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For every tribe and tongue: the vital role of Bible translation

For every tribe and tongue: the vital role of Bible translation

About 5.9 billion people now have access to the full Bible in their own language. This is something we can easily take for granted, especially when we realise that there are still more than 1.5 billion people who do not have the full Bible in their heart languages.

Of the 7,000+ languages spoken around the world, more than 3,500 have little to no scripture. In fact, 1,200 people groups (roughly 220 million people) do not have a single verse of the Bible in their heart language, while 51% of the world’s languages still have no scripture at all. These aren’t just numbers; they represent millions of individuals without the word of God.

Challenges and triumphs: navigating the translation journey

The process of Bible translation involves more than just words – it requires patience, time and cultural sensitivity. Each people group and culture is unique and people engage with the Bible in different ways. Many of the people groups that don’t yet have the Bible in their heart language live in oral cultures where history, stories and other information have always been passed down verbally. This means that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to Bible translation.

To navigate this journey successfully, Bible translation organisations must demonstrate agility and creativity in their approach. While the specific processes may vary between organisations, they typically involve assembling and empowering locally led translation teams. These teams are provided with clearly defined time frames, objectives, milestones, and budgets for their work.

Initially, translators analyse a passage for its meaning and then draft it in their language. Subsequently, they collaborate to scrutinise each verse for accuracy and clarity. The translated scripture is then shared with the community for feedback, aiming to enhance both clarity and accuracy. Additionally, the draft undergoes translation ‘back’ into the language of wider communication, enabling non-native consultants to assess its accuracy. The final step would be for translators to carefully proofread and typeset, or record, a final version of the completed scripture.

Stories of transformation

Though the process of Bible translation is cerebral and systematical, the practical outworking is lives and communities being transformed.

There are countless stories of hope and transformation because the word of God is being shared in people’s heart languages. Seed Company shares the story of a woman in Asia named Rehka who for the first time heard about Sarah and Abraham and how they waited on God for a child. As a result of hearing the story in her heart language, she was not only released from shame because she had no children after seven years of marriage, but she realised that her hope was in God, not in whether or not she would ever have children. She began to understand the possibility of a spiritual family and the way in which all who believe in Jesus become descendants of Abraham. Even in the face of mocking neighbours, she clung to the hope that anything is possible for God. She found joy, and she persisted in asking God for a child.

Pray for Zero shares about a man named Berki in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley who took a stand years ago to follow Christ, even as his family threatened his life. Passionate about sharing what he had learnt from God’s word, he would ride his bicycle from village to village, sharing Bible stories one-on-one. Because they knew he was one of them, his fellow Hamer people felt comfortable around him. ‘I know that God called me for his purposes,’ says Berki, who is now helping to translate oral Bible stories and then sharing them in his Hamar language.

Another inspiring story by Seed Company is about a reverend and translation reviewer in Ethiopia who recalled his wife’s reaction when she listened to scripture in her heart language for the first time. She was weeping, asking ‘Why have you never told me how Jesus Christ died?’ Despite hearing the story dozens of times in Amharic and Ge’ez, his wife had never fully comprehended the crucifixion story. ‘Amharic is for the educated,’ he explained. ‘My wife, like most women in our community, is illiterate. Only a few girls go to school, and priority is given to boys. Ge’ez, on the other hand, is for ministers. We have many ancient religious writings, including the scriptures in Ge’ez. Trained ministers are expected to recite these writings, whether we know their meanings or not.’

Like this woman, many Xamtanga speakers have trouble understanding the Bible in Amharic and Ge’ez. They’re desperate for scripture in their own language. Thankfully, in 2019, the first-ever Xamtanga Bible — a full New Testament — was made available.

Engaging in the mission

In the pursuit of ensuring that the word of God reaches every corner of the earth, we have the opportunity to keep going so that ‘every tribe and tongue’ can eventually have access to scripture in their own language. It is something that requires our collective action and commitment. As Brother Andrew of Open Doors said, ‘The word of God needs to saturate our minds if we want to know and follow God’s will.’ But for those who are unable to read or comprehend it because of a language barrier, the path to spiritual growth according to God’s truth remains obstructed.

The establishment of initiatives like LuminAfrica in 2020 represents a significant step forward in this endeavour. Through collaborative efforts between South African Bible translation organisations and local resource partners, LuminAfrica is dedicated to closing the gap between those who have access to the Bible, and those who don’t. By supporting translation projects and facilitating partnerships with organisations such as the Bible Society of South Africa, Biblica, The Word for the World, and Hands with Words, among others, LuminAfrica is driving meaningful change in the landscape of Bible translation.

On a broader scale, as we unite in prayer through initiatives like Pray for Zero, we support Bible translators who often face religious, governmental and spiritual opposition.

As we read and listen to the word of God, let’s remember that Bible translation will always be a goal worth pursuing as there is still a vast number of believers who haven’t yet experienced the joy of having it in their heart languages.