Bible Translation in History and into the Future


According to linguistic count, there are 6,909 living languages in the world today (Ethnologue 16th ed.). Of these, 2,496 have at least a portion of translated scripture, but the remaining 4,413 have no Bible translation at all.

Although scripture translation has been underway for over two millennia, the speakers of more than half the world’s languages still have no translated scripture. At the same time linguists estimate that approximately ninety-four to ninety-five percent of the world’s population has access to the Bible in a language they are able to speak or understand. However, that language may be a language of conquerors or enemies that they do not wish to use, and they do not have access to God’s word in their mother tongue or in their “heart language.”

Up Until Now…
Putting these linguistic facts in perspective, missiologist Andrew Walls observes that the Christian message is a translated message and the Christian Church is a translated Church. Before Christ was born, the words of the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek (the international language of the day) in Alexandria in Egypt, one of the great cultural and economic centers of the time. It was this translation—the Septuagint—that became the first Bible of the Christian Church. The New Testament authors recorded the story of Jesus’ message of good news, not in the Aramaic language that Jesus and his disciples and followers spoke in their daily lives, but in the widely-spoken Koiné Greek of the eastern Mediterranean world.

It was not until the sixteenth century that Bible
translation became an integral feature of the life
and growth of the Western Church.

Implicit in the Great Commission is the need for translation: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them … and teaching them…” (Matthew 28:19-20). The story of Pentecost is a story of cross-language communication through the miracle of speaking in tongues (Acts 2:5-13). The early Christian Church spread out from Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).

In the east, the Bible was translated in the first centuries into Syriac, Persian, Gothic, Armenian, Georgian, and in the seventh century parts of it were translated even into Chinese. To the south, it was translated into Coptic dialects, into Nubian, and into Ge’ez. To the west, in North Africa and in southern Europe, it was translated into dialects of Old Latin. Over time, Latin, the language of the Roman Empire, of pax romana, replaced Greek as the language of international communication, and the Latin Bible known as the Vulgate became the Bible of the Church in Europe for a thousand years. It was not until the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century that Bible translation became an integral feature of the life and growth of the Western Church.

The Reformation Period was followed by the Missionary Era of Bible translation during the colonial era of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Missionary efforts in Bible translation were facilitated by the translation, publishing, and distribution expertise of the Bible Society enterprise, beginning with the founding of the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1804. In the mid-twentieth century, a number of professional Bible translation agencies were founded, foremost being Wycliffe Bible Translators.

The translation of the Bible cannot be separated from the growth of the Christian Church worldwide. Just as the early Church grew across Asia and North Africa and into Europe in the first centuries, so the Church has grown throughout Africa, Oceania, and the New World alongside Bible translation. Wherever the Christian Church has gone, it has been accompanied by translation of the Word of God, whether in the international languages of the time, or in the mother tongues of the new Christian communities.

The principle of a pragmatic approach to Bible translation may be seen from biblical times to the present day. The very first translation was into a trade language, Greek. Bible translation in Asia and northeast Africa quickly shifted from Greek to major local languages, and through these languages many Christian communities survived in the midst of great pressures for a very long time.

The Nubian Church existed until the sixteenth century in what is present-day Sudan, and the Udi Church in the Caucasus existed into the nineteenth century. Some of these early churches continue to be with us to the present time (e.g., the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Ethiopia). It is frequently suggested that part of the reason for the disappearance of the early Church in North Africa from Libya to Algeria was that no scripture translation was undertaken in local languages.

Culture and Translation
In the “translated church” not only are the words of the Bible translated, but concepts as well. Old Testament truths were reinterpreted by Jesus for the disciples and his followers. Using the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the early Church adjusted from a Semitic way of thinking to Greek philosophical thought.

In the New Testament we already see ecclesiastical differences between the Jewish way of life and the Gentile way of life. As the Christian Church moved eastward across Asia and northward, it underwent a continuing process of translation, and likewise as it moved westward into Europe.

In the “translated church” not only are the words
of the Bible translated, but concepts as well.

In each community, when the Word of God enters the speech form of a people, it enters their culture. Unlike the Islamic practice of not translating the Qur’an and always using the Arabic name Allah, the Bible is translated and translators have almost always adopted a local name for God. Thus, YHWH of the Israelite forefathers became Theos and Kyrios in the Septuagint and in the Greek New Testament. In Africa, the Zulu name for God is Nkulunkulu, the “Great Great One”; among the Samba of Cameroon one name for God is Nyaama, a word associated with the sun; among the Lame in Chad, it is Yafray, a feminine name that means “Mother of the heavens”; and for the Gà in Ghana, God may be referred to as Ataa Naa Nyonmo, the “Father Mother God.” God reveals himself through his word and through each culture.

Bible Translation in the Coming Days
What is the task that lies ahead of us in Bible translation? According to Vision 2025 articulated by Wycliffe Bible Translators, all language communities in the world that need Bible translations should have translation projects underway by the year 2025. However, of the 2,496 languages that already have scripture translations, only 1,204 have New Testaments and an even fewer 453 have complete Bibles. The translation of a portion (i.e., one book or a selection from the Bible) may signal the beginning of a Bible translation project, but it is only a beginning.

For evangelistic purposes, a New Testament is needed; for theological training and discourse, a Bible is needed. But herein lies a problem. Translating an entire Bible is very costly in terms of human and financial resources. Furthermore, Bible schools and seminaries often use a language of wider communication such as English, French, or Spanish in the classroom, instead of local languages, thereby greatly reducing the use of minority language Bibles.

In the global languages, new Bible translations are published almost every year for all audiences in print and non-print media alike. However, for many small language communities there will only be one translation. Here there is a great need for Bible Helps and for Study Bibles for private reading and for group study.

The Forum of Bible Agencies International identifies its vision as “working together to maximize the worldwide access and impact of God’s Word.” Making the scriptures accessible in the language of each community is important, but Bible translation must not end with the publishing and distribution of the translated scriptures. From accessibility there will hopefully be impact and engagement.

The United Bible Societies describes scripture engagement as a “concept that emphasizes making the scriptures discoverable, accessible, and relevant.” Great effort needs to be expended by churches everywhere, with support from Bible agencies, to stimulate engagement with the translated scriptures through literacy programs that lead to reading of the translated Word of God, through liturgical use of the mother tongue scriptures, through workshops and formal courses in Bible study, and through multi-media and Internet presentations of the scriptures.

As has been apparent in the life of the Christian Church throughout history, through the presence of the Holy Spirit, the word that goes out from his mouth does not return empty: it does accomplish that which he purposed and it does succeed in the thing for which he sent it (Isaiah 55:11).

Dr. Philip Noss is a consultant with the Eugene A. Nida Institute for Biblical Scholarship with the American Bible Society. Previously, he was a professor at the Universities of Wisconsin-Madison and Calabar, Nigeria, a Bible translator with Evangelical Lutheran Church of Cameroon, and a United Bible Societies translation consultant, Africa regional.