What to count

If we ask how many languages have a translation of the Bible we get one number. But if we ask how many people have the Bible in their language we get a very different number.

Of the 7 billion people on our planet 6 billion have the Bible in their heart language, which is 86 percent. But only 9 percent of the world’s languages have the whole Bible. That’s about 650 out of 7,000 languages. Another 23 percent of languages have the NT. So close to 1/3 of languages worldwide have at least the NT.

The situation in Ghana is similar. 87 percent of Ghanaians have the Bible in their language; very close to the 86 percent worldwide. But that’s only about a third of Ghana’s languages.

The large differences between the percentage of languages and the percentages of people are due, of course, to the fact that there are big languages and small. All of the biggest languages in Africa, for example, have the Bible.

Although there are still some larger languages without the whole Bible, translating the Bible into more languages is mostly about the smaller and often marginalized peoples – “the least of these”. Each new translation is not so much an attempt to change the world, but rather to create in-depth and lasting transformation in one place – to connect at the deepest level for lasting impact. It is also about including those not yet included in God’s kingdom.

Language size. Source: Wikipedia

Language and Christmas

Two stories typify Christmas. One the the story of the Shepherds and the other the story of the wise men. In both stories angels spoke, giving the wise men and shepherds information and instructions. We know that there were many languages spoken in the Middle East at the time, as there are today. So, in what languages did the angels speak? We can safely assume that they spoke in the language(s) of the shepherds and wise men because they intended to be understood.

It is almost certain that the Angels spoke to the shepherds in Aramaic as that was the language of most people.

For the wise men, it’s more complicated. The Bible says only that they came from “The east”. Without a location, it’s difficult to say what languages they spoke. But it’s more complicated than that. At that time people spoke different languages depending on their status in society. (Even today, that’s common in many places.) In any case, it is highly unlikely that God spoke to the wise men in Aramaic.

The Bible prophesies about the birth of Christ were written in Hebrew – a language the Angels did not use to speak to the shepherds or nor God to warn the wise men.

So, the first Christmas happened through translation.

On Christmas day this year, the story of Christmas will be told and celebrated in thousands of languages because of translation. Better, that number continues to grow. That transforms. One of my African friends tells of how his people first adopted a form of Christmas celebration from Western culture. Christmas was a time of wild, drunken parties. When the New Testament was translated into the language and people read it, the celebrations were radically transformed.

Through a glass darkly

For now we see through a glass, darkly –1 Corinthians 13:12
What does it mean to “see through a glass, darkly”? If we consult a newer translation we find that “glass” actually means mirror.

For now we see in a mirror dimly

1 Corinthians 13:12 (ESV)

It’s not that the King James translators got it wrong, not all. But the word has changed meaning since 1611. Even so, it is not clear why someone would see dimly when looking in a mirror. Reversed, yes. But dim?

The passage is obscure because mirrors have changed a LOT. For most of human history mirrors were both expensive and poor quality. A wealthy woman’s prized possession was sometimes an ornate mirror that would not be as good as a cheapie bought today. Mirrors were often polished metal. The surface would be uneven, and the reflective quality low. And that’s before the metal started tarnishing or corroding. And that was an expensive mirror most people would never see. So when the people of that time looked in a mirror they saw a dim and distorted reflection. When the author penned his words, he was reflecting his experience and that of everyone else when it came the mirrors of his day.

Many teanslators keep the mirror. A few do more polishing. They change the mirror to something that most readers will readily understand.
We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist.- 1 Corinthians 13:12
These different translation approaches are rooted in a philosophical question. What is the translator’s job? Is he or she venturing onto terrain that should be reserved for preachers and Bible teachers? In other words, has the translator left translation and moved on to interpretation? Many would say yes.

The other side worries that making a translation that can’t be understood without a knowledge of ancient times causes people to think that they can’t understand the Bible on their own, and so it harmfully elevates pastors and Bible interpreters while dimming the priesthood of all believers.

They also say that a translation today should be as clear as the original was in its day. When the Apostle Paul’s audience read “through a glass darkly” the phrase was perfectly clear. Therefore the translation should be equally transparent, rather than being like looking through a glass darkly or peering through a fog. You choose.

Greek mirror about 450 BC

Let the red reduce

I was with some Ghanaian colleagues presenting Bible translation at a Christian College in Accra. After the presentation, the dean of the college was taking an offering. He told the students “Let the red reduce”. This sentence is an example of implicit information. When something someone says or writes relies on information that is not directly expressed in what they said or wrote, then the meaning of their words depends on implicit information. In this case, the implicit information is behind the word “red”. Here’s how. The money of many countries has different colored bills for different denominations. Ghana is one of them.

Here are the bills, so that you can interpret the dean’s comments for yourself.

Just like all language, the Bible also contains passages that imply information that is not found in the words themselves like this one:

But when the fourteenth night was come, as we were driven up and down in Adria, about midnight the shipmen deemed that they drew near to some country; And sounded, and found it twenty fathoms: and when they had gone a little further, they sounded again, and found it fifteen fathoms. Then fearing lest we should have fallen upon rocks, they cast four anchors out of the stern, and wished for the day. (Acts 27 ESV)

The fact that the water was getting rapidly shallower confirmed that they were approaching land, but the text does not state this obvious fact. Approaching the land at night is dangerous, but the passage doesn’t say that either, although it does say that the sailors are concerned about shipwreck and take action – they drop anchors. The anchors are designed to stop or slow the ship, another piece of obvious and therefore implied information.

What if you were translating for a landlocked people who had never seen the ocean and had no lakes? Would they know that the decreasing depth of the water meant land was approaching, that this was dangerous and that dropping anchors would slow the ship and help prevent disaster? For them, this passage might be as obscure as “Let the red reduce” was for most of you.

The Dean also said, “Give me brown, I will smile.”The Dean’s comments are analogous to an American preacher encouraging people to put fewer Georges in the offering and to even throw in some Bens.

By the way, we used to use the Acts 27 shipwreck passage in seminars on advanced translation principles in Burkina Faso – a landlocked country where most people have not seen an ocean or a lake large enough to navigate with a ship.