Why Translating the Bible Continues to Be Important

Article by Dave Hare, Bible Translator in Cameroon

Current surveys indicate that there are over 7,300 living languages in the world today. Of these languages, only about 700 languages (less than 10%) have a full translation of the Bible.1 Although this statistic is staggering, you might wonder if there is a need for the Bible to be translated into all the world’s languages. The answer is: No, not every language needs a Bible translation. In fact, as some languages are dying out, it is not the best use of resources to pursue translating the Bible for all of these groups.

So, what is the real need? Of course, that is difficult to define, but Wycliffe estimates that “145 million people, speaking 1892 languages, still need translation work to begin.” Wycliffe does not take this task lightly and spend great resources on surveying. Even if these statistics are flawed by 10%, they draw us to an undeniable reality: there is still a huge need for ongoing work in Bible translation.

“People need the Bible in the language they sin in.”

The statement of need above assumes that you accept the premise that Bible translation is even necessary in the first place. Do people need the Bible translated in their heart language? A reality of the modern world is that most people that do not have a translation of the Bible in their heart language already speak a language of wider communication (LWC). For instance, there are 270 minority languages in Cameroon, Africa. However, many of the people who speak these languages also speak either English or French.

While it is true that many people in the world are bilingual, often their comprehension of the LWC is limited. For the Kwakum people in Cameroon, their knowledge of French limits itself into the areas of market and government. At the market they trade with people from other people groups, and government functions are conducted primarily in French. However, when it comes to issues of the heart, or spirituality, their vocabulary is almost completely Kwakum, not French.

The Bible is primarily the story of God and his salvation of mankind. However, one cannot understand that they need salvation if they do not understand that they are a sinner. Practically, in order to understand that they are sinners, people need to understand how the Word of God applies to their daily lives.

A pastor in Cameroon once shared the story of a church service he attended. One church leader stood up to read the passage of Scripture and was encouraged to read it from the recently translated Makaa New Testament. As he read in his heart language, he (and the entire congregation) was confronted with the verse, “do not get drunk with wine.” A hush fell over the service as the verse hit home, due to the fact that the Bible reader was presently drunk. The pastor telling the story commented that if this man had been reading in French, they would have passed over the verse without thinking. However, hearing it in their heart language forced them to deal with the sin of drunkenness. In the words of a translation professor, “People need the Bible in the language they sin in.”

We want them to know Jesus

Of course, the goal of Bible translation is not that people would learn that they are sinners. The goal is that they might know of the salvation of God which comes through Jesus Christ. In his book The Finish Line, Bob Creson recounts one such story is of a man named Léonard Bolioki, a Cameroonian who helped with the Yambetta translation project in Cameroon. Mr. Bolioki describes how he got involved in the translation project:

I stepped to the front of the church I attended and began to read the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. Always before, this passage from John’s Gospel had been read in French, but this time I was asked to read it in my own language, Yambetta. As I read, I became aware of a growing stillness; then some of the older women began to weep. At the end of the service, they rushed up to me and asked, “Where did you find this story? We have never heard anything like it before! We didn’t know there was someone who loved us so much that He was willing to suffer and die like that – to be crucified on a cross to save us!” I pulled out my French New Testament and showed them the passage in the Gospel of John and said, “We listen to this Passion story every year during Holy Week.” But they insisted that they’d never heard it before. That was what motivated me to translate the Scriptures into the only language my friends and family can really understand – Yambetta!2

Take a moment to process the fact that the Yambetta people had for years heard of the life and death of Christ in French. Yet, they did not process the sacrifice of God’s Son until they heard it in Yambetta. Bible translation is not only necessary so that people know that they are sinners. Bible translation is necessary because people cannot be saved if they do not understand the Gospel. And for many people, they will never understand the Gospel unless it is communicated in their heart language.

Sanctify them in truth…how?

At its core, World Team is a church planting organization. We have all types of missionaries working for us: doctors, nurses, agricultural specialists, personal trainers, evangelists, administrators, pastors, and of course, Bible translators. However, the ultimate goal is always, for every type of missionary: national-led, self-sustaining, churches. That means that all Bible translators at World Team are committed to discipleship.

When Christ prayed for his disciples, he said to his father, “Sanctify them in the truth, your word is truth.” With a passion for evangelism, we know that people cannot understand they are sinners, nor the Good News of Jesus’ death on the cross, unless they understand the Gospel. However, our task is so much better than that: we want to see them sanctified. And Jesus keyed us into the means of sanctification: the Word of God. Jesus, too, wants disciples all over the world to be sanctified, and that is why he gave us the Bible. Christians all over the world need the Bible in a language they understand so that they can become more like Christ.

Where is World Team working?

World Team is currently working in Bible translation in two fields: Papua, Indonesia and Cameroon, Africa. Though we would like to expand to other countries eventually, there are over 1,300 languages just in these two countries.

World Team is currently working in Cameroon on Bible translation projects with the Kwakum and the Baka. The Kwakum team is small (2 people) and eager to recruit more translators in order to speed up the process.3 There is also an identified need for translation among the Pol people, who currently do not even have an agreed upon writing system. The Makaa people published a New Testament in 2014 and are looking for help to begin an Old Testament project. These are just a few of the current needs that World Team is looking to address.

Next steps for the interested

If you are considering pursuing Bible translation, the first step would be to reach out to a World Team missions coach.4 Chances are you do not know exactly what needs to be done to become a translator, and our missions coaches can make sure you get in touch with the right people. This way you can avoid unnecessary work.

Generally speaking, you will need some Bible education at the college level. World Team also requires that anyone going to the field to work in translation have completed something equivalent to the Certificate of Applied Linguistics at Dallas International University.

World Team also offers internships on different fields including a translation internship in Cameroon.

Conclusion

World Team is committed to the translation of the Bible into the heart languages of the world not because we love linguistics. We translate because we know that people will not be transformed by God’s Word if they do not understand it. Our goal: self-sustaining, national-led churches. Our means: God’s Word in a language people can understand taught and applied faithfully. May the Lord use his word, to do his work, through his people today, and until Christ returns.

Endnotes

1 All statistics taken from Wycliffe at: 2021 Scripture Access Statistics – Wycliffe Global Alliance.

2 Bob Creson, The Finish Line: Stories of Hope Through Bible Translation (Wycliffe Bible Translators, 2014): 15-16.

3 This translation effort was initiated by Dave & Stacey Hare; you can find their blog under: Hare Translation Journey – our lives as Bible translators in Cameroon.

4 To connect with a missions coach, click the “Get Started” button below.

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