Discovering the True Need for Bible Translation

"A reliable Bible translation in every language, a Bible in every hand." This is the vision statement of Bibles International, the Bible Society of Baptist Mid-Missions.

God created man for fellowship with Him, but sin brought eternal separation between God and man. He has also put an innate desire in man to have a relationship with Him, a hunger and a thirst that only God can fill. This desire can only be satisfied by receiving the "Bread of Life," the "Living Water" – the Lord Jesus Christ. Every people group needs the Bible in a language that speaks to their hearts, in order to have a deeper relationship with God and to serve Him.

The total population of the world is 7.9 billion people, speaking 7,378 languages. Only 717 of those languages have a complete Bible; 1,582 have a complete New Testament (some also have Old Testament portions); and 3,495 languages have some portion of Scripture. One and one-half billion people, speaking 6,661 languages, do not yet have a full Bible in their first language. One hundred, forty-five million people, speaking 1,892 languages, still need translation work to begin (2021 Scripture Access Statistics - There are so many languages that need God’s Word! How do we determine which language needs it next?

When an individual or a church requests a Bible from Bibles International (BI) or the BI affiliate in a particular country, that individual or church is requested to complete an extensive questionnaire regarding their language. This questionnaire will ask questions about the history of Christianity in that language group, linguistics, literacy, the availability of reliable Scripture translations in that language, orthography (alphabet and spelling system), and potential translation project resources. It will give an overview of the need and will assist BI in evaluating the potential of adopting the language for translation and where and how to begin. Some languages need to start with literacy and develop a proper writing system before beginning the translation. For other languages, literacy and translation can begin simultaneously. For some languages that already have the Bible in the lingua franca (common language) plus a higher literacy rate and a good writing system, translation can begin immediately after the project is adopted.

The next step is to carry out thorough research onsite. Multiple trips may be required if the language is spoken in more than one location. These trips will help to determine whether the language is a viable one; that is, after translation is completed, will the people group use the Bible extensively not only in that generation but generations to follow? The onsite visit(s) will also show whether the government recognizes the language and whether or not it is used in the schools. It is important to have information on the current use of the language by all age groups, as well as in what venues it is used. The attitude of the people about their own language is also important: Are they interested in preserving and developing their own language, and what are they doing about it as a community?

Recently a BI team went to research the Bible translation needs among a people group in one of the most populous countries in the world. This country has many languages and diverse cultures. It pained our hearts that some of the members of this group were even ashamed to speak their own language in public because the more dominant language group of the society looked down on them. There are no known believers among this group of several thousand people. English-speaking believers have the luxury of choosing which Bible versions to use, and have access to a myriad of Christian literature. This people group has no literature, and the literacy rate is very low. Imagine not having a single sentence of God’s Word in one’s heart language!

In a neighboring country, a group of believers from a remote area traveled by boat a whole day, then traveled another day and a half by bus and train to meet the BI team to discuss Bible translation in their language. This people group has songs in another language to sing in their churches, but they do not have a proper writing system or any Scriptures in their language. Just think! In the 21st century, when man has landed on the moon and spacecraft are exploring other planets, there are still people groups in this condition! After further linguistic research, it was decided that the first step for this project would be to develop an orthography and a writing system. BI’s linguistic personnel are actively working with this group and are developing a reading primer, which will be followed by the first of several Old Testament Storybooks.

Bible translation is a colossal task, involving various disciplines. Good and accurate research and survey work is an integral and indispensable part of the process. God’s wisdom, the leading of the Holy Spirit, the prayer of God’s people, and cooperation among the teams involved are essential ingredients for a successful Bible translation. When God’s living Word reaches the hearts of people in the language they understand best, it brings eternal fruit for generations to come.