Why translate the Bible? What is the ultimate purpose of translating the Scriptures into a language?
If we can’t answer this question, we risk misunderstanding the whole endeavor.
Some say the purpose is to provide a language community with the Scriptures. That explains the task to a certain extent, yet it doesn’t say anything about the unique character of the Bible or the relationship between God and humanity.
A more biblically-grounded statement might include providing believers with the Scriptures in their own language so they can grow in their faith and witness to others. This concept moves in the right direction by acknowledging that the translation of God’s word is for strengthening believers and equipping them to witness in their community. Yet more clarity is needed.
To best understand the purpose of translation, we need to ask the following questions.
1. What is the relationship of God to the translation of the Bible?
It is possible to view translation as a technical exercise—taking a text in one language and producing a corresponding text in another language.
However, it is important to remember that the text is not our own, but God’s.
The message of the Bible, moreover, is to go to other communities because it is God’s stated design, not ours nor theirs.
Furthermore, we need to reflect on these truths because we want to honor God in this endeavor. As the Apostle Paul reminds us, we are to do everything for the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31).
In other words, we are to do everything with a view to pleasing God and accomplishing his purposes.
So, we must first recognize the glory of God as the overarching purpose of translation.
2. What is the place of the church in translation?
If you are translating chemistry textbooks, you might say the purpose of your work is to further the education of students in chemistry. You hope students will use the textbooks and enjoy learning about chemistry.
In a similar way, Bible translators want to see Christians reading and learning from their translations.
However, the churches in a language community are more than an audience. They are more than the consumers of a product. They have an integral part in the process.
When the local churches take part in the process of translation, from drafting to checking and eventually to using the first published portions in their teaching and preaching, their faith grows stronger.
They have a greater commitment to the actual task of translation as well. And some who were attending church and never fully understood the gospel message, come to faith in Christ!
Furthermore, the translation is often of a higher quality because the translators and churches interact more as the work is actually done.
When local churches are not an integral part of the process, cartons of unused New Testaments often go straight into storage and never get opened!
So, the church must be at the center of translation.
3. What is the purpose of the Scriptures and how does that influence translation?
The purpose of Bible translation must keep in view the purpose of the Scriptures themselves. The Scriptures are for the church so that believers might engage in the ministry of the word.
The ministry of the word refers to the teaching and preaching of the Scriptures for the edification of the believers and the salvation of the lost. For a translation to be used in teaching and preaching, it must be received by the churches of the language community as acceptable for that purpose.
It follows that those involved in the translation must work with that goal in view.
Unfortunately, some translations are produced with the goal of leading someone who doesn’t attend church or know anything about the Christian faith to a saving faith in Christ, apart from the local church.
In other words, the translation is a tract for unbelievers, not the Scriptures that the local church could use to reach the lost with the gospel and lead them to maturity in Christ.
Such a view of translation reveals too narrow an understanding of the purpose of the word.
Furthermore, such translations tend to fall into disuse. In short, Christians prefer to evangelize with the same translation they use themselves.
4. Does the purpose extend beyond one language community?
Look at the history of Bible translation. Time and again, Christians with the Bible in their own language have not translated the Scriptures for those without a translation.
However, if the gospel is to go to the nations, it must be preached in their languages. And preaching and teaching require translation.
On the day of Pentecost, when the Spirit descended on the disciples, they declared the mighty deeds of God in the languages of the crowds in Jerusalem.
In so doing, the Spirit moved the church to minister to the nations in their own languages. And the preaching, teaching, and translation of the gospel has continued over the centuries.
As we formulate the purpose of Bible translation, we should not neglect the scene of the triumphant worship of Christ around the throne in Revelation 5. Christ is worthy of all praise because he has redeemed people from “every tribe and tongue and people and nation.”
So, the scope of translation includes more than our own language, but the languages of all the ethno-linguistic groups who will ultimately be united in praise around the throne!
What is the ultimate purpose of Bible translation?
Taking all that we have discussed, we can formulate the ultimate purpose of translation as the following:
To equip the church for the ministry of the word in their own language and in the languages of all the nations for the glory of our triune God.
May our hearts be gripped, with a new clarity and fervor, by the realization that we, individually and together, can be part of glorifying God among the nations by the translation of the Scriptures!