Bible Translation in the New Millennium: The Changed and Changing Context

In successive eras, translation has been at the heart of the communication of the Christian message. Societal changes and upheavals have not stopped this; indeed, at times they have only accelerated the process. At the beginning of the new millennium we stand on the cusp of major changes in the world as we know it. Language is at the heart of who we are as human beings, and is vitally involved in this rapidly changing situation. The future directions of Bible translation should be considered in light of this.

History of Bible Translation
The history of Bible translation can be understood in various ways. For some it begins with the example of Ezra teaching the law to those who had returned to Jerusalem from the exile (Nehemiah 8). He read in Hebrew, but after long years in exile his hearers no longer understood Hebrew and needed a translation in Aramaic. In the following centuries in the Jewish assemblies, the practice developed of the meturgeman (interpreter) who gave an oral translation (targum) of the scripture being read. For others, Bible translation begins with the translation of the Hebrew scriptures into Greek (known as the Septuagint or LXX) in Egypt in the second century BC.

William Smalley divides Bible translation into a number of eras:1

Era Time Notable Features
Era of spreading the faith 200 BC Septuagint (LXX) onward
Era of European vernaculars 405 Vulgate completed
Era of printing 1450 AD Gutenberg’s Vulgate completed in 1456
Era of Bible Society 1804 British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS) founded 1804
Era of professionalised translation 1943 Eugene Nida, ABS; W. Cameron Townsend, WBT- SIL Nida’s Bible Translation ‘47
Interconfessional era 1965 Vatican II 1962-1964 Dei Verbum
Era of non-missionary translation 1970  

1. Languages with part or all of the Bible. Bible translation advanced slowly in the first 1,500 years of our era, and then saw significant growth with Spanish and Portuguese colonial expansion (usually the translation of texts for the liturgy and lectionary readings) and the Protestant Reformation. However, as can be seen, the Reformation did not result in the expansion in translation that is often attributed to it.

Year  Translated Languages
1499 35 languages
1799 an additional 59 languages
1899 an additional 446 languages
1949 an additional 667 languages
  Total: 1207 languages2

The figures show that the major development in Bible translation took place after 1800, coinciding with the development of the Bible Society movement. For example, the British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS) was founded in 1804.

2. Scriptures of the world. The annual statistics compiled by the United Bible Societies (UBS)3 give the following picture:

Component  Translated Languages 
Bibles in 426 languages4
New Testaments in 1,114 languages
Portions in 862 languages
Total  2,403 languages

In terms of population, at least a portion of the Bible exists in languages spoken by ninety-five percent of the world’s population. Around 300 million people, or four thousand languages, still have no scripture in their language. At the same time we must remember that the existence of scripture in a language does not mean that the ninety-five percent have actually received, heard or read scripture in their own language. In addition, over two billion people in the world today are illiterate; this is one-third of the world’s population.

Some Features of Bible Translation: 1950-2005
Bible translation has a rich history; however, all that has taken place since the middle of the twentieth century has yet to be fully documented. In that time there has been an explosion of Bible translation. From1950 to 2005 new translations have been made available in 1,196 additional languages.

1. Eugene Nida and Kenneth Pike. The history of this period cannot be written without reference to two pioneers of translation theory: Eugene Nida and Kenneth Pike. Following World War II, both applied the tools of the new sciences of linguistics and anthropology to the challenge of making the Bible available in languages around the world. In developing their approaches to translation they became the theoreticians of the UBS and the twin organisations of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) and Wycliffe Bible Translators (WBT).

In the 1950s and 1960s translation theory was in its infancy, and Bible translation was at the cutting edge of that new discipline. The emphasis was on meaning-based translation. This approach became known as “dynamic equivalence” and, later, as “functional equivalence.”

2. Post-war missionary generation. In the aftermath of World War II there was a surge in the evangelical missionary movement, especially from North America5, as well as a new missionary thrust on the part of the Roman Catholic Church. In the Americas a significant number of these new missionaries focused attention on indigenous peoples. Bible translation was a core concern. Pike’s tools for linguistic analysis and Nida’s theory and practice of translation provided the keys to advance in this area.

3. Shift from missionary translators to mother-tongue translators. From the mid-1970s onward the growth of the Church, the increase in training facilities and the changing missiological emphasis produced the shift from expatriate translators to mother-tongue translators in indigenous language projects. Bible translation had thus moved to a third stage.

Stages  Notable Element 
pre-1950  Translations done by missionaries
1950-1975 Translations done by missionaries with help from mother-tongue “informants”
1975 onward Translations done by mother-tongue translators

4. Interconfessional developments. The promulgation of the Dei Verbum document in 1965 following the II Vatican Council marked a fundamental change in the use of vernacular languages in the Roman Catholic Church. This produced a commitment to Bible translation and to work such as El Libro de la Nueva Alianza (1968), the NT translated by Fr. Armando Levoratti and Fr. Alfredo Trusso in Buenos Aires. In 1969, the “Guidelines for Interconfessional Cooperation in Translating the Bible” was published by the United Bible Societies and the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity of the Roman Catholic Church.

Bible Translation: The Changing Context
At the outset of the twenty-first century major social changes affect the task of Bible translation and decisions regarding priorities.

1. Globalisation. One of the major driving forces in creating our globalised world has been the revolution in communications of the last twenty years, and particularly the emergence of the Internet. In relation to the translation task the two most important features are (1) the emergence of dominant languages at a global level (such as English6) and (2) the search for ethnicity and identity at the local level. Many minority languages now find themselves under threat in the face of these global forces. The forces of cultural globalisation are seen most clearly in media such as television. Globalised television programmes produce similar sets of cultural icons, images and styles which impact regions of the world far away from the places where these programmes were produced.

2. Language change. Languages are living entities. All languages change over time—sounds, syntax, meanings, etc. This alone leads to the need to revise translations in each generation. Changes in language use (i.e., inclusivity, issues related to gender and political correctness) must also be taken into account by translators.

In major languages the most dynamic area is youth culture; this may lead to the need to segment publics and produce translations for specific groups in society. One example is the new UBS Spanish translation Traducción en Lenguaje Actual (2004), aimed at children and young people. The French study edition La Bible Expliquée (2004) is designed to provide easy access to a text “which comes from another world and another time in history.” It is aimed at people who do not have prior knowledge of the Bible, but who are interested in finding out. It deliberately “avoids religious vocabulary” and “privileges words from everyday speech.”

Major change in language use is a characteristic of the speech of adolescents. Current examples of this are found in Internet “chatting” and the SMS/texting (Short Message Service) phenomenon via cellular phones, both of which enjoy huge popularity among adolescents. These have their own language—fast, fluid and dynamic. Speed is the order of the day, with the way words sound playing a key role. Syntax, grammar and orthography have been sent into exile. In many cases, the chat “dictionaries” that have evolved have only about two hundred “words.” The speed produces communications that are almost simultaneous and makes it possible to replicate to some extent face-to-face conversations.

A number of factors contribute to the popularity and use of technology in this way. There is a desire to be in touch with others, to belong, to develop an identity with its own codes. It offers freedom from established ways of doing things and allows adolescents a means of being different from adults. The speed and the buzz are attractive. In addition, the relatively low cost is within their means.7

The role of the media and culture of the image also present new challenges to Bible translators. This, in turn, leads to research of symbolism and iconicity and to the use of semiotics in an approach to transmediatization.8

3. Language disappearance and death. A major concern of linguists today is language loss and death. According to Darcy Ribeiro, in the twentieth century ninety indigenous groups became extinct in Brazil. Some linguists suggest that half of the 6,700 languages spoken today are spoken by adults who no longer teach them to their children. Fifty-two percent of the world’s languages are spoken by less than ten thousand speakers. In this context, decisions about what to translate and in what formats and media these translations should be produced require a full study of each situation.

In facing the cases where languages die, we should remember that the people from that culture do not disappear; rather, they speak a different language. Language shift takes place. What are those languages? What scriptures do they now need? There is no one single answer to those questions.

4. Urbanisation. The world’s population is rapidly urbanizing, especially in developing countries. In 1950, only thirty percent of the world’s population was urbanized. By 2030, sixty percent of people will live in cities.9 Much of the urbanization is taking place in large cities. The number of megacities (more than ten million people), large cities (five to ten million people) and medium cities (one to five million people) is increasing rapidly, especially in the Developing World. Seventeen out of the twenty-one megacities expected to exist in 2015 will be located in the Developing World.

Rural-urban migration and immigration are major contributors to this growth. While the process of assimilation to urban culture does lead to the loss of linguistic diversity, other processes also take place. An increasingly important feature of population movements is the birth of new languages. Bilingualism and diglossia are products of languages in contact. Creole languages now attract intense interest from linguists and educators.

However, the growth of urban areas is not only a matter of migration. They are the place of birth for new generations of children to settled migrants. In many cases, the rate of natural growth of urban populations is higher than the rate of immigration. These children do not necessarily speak the mother tongue of their parents.

5. Demographic change. It took all of human history to reach a world population of one billion in 1800. It then took only 130 years for the population to double. During the next seventy years, the population had tripled to six billion by 2000. World population is currently growing at around eighty million people per year.

However, this population growth is not evenly spread. In fact, there is a striking dichotomy. Ninety-eight percent of global population growth is occurring in developing countries, while populations in developed countries are actually declining as people are opting to have fewer babies. The “graying” of the West contrasts with the youthfulness of the non-Western world. In Mexico City, a city of twenty million people, the average age is about fifteen.

6. Diaspora peoples. Many indigenous peoples are caught up into the mobile human groups which are a feature of the contemporary world: exiles, migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, guest workers, government bureaucrats and tourists. These “ethnoscapes” of different population types can be seen most dramatically in the megacities of the world. Physical distance separating groups has been collapsed and subordinate cultures have been brought into immediate contact with dominant ones.

Where there is significant immigration, new ethnoscapes can emerge and multilingual “translocal” communities develop. New social identities are constructed. In Toronto, Canada’s largest city, 131 languages are spoken daily. Calgary, a city of one million people, is the capital of Canada’s oil and gas industry. In 2005, more than nine thousand immigrants from 132 countries speaking seventy-eight languages came to live in the city.

7. Hybridisation and palimpsest. Subordinate cultures are not simply swallowed up without a trace; there is often a mutuality of interaction with the dominant cultures. Hybrid forms emerge which can be a strength rather than a weakness. Distinctive aspects of the subordinate culture can become an integral part of new formations which arise. In recent writing in post-colonial studies on this matter, the dominant metaphor used is that of the palimpsest, the parchment written upon several times, each previous text still partly visible because it was imperfectly erased. New forces that impinge upon a people have the potential to produce an additional layer of “text” to the cultural palimpsest.

Bible translation has played a key role in the life of the Church since its very beginnings. The translatability of the scriptures basic to the Christian faith has resulted in the Church successively (and successfully) crossing cultural boundaries and emerging and expanding in new contexts with fresh vitality and appropriate forms. In these contexts, a variety of media have been pressed into use—the oral medium, the codex, the illuminated manuscript, the printed book and now the new media. In today’s changed and changing situation strategic directions for the shape, nature and priorities of Bible translation in the new millennium should not be determined without due consideration of the factors mentioned above.

Hard questions must still be faced and some cherished shibboleths re-examined, while we endeavour at the same time to discern the will of God and hold before us the vision of that kingdom which “cannot be shaken”—that community of communities, where our plurality of identities is affirmed, where difference is celebrated, where shalom is finally and fully realised.


(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. Smalley, William. 1991. Translation as Mission: Bible Translation in the Modern Missionary Movement. Macon, Georgia, USA: Mercer University Press. 22-31.
2. Figures based on Smalley. 33-38.

3. United Bible Societies. 2006. “Scripture Language Report.” World Report 401: 3-4.

4. 122 of these Bibles include the deuterocanonical books.

5. The deaths in 1956 of five evangelical missionaries from the USA in the Ecuadorian jungle was widely reported and led to a significant increase in US missionaries to South America’s indigenous peoples in the 1960s.

6. One and a half billion people now speak English, but only 460 million speak it as their mother tongue.

7. The Bible Society of Australia has developed a text for this audience. (

8. Hodgson, Robert and Paul Soukup, eds. 1997. From One Medium to Another: Basic Issues for Communicating Scriptures in a New Media. New York, USA: American Bible Society. and Fidelity and Translation. New York, USA: American Bible Society.