Into the New Millennium: The Changing Face of Bible Translation

The first few years of the new millennium have seen the continuation and even the acceleration of the major societal and demographic changes1 begun in the final decade of the twentieth century. Those years also saw ferment in the academic world and the emergence and growth of new disciplines, none less so than in the fields of cognitive sciences and communication studies. The theory and practice of Bible translation has not been immune to these developments.

Bible Translation: Factors Affecting Theory and Practice
Translation does not take place in a vacuum. Not only are there societal factors to consider, there are developments in biblical studies, linguistics and the social sciences.

1. Explosion of translation sciences.2 Translation theory developed from translating the Bible into languages around the world was a leader in the field fifty years ago. This is no longer so. As the world has grown smaller in the last twenty-five years, there has been massive growth in translation studies.

2. Developments in the social sciences. The growth in translation studies has been paralleled by developments in communication studies,3 cognitive studies, anthropology4 and linguistics.5 The new understandings of human interaction generated by these sciences may provide tools to carry Bible translation to a new level.

3. Developments in biblical studies.6 There have been new developments in biblical studies, many of which have relevance for translation. With the contribution of the social sciences, biblical exegesis is now much more inter-disciplinary. The understanding of the Bible as literature is of particular importance.7 The areas of developments can be summarised as follows:

  • Text. Septuagint studies, exegesis, canonical studies
  • Texture. Socio-rhetorical studies
  • Context. Sociocultural settings
  • Pretext. Ideology.

4. Translation and technology. In our globalised world, translation needs have seen exponential growth8 and it is no surprise that computer power has been harnessed by the translation industry; still, the goal of fully automatic translation remains elusive. Yet there have been major advances: translation memory tools, corpus linguistics (including text types and genres), electronic corpora and “term banks,” an intralingual approach to translation based on syntactic structures.9

In the field of Bible translation, tools have been developed to aid the translator, but matters such as pragmatics, morphosyntactic structures, literary genres and the huge variety of languages into which the Bible is being translated mean that while machines are making an immense contribution, Bible translation will need human beings for some considerable time to come.

Translation projects are now routinely equipped with computers and programmes such as the United Bible Society's (UBS) Paratext, which enable translators to access texts and commentaries and use tools developed for text analysis, text-processing, glossing and concordancing. Increased efficiency and quality in manuscript preparation and the publishing process result from this. Advances in media technology provide a range of options for using non-print media to communicate the translated text.

Into the New Millennium

1. The Church universal. According to Kwame Bediako, “It is important to realise that Christianity which ‘has always been universal in principle,’ can be said to ‘have become universal in practice only in recent history,’ a fact which is not only unique among the world's religions; it is a new feature for the Christian faith itself.”

The centre of gravity of the Christian Church has now moved to the South—there are new Christian “heartlands” in Africa, Asia and Latin America. In the twentieth century, translation preceded the Church. Will this now be reversed? Will the churches, rather than parachurch organisations, now promote translation? Or will there be meaningful partnership in which the church is the senior partner?

The face of mission has changed. It is now “from everywhere to everyone.” The rural character of mission fifty years ago has moved to urban concerns. The role of expatriates has been redefined and reshaped, with mission organisations undergoing profound changes.

2. Priorities in translation. Work is underway by the UBS, SIL/Wycliffe Bible Translators and the Forum of Bible Agencies to analyse needs and set priorities. One thing is now clear: translation will be owned and done by mother tongue speakers. Translator training programs up to a doctoral level are being developed in Latin America, Africa, Asia and Europe.

In an increasingly urbanised, globalised world the task must be prioritized. Do we focus on:

  • major languages?
  • minority languages?
  • urban cultures? rural peoples?
  • oral translations?
  • creole languages?
  • language of Christian community?
  • media languages?

3. Types of translation. The audience/public for whom the translation is intended must be carefully studied in order to decide the nature of the translation and the format and media in which it will be produced. Should it be literal, dynamic, literary or liturgical?

4. Translation theory and practice. Bible translation theory and practice today is in a process of transition. The two major agencies involved—UBS and SIL—are developing new approaches. New terminology is being used, moving from concepts of faithfulness and equivalence to those of similarity and difference.10 SIL scholars are focusing on “relevance theory” as a key component of their approach. UBS researchers are developing ideas complementary to those of SIL, in which conceptual frames of reference, situational and textual contexts, literary and linguistic components are considered.

Words Without Borders
According to Lamin Sanneh, “Bible translation in the modern missionary movement … turned Christianity into the possession of the worldwide human family.”11 In the history of Christianity, Bible translation represents a revolutionary conception of faith as something translatable and multicultural. The fact of Christianity being a translated and translating faith places God at the center of the universe of cultures.

Small wonder then that in its 2004 World Assembly held in Newport, Wales, the UBS affirmed that Bible translation was at the core of its ministry. Meanwhile, a few years earlier, SIL/WBTI launched its 2025 Vision to begin Bible translation in every language that needed it by the year 2025.

In scripture we find that before Babel (Genesis 11) there was ease of communication; this soon turned to confusion. At Pentecost (Acts 2) this was reversed. Pentecost broke the limits on vernacular languages, enabling them to be vehicles of God’s word.

There is a theology of Bible translation; it is an extension of the Incarnation—“the Word became flesh.” According to Andrew Walls, “The first divine act of translation into humanity thus gives rise to a constant succession of new translations. Christian diversity is the necessary product of the Incarnation.”12

For peoples and cultures, scripture is not just text, it becomes context. The reader (or hearer) enters and participates in its world of meaning and experience, in the one multicultural people of God. Translated scripture ensures that the world of experience is expanded in the other direction, shaped by the cultural world of experience of the reader or hearer.

Biblical truth in a new idiom enriches the Church universal, encouraging deeper translation of the life of Christ in our communities and cultures. Barriers between peoples are broken down and people cry out “we all hear them using our own languages to tell the wonderful things God has done” (Acts 2:11).


(This article is an edited version of a longer paper by Dr. Bill Mitchell of the United Bible Societies. A full version of the paper may be obtained from him at [email protected].)



1. See Mitchell, William. 2006. “Bible Translation in the New Millennium: The Changed and Changing Context.”  2. Mojola, Aloo Osotsi and Ernst Wendland. 2004. “Scipture Translation in the Era of Translation Studies” in Bible Translation: Frames of Reference. ed. Timothy Wilt. Manchester, St. Jerome Publishing, 167-186.  

3. Wilt, Timothy, 2003. “Translation and Communication” in Bible Translation: Frames of Reference. ed. Timothy Wilt. Manchester, St. Jerome Publishing, 27-80.

4. Bascom, Robert. 2003. “The Role of Culture in Translation” in Bible Translation: Frames of Reference. ed. Timothy Wilt. Manchester, St. Jerome Publishing, 81-112. 

5. Ross, Ronald. 2003. “Advances in Linguistic Theory and Their Relevance to Translation” in Bible Translation: Frames of Reference. ed. Timothy Wilt. Manchester, St. Jerome Publishing, 113-152.

6. Ogden, Graham. 2003. “Biblical Studies and Bible Translation” in Bible Translation: Frames of Reference. ed. Timothy Wilt. Manchester, St. Jerome Publishing, 153-178. 7. Wendland, Ernst. 2003. “A Literary Approach to Biblical Text Analysis and Translation: in Bible Translation: Frames of Reference. ed. Timothy Wilt. Manchester, St. Jerome Publishing, 179-228.   8. In commercial enterprises, translation has become known as part of “GILT”: Globalisation, Internationalisation, Localisation and Translation.

9. Hatim, Basil and Jeremy Munday. 2004. Translation: An Advanced Resource Book. London: Routledge. 112-120. 10. Arduini, Stefano and Robert Hodgson, eds. 2004. Similarity and Difference in Translation. Guiraldi: Rimini.   11. Sanneh, Lamin. 2003. Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 106-107.  12. Walls, Andrew F. 1990. “The Translation Principle in Christian History” in Bible Translation and the Spread of the Church. ed. Philip Stine. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 24-39.