Why translate the Bible ?

 Human language is a very fascinating thing. We use it to pass on information, to express our deepest emotions, to pray, to praise, to encourage and, sadly, sometimes to denigrate. The conduit for all these is language, spoken and written. Language defines who we are, preselects our friends, links us with our heritage and sets our expectations.

Not only do we shape language, language shapes us. Different languages can make a dramatic difference to our understanding of a particular event or story. Recently, researchers in Germany assembled three groups of people, one group were monoglot English speakers, another monoglot German speakers and the third were bilingual between English and German. They showed each person a photograph of a woman walking across a street in a city. Those that spoke only English described the scene as ‘there is a woman crossing a street’. The monoglot German speakers saw ‘a woman walking towards a building’. Most interestingly, the bilinguals fell into two groups. Those that had been given a text in English to read before being shown the photograph saw it as the English speakers had read it, those who were give a German text to read saw what the German speakers had perceived.

11 years ago, I was present in St Paul’s Cathedral in London for a service to celebrate 200 years since the founding of the Bible Society movement. The speaker was Rowan Williams, then the Archbishop of Canterbury. He had some interesting things to say about language and translation:“Of all the great world religions, it is Christianity that has the most obvious and pervasive investment in translation. We do not have a sacred language; from the very first, Christians have been convinced that every human language can become the bearer of scriptural revelation. The words in which revelation is first expressed are not solid, impenetrable containers of the mystery; they are living realities which spark recognition across even the deepest of gulfs between cultures, and generate new words native to diverse cultures which will in turn become alive and prompt fresh surprise and recognition.
Biblical translation represents an enormous act of faith – the faith that what is given by God in one context is capable of being equally transfiguring and authoritative in all other human environments. Jesus speaks Greek and Aramaic; but the whole narrative of his words and work, his ministry and death and resurrection, is such that he can speak to call, to judge, to forgive and to bless in every human language that has been or will be”.

Now if this is so, the task of translating the Bible is foundational for the mission of the church all over the world. Through scripture Christ is welcomed into every language, culture and experience. But this remains a hope, not a reality. There are about 7,000 active languages in the world today. Only about 500 have a translation of the whole Bible. A further 1,300 languages have a NT translation and another 1,000 languages have a translation of at least one book of the Bible. That leaves more than 4,000 languages without a translation of even a part of the Bible. True, the major international lingua franca of our times all have a translation of the Bible and by this measure between 4 and 5 of the 7 billion souls on earth have access to a translation of scripture they can understand, at least to some degree. But this is not the same as hearing God speak in the language we learned as a child. Language is formative. To encounter God within the culture and language that made us who we are is transformative.

When a translation is completed the whole community gathers to celebrate. Copies of the new scripture are distributed and eager eyes scan the pages. “Now!”, they say, “now we know that God is one of us, that he understands us and shares our lives”! That’s a powerful thing. But perhaps the most exciting thing is that, just as the English and German speakers saw different things in the photograph of the woman walking across a street, so too in their new translation a community may discover things about God that you and I may not have seen through our Bibles.
The lady on the right is holding the first book of the Bible to be translated into her language – Ikoma. Waikoma live in Tanzania close to the Ngorongoro crater.

“We have a gospel to proclaim”, says the hymn; but so too does God and one of the ways we can help that happen is through translating the story of a radical Creator whose extravagant love led him to gibbet outside Jerusalem and whose gospel continues to transform lives all over the world as more and more of his people encounter him through his word in their language.

That’s why we do this.

Jon Riding
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