Jesus commanded His church to make disciples from all the nations (Matt 28:19), and to be witnesses for Him in the remotest parts of the earth (Acts 1:8). The book of Revelation affirms that Jesus died for those of every tribe, language, people group, and nation (Rev 5:9), and it describes saints from every tribe, people group, and language worshiping before the throne of God in heaven (Rev 7:9). While the church has made tremendous progress in the 500 years since the Protestant Reformation in fulfilling its mission of taking the gospel to the whole world, the major impediment that remains is the lack of Bible translations in the languages spoken by many people groups. The Word of God is necessary to present the gospel and bring about spiritual regeneration (Rom 10:17; Eph 5:26; 1 Pet 1:23-26). The Word of God is also necessary to bring about spiritual growth in new believers (1 Pet 2:2). Bible translation is therefore a task of core-critical importance to fulfilling the mission of the church in the present age.
Earlier this month I attended the Bible Translation 2017 (BT2017) conference in Duncanville, Texas. This conference gathered together representatives of more than thirty Bible translation organizations, including many top-level experts, to present on translation strategies and challenges in light of the latest developments in the field. This was largely a conference for language “geeks,” with presentations that would be difficult for those who lack technical linguistic expertise or familiarity with the field of Bible translation to understand. I was at the BT2017 conference partly to market the product I have been developing, the Photo Companion to the Bible, and partly out of personal interest and involvement in the field of Bible translation (including projects I have done, and continue to do, with/for Bibles International).
Wycliffe, SIL, The Seed Company, and other Bible translation organizations are currently working toward the realization of Vision 2025, which has as its goal the initiation of a Bible translation project by 2025 for every people group in the world that still needs a Bible in their own language. With 7,099 known living languages (as of Oct. 2017), and approximately 1,700 languages that have no portion of the Bible translated, Vision 2025 is not an easy goal to achieve. Producing a quality translation of just the New Testament in one new language is a task that usually takes a team of specialists decades to accomplish and costs more than a million dollars. Many of the languages which remain to be translated are spoken only by small people groups in remote areas—yet these are still people for whom Christ died, and the church must reach them in order to fulfill the Great Commission.
Although it remains to be seen whether the ambitious Vision 2025 will be achieved, it is possible that God will work through His people eventually to complete at least a partial Bible translation for every language that needs one. (If not—an angel preaches the gospel in every language in Revelation 14:6-7.) Yet the task of Bible translation will not end until the return of Jesus Christ to the earth. There are several reasons for this.
- In the twentieth century, many translation projects were considered “completed” when the New Testament was finished. Now Bible translation organizations are realizing the need to translate at least portions (initially) of the Old Testament, and eventually to translate the whole Bible. One of the major barriers to achieving this goal is the lack of personnel and funding; lack of Hebrew (and Aramaic) knowledge among translation consultants is the other major barrier. All told, a complete Bible does not exist in the languages spoken by more than a billion people in the world today.
- Some people groups are very difficult for Bible translators and missionaries to access. They may live in countries where Christianity is illegal, and there may be no known Christians in the entire language group.
- Many existing translations are of inadequate quality, either because of lack of skill on the part of the translators, or because of a poor translation philosophy.
- Languages are always changing, and periodic revisions are necessary to keep up with language change. Also, as Bible translations are used and studied, small problems often become evident that can be corrected through a revision or update. (Think of the number of revisions that English Bibles have gone through.)
- Sometimes the churches of a language group request a revision of their translation, usually because they want a more literal (formal equivalence) translation.
- Studies have shown that it is usually necessary to continue to engage people groups for whom Bible translations have been produced in order for them to keep using those translations. (Think about the number of American Christians who don’t read the Bible, in spite of its availability.) It helps if discipleship material can be translated in addition to the Bible.
- Since Bibles are now commonly distributed and read on smartphones and computers, there is an ongoing need to integrate existing translations with the latest technological advances. This includes not only making the biblical text available on the newest platforms, but also linking it to glossaries, concordances, photos, and other study aids. There is also a periodic need for new printed editions.
Bible translation is tedious, technical work that requires commitment and sacrifice. Years of training and graduate school are required, followed by raising missionary support. Time is then needed to be trained through hands-on experience with a mentor or translation team. Many translators have spent all or most of their careers working on a single project, often just completing the New Testament in their lifetimes. Translation consultants, who do painstakingly detailed editing of translation drafts for many different projects, are typically overworked and spend much of the year traveling to remote areas, often in separation from their families. These people are unsung heroes of the modern church. I would encourage you to pray about the task of Bible translation and consider whether God may want you to have a role in this critical endeavor.
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