The Wycliffe Global Alliance website has just launched a superb timeline of Bible Translation history. This is a resource which will reward both the casual visitor and the more serious student. Go on, give it a go!
The Wycliffe Global Alliance website has just launched a superb timeline of Bible Translation history. This is a resource which will reward both the casual visitor and the more serious student. Go on, give it a go!
Jesus lived in a world where the public reading of the Bible was only in Hebrew and prayers had to be offered in that language. When Jesus took the giant step of endorsing Aramaic as an acceptable language for prayer and worship, he opened the door for the New Testament to be written inGreek (not Hebrew) and then translated into other languages.
It follows that if there is no sacred language there is no sacred culture. All of this is a natural outgrowth of the incarnation. If the Word is translated from the divine to human and becomes flesh, then the door is opened for that Word to again be translated into other languages and cultures… The long term result is a global church of more than two billion people almost all of whom have a Bible in their own language. Believers are thereby able to break into God’s presence using the language of the heart. We are so accustomed to this heritage that we scarcely notice its beginning, which was Jesus’ choice of Aramaic as the language of theLord’s prayer. Jesus affirmed the translatability of the message when he began this prayer with the great word Abba.
From Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth E. Bailey.
Of course, we shouldn’t be complacent that most of the world has a Bible, their are still millions who don’t have a single word of Scripture in their heart language. If you would like to know how you can be involved in rectifying this, take a look here.
Do you have a vision for the things you do or the reason you do them? It is a question that all Christians need to ask from time to time.
In Christian ministry, the work can be so absorbing and interesting that we easily get bound up in it and lose sight of why we are doing it. When we focus on what we are doing rather than the goal, we become reluctant to change or to adapt to circumstances: ‘We’ve never done it that way before!
When Sue and I joined Wycliffe in the 1980s, we were excited about what we were going to do. We were going to live in a village, learning the local language, doing language research, teaching literacy and helping to lead a translation project. After many years of work we were able to hold a newly-printed Kouya New Testament in our hands.
That approach was typical of many hundreds of Wycliffe workers all round the world. This was how we did things. But the important thing was not what we did, but why we did it. Today, Kouya people are able to read the New Testament in their language and are drawn into a deeper relationship with God as a result.
Our vision is not to ‘do translation’; it is to see people engaging with God’s word in the language they understand the best. This means that we have to be flexible. We work in new and different ways to help people engage with the Bible.
In some parts of the world, Wycliffe members do something very similar to what Sue and I did: living in a village, learning the language and heading up the translation. For those circumstances, it’s the best approach. There are other places where the day-to-day work of translation goes ahead without a Wycliffe missionary anywhere in sight. Local Christians lead the work, with expatriates serving as advisors and consultants.
Most projects still aim to produce printed Scriptures, just as we did in Kouya. But in some situations, the translated Scriptures aren’t actually printed, but are downloadable from the web and shared on mobile phones; persecuted Christians can’t carry around a big Bible the way that we can!
We worked on a book to be read, but millions of people around the world can’t read. They can gather together and listen to the Scriptures read out on an MP3 player – just as the very first Christians listened to Scripture being read to them.
The vision doesn’t change, but the things we do to accomplish it do.
This is an article I wrote for the latest edition of Words for Life: the Wycliffe Bible Translators magazine.
In the early 1980s, Sue and I felt that God was calling us into mission work in a French speaking country. For us, this naturally meant something, somewhere in Europe; Bible translation in Africa was the last thing on our minds. Over a period of many months we sought advice from the leaders of our church and other people we respected. We wrote to a number of different missionary organisations who worked in Europe and had a couple of interviews; but nothing seemed to work. It was all rather frustrating. Around this time, some friends suggested that we should visit Wycliffe Bible translators to see what they could offer us. To be honest, I thought this was a crazy idea, but Sue, who is a linguist by training, was quite attracted by the thought – so we went along. Over the space of one weekend, God turned our lives around completely. It turned out that my background as a research scientist was just as useful for a Bible translator as Sue’s linguistic ability. Not only that, but Wycliffe had urgent need for people to work in French speaking Africa. All of the pieces fell into place; our calling to a French speaking country and our academic background suddenly made perfect sense. Thankfully, our Church leadership thought the same thing.
A little over four years after our first contact with Wycliffe, equipped with some of the best practical linguistics training in the world, we moved into a Kouya village in Ivory Coast, West Africa. The Kouya are a hardy, strongly independent people who live in twelve villages on the edge of a dense rain forest. At the time we settled into the village of Gouabafla, there was a handful of Christians in each of the Kouya villages, though the vast majority of them had been believers for less than five years. We became part of a first generation church; it was like living in the book of Acts!
The Kouya area is home to a number of different people groups, but non-Kouyas seem to find it almost impossible to learn to speak Kouya. Because of this, most Kouyas speak at least three or four other African languages fluently in addition to French, which they learn at school. It is hardly surprising that when we turned up in the village and said that we were going to learn to speak Kouya, that people were extremely sceptical. If Africans who had grown up in the area didn’t manage to learn it, how could a couple of white, outsiders expect to.
I’ve never done anything as difficult in my life. Intellectually, getting my head around a whole new way of thinking and a completly new vocabulary was a huge challenge, but it was the least of my problems. The really difficult thing was going out every day to talk to people knowing that I was making a complete and utter fool of myself. It really isn’t easy being laughed at every day. What’s worse, I found myself thinking some rather unpleasant things. “How dare they laugh at me? I’ve left my nice comfortable home in England to come and help them – they should be grateful.” “Do they realise who they are laughing at? I’ve got a university degree and tons of other qualifications, they are just cocoa farmers.” I’d come to share Jesus with the Kouya, but there were times when my attitudes and thoughts were miles from where Jesus would have wanted them to be. But this is the heart of The Story; God loves men and women so much that he wants them to communicate on his behalf, despite the fact that people are far from perfect. Like all of God’s people, I have a whole series of weaknesses and failings; which makes it all the more bizarre that I would look down on anyone!
It took two years of hard work before we became at all comfortable speaking Kouya, and even then it remained a huge struggle to say things in a way that people would understand what we were going on about. But there is nothing in the world to compare to the thrill of being accepted into a community that is completely different to your own. We used to love the expression on people’s faces when they would realise that we were speaking Kouya rather than French. Complete strangers would stop in market and say “aya, the world has changed, the toubabs (white people) are speaking Kouya”. We became something of a tourist attraction in our village. When family members or friends came from elsewhere in the region, they would be brought to our house to meet the tame Europeans who could speak Kouya. It was hilarious! Mind you, not every one was pleased to see us. There were some people who were very suspicious of our motives. Some thought we were spies and more than one person asked where we kept our radio that we used to report back to our government in Washington: it was hard not to laugh at that one. Others thought that we had come to write a book about the Kouya language that we could sell for a fortune back in our home country. At first we were very defensive about these sorts of accusations, but as we learned more about the Kouya and about the colonial history of the country, we realised that the Kouya had good reason to be suspicious of the motives of Europeans. History wasn’t really on our side. Despite the suspicions that some people harboured, most people were delighted to see us in their village. . The Kouya loved it that people from outside were making the effort to speak their language. They were used to outsiders not even bothering to master the basics, but here was a couple who had come all the way from Europe and who were chatting away in the language. Our being there gave them a sense of value and self-worth. Kouya people would tell us that their language was not a real language like French; it couldn’t be written down and it didn’t have a grammar. Over time, we were able to help the Kouya to write their language down and we could show them that it didn’t just have a grammar but it had a very complex and elegant grammar that was often far richer than the French they learned at school. They loved that!
It took a further twelve years and input from a team of Kouya and Europeans before the Kouya New Testament was finally ready to be published. During that time, we saw the small church grow in numbers and maturity. I’m not sure how much impact we had personally in the process and I’m absolutely convinced that we learned more from our Kouya brothers and sisters than they learned from us. But there is one thing that was clearly communicated to the Kouya through our presence in their village: God cares for them. They may be a small ethnic group, more or less ignored or unknown by the larger groups around them: but God sent his servants to live amongst them and God speaks their language. I loved it when an elderly Kouya said to me that the Kouya were just as important as the Americans, French or Germans, because God spoke their language, just the same as he did for those others.
The Bible Translator is an excellent journal which deserves to be known by a much wider audience. The articles are of interest to translators (obviously) but also to anyone with an interest in the text of the Bible. It is scholarly, but not so scholarly that it is difficult to read.
The journal itself has been available online for a while now, but as there was no easily searchable index it was rather difficult to find any articles unless you already knew the title and date of publication.
However, Rob Bradshaw of Biblical Studies UK has recently made an index of over fifty years’s worth of the journal available online.
Rob’s site is a treasure trove at the best of times, but I really believe that making this index generally available is a truly significant step forward in popular Biblical scholarship. Thank you, Rob!
Three years ago, I wrote a longish blog post (part of a chapter of my unfinished book) which included the following…
Just as each culture brings something new to humanity, so does every language. Each language is capable of expressing some things better than all other languages. Why else to coffee shops sell cafe latte rather than milky coffee? On a deeper note, each language has the ability to express itself in ways that other languages can’t quite manage. There are subtleties of meaning and inference that just can’t quite be transferred from one language to another without losing something. And this is really important, because that means that each language can say things about God and is capable of praising God in ways that other languages can’t quite reach. When God multiplied the languages at Babel, He also gave us the possibility of understanding Him and praising Him in new ways. Babel was a judgement, but at the same time God blessed humanity immeasurably and revealed even more of us to himself.
A recent article in Christianity Today by Jost Zetzsche covers similar ground, but takes things a step further than I did. Jost suggests that the wealth of translations available to us today gives us a breadth of insight that can’t be achieved through reading the text in the original languages.
Every new rendering of God’s Word in a linguistic set of human expression—a language—enriches the worldwide church in her understanding of God, regardless of whether we speak that particular language. Our thinking and imagination are necessarily confined and constrained by our own language and its assumptions. But when we encounter another language—and as it confronts and interacts with the biblical text—it can expand our understanding of God and our world. This is true in our dealings with the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic source texts, yes, but also the more than 2,000 target languages into which the Bible or parts of the Bible have been translated.
Take this example from a number of Chinese Bible translations. We know that God transcends gender, but most languages are limited to grammatical gender expressed in pronouns. In the case of English, this is confined to he, she, and it. Modern Chinese, however, offers another possibility. In modern Chinese, the third-person singular pronoun is always pronounced the same (tā), but it is written differently according to its gender (他 is he, 她 is she, and 它/牠 is it). In each of these characters, the first (or upper) part defines the gender (man, woman, or thing/animal), while the second element gives the clue to its pronunciation.
In 1930, after a full century with dozens of Chinese translations, Bible translator Wang Yuande coined a new “godly” pronoun: 祂. Chinese readers immediately knew how to pronounce it: tā. But they also recognized that the first part of that character, signifying something spiritual, clarified that God has no gender aside from being God. This translation discovery was an aha moment for Chinese believers. But knowing this benefits us as well—even if we don’t understand Chinese—because it expands our comprehension of God’s divine character.
There is no automation in this process. Translation is not a magical act where a unique facet of God is unearthed each time a new translation is published or a language is “conquered.” But as each faith community matures, discoveries like the Chinese divine pronoun can add to our understanding of God. In the case of the Chinese pronoun, it took a maturation process of 100 years and a member of the native church to reach this revelation.
Mission scholar Andrew Walls says similar things in parts of his work and the IVP Dictionary of Mission Theology article on language, linguistics and translation says the following (p. 201)
This means that divine revelation is much larger and richer than the capacity of any finite language to contain it. Consequently when the biblical message is translated into another language, whatever loss is incurred in subtle shades of meaning is always compensated by gains in fresh theological insights.
The implication of all of this is that translation is a part of God’s ongoing self-revelation to humanity and not simply a pragmatic add-on to solve the problem of incomprehension.
Whatever you think of these ideas, you should read the original article in Christianity Today and have your thinking challenged.
Bible translation is a theological act par exellence. As a (re)enactment of God’s self-revelation and in synergy with it, it can and should be thus ventured in faith, obedience and hope of God’s promise that He wills to continually reveal Himself to all the nations. Thus a translator acts in hope: in hope that is not seeing – there is no automatic guarantee that he or she will be successful and that God’s self-disclosure will necessarily occur through his or her text. It is an Abrahamic kind of hope – based on a faithful promise, but acted out without knowledge of how things will end up (cf. Hebrews 11:8).
This story only takes two minutes, but it’s well worth listening to. If you don’t want to look at my face, you can always just look at the slides!
There is an excellent article on William Tyndale in Knowing and Doing (the magazine of the C.S. Lewis Institute) which anyone interested in the Bible or Translation would profit from. (HT Antony Billington)
Tyndale was both an able scholar (fluent in seven languages in addition to English) and “a conscious craftsman” with an “extraordinary gift for uniting the skill of making sense of an original with the music of spoken English at its best.” He succeeded in making the Greek New Testament and the Hebrew Old Testament speak in remarkably clear, beautiful and vigorous English.
His work made the English a Bible-reading people and influenced future translations down to the present. Because William Tyndale gave the English people the Bible in
their own language, he is rightly honored as the “apostle of England.”
Not a few of Tyndale’s translations have become a part of the English language, including the following:
• “A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.”
• “No man can serve two masters.”
• “Ask and it shall be given you. Seek and
ye shall find. Knock and it shall be opened unto you.”
• “Give unto one of these little ones to drink, a
cup of cold water only.”
• “The spirit is willing.”
• “Fight the good fight.”
• “In him we live and move and have
• “With God all things are possible.”
• “Be not weary in well doing.”
• “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.”
This is the sort of legacy that any contemporary translator, in any language would love to leave behind. I do hope that it can be said of our work that it is expressed in remarkably clear, beautiful and vigorous Kouya.
The importance of a people proudly having their own version of the Bible cannot be under-estimated for the preservation and advancement of its culture. This was true for the Armenians, Goths, Georgians, Ethiopians who have long been Christian. It is equally true for the Kurds in the Middle East, the Kabyle of Algeria, the Konkomba of Ghana and the Quechua of Peru and Ecuador. The 21st Century will possibly see the extinction of 2000 languages. The most effective preventive for this is the translation and use of the Scriptures. It gives added weight to the Vision 2025 of Wycliffe Bible Translators and other Bible agencies to see the initiation of translation work into every language now without the Bible and for which the speakers of that language desire it. This is likely to be a further 1,500—2,000 languages.
You can find out more about Vision 2025 here and the latest statistics on the availability of the Bible in the world’s languages are also online.
Next month, I’m travelling out to Nigeria, where I will be speaking at a retreat for my colleagues out there. It was a nice encouragement to read this peace in the Nigeria Guardian which is very complimentary about Wycliffe’s work there:
FEBRUARY 21, the International Mother Language Day, provided an opportunity to take a critical look at our languages as Nigerians. Because of the second fiddle nature Nigerian languages have assumed in our own society, it is pertinent to ask: Who is Killing Nigerian languages — foreigners or the language owners?
Incidentally, Nigerian languages have enjoyed a wide range of support from the Occident, the U.S in particular. One such support is from Wycliffe, a US-based organisation — established since 1942 to translate the Bible into every language spoken in the world. Giant strides have been made by the organisation as it has completed 700 translations. Currently, it supports languages spoken in 90 countries, including Nigeria. In keeping with its vision, Wycliffe has deployed human, financial, special-designed software and other resources to build orthographies for hitherto non-written languages, educate native speakers to read and write their languages, build glossaries in these languages while preserving the histories and cultures of language owners, etc. Unknown minority languages spoken by 10,000 and 1,000,000 speakers now have written documents, thus preventing the languages from extinction.
Pertaining to Nigeria, some ongoing and finished bible translations, which are due to the effort of the Wycliffe teams and native speakers of the languages include: Ezaa, Ikwo and Izii languages of the Abakaliki cluster (spoken in Ebonyi State: Abakaliki, Ezza, Ohaozara, and Ishielu LGAs); Benue State: Okpokwu LGA), Alago (a first language spoken in Nassarawa State: Awe and Lafia LGAs), Dadiya (a first language spoken in Gombe State: Balanga LGA; Taraba State: Karim Lamido LGA and Adamawa state: Numan LGA, Huba (a first language spoken in Adamawa state: Hong, Maiha, Gombi, and Mubi LGAs), Hyam (a first language spoken in Kaduna: Kachia and Jema’s LGAs), Ichen or Etkywan (a first language spoken in Taraba State: Takum, Sardauna, Bali, and part of Wukari LGAs).
Speaking of Nigeria, it’s nice to have the excuse to show this excellent photo of Sue doing some translation consultancy work there, a few years ago.
I love these wise words from Kate King:
Bible translation is about relationship too. It’s about restoring people into that covenant relationship motivated by love. The best translations, the ones that are used, don’t happen in the isolation of an office. They happen in community, which is “slow”. They are laboured over and birthed through the process of lives intertwined. Through sweat, tears, and occasionally blood. Through setbacks and delays as well as linguistic and exegetical breakthroughs. And through a lot of tedious plodding, long-suffering, and faithful, committed prayer – which is also a relationship. Computers get stolen, data corrupted, hours ‘lost’ to family and community obligations, to births and deaths, planting and harvesting, and natural disasters. But through all of that “slowness” the Word of God is translating itself into lives that will testify to its truth.