Which Book of the Bible Do You Translate First?
If you've talked with or prayed for someone working in Bible translation, you may have wondered about the order of translation goals. After all, wouldn't "Bible Translation" start with Genesis and end in Revelation? Yet some teams I've worked with are checking Exodus one week and drafting Galatians the next! What is going on?
The answer, "It depends on the language community," by now should not be surprising. Because the local church and community are the ones ultimately going to be using the translation, it is up to that community to decide in what order to translate biblical books. While there are templates to follow, the strategic plan for each translation project is outlined in each individual project's translation brief before any translation work is even started.
Method to the Madness
Which part of the Bible to translate first could be one of the most important decisions to the project. The accomplishment of completing a passage or book for distribution to the community is hugely motivating to the new translation team and its supporters, both locally and abroad. The first piece of translation is also important for Scripture engagement efforts - spreading the word about the project to garner further ongoing support, and impacting believers with the gospel message in their own heart language for the first time.
The decision of where to begin is rooted in the target audience and what would best reach them. Is this a translation that will be used by a thriving and robust church community who is currently familiar with the Bible in a language of wider communication (also called a lingua franca or trade language)? Or is it being distributed via audio files in a country or community whose government and wider culture is either unfamiliar or anti-Christian? The same biblical texts will be received by each of these groups differently because of their backgrounds.
Because the strategic planning of translation projects is as diverse as the world's languages themselves, I will just discuss a few examples of where some projects choose to begin and why. This is by no means an exhaustive list as neither you nor I have the time to run through 7,000+ languages and what would be best for each community they represent!
Bible Translation Starting Points Based on Target Audience
Starting in the Old Testament (or Hebrew Scriptures)
In areas of the world with majority Muslim or Jewish religious backgrounds, translation committees often start with the passages of Scripture which overlap with these communities' beliefs and traditions. The Old Testament accounts of Noah, Abraham, and Moses can be introduced in the vernacular languages and receive interest and welcome. The account of creation in Genesis or the Flood narrative also serve as touchpoints to the wider community where such traditional stories are already familiar, albeit slightly different in the biblical texts. Once these are translated, the community's preconceived notions about the contents of the Scriptures are dispelled and the text or recording in a new language gains interest.
Starting in the New Testament or Gospel Narratives
In many African, South and Latin American, and Southeast Asian language communities, Christian churches are growing and thriving much more strongly than in North America and Europe. Many of these believers are used to worshipping God in the language of wider communication, but they understand their faith with new insight when they receive it in their heart language. For these communities, self-contained gospel narratives of the Easter story, Christmas, Jesus' miracles, or a full gospel book work well as first translations. The target audiences are already familiar with the content but can experience it anew in their own language. These gospel booklets can be printed and distributed as special holiday gifts and often spark the first Bible studies in the heart language.
Starting with Whatever Is Easiest
In cultures and language groups that have little overlap or familiarity with Scripture content, the first goal of the translation project may be to train translators in recognizing biblical translation issues and the linguistic uniqueness of their own language. As a translation "baby step," these projects may begin with shorter books with simple narratives and messages, such as Jonah, Jude, or the letters of 1-3 John. These accounts contain less complex source texts than longer gospel or epistle accounts, and can be completed faster so that teams are encouraged at the outset. These stories can also stand alone without the need for extensive biblical background knowledge that makes the culture gap more difficult to bridge and hinders understanding.
The Life of a Bible Translation Project
A team's decision of where to begin their translation is important not only for that initial publication, but also for the life of the project. As translators grow in their understanding and experience, their translations improve. This is exactly what should happen, but it also sometimes necessitates revisiting the first translated portions to revise decisions that were made when the team was less experienced.
Whether a Bible translation project is in the beginning or ending stages, supporters can be praying for wisdom for the team and translation committee making these decisions, for humility to be able to learn from their past experience, and boldness in bringing God's Word to every people group in a way that speaks best to their hearts.