Teaching illiterate persons to read in a language they do not understand and see no reason to learn, is like trying to motivate people to visit an attic they have no desire to visit, using a ladder from which the bottom three rungs are missing.
Last week’s post described the work of replacing those missing rungs by analysing the unwritten language, developing an alphabet, and teaching people to read it. Bible translation is moving that whole ladder so people can get into an attic they very much do want to visit.
So why do we translate the Bible into indigenous languages and teach the people to read their own language? There are many reasons. Here are a few:
- Granted, it is not easy to train a college-educated team in linguistics, Bible translation principles and literacy development, surround them with a group of PhD consultants in every area of expertise needed, and set them to work. In ten or twenty years, they will have produced a society that is growing increasingly literate, and that is reading a Bible in which God speaks their own language.
- The only thing more difficult than this process is setting up a system to teach tens of thousands of illiterate indigenous people to learn to speak and read a language they have no interest in, or reason for learning. In comparison, translating the Bible is easier.
- Christianity is based on translation. The first translators were Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, who translated into Greek the stories that were being repeated in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke.
- Christianity thrives on translation. Where the proclamation of the Good News was accompanied by the Scriptures in the language of the people, Christianity has spread, blossomed and born fruit. Where the Scriptures existed only in a foreign language, not in the local language, Christianity flourished briefly, then died out or was corrupted.
- God tends to deal with His people in the context of the culture they live in. When the Bible exists in an indigenous language, it allows the Holy Spirit to interpret the application within the culture.
- There are numerous testimonies of people hearing the Good News in a foreign language and having the basics of the Good News explained to them resulting in their salvation. It is possible for a large number of people to eventually know enough to turn to God, but there are no stories of large churches that are growing firm and strong in their faith and are reaching out to others while they do not have God’s Word in their own language.
- God calls His people to translate His Word. A young West African boy, who now calls himself Peter, was unusually bright and quick to learn. Peter caught the eye of a government official visiting his village who brought him out to the city to be educated. Peter learned the official language, excelled in school and became a valued teacher in the city. Somewhere along the way, he met some Christians and heard the Good News. He became a Christian and avidly studied the Bible. After some time, he heard the voice of God within his own heart, “What about the tens of thousands of people back in your tribe’s villages? How are they going to hear about Me?” In response, Peter gave up his tenured position as a teacher and joined a Wycliffe partner organization to train a team to help him translate the Bible for his own people.
- Our language is part of our culture. It is part of who we are as people. Linguists have said, “A person is his language.” By that they mean our language is not just another skill like playing the piano, or riding a bike. We think in language and words as well as in pictures. We use words to express even our deepest feelings. God, therefore, wants to speak the language of every person in every culture in the world.
That’s why we translate.