Whose Bible Translation Is It, Anyway?
Every Tribe, Language, and People
If you're familiar with the field of Bible translation, you know that one of its main goals is to bring the Bible to every tribe, language, and people in the world. That means working toward having a translation in all of the 7,000+ languages currently spoken! Praise God that we've recently completed the 700th translation - 10% of the way there!
The current bible translation model equips native speakers of minority languages to translate God's Word into their own language. This is a big improvement from the model of the last century which took years to train a foreign missionary who then lived with minority-language-speakers for years (usually decades!) learning the language before they were able to begin translating. Because it was translated by foreigners, the resulting translation sometimes felt confusing, awkward, and still downright foreign. So translation organizations realized there was a better way.
Today, ownership of the bible translation project is placed squarely in the hands of the people for whom it's being translated - the local community, churches, and target audience.
Foreign Missionaries Haven't Been The Best Ambassadors of Christ
With an increasing awareness and appreciation for indigenous peoples' cultures, languages, and belief systems comes a hesitancy and even indignation that Christians might "push the Bible" into these cultures.
So first, as a Christian, I want to acknowledge that there is good reason for that indignation.
Sadly, there is a long and sordid history of Christians (and others) mistaking our own culture for the gospel truth, and using that belief to steamroll other languages and customs that don't fit our norm. Take a look at the argument in Galatians 2 between two of the original Christian missionaries - Peter and Paul. In Galatians 2:11-14, what is their disagreement actually about? Culture. Differences between Jews and Gentiles. How Jewish does someone need to become in order to be a Christian? (Spoiler: Not that much.)
And ever since, the Church has continued the same argument, substituting our own cultural norms and values in the name of expanding God's kingdom. Anthropological and humanitarian travesties carried out against minority languages and cultures are still felt generations later. There is profound tragedy in the good news of salvation for a dying world being twisted to subvert and extinguish the ways of life for entire people groups. And it's uncomfortable for Christians (or anyone!) to remember that we've been part of perpetuating that brokenness in our world, a world we are called to love and serve as Christ did.
But the gospel is (literally!) Good News. We believe that God's Word brings life and hope. Namely, it proclaims the truth that all human beings are created in the image of God, and because of His death on the cross, every tribe, language, and people will be present before His throne in glory. You'd be hard-pressed to find another world religion that begins and ends with such a beautiful incorporation of all of humanity's rich diversity!
I say all of this to make clear that I work in bible translation in part because it confirms the importance and dignity of every person on this planet - our languages, yes, but also our cultures, arts, community, stories, aspirations, everything that makes us human!
Bible Translation By the Local Community
Alright, I'm off my soap box now. Point being, this is why a bible translation project absolutely needs community ownership and investment from the beginning. Translation projects occur in all different kinds of communities: some may have a thriving church already with several denominations present, others may have no formal church gatherings at all. While each situation has its own unique challenges and triumphs, some form of local support is essential to the translation being completed, used, and accepted.
Most translation projects take several years and funding to complete. In beginning a bible translation project, local leaders first need to recognize the value of their local language enough that they see the project as worthwhile. Many Bible translation projects have resulted in the local language being more widely used and celebrated. One Nigerian language group started posting road signs and other public materials in their local language for the first time once they saw the Bible in their language!
No one person can produce a quality translation (though a few like Martin Luther and William Tyndale have made good attempts!) So the entire community is called together to brainstorm what their language's translation project will look like, who will work on it, and how it will be used once it's finished.
Most Bible translation projects also partner with a Bible translation organization, which can help in providing training courses, computers and equipment, consultant assistance, and resources for publication of audio or printed materials. More such organizations are forming all over the world so that many projects can partner with a translation organization close to their local area. If there is not a local translation organization, international organizations could fill this role, working to equip the local community in their translation projects. Even then, the local people are ultimately the ones instigating, working at, and using the completed translation.
In the end, the most successful Bible translation projects are ironically those in which the Bible is not the end goal at all - it's transformed hearts and lives. I don't mean people who look and act more like whatever culture happens to be in power at the time, or even like people from the Bible itself (because let's face it, we're all foreigners to the original biblical culture!) I mean people transformed to see, sometimes for the first time, that their language and culture is important, valuable, and beautiful.
Important enough to invest the time and resources to create a translation, yes. But also valuable enough that God Himself gave his Son's life on their behalf. And beautiful enough to celebrate His glory forever.
I can't wait.