Bible translation gaining speed with local involvement
What used to take a missionary 20-30 years is now taking less than a decade
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New technology and indigenous translators are allowing organizations like OneBook to get Scriptures into the hands of language groups at unprecedented speeds. OneBook president Wayne Johnson says what used to take a missionary 20-30 years is now taking less than a decade, by empowering the indigenous speakers for the work.
Johnson says it’s all part of an incredible change happening in the world of missions. Last year 90 per cent of new Christians came from the Global South and East where the church is experiencing rapid growth according to the U.S Centre for World Missions. In Cameroon the average age of members is 26.
“What you have is a young, growing church that has doubled in 10 years,” Johnson says. Places like Cameroon have more Bible colleges and universities than all of Canada, and students can’t graduate without first learning the art of Bible translation.
“Here’s the reason, there are 286 languages in one country,” Johnson explains of Cameroon. “The problem is the church [leaders] do all of their preaching in English and French. But in the communities, the difficulty is communicating in their mother tongue.”
When a sermon comes through a translator, many fine points become lost. Johnson explains the NIV English Bible contains 11,000 words, but some local dialects can contain only 2,000.
“What happens when you go to church and get a muddied message?” he asks. For example, he points out, passages like “The Word became flesh,” in John 1:14 can be translated to “The Word became grilled meat.”
However, that’s where OneBook has seen an incredible movement among the Global South. Indigenous communities are passionate about doing Bible translation for themselves, rather than wait decades for a missionary to complete it.
With the help of computers and enthusiastic translators who know their language intimately, OneBook is able to shorten the process from training translators to seeing a Bible in print to six to eight years.
“But it’s still not fast enough,” Johnson says.
Currently OneBook has translations for 70 languages in the works. Groups come to them and request a Bible in their mother tongue, and OneBook requests their best 20 translators to be sent for training. The result is an improved quality of the translation as well as speed.
Zebedee Chia, a language program facilitator for OneBook Cameroon, says the work of translating Scripture is a job one must approach with fear and trembling. He says translators are very aware of their high calling and the incredible responsibility they carry in bringing the Bible to groups in their own languages.
The challenge is creating a translation that is natural, accurate, relevant to culture and clear.
“What do you do in a culture where the seat of honour is on the left hand, but Jesus is seated on the right hand of God?” he asks.
Yet despite the challenges, Chia says seeing the fruit of their labour keeps them going.
For people groups who have been given a written language, “it makes them feel like they matter,” Chia says. “God speaks our language,” many say after receiving a Bible in their mother tongue.
“God is now their God,” Chia says. “He is no longer a foreign god to them.”
Along with the work of translating, funding is another area where local communities are taking ownership. Johnson says OneBook no longer funds 100 per cent of any project; instead locals raise support to get the project off the ground. And the results are startling.
“Greater community transformation comes when the community takes ownership,” Johnson says. “They do it, we facilitate, and the impact changes significantly.”
Through it all he says the hand of God is evident.
“God is doing a major work; mission methodology is changing,” he says. OneBook has seen 15 New Testament translations and one Old Testament translation finished in the last 10 years. They expect to see 35 more completed in the next five.
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