What have I learned about Bible translation?

This is an adapted translation of a speech given by the outgoing director of Wycliffe Finland, Hannu Sorsamo, at the members’ retreat on 7 August 2023. Wycliffe Finland, established in 1972, has been part of the Global Alliance since its 1980 inception as Wycliffe Bible Translators International. 

Hannu Sorsamo

Vision 2025

In 1999, three years before I took my own first steps on the Wycliffe path, SIL International and Wycliffe organisations together formulated and published a statement which would become highly influential in the world of Bible translation. Vision 2025 urged all organisations to reconsider their attitudes and ways of working so that translation of the Bible into all languages needing a translation could commence by the year 2025.

Now, in 2023, translation agencies are racing toward the finishing line, competing to start translation into the remaining languages. Will there be any languages left for us?

Vision 2025 has been a success in multiple ways. It has inspired people around the world to join the Bible translation movement. Our own Wycliffe network has transformed itself from an inner circle to an open alliance. The recent, rapid growth in the number of translations begun – and completed – has clearly not been due to “our working harder” but it has been a result of so many more organisations, churches and church denominations getting involved in the work.

Soon, realistically some time beyond 2025, translation into the so-called last languages will have begun, apart from a few exceptions perhaps. As a result, Bible translation agencies will have lost their best marketing slogan. We can no longer appeal to churches and supporters by “so many people waiting for translation to begin into their heart language”.

The average time it takes to complete a translation has also been reduced. Instead of 20 or 30 years, it often now only takes five to 10 years to have the New Testament ready. So when the last translated Scriptures have been checked, typeset, printed, dedicated and packed into boxes, then what?

Vision and impact

You are mistaken if you think I am lamenting the future of Wycliffe when its raison d’être has been lost, or rather fulfilled. We can wholeheartedly celebrate on the day when the vision of Bible translation has become reality, and then abolish our organisations!

The vision of Bible translation, however, is not Vision 2025. The vision of Bible translation is what Wycliffe Global Alliance verbalises as individuals, communities and nations transformed through God’s love and Word expressed in their languages and cultures.

The flip side of the race to start translations is that it can lead to pursuing quick and easily marketable results. This is a temptation that we at Wycliffe Finland – according to our published values – want to resist. Not every translation makes a difference in the lives of the language community. Even though there is lamentably little research into the impact of Bible translation, we know that not every translation leads to transformed individuals, communities or nations.

The so-called SURAM research on the use of translated Scriptures in Papua New Guinea conducted between 2014 and 2017 assessed that of the over 200 New Testament translations, fewer than one third were widely used. Four out of 10 translations were practically not used at all. This rare study did not even attempt to measure impact, but it is reasonable to conclude that a translation that no one reads – or listens to – does not lead to the desired impact. Unless, of course, we count as impact the anecdotal evidence that some speakers carry the book with them as protection against evil.

But how then could we know whether a particular translation will have an impact in the lives of the people? How could we chart a credible path from what we do to what we hope to happen as a result? What is the chain of events connecting the activity of translating with transformed individuals, communities and nations? To me, that is the pressing issue in Bible translation.

The SURAM research of Papua New Guinea did a great favour to the whole Bible translation community by documenting and spelling out some of the historical weaknesses of the Wycliffe and SIL movement. The SURAM report urges us to recognise:

  • that the effect and outcome of a translation project is never guaranteed;
  • that we have underestimated the barriers to starting use of vernacular Scriptures;
  • and that some of our traditional assumptions need to be reassessed.

The Bible translation narrative

One of the traditional assumptions that – according to the SURAM report – needs to be reassessed is that our job is to give people the Bible in their own language and the Holy Spirit will do the rest.

Our traditional theory of change is roughly the following: Our task is to translate the Bible – or at least the New Testament – into the vernacular. As people are waiting for God’s Word in their own language, they will be eager to get a copy when the translation has been completed. People will then read – or listen to – the Bible and become Christian. As individuals turn to Jesus, the community will be transformed. This is how the act of translating leads to the fulfilment of the vision.

This narrative is ubiquitous in the biographies of the Wycliffe founder Cameron Townsend and all the classics of the Wycliffe and SIL movement, such as Two Thousand Tongues to Go. This is the story which initially got me excited about the work of Bible translation. Maybe it is what compelled you, too, to join Wycliffe.

The only problem with the story is that it is not true. A translation of the Bible rarely, if ever, leads to the transformation of the community in this way. It certainly does not happen in the African, Asian or Pacific communities in which most translation work is ongoing today. People do not necessarily get a copy of the translated Scriptures or read it. Reading the Bible does not automatically lead to faith. Conversion of individuals does not automatically begin a transformation in the community. There are many weak links in the story, all of which point to our erroneous, cross-cultural assumptions.

The burden of our culture

We Western Christians, broadly speaking, carry the burden of a post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment, individualist literary culture.

We assume that everyone should study the Bible on their own. We assume that the Bible is, in essence, self-explanatory. We assume that God speaks to us individually through his Word and that faith is born through personal Bible reading. Sola Scriptura. We assume that when an individual comes to faith, they can choose a church to join, or nowadays perhaps watch services on YouTube and listen to sermons on Spotify.

Most of us Westerners have grown up surrounded by books, many of us in monolingual environments. Our mothers and fathers have read books to us, and we have been encouraged to start reading on our own from a very early age. We assume that joining – and leaving – communities is our own choice. We believe that through our actions we can significantly influence our own futures.

These are some of the culturally conditioned assumptions that have guided Western Bible translation agencies. “The greatest missionary is the Bible in the mother tongue. It never needs a furlough and is never considered a foreigner.” This quote, reportedly by Cameron Townsend, has been much used in our marketing, but is that really what the Bible is?

Many of my colleagues who have worked in Papua New Guinea perhaps think that by using this country as an example I am guilty of reductio ad absurdum. For isn’t Papua New Guinea with its small tribal groups and 800+ languages so different? Perhaps. But aren’t we guilty of a fallacy even worse if we try to apply the logic of Western culture to the rest of the world? For isn’t our individualist literary culture so different?

Let us lend our ears to a few more teachings of the SURAM report:

  • In oral societies where literacy is low, books are scarce and reading is rare, the barriers to reading a difficult book such as the Bible are often high.
  • Lack of support from church leaders is the main obstacle to vernacular Scripture use. If the pastor does not speak the local language, or does not consider it worthy to convey God’s revelation, then the translation is very unlikely to be used.
  • In a multilingual community where people are used to using different languages in different domains, it is not always obvious which of these languages might be the heart language in which – as the assumption goes – the Word of God speaks with a unique richness and clarity.

In an American motel, a travelling salesman may turn to the Gideon Bible found on the bedside table and pray the sinner’s prayer. Outside of the Western cultural sphere, it is however highly unusual that anyone would become Christian by reading the Bible on their own. Instead, faith is kindled by the proclamation of the church, through testimonies or miracles, dreams and visions. So is the Bible in the mother tongue really the best missionary?

Personal conversion or people movement?

One of the most influential missiologists of the 20th century, the American Donald McGavran, grew up in India and returned there later as a missionary. McGavran emphasised the significance of a people movement to the emergence and growth of the church. He observed that in a collectivist culture, faith does not spread through individual conversion— one heart at a time, so to say—but rather when faith becomes the faith of a community, when a clan or a tribe become Christian. This mechanism of conversion is very different from what the legacy of the Reformation—or our perception of it—teaches us. For those of us who live in cultures prioritising individual freedom over communal values, the thought that faith might not be everyone’s personal decision may sound not only foreign, but even offensive.

The 'Wayne Dye theorem'

A few years ago, I had a chat with the Scripture engagement pioneer Dr. Wayne Dye about unused Bible translations. Based on his long experience, Dr. Dye said he had observed two types of cases where the completed translation does not seem to have any impact in the community:

  • In the first case, there is a well-functioning church among the language community, but the church does not participate, or is not invited to participate, in the translation.
  • In the second case, there is no church in the language community and the translation is done in isolation from other mission work, personal witnessing, teaching and showing the relevance of the Scriptures in the life of the community. In other words, and this is my own interpretation, if no church is born during the translation, the completed translation will have no impact.

When I discuss unused translations with colleagues or well-meaning Christians, their reaction is very often that “God can surely lift the translation out of boxes and bring it to use later even if no-one reads it when it is first published!”

Wayne Dye’s response to this was something that has stayed with me even since and here I’m quoting him verbatim:

“I never want to limit the Holy Spirit, so I would never say it can't happen. However, I do think we need to take note of what God is using and follow that, rather than ignoring the evidence of what he uses, working some other way, and then praying for him to bless our work anyway.”

We need to have the courage to ask ourselves whether our ways of working are based on something other than a credible path between our activities and our vision. How much of what we do is based on false assumptions? To what extent do our actions contribute to the vision we have set for ourselves? And if they don’t, how should we change?

Is it possible that we sometimes succumb to Mission Pharisaism where obeying the Great Commission becomes more important than the consequences of our actions?

On products

Central in the “traditional Wycliffe theory of change” is the production of materials. The goal of a translation project is to produce a Bible or a part of the Bible. In literacy work and mother-tongue based education our key contribution has often been the production of primers, study books or teacher’s guides. I am again talking collectively about our Western Wycliffe and SIL community: We have been very good at producing materials.

“If your only tool is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” In my experience, our tools have been translating and producing materials. Therefore, we have had the tendency to see every problem as lack of materials. The solution to the spiritual darkness of unreached peoples has been to translate the Bible. The solution to illiteracy has been to produce primers.

Now, you shouldn’t think that I lack respect for the vernacular Bible, or for mother-tongue textbooks in education! Far from it. I would not have worked for nearly 20 years within the Wycliffe movement if I did not highly value these products. I am convinced that a translation of God’s Word into the language of the people is necessary for the Christian faith to be rooted in the community. But it is not sufficient. You need more than just a hammer to build a house. For faith to be born and rooted you need more than a translated Bible. For quality education, you need more than study books.

On language and culture related barriers and inculturation of faith

An unused Bible translation provides convincing proof that in that language community the foremost barrier to the Christian faith is currently not the lack of mother tongue Scriptures. If it had been, the translation would be in use.

The SURAM report, as well as our collective experience, tells us that there are various obstacles for individuals, communities and nations to be transformed. Many of these obstacles relate to language and culture. They may or may not include illiteracy, inferior view of one’s own language, lack of theological training in the vernacular, perception that Christianity does not address relevant issues, or many others that only the community themselves are able to observe.

Throughout its history, the Christian faith has spread by crossing language and culture barriers. In the New Testament we read how the faith crossed the first and most significant of these barriers when it spread from its Judeo-Hebrew-Aramaic origins to the Greek Hellenistic culture—from Jews to pagans. Still today, faith in Christ reaches those we sometimes call the unreached by becoming inculturated—making itself at home—in new languages and cultures.

When faith becomes inculturated, faith can be practised and expressed in one’s own language. An inculturated faith enables a culturally relevant dialogue with God’s Word, allowing us to find answers to our own questions in the Bible. An inculturated faith becomes our own faith, helping us to experience that the God proclaimed by Christianity is our God too, not only a God of other peoples. An inculturated faith does not clash with ethno-linguistic identity. In other words, one can become a Christian and remain a member of his community. I do not see a conflict between being a Christian and being a Finn because I have grown up in inculturated Christianity.

Central to inculturation is a church born and taking root in the community. This, I have come to believe, always requires a “McGavranese”* people movement of some sort, whether we are able to observe it through our culturally tinted lenses or not.

*McGavran emphasised the significance of a people movement to the emergence and growth of the church. He observed that in a collectivist culture, faith does not spread through individual conversion—one heart at a time, so to say—but rather when faith becomes the faith of a community, when a clan or a tribe become Christian.

In a community where no inculturated Christianity exists, a converted individual develops, by definition, a Christian identity outside of his or her birth culture. The individual joins a community of believers speaking another language and practicing its faith within the framework of another culture. The birth community commonly views such a conversion as constituting abandonment of one’s own culture and community. A vernacular church is therefore not born simply through conversion of individuals who one by one leave the culture as they come to faith.

On the other hand, we do know that the process of Bible translation and walking alongside converted individuals can lead to a people movement and the beginning of the inculturation of faith. This is what happened, for example, among the Lhomi people of Nepal. The New Testament translation did not remain unused or without impact because during the translation process a Lhomi church was born.

An old new narrative for Bible translation

Therefore, the purpose of Bible translation is not found in the story that once the Bible has been translated, speakers of the language acquire the Book, read the Book, and become Christians—and that literacy work is needed so that people are able to read the Bible.

The significance of Bible translation work is found in its removing—or at least lowering—the language- and culture-related barriers separating the community from God’s kingdom.

When successful, Bible translation contributes to the inculturation of the Christian faith. The sine qua non of this process is the emergence of a church which—adapting the thought of the late missiologist David Bosch—can practise theology relevant to its own culture based on a dialogue with the vernacular Scriptures.

When such a self-theologising vernacular church is the goal of Bible translation, a path connecting the activity of translation with transformed individuals, communities—and perhaps even nations—becomes obvious.

With this narrative, a common conception of Bible translation as a separate field evaporates. How many times have we heard people describe our work as something “special”? The work certainly requires special skills but what has not been helpful is the perception of Bible translation as disconnected from other mission or church work. This view certainly arose at least partly because of the nominally secular modus operandi of SIL in the past. Perhaps we still suffer the effects of this policy which discouraged Bible translators from directly associating with churches. We should recognise that it was inspired by the circumstances and attitudes of the time, and that it has had harmful consequences.

On partnerships

Now is a good time for a counter-argument: If Bible translation is everything, Bible translation is nothing! So am I saying Bible translation should include church planting and pastor training and what-not?

No, I am not. The point is not in the activities. It’s in the way of thinking. Bible translation work may, and it should, focus on the activities that the people involved know best. But these activities need to be planned and performed with the desired impact in focus.

Perhaps I’m preaching to the choir when I say that partnerships are the key. I trust that everyone reading this today appreciates partnerships. But I also know that our approach to partnerships depends on what we perceive as our goal. If our goal is a completed translation, we might not need churches or other organisations as partners. If our goal is a completed translation, they may even appear as competitors to what we are trying to achieve.

I remember a case where one of our members was facing conflicting expectations in coordinating a Bible translation project. A foreign funder had a tight deadline. Translators were local pastors. Should the translators be pushed to translate faster, put in more hours, and thus neglect their churches? Even the church can become our competitor if our goal is merely to complete the Book.

If, on the other hand, our goal is that a vernacular church is born and becomes rooted in the community; if our goal is the inculturation of the Christian faith; if we approach Bible translation from the perspective of lowering language and culture related barriers between the community and God’s kingdom; then we see the others desiring the same impact as friends and partners – even when they do not participate in our activities.

Bound together with the church

A vernacular church is a key to fulfilling the vision of Bible translation. At the same time, the future relevance of Wycliffe Finland is bound together with that of the Finnish church. We state that our mission is to strengthen the participation of Christian churches and communities in the work of Bible translation. We therefore have no relevance outside of the church. We cannot meaningfully perform our mission if the Finnish church loses its vitality and its vision.

Being bound together with the church is first and foremost a missiological choice. If we were mostly concerned about our own organisation, we might be able to continue operating for many years, perhaps decades, by focusing on gathering the legacies of the ageing mission-minded Christian generation. But I don’t think we would be faithful to our calling if we did that. We would be hypocrites if we said we wanted to see God’s Kingdom break forth among the “unreached” but neglected the church in our own country and only tried to squeeze out the declining offerings of the faithful to the altar of Bible translation.

Any Christian mission must flow from a living and relevant vision of the church. Building such a vision must be part of Wycliffe’s core purpose. If the church loses its vision for mission, the work of our organisations becomes a battle of attrition with the eventual defeat only postponed by half-true marketing slogans and a narrative in which the real nature of our work is hidden behind the smokescreen of acceptable post-modern parlance. We will only really remain relevant if we are an inspiration and a tool for churches to participate in mission.

The critical generation

Finally, a word about the emerging generation. The question of children and youth is critical to the Finnish church, but it is also critical to the communities among which Bible translation work is ongoing. My observation is that historically the Wycliffe and SIL movement has paid little attention to children and young people. The Bible has been translated with mainly the perceived needs of adults in focus, and adult literacy has been the main accompaniment to translating.

Since several years ago, Wycliffe Finland has discontinued its involvement in adult literacy projects, with minor exceptions. The decision has been deliberate. The educational projects we now participate in focus on children’s mother tongue learning.

There are undoubtedly good reasons for adult literacy, and it is not our task to define what is meaningful in any given circumstances. However, we find it unsustainable that the children be taught only in a foreign language and later as adults every generation should be taught separately to read the mother tongue Scriptures. As the old Finnish saying goes, it is like carrying water to a well.

Extremely few language communities still live entirely isolated from modern education and technology. This has massive consequences to the future of languages. Where the young generation today do not learn basic skills—starting with literacy—in the vernacular, the life-expectancy of their language becomes very limited. The power of education to influence language identity makes it unlikely that these young people would continue passing on their home language to the next generation. My prediction is, pessimistic as it may be, that most of the languages not used in basic education today will die out with this generation.

The same is probably largely true for the church. Today’s children who grow up attending a church not using their mother tongue will likely never acquire a vernacular Christian identity. Languages which are not used today to tell children about Jesus are unlikely to have a future as languages of the Christian faith.

Is our task, then, to protect endangered languages? My answer is a simple no. It is not. Each community, each family, makes their own choices about which languages they want to use. Our vision is not about linguistic diversity. Our vision is about God’s kingdom. However, inbuilt in the narrative of Bible translation which I have been constructing with you today is the ideal that no one, and no community, would need to discard their own language to become citizens of God’s Kingdom and to lead a purposeful life.

For the well to fill with water naturally, so to say, we need to focus on the young generation through whom the effects of vernacular transformation will flow to future generations.

Conclusion

The direction in which I have been steering Wycliffe Finland over the last eight years is this: Together with the church, and building up the church, we want to participate in Bible translation which enables a vernacular church to emerge, grow and take root, which removes language and culture related barriers between the community and God’s Kingdom, and which focuses on the young generation. Finding this direction has been wobbly at the best of times, though, and more than once I have felt like hitting a brick wall.

The perspective from which I have chosen to look at our work has been participation, not ownership. We have not entered the race to translate the “last” languages. Under whose banner the work is done is irrelevant to us.

But if this is so, are we still needed? Is there still a need for Wycliffe Finland in Bible translation?

I don’t know if we are needed. I’m not sure need—emphasising our own importance – has ever been the best approach to mission. God could surely manage without us, and he always would have. What matters is that by God’s grace we, even we, from the margins of the Christian world, can still participate in his great Mission crossing boundaries of language and culture.

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