A Bible for Every Language

In the year 2010, ten of the nation’s largest Bible translators (American Bible Society, Biblica, Deaf Bible Society, Lutheran Bible Translators, Pioneer Bible Translators, SIL International, Seed Company, The Word for the World, United Bible Societies, and Wycliffe Bible Translators USA) came together to determine how together they could eradicate Bible poverty. Out of that meeting came the Every Tribe Every Nation (ETEN) alliance where they all agreed to pool their resources and collaborate with the goal of having at least a portion of Scripture translated in every living language by the year 2033.

The partnership has already borne a great deal of fruit, spurring projects like the illumiNations Project to document and aid in the progress made in translation efforts and a Digital Bible Library to digitize and collect the Bible translations.

We caught up with Bob Creson, former president and CEO of Wycliffe Bible Translators USA; Geof Morin, president and CEO of Biblica (The International Bible Society); and Robert Briggs, senior vice president of U.S. ministry for the American Bible Society to talk about the fruit of their collaboration, the future of Bible translation, and efforts to encourage deeper engagement with the Bible.

1. How have collaborative projects like the Every Tribe Every Nation partnership and illumiNations changed the equation for Bible translation?

Creson (Wycliffe Bible Translators USA): There are more than 7,000 languages in the world. By bringing together the world’s largest Bible agencies, with more than 500 years of collective experience, and by utilizing the latest digital technology, ETEN will help eradicate Bible poverty.

Because of the ETEN Alliance we are now talking collaboratively about “all access” goals that would, by the year 2033, mean that everyone would have access and the possibility of engaging with the Good News about Christ in a language they relate to best.

In recent years, we’ve seen an unprecedented pace and degree of collaboration in global Bible translation. As an example in our own organization, in the more than 75 years since Wycliffe was founded, we’ve helped complete more than 1,000 translations. It took 67 years to complete the first 500, and only 17 years to complete the second 500. As collaboration and technology continue to improve the pace, our generation may be the first to see a translation in progress in every language that needs it.

Morin (Biblica): IllumiNations is changing the future for the Bibleless. Period. The ETEN Alliance began in 2010. At that point if you looked at the world and thought Hey, wouldn’t it be great if every living language had sufficient Scripture? and you start calculating how long that would take, and it’s looking like a 50 to 100 year project, depending on if you’re optimistic or pessimistic. With ETEN, with this incredible collaboration of these 10 agencies coming together with a shared plan. Let’s have no redundant projects; let’s make sure we’re focused on the most important, the biggest projects first. So, the same plan, building on the same platforms; with the same approaches. We can actually share competencies and resources for these projects. so now that 50- to 100-year project is a 13-year project—by 2033. And not just faster, but also better quality. Now you can read the notes of previous translators and say, Oh, that’s how you explain that crazy idiom that Jesus was talking about!—whatever the challenges are.

We are seeing the power of an open and united platform. The ETEN organizations have decided to use the same approach, and agree to a common framework model. So that means we use some of the same resources and consultants to move some things forward. We’re actually all going to use the same platform, this beautiful Digital Bible Library, that at last count has 2,100 versions of the Bible. So you have God’s Word available in the languages of just over six billion people. If you’re a ministry and want access to God’s Word for what you do, here’s one stop to go and do that.

So that in itself is powerful: the ease with which you can now get access to Scripture. But also, it’s an open platform inviting others to bolt on tools to help accelerate the work of translation, like artificial intelligence, are being applied. So, say you’re going to start a translation at Genesis 1:1. Oh wait, here’s some information about Genesis 1:1 that’s going to be really helpful to me. I was wondering about that. Great, that’s going to help me! Here’s some other ways that almost begin the translation work for me: tools of artificial intelligence, tools of context that are going to speed the process. But also, on the other side of that, even more technology, which is, I’m finished, I’m done, I’m checked, I’m ready to go. I want to get it published. There are publishing tools whether I want to publish one copy or publish a million copies. All these tools, all bolted together, all for the same purpose: How do we help to accelerate the Word of God for those who are waiting? So it’s a powerful thing when you bring together in an open and united platform. You can bring together the resources and gifts of various partners for this project to accelerate the work.

Another thing that I’m seeing is that this kind of collaboration, choosing that there’s something bigger than our own egos and logos that God is doing in the kingdom that we want to be a part of is that other organizations are watching us. I’ve had conversations with church planters who are saying, What if these 10 largest organizations connected together? I had a conversation with campus ministry leaders: We’re actually trying to serve very similar goals, here. What would it look like if we came closer together? Sports ministries—we’ve got a whole bunch of these now with some pretty similar goals … I’m watching the spread. It’s the seed of what collaboration can yield in the kingdom of God. It’s really very powerful in this space right now.

2. How have modern technologies and an increasingly connected world affected the way you approach your mission?

Creson: Technology has aided virtually every step of Bible translation. Where Bible translations once took 25 or 30 years to complete, advancements like customized software, computer tablets, apps and other tech have made it possible to get the Bible into people’s hands faster, more easily and in more ways than ever before in history.

Simple technology like audio recordings have made it much easier to begin translation work in newly discovered languages, and translation software has exponentially increased the ease with which teams can ensure an accurate translation, the rate at which translation projects can be completed, and the efficiency with which Bible translation organizations can collaborate.

Basic tech tools like video conferencing and Google Drive make it possible for our translation consultants to connect remotely with teams in other regions of the world. For example, one of our translation consultants is a linguistics professor who has gotten his students involved in hands-on learning by connecting them to a team in Peru via video calls, and they work together to develop and revise their translation work.

Bible apps now make it possible for people to access and engage with Scripture on their mobile devices.

Briggs (American Bible Society): I’ve been at the Bible society for 19 years, so I’ve watched transformation happen. So if you turn the clock back, we were publishing printed Bibles and made good progress on that front. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with printed Bibles. We still love them and know that many people still prefer them. But to have the added capability to take that content, digitize it, guard its accuracy and integrity, and deliver it through the channels of key partners like YouVersion is a clear game-changer as it relates to our Bible society’s strategy.

It increases the reach of the Bible content, and it increases the capacity people have to opt for their preferred format to use. We’re watching the dramatic impact of the broader reach.

It is dramatically changing the landscape of how we can pursue our mission, which is to see lives transformed as a result of engaging with the Scriptures. In our case, if you are willing to engage with the Scripture, we are neutral as it relates to which format you would prefer. We simply want to see Americans and people around the world having access to the Scriptures and engaging regularly with the Scriptures regularly, so that they can hear God’s voice and be transformed as a result.

3. What are some of the recent initiatives you’ve championed to “finish the job” of getting a Bible translated in every language?

Creson: A driving force behind Wycliffe’s work today is Vision 2025. In 1999, Wycliffe’s leaders realized that at its current pace, a Bible translation for each of the world’s languages would not have even begun for another century and a half. Vision 2025 is an ambitious resolution to begin a Bible translation in every language that needed one by the year 2025.

As one organization working within a broader alliance, Wycliffe Bible Translators has adopted a shared set of missiological principles that constitute a “Common Framework for Bible Translation,” which prioritizes working with the local church and shapes everything we do.

The principles include Relationship (establishment of deep, committed and enduring relationships among translation teams, impact partners and local communities), Partnership (pooling knowledge, resources and access to unreached people groups in collaboration with other organizations and churches), Stewardship (ensuring projects are well-developed, well-designed, well-resourced and well-managed with a high value on mutual accountability and transparency among all partners), Ownership (encouraging the local body of believers to assume ownership of the vision and responsibility for Bible translation in their community) and Accelerated Impact (implementing short-phased projects that develop accessible Scripture products which respond to pressing ministry needs of the church).

4. In addition to translation efforts, how are you working to encourage engagement with Scripture in cultures that already have the Scriptures in their language?

Briggs: This is certainly also true with our work around the world, but we are turning our attention in a fresh way to the work right here in the United States, recognizing that we want to be partners with the church to focus on stimulating engagement with the Bible.

We’ve partnered with Barna Group for the past several years on a survey to track attitudes and engagement. And we were encouraged to see that some 57 percent of Americans indicate they want more engagement with the Bible. There’s a hunger and an appetite for the Bible.

We’ve established a goal that we’re organizing around that we are envisioning a future state in 2026—which by the way would be the 250th anniversary of the nation—where 100 million Americans are meaningfully engaged with the Scriptures.

One of the most dramatic interventions I’ve witnessed comes in the arena of trauma healing. It turns out that some people are not engaging with the Scriptures because they’ve experienced wounds in their life and it causes them to be restricted in their capacity to hear God’s voice through his Word. But by addressing those heart wounds and bringing God’s word to bear in meaningful ways in those areas of pain and woundedness, it opens up the capacity in people’s hearts to hear God’s Word, to hear the promises that he has for them, to hear of his love for them, and we’re watching people being transformed in ways that are an answer to prayer.

One other initiative that we’re organizing around is advocating for the basic practice of Scripture engagement. We’ve come to understand that the obstacle isn’t always not having access to the Bible, but it’s just the decision, the determination, to establish the practice of Scripture engagement.

When we see that people want to engage with the Bible and we ask, “Why don’t you?” the most frequent answer is “I don’t have time.” So we have an initiative that we call First Thing. The idea is to advocate for people to engage with Scripture, hear God’s voice as the first voice in the morning; to take the first eight minutes of your day and let God’s voice infuse your mind and heart as you prepare for your day. Let’s start there, and then who knows where God might take them once that regular habit is in place.

Everything church is dealing with is undergirded by Scripture engagement. To me it’s so critical to intentionally stimulate the attention and equip the church to do a good job in inviting people into this Scripture engagement journey.

Geof Morin: Biblica is blessed to steward the Scripture translations for 80% of the world. Where we focus that is on the front lines of the church today. So we’re looking for those places where God’s Word is needed to equip the local church. Typically, we’re doing that with other global organizations: Compassion, World Vision and Samaritan’s Purse—just about every Operation Christmas Child is going to have a portion of Scripture. the purpose is how to reach that child who has not had the opportunity to receive the gospel of Jesus Christ. We’re equipping the local church and making the church the hero of that work.

We start with these translations. At the heart of all Christian mission, of course, is Bible translation. It starts there with finding the ways that a particular translation can serve right there at the front lines of the local church.

5. What are the most pressing issues for your agencies?

Briggs: First, addressing the pace of work. We’re finding that this fresh way of working together across the sector is dramatically affecting the pace at which we can work, and we’re addressing some of the previous issues of fragmentation among organizations. ETEN alliance is proving to be a difference maker in increasing our speed and our momentum.

Second, identifying the actual need and clarifying where we are on the journey. in order to complete a task, it’s critical to define what it is that needs to get done. So again, one of the breakthroughs of the ETEN project has been to sort of put all of our collective heads together and agree on what the scope of the need is.

More technically, we need more native speaking translators. We know that the best model, the best practice, for translation is to mobilize those who already speak the language and to mobilize them as translators, and ensure that they’re receiving the right training. And once that occurs, that dramatically increases the pace, while ensuring even better quality of the translation work.

Creson: As we steadily count down the number of languages left without Scripture, we’re focusing our attention on the world’s under-reached Deaf population. Given that there are nearly 400 distinct sign languages in use today, and not one of them has a complete Bible, we’re eager to continue innovating in this area.

Only two to three percent of deaf people worldwide have been introduced to the truth of a Savior, and almost all deaf communities are without God’s Word and biblical resources in a language and form they can understand. But through partnership with organizations like Deaf Bible Society, Wycliffe is witnessing how new technology makes it possible to create visual Bibles in sign languages.

Advancements in video tech and machine learning mean exciting resources for reaching deaf people with Scripture in a visual form, but there remains a major challenge of translating God’s Word for one of the most unreached and unengaged people groups in the world.

Geof Morin: Try to imagine you don’t have Bible in your own language. You can’t. If you’re a follower of Jesus, I’m betting there’s a cornerstone in your life that just gets pulled out. Not having the ability to understand, to comprehend the fullness of the love that God has offered us in Jesus Christ out of the Scriptures. I can’t even imagine it. The Scriptures are just that foundational. [Think about] the awfulness of Bible poverty in the lives of people around the world—those one billion plus people who don’t have sufficient Scripture to be able to fully comprehend the gospel.

I want to say something to church leaders. And it’s this very simple question: When you see what God is doing right now in the work of Bible translation, ask yourself this question: Why is our church not involved with this? If you’re not, Why are we not involved in this project right now? This is a once in all of human history project where for the very first time every living language on planet Earth will have God’s Word.

Why, if you’re a church leader and you know that translation is at the heart of Christian mission, why would you withhold your church from being involved in this project right now?

Read more stories from our State of the Bible coverage in the March/April 2019 issue of Outreach magazine and at outreachmagazine.com/Bible.