The most essential questions about Bible translation are not related to the product but to the purpose and process. Why translate? What is the purpose of a translation? Who is a translation for? And how does this task ultimately glorify God?
Here are ten questions to guide you into the most important and challenging issues about Bible translation.
1. Why translate the Scriptures?
From Mount Sinai to the Isle of Patmos to today, God’s revelation has been preserved in writing so that God’s people in every generation may know the Word of God and respond in obedience (Rom 15:4).
Furthermore, God has commanded his people to read the Scriptures and, based on their reading, to exhort and teach others (1 Tim 4:13).
The Scriptures are to be translated for the Church so that believers, corporately and individually, may read them and communicate the truths found in the Word.
It follows that the purpose of translating Scripture is to equip the Church to minister with the written Word, corporately and individually. To the extent that the believers are faithful to the Word, they will also have an impact on their language community.
It is not uncommon for someone to say that they translate to fulfill the Great Commission or lead people to Christ. We should desire these goals, but we also have to recognize that producing a translation or even distributing a translation does not accomplish these grand objectives.
But the Word in translation does equip the Church. Believers, in turn, when equipped and trained, are God’s instruments to lead others to Christ and advance the Kingdom of God.
So, translation is for the Church, and the Church, by the power of the Spirit, moves forward the Kingdom of God.
2. What are the needs for Bible translation?
Across the world today, thousands of translators are committed to bringing God’s Word to language communities, large and small.
Because of their work and the devotion of previous generations, an estimated 1,500 languages have a New Testament. 670 languages have a complete Bible. And work is in progress in many other groups.
However, there is an estimated 4,200 languages without any Scripture. As many as 1.5 billion people may not have a complete Bible in their own language.
Yet even those with Scripture have a need, in many cases, for a revision of their translation. In fact, the work of Bible translation never actually ends.
No sooner is a New Testament completed than the Old Testament should be started. No sooner is a Bible dedicated than a revision should be planned. And with the Bible comes a desire for other literature and resources to better study and teach the Scriptures.
Beyond these needs for translations, there is an even greater need for translators, reviewers, teachers, and pastors, all with a deep love for Christ and his Word.
When the Lord puts such teams together, the work progresses, the local churches are strengthened, and our triune God is glorified in their community.
3. What is the task of translation?
The translation of the Bible isn’t merely an academic task, though it requires a scholar’s mind and serious study. It’s not merely a cultural study, though it requires an in-depth knowledge of biblical culture as well as continual inquiries into the culture of the group receiving the translation.
Translation is more than linguistics, even though linguistics is an essential tool on the translator’s toolbelt.
At its essence, translating the Word of God is an act of obedience to God, motivated by a love for Christ and his Church, empowered by the Holy Spirit, in service to local churches and their language community.
In short, it is a ministry of the Word. And the translator is a servant of the Word.
4. What is the relationship between the Holy Spirit and translation?
When the followers of John Wycliffe were persecuted for reading the Bible in English, they defended reading and preaching in the English language by referring to the ministry of the Holy Spirit as recorded in Acts.
In a popular pamphlet of the time, entitled Wycliffe’s Wicket, the question is asked why the Roman Catholic Church punishes those who preach in English when the Holy Spirit moved the early disciples to preach in the languages of the nations?
On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit empowered the apostles to preach in the languages of the different nationalities who had come to Jerusalem.
The Spirit could have moved in the hearts of the audience and enables them to all understand Aramaic or Greek. But instead, the disciples were miraculously empowered to declare the mighty works of God in the languages of the nations.
In so doing, the Spirit was affirming that the Gospel could and should be communicated in other languages by preaching and teaching. If it is fitting to preach and teach in a language, who would hold back the whole counsel of God?
5. Who should translate the Scriptures?
If Bible translation is, first and foremost, a ministry of the Word, translators should be servants of the Word.
Furthermore, translation is a community activity. The days of Martin Luther translating in seclusion at Wartburg Castle have passed. Translation is done in a team, and so a translator should bring skills needed by the team.
A translation team needs someone who is skilled in the biblical languages and linguistics, someone else who has a good grasp of the target language and its structures, another who has insights into the local culture and religion, and yet another with a good understanding of poetry and song in the local culture and language.
More areas of expertise and practical skills could be added to those above, such as computer skills and programming. We now live in a time when the first drafts of a translation may be read on smart phones instead of paper.
It is also essential for the members of a team to have a willingness to learn from each other and, as a group, to grow in their understanding of the task before them.
So, translators must be servants, serving each other as they work as a team, serving the local churches, and serving their Lord and Savior, who himself came to serve.
6. Who is the audience for a translation?
The Scriptures are from God and for his people, equipping them for every good work (2 Tim 3:16-17). The church is instructed to read, preach, and teach the Scriptures, corporately and, by extension, individually as well (1 Tim 4:13).
It is true that the Scriptures are a tool to bring people to salvation. However, we should not view the Scriptures as primarily or exclusively a tool in evangelism. Rather, the Word of God has a larger purpose, and that larger purpose is accomplished in and through the Church.
It is essential that a translation be produced with and for the local churches. A church with the Word of God in their own language is the most effective tool in evangelization. It is more effective than a special translation, designed for evangelism but not accepted by the local churches.
In short, the Scriptures are for the Church, and so the Church, globally and in every community, must devote itself to the Word.
7. Which portions of Scripture should be translated and when?
Translations usually start with the New Testament and specifically with narratives about the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. It may take eight to ten years to complete a New Testament.
However, once this milestone is reached, a translation team usually has the experience to tackle the rest of the Bible in a shorter time.
Some translators have started with Genesis because of the importance of establishing a biblical worldview and addressing fundamental questions about origins and sin.
In Islamic contexts, some translators have started with passages from the Old Testament because of local respect for the patriarchs.
In general, translators recognize that some passages of Scripture are easier to translate and also more appropriate for teaching and evangelism.
Wherever a team starts its work, it is a joy to have God’s Word on the lips and in the hearts of the translators, the local believers, and eventually the whole community.
8. What is the role of the church?
The Church has been entrusted with the Scriptures and, consequently, has a significant role in their preservation, teaching, and translation.
The Church is to minister the Word and should ensure that local churches in every language community are able to read, preach, and teach the Scriptures in their own languages in obedience to the Scriptures (1 Tim 4:13).
Churches should recognize their unique role in the ministry of Bible translation. It begins with living in obedience to their own translation of the Scriptures. It continues by committing to the translation of the Scriptures for churches and language groups who lack the Word.
Any commitment to translation should be part of a larger commitment to establish and strengthening churches in the respective communities. What is the value of Scripture with no one to read, preach, or teach it?
Finally, churches should prayerfully reflect on what the Scriptures instruct them about the Word and translation, in other words, develop a theology of translation.
9. Do we need a theology of Bible translation?
The most common questions about translation often revolve around the product, the Bible we are holding in our hand or the one we are thinking of buying. We want to know why there are so many versions or which one is best for us.
Once we have answered those questions and begin to think more about Bible translation itself, we may ask questions such as those above.
In order to answer them, we need to reflect thoughtfully on the Scriptures and what the Scriptures themselves reveal about the task of translation.
The careful, systematic study of Scripture with the goal of understanding what Scripture is, why it should be translated, and for whom it is to be translated, leads to a theology of translation.
A theology of translation, in turn, assists us as we seek to be involved in this strategic ministry in a manner most honoring to God.
In short, it is essential to have a theology of Bible translation in order to correctly understand the importance of the task, its place in the mission of the Church, and its ultimate potential to give glory to our heavenly Father through Jesus Christ our Lord.
10. What will be your part in the ministry of Bible translation?
This final question is the most important because it relates to you and your response to the Word of God. It’s a question only you can answer.
What will you do to be part of the strategic ministry of taking the Word in translation to the peoples and languages of the world?
My heartfelt prayer is that we will all recognize, with a new clarity and fervor, the importance of the Word of God in the languages of the world.
May we each be even more engaged in giving glory to God through making the Word of God known among every language, people, and nation!