The Seed Company, Misunderstood

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PREVIOUSLY: Crowdsource the Translation

For my last post in this series on The Seed Company, I’d like to turn my attention to the organization’s communication efforts.

The Seed Company has a lofty goal to lead the way in Bible translation by promoting the utilization of technology and community-based translation cohorts to accelerate the work. They’ve also been extremely gracious in accepting and interacting with my entirely unsolicited advice. Needless to say, I’m a fan. So it’s in love and a spirit of humility that I offer some advice for their communications.

If I were in charge of The Seed Company’s communications, here are some things I’d want to implement:

What’s the difference?

In his comment on a recent post of mine, Eddie, who works with Wycliffe UK, wrote: “you do not seem to have understood the different roles of Wycliffe and the Seed Company.” I’m sure he’s right; throughout the course of this series I’ve confused the work of one for that of the other. But if those differences are lost on me, a missionary practitioner, missiologist, and communications consultant, will it be any clearer to the general public?

As it stands, The Seed Company does a poor job distinguishing itself from Wycliffe Bible Translators. I believe much of confusion is due to their reluctance in saying explicitly what their website implies: “Some thought Wycliffe was too slow, so they started The Seed Company to be faster and more innovative.” The problem isn’t helped by the fact that The Seed Company seems to speak in the first-person “we” when referring to work done by other organizations (in the missions world, it’s called “partnering.” (By the way, Johanna gives an excellent clarification in her comment on that same post.)

The communication is further confused by the various initiatives and campaigns they’ve sponsored. OneVerse and End Bible Poverty, from what I gather, are programs of the Seed Company, which is an organization started by Wycliffe, while the Blank Bible Challenge seems to be more of a campaign, done in partnership of an organization and one of its programs. Each of these has its own URL and though they’re all quite well done, it’s hard to tell what’s what and whether the money they raise is all going to the same place.

Bring in the church

Currently, trained consultants assist first-language (native) translators to insure accuracy in new translation projects. At any given point in time, a consultant is interacting with multiple translators on multiple languages. The process does not require the consultant to be fluent in each of the languages. Usually, the dialog between translators and consultants happens behind closed doors. But what if it didn’t?

I recommend that The Seed Company pull back the curtain on the translation process, and allow the general public to see and participate in the “behind the scenes” discussion. Making these interactions (which may happen over the internet) open to all would be a great way to intrigue, equip, and involve more people on mission. Those translators who are working from English source material could benefit from the input of many. It would allow participating individuals and their churches, to get to know nationals and interact with them personally while working on valuable translation projects.

The Seed Company App

Despite the fact that The Seed Company has digital copies of hundreds of translations of the scriptures, they don’t generally handle the publication and distribution of those translations. But they should. A mobile app would be a perfect way to distribute the scriptures freely. Say I run into an Afghan immigrant at a bus stop and find myself sharing the gospel with him. I look up a passage of scripture in English using an app on my iPhone, and The Seed Company app allows me to show that same passage to the man in his native Hazaragi dialect of Persian. Then, as we part ways, I email the man the scriptures in his language as a gift.

This would be way more helpful than an app that “helps” me not drink coffee and send the money to translation agencies instead.

Don’t hide behind objectivity

Finally, and I can’t stress this enough, the Seed Company should personalize its work by highlighting the personalities of its people. Let interesting people like Johanna Fenton and Gilles Gravelle and others explore innovative ways of telling the stories of translation. We don’t need more “objective” (whitewashed, staid) coverage of “what God is doing on the mission field.” We need real people to work through the tensions, challenges, joys and blessings of this adventure we call mission. Every organization needs at least one spokesperson to make it personal. Who’s The Seed Company’s?

EDIT: Changed some wording in the second and fifth paragraphs for clarity, and edited the eighth to show that not all translation consulting happens via the internet.

The Words of The Word

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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