All or nothing

For most of my career, agencies involved in Bible translation have had a binary approach to deciding which languages get a translation of the Bible. After a field survey, we declared that some languages needed s translation and others did not.

Languages determined to need a translation received significant resources, often a highly trained missionary-linguist for a significant period of time, sometimes for decades. The others got nothing.

Relatively early in my career, it became obvious that this binary approach did not fit reality. Languages do not group themselves nicely into those whose speakers don’t know any other language and those whose speakers all speak another language perfectly. Or into languages that will quickly die and those which will continue for another thousand years. There are all kinds of gradations. There are languages which show signs of dying, but not strongly or not everywhere. It is not easy to know what percentage of a people speak another language well enough to understand the Bible in that language. Besides, how well is that anyway? Then we have cases where translations in the mother tongue produced transformative impact even though the people all knew another language and read the Bible in it for decades without the same positive changes.

Because we were trying to fit all languages into just two categories, we had endless discussions with colleagues over whether specific languages fit in one or the other. We reclassified some languages several times. I even saw a case where a missionary became distressed after spending a few years learning a language, developing an alphabet, and starting translation only to come to the conclusion that we had put him in a language which did not need a translation. We disagreed with him, but that didn’t help.

Then there are the pastors and Christians who come asking for a translation in their language only to have us tell them that we missionaries thought it was unnecessary.

No one wants to be the one who says that this moment will never happen for a language because the translation is not needed

Fortunately, the binary approach is dying. Encouraged by that, I worked with a Ghanaian colleague to develop a set of graded responses to languages without translation in Ghana. We are dropping the binary all-or-nothing response in favor of four separate responses. One puts high priority on languages where there are very few Christians. In such cases we will put significant amounts of effort, expertise and funding into the translation. Another response is for languages where there are many Christians who are using the Bible in another language. In such a case, we will demand a lot more of the churches. They will have to organize themselves and raise a very significant part of the funds. We will supply training and quality control.

It’s not perfect. We will still find gradations the four responses don’t address perfectly. But they will be fewer and less shocking. Plus, we will probably use kingdom resources a bit better.