Four Ways Bible Translation Benefits Communities

My grandfather was the first in his family to go to college. He felt the calling, left the farm, and traveled all the way from rural New York to Chicago to study at Moody Bible Institute and become a pastor. That one act changed everything. Nearly all of us can probably point to the first person in our families who made that decision, a college education, often to the disapproval of the rest of their family. But the opportunities that followed, both for that person and also for their children and grandchildren, probably made all the difference for them and their family—for you and your family. For my part, my upstate New York father then also attended college & seminary and married a Canadian from Texas. I was able to study biblical Greek and linguistics and now here I am before you now, preparing to serve the Bibleless around the world.

The way a college education in America can transform the trajectory of a family is a very small version of the way a Bible translation project can transform the trajectory of an entire people group.

Let me tell you about five ways that Bible translation ripples out beyond our immediate expectations and impacts communities in substantive and practical ways, across all aspects of life.

Bible translation enriches people’s hearts and minds

When people hear God’s word spoken to them in their own language, they stand alert. They pay attention. They nod their heads, they clap their hands & they understand what is being spoken to them. From the smallest child to the oldest adult, they hear and know God’s voice. For many minority-languages communities, the only Bible they have access to is in a foreign language. For this reason, the people cannot understand what they hear. But when they hear it or read it in their own language, they say: True! God is speaking to us in our own language!

This is a relief to pastors who are trying to teach their people. Some pastors can read the Bible in English, but they cannot interpret it for their people. Yet when it is in their own language, they interpret it easily. Upon receiving the Scriptures in his own language, one pastor declared this: “God is not far from us. God is not a foreigner anymore. He can talk directly to us.”

Thuso Sithole, a speaker of the Kalanga language in Botswana says of his own experience with Scripture in his own language:

“I’ve been reading the Bible English and Setswana, but the moment I read in my own language, that’s when I felt God… God is really present. God is with me. I always feel God closer to me when I read the Kalanga Bible. When I want to feel the angels, when I want to feel God, I just read the Kalanga Bible.”

Bible translation brings educational and economic transformation

Wycliffe Bible Translators cares about Scripture being used by its audience. And Scripture use often assume literacy. This inevitably results in the creation of primary education resources in the language. Wycliffe has learned through practical experience over the decades that first language education is a powerful tool for community empowerment, one that gives the local church opportunity to minister to those around them. Community-driven, local education in a person’s own language stands apart from the traditional, expensive schools perhaps a village or two over in the language of wider communication.

The Ghana Institute of Linguistics, Literacy and Bible Translation was founded in the 1970s. It was grounded in Wycliffe’s approach to using local languages and focused on the broader purposes of literacy and education in a goal-oriented manner. Clinton Robinson (2007) described its efforts in this way:

The result was a program that combined adult literacy with women’s groups, income generation, and within a rights-based approach to poverty reduction, in 22 language groups. In preparing the project design, the emphasis shifted to the socio-economic goals and outputs, even though the use of the local language was the means of communication and learning. A particular feature was the translation of a summary of the national constitution [of Ghana] into 24 languages, resulting in access to this document for the first time for many in those [language] groups.

The project had very functional goals: economic and social empowerment of minority language communities, but the individuals themselves who benefited from the efforts emphasized the simple pleasures of literacy that we in the West take for granted. One of the most common responses from adults in the literacy programs was: “We can now write and read our own language and write our children’s names.” These are not the kinds of objectives that governments and non-profits write down in their lists of result outcomes, but they nevertheless speak to the ways that one’s own language strengthens the most important bonds in a family and in a community. A 2004 report on the Ghana project observed:

A principle value of literacy and motivation for taking part in literacy groups is the possibility to use one’s own language in written form and for learning purposes, thus putting to one side the barrier of having to learn and adopt someone else’s language and, to a certain extent, someone else’s culture and ways of thinking. This response (“We can now write in our own language”) may be taken as an expression of many different emotions, ranging from relief to pride, from cultural self-assertion to joy in learning.

This type of self-actualization also changed how people viewed languages of wider communication, such as English. Instead of viewing English either as some unattainable necessity or threat to cultural identity, mother-tongue literacy empowered minority language communities and provided opportunities for greater and more effective participation in the larger society. First language education makes second language education simpler and easier. In a comparison between comprehensive mother-tongue education and second language education in Ethiopia, students who were able to go through school in their mother-tongue did 30-50% better in their classes than those who learned in the national language Amharic or in English (Heugh 2009).

3. Bible translation brings social transformation

Having a written down language, having a published Bible, a published grammar and published dictionary can give an otherwise vulnerable language community a newfound sense of prestige in their nation. Reading makes public announcements easier: government emergencies, health crises, natural disasters can all be communicated more easily. Right now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many Bible translation teams have shifted their work to help spread medical information for their local communities.

The Cameroon Association for Bible Translation and Literacy, has been gathering hygiene and social distancing information from the World Health Organization (WHO), along with other material from the Cameroon government. The source material was in English and French. Now, CABTAL translators are producing booklets and audio recordings in about 40 local language communities where they were already serving. Bible translators in Togo are doing the same.

Reading makes medical care easier: people can read dosage for prescriptions; mothers can more easily take care of sick children. Beyond this immediate crisis, minority language communities with written texts are more likely to receive official recognition from government entities and NGO’s that entirely changes the way that their language community can engage with the world.

4. Bible translation brings greater connection to fractured communities

In the Siwu language project in Ghana, the New Testament is completed, and the translation team is working on the Old Testament now. But when that New Testament was dedicated in 2009 something extraordinary happened. Two separate Siwu-speaking communities came together for the dedication event. The Akpafu people and the Lolobi people. These two groups, who both speak Siwu, had been separated and divided for 200 years. Translating the New Testament literally brought peace between these peoples.

Can you imagine being Akpafu or Lolobi and reading Ephesians 2 for the time?
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.

God’s Word translated into the languages that people around the world understand best, gives people tools to changes their lives for the better. Rachel and I are excited to join this ongoing work of transforming lives through our own service with Wycliffe Bible Translators. But we need your help. I know that this is a difficult time right now for many, but we would love for you to partner with us. Consider going to Wycliffe dot org forward slash partner forward slash aubrey and join our team to serve the global church through Bible translation. Even $10 a month would go a long way in helping us reach our goal.

Published by Mike Aubrey

I'm a linguist who focuses on the study of Ancient Greek.

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