The Future of Scripture Translation

Scripture translation has been an integral part of the growth and expansion of the Church through the ages, motivated by the desire to have access to the Word of God in new languages. The long and rich history of scripture translation is a fascinating area of study that gives perspective on the future of this foundational activity of God’s people.

History of Scripture Translation
This history began more than two centuries before the time of Christ, when the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek. This translation, the Septuagint, became the “Bible” of the early Church and is still in use today. Other ancient versions followed in languages such as Syriac, Coptic, and Latin as the Church expanded into other regions. By the year 1500, there were scripture translations in twenty languages, and over the next three hundred years this number increased to eighty.

The formation of the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1804 was the beginning of a new era of scripture translation. This article does not allow for all the details of the history of the Bible Society movement, but it is important to note that it was the beginning of more focused attention on the task of scripture translation and distribution in the world’s languages. More than a century later, the Bible societies were joined by other agencies such as SIL International, New Tribes Mission, Lutheran Bible Translators, the Institute for Bible Translation, Pioneer Bible Translators, Evangel Bible Translators, and The Word for the World.

Together, the Bible societies and translation agencies have served the Church by providing access to scripture in an unprecedented number of languages. As a point of reference, in 1820 scripture was available in 107 languages. In 1910, the total was 722, and by 2010, this number will surpass 2,500. As we look to the future, a significant challenge remains: to provide scripture for more than two thousand more language communities who still have no access to scripture in their language.

My Personal Walk into Translation
My perspective on the future of scripture translation has been shaped by my experience working with SIL International over the last thirty years, and by an increasing awareness of not only the history, but the impact of translation around the world. When I began my training with SIL, I had no idea that I was part of one of the largest movements in the history of scripture translation.

Bible translation agencies should ask themselves,
What is our appropriate role in light of the growth
of the global Church? How can we best serve
the Church?

From my perspective in the late 1970s, I was merely following my interests and God’s guidance. In retrospect, I can see how several different streams were converging in the middle of the twentieth century that, in some direct or indirect way, gave rise to this movement. One of the main streams was the vitality of the modern mission movement. Another stream, specifically related to scripture translation, was the growth of Descriptive Linguistics as a field of study.

Closely related to the growth of Descriptive Linguistics was Eugene Nida’s development of Functional Equivalence as a theory of translation. The analytical principles and methods of these developing disciplines were at the heart of the training provided in the summer training programs of SIL and other translation agencies. As a result of these converging streams, many translators were trained and became involved in an unprecedented number of translation projects in languages around the world under the auspices of various Bible societies and translation agencies.

Other key initiatives Nida set in motion in the mid-twentieth century have had a lasting impact on the way translation is carried out today, thus laying a foundation for the future. One of these was to produce editions of the Hebrew and Greek texts for translators. Another important initiative was the training of translation consultants who would work closely with teams of translators on location with the goal of helping to improve the quality of translation.

The training I received in the late 1970s was squarely within the trends briefly mentioned above. Equipped with cutting-edge linguistics, translation theory, and even a new “personal computer,” I was ready to learn a new language and train translators to work on a scripture translation project. During the next several years I worked with a team of dedicated translators and consultants, which eventually culminated in the publication and distribution of the Mapuche New Testament in Chile. The experience of many colleagues in SIL and other translation agencies would have been very similar during this period of time.

But Times Are Changing
The world is not the same as it was when I was trained and began my work in Bible translation. One of the most significant changes is the growth of the Church around the world. It is impossible to even consider the future of scripture translation without taking this reality into account. So, as I contemplate the future of scripture translation, I ask myself: What is my appropriate role in light of the growth of the global Church? How can I best serve the Church? How can the translation agency in which I work best serve the Church?

Translation has always been carried out in service
to the Church, but the time is right for the whole
Church to be involved in decisions of what best
serves its mission, including scripture translation.

I’ve come to realize that answers to these questions cannot be found unless I am engaged in direct conversation and consultation with the global Church. I’ve also realized that the “right” answers today will likely be quite different from what they were twenty or thirty years ago. The work of translation has always been carried out in service to the Church, but the time is right for the whole Church to be involved in decisions of what best serves its mission, including scripture translation, in the world. This seems to be an appropriate response approach to how the “center of gravity” has shifted in the Church.

As I envision the future of scripture translation, I see:

  1. …more translation being carried out by teams that are representative of the complexion of the global Church (hence, less westerners being sent to initiate translation work). There will likely be a greater internationalization of existing translation agencies and the creation of new, more streamlined and agile ones that can respond more directly to local issues and needs. In the future, there will likely be more and more translation teams and consultants working directly under the auspices of these local agencies. At the same time, there will be increased cooperative efforts of the Church, translation agencies, and other organizations as they seek to work toward common goals for scripture translation and engagement.
  2. …an increased number of revisions of already existing translations. This will go hand in hand with an increase in the Church’s active engagement with scripture, participation in global dialogue, and the development of local theologies. The future will not only see the availability of at least some portion of Scripture in all the world’s languages, but it will also be characterized by more translations of the Old Testament and whole Bibles. The trend will also continue to produce notes and materials to aid in the comprehension of the biblical text.
  3. …a previously-thought-impossible number of consultants from diverse regions of the world working across the globe. These future consultants will work in an unprecedented way with already existing and new technologies, providing them greater access to translation, biblical studies, and biblical language resources. There will also be increased use of current and new technologies to enhance connectivity and teamwork among translators and consultants in different locations around the globe.
  4. …unprecedented access to the Bible through a variety of media and mobile devices, some of which are not even in use or available today. Traditional publication and distribution channels will also change, enhancing local access to scripture through on-demand publishing technologies.

I am sure there will be changes in the future of scripture translation that I have not even anticipated. I am very aware of my limited perspective, but I am certain that the basic motivation to provide access to the Word of God will not change. There may have been an unprecedented number of translations published during recent decades, but I believe we are now living in one of the most exciting eras of scripture translation as the global Church works together to provide access to the Word of God.

Bryan Harmelink is international translation coordinator for SIL International. He began his work with SIL International in Latin America, working for many years with the Mapuche translation team in Chile.