Advancing Scripture Translation

Earlier this year, Hollywood moviemakers released a glossy, high-action remake of the 1960s American science fiction classic Star Trek. First created in 1966 as a television series, Star Trek grew into six television series and eleven feature films, quickly becoming a permanent fixture in pop culture. The series dealt with many issues, including war and peace, imperialism, classism, racism, sexism, and especially the role of technology in society. One could not help imagining what the future would look like in terms of technology used for travel through time and space, weaponry, creating home environments, and communications.

Many of the futuristic pieces of technology depicted in the 1960s series are now very much a part of the world. Lasers are used in industry, weaponry, and surgery; “tricorders” used to read, compute, and communicate information can be seen in cell phones, PDAs, and blackberries; and computers, especially touch-screen, are now available in every size, shape, and form for use in every part of the home.

One piece of technology depicted in Star Trek that has yet to come into existence is the “universal translator” that can instantaneously translate language spoken from one language to another. Although there are online tools available (e.g., Babelfish and Google) that assist in translating text, in some cases they are far from being accurate or even discernible. As far as we have come technologically from the 1960s, languages and their translation, with all their great variety and nuances, continue to be a tremendous hurdle to overcome. So much more is the case with scripture translation.

A Brief Look at Bible Translation
In the nineteenth century and early decades of the twentieth century, much of the focus was placed on Bible distribution more so than on Bible translation. However, after 1910 there was a steady increase of work done on Bible translation. In the decade following 1910, scripture translation in some part was done in 102 additional languages with a cumulative total of 722 languages having some Bible translation. In the 1950s, 142 translations were added; in the1960s, 258 languages; in the 1970s, 290 languages; and in the 1980s, 175 additional languages. It is estimated that by 2010 there will be over 2,500 translations of the Bible.*

Even with such increases in Bible translations over
the last century, less than ten percent of the world’s
languages have complete Bibles.

Even with great increases in Bible translations over the last century, still less than ten percent of the world’s languages have complete Bibles. Only 458 of the world’s 7,299 languages have full translations of the Bible, while 4,723 languages are without any scripture translations.

Many languages in Africa, Western Asia, and Southeast Asia do not have translations of the full Bible. Sadly, the lowest scripture translation availability is found in countries of western Asia and North Africa—countries such as Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Mauritania, Egypt, and Algeria, which are predominantly Muslim. Languages used by populations with very small Christian populations have an urgent need for scripture translation.

There is also great need to reach the remote areas of the world, as they are also the least touched by the advances of technology. MP3 downloads, podcasts, and Bibles in SMS format for mobile communication have served well those in urban areas with access to the Internet; however, they have not reached many of those in the Majority World. Often times, countries with the least access to the Internet also have lower Gross Domestic Products (GDPs) and adult literacy rates. The remote regions of the world are in great need for scripture translations and access to them. For example, Melanesia has the lowest percentage (24.1%) of full Bibles in their languages, although they have one of the highest numbers of languages in the world (just over 1,000 languages, second only to Southeast Asia with over 1,200 languages).

Although priority was given to New Testament translations twenty to thirty years ago due to limited personnel and financial resources, these limitations continue to exist today. In addition to these continuing infrastructural challenges, as well as the recognition of the need for Old Testament translations for the global Church, there is an increased need for trained consultants to work alongside translators as areas of specialization continue to increase. Concurrently, with the recognition of the importance of context in evangelizing and discipling, there is also an increased need for study Bibles.

Equalizing the Task of Bible Translation
More and more, we are recognizing that Bible translation cannot lie in the hands of the global North, but rather it is a task for the global Church. Reallocation of resources, realignment of organizations, and redistribution of manpower are necessary, especially as we move toward translations made by local speakers and not merely outside translators. Toward that end, the Forum of Bible Agencies International (FOBAI) was established in 1990 to increase cooperation and communication between many Bible translation and distribution agencies in the world.

It is in this spirit of cooperation and communication—the Spirit of Lausanne—that we must engage with the challenges of scripture translation. How must we increase cooperation and communication for this global task? How do we redistribute personnel and resources? How must we prioritize translation works? These are the questions we must ask ourselves and investigate further to boldly face the challenges of effectively communicating the gospel through the written word of the Bible in each person’s first tongue.

It is my hope and prayer that as we examine and work toward finding solutions to the challenges of scripture translation that we would be inspired and re-energized to work toward the vision of Revelation 7. It is our hope and vision that every nation, tribe, people, and tongue would be found worshiping before the throne of the Lord God Almighty.

God’s best to you.

* All figures from Atlas of Global Christianity to be published by Edinburgh University Press in 2010.

Doug Birdsall is executive chair of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization. He served as president of Asian Access from 1991 to 2007 and continues to serve on their board of directors. Birdsall is a graduate of Wheaton College, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Harvard University. He is co-publisher of Lausanne World Pulse.