Why Are There So Many English Bible Translations?
There are over 450 different English Bible translations according to Wikipedia. With nearly 2,000 languages in the world still waiting for even one verse of Scripture in their language, why are there so many Bible translations in English and other languages of wider communication?
Reason #1: Number of Speakers
Maybe this is obvious, but the number of speakers of a given language correlates to how many Bible translations that language has (or doesn't). Since this is an English blog, we'll look at English as an example. Worldwide, it is estimated that there are about 1.35 billion English speakers, which equates to about 20% of the world's population! Only about 27% of those English-speakers learned English as their first or native language. That means the vast majority of people speaking English around the world studied English as a foreign language (and as a native English speaker, I am super impressed by that statistic -- ELLs (English-language-learners) are amazing!!)
Meanwhile, the 2,000 languages with no Bible translation average about 85,000 speakers per language. Due to increasing globalization accelerating language endangerment and extinction, some of these languages only have a few hundred speakers or less. Linguists and anthropologists are working hard to preserve or revitalize these minority languages before they disappear forever, taking a priceless piece of human culture and history with them.
It makes numerical sense that the languages of wider communication (like English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Mandarin, Arabic, Indonesian, etc.) would have more Bible translations available to them. They also have more biblical scholarship resources available, like commentaries and lexica. (This does not diminish the goal of the Bible translation movement to make Scripture available to speakers of every language!)
Reason #2: History of English Bible Translation
Another reason there are so many more English Bible translations is the history of the English-speaking church. The first English Bible translation was completed by William Tyndale and published in 1526. Prior to this translation, most English-speaking churches were using the Latin Vulgate or German texts. Since the publication of the Tyndale Bible, English-speakers have had nearly 500 years to revise and update English Bible translations - which they have done again and again, producing the hundreds of English translations we have today.
In contrast, the effort to reach every language group worldwide with the Bible is fairly recent. One of the largest Bible translation organizations today, Wycliffe Bible Translators, was founded in 1942 as a result of Cameron Townsend's belief that everyone should be able to understand the Bible. The global Bible translation movement has made astounding progress in the decades since, but most of these translations are still in their first or second editions. The need for native speaker translators, advisors, and consultants is great, and the first published Bible translation is only the beginning of the work.
Reason #3: Different Target Audiences
The target audience is the one the translation is aiming to reach -- they are the reason a translation is necessary in the first place. While language is one characteristic of a target audience, it is not the only one! Though 20% of the world's population can speak English, these billions of people come from drastically different cultural and societal backgrounds. They have different levels of proficiency in English, biblical knowledge, vocabulary, and literacy. They come from every church denomination under the sun. Some of them may already know Jesus by the name of 'Isa' while others call him 'Yesu'. All of these factors are taken into consideration when deciding whether a new Bible translation is warranted and how best to reach that specific target audience.
In fact, English Bibles can get almost comically specific in their target audience - just do a quick Amazon search and you'll find English Bibles for men, women, teens, children, seminary students, English-language-learners, large print, room for notes in the margin, the Bible as a graphic novel: you name it and there is probably a publication that's aiming for that target.
(Most of those different publications are actually the same translations, but we have the wide world of marketing to thank for the dizzying array of iterations available. If your head is spinning just considering which of these target audiences you fit into, my advice is to ignore the bells and whistles and just look at the fish!)
At the end of the day, the best Bible translation is the one you have that speaks the language you understand best. While there are hundreds of translations available in a handful of languages, many are still waiting.
If you speak and read English, there is no question that you are rich in Bible translations and biblical resources. The question is: what can you do to help God's Word reach those who have none?