Few people realize how difficult the translation process can be. Of course, the material is extremely sensitive and requires respect and care. After all, we are talking about the Bible here. Professionals labor over the text for years to produce a working translation, and, according to OneVerse, translations costs $26 USD per verse. There is also the question of interpretation. Despite what the King-James-Version-only crowd might say, there is no objective version of scripture. That’s why there are so many versions of scripture in English alone: each has its bias and perspective.
In some cases, translation is being done into languages that have no written form; translators literally start from scratch, forming an alphabet of native sounds and then working from there. In these cases, people need to be taught to read the languages they already speak.
Another challenge to scripture translation is the rapid rate of change that languages face today. Dictionaries struggle to keep up with the changing language, as illustrated by the Oxford English Dictionary‘s recent addition of the “words,” OMG” and “retweet” and exclusion of the term “cassette tape.” Accelerated by technology and social media, a language changes quickly enough to render a scripture translation obsolete before its even finished.
Many Bible translators find themselves working to translating the scriptures into dying languages. According to National Geographic’s Enduring Voices project, a minority language dies out every 14 days. The extinction of a language means the end of a cultural identity and the possible loss of that culture’s history. Scripture translation doesn’t just help with the spread of the gospel, it builds literacy; allowing one generation to tell its stories and the next generation to understand those stories and benefit from their wisdom.
As much as I appreciate the work of scripture translation organizations, I’m not sure what they’re doing is sustainable. If I were in charge of The Seed Company (and this series of posts will likely guarantee this never happens), I would change everything. Over the next few posts, I’ll explain how.
NEXT: The PR Problem