When God Doesn’t Speak Your Language

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When God Doesn't Speak Your Language

Despite technology that instantly connects the world, one-third of all languages today still don’t have a Scripture translation, and only 6 percent have the entire Bible. These ministries are rapidly changing that.

Samuel Mubbala came to know Christ as Savior in 1970 while working on an early translation of the Lugwere language Bible. In those days, the Bible used in his Ugandan community was in Luganda. Though it was a language of wider communication in the area, few in Mubbala’s people group (known as the Bagwere) understood it.

“To me, it felt like God was a Sunday visitor who came dressed in ceremonial garments, speaking the Luganda language, and would vanish after the service,” Mubbala says.

After hitting various dead ends on the version over the years, Wycliffe Bible Translators sent missionaries to the people group of 500,000 in 1999. Since then work has proceeded at a lightning-quick pace compared with previous efforts.

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Mubbala and others received training in literacy and translation techniques. Among other steps: building an office to house the project, establishing a committee to oversee it, standardizing the language and starting a Lugwere dictionary that is nearly done.

Today more than half the New Testament is complete, with four books published to stimulate reading while people await the finished product. Professing Christians now number 2 percent of the population, with many indigenous Pentecostal churches formed in addition to mainstream denominations. 

“The Lugwere Bible translation seems to be the anchor of Christianity in the community,” says Mubbala, team leader of the project.

As rapid as advancements in eastern Uganda appear, the speed at which translations are being completed around the globe is even faster. Thanks to technology, more reliance on native translators and better cooperation among agencies, the Bible is headed for every corner of the world. Much remains to be done, since approximately 2,000 of the world’s 6,800-plus languages still don’t have a translation. Many that do don’t have the full Bible. Yet the 30-plus years it often took to complete a translation has been cut in half by some. The World Bible Translation Center in Arlington, Texas, reports finishing a New Testament in just three years.

“There’s an end-times element to this,” says Jim Thompson, regional field director for Chicago-based Bible League International. “In Matthew 24:14, Jesus said the gospel of the kingdom would be preached to all people groups and then the end shall come. God the Father desires that every people group, which includes culture and language groups, be able to hear about Jesus Christ.”

Technology Brings extreme change

Today this goal is unfolding via developments once only dreamed of in science-fiction novels. One example is a translation taking place on a remote island in Indonesia under the direction of The Seed Company, a subsidiary of Wycliffe. Larry Jones, senior vice president of field programs, says satellites that came online in 2009 enabled his wife to connect via the Internet with a friend in the rain forest. Thanks to electronic exchanges, the translation that used to drag because of difficult travel and long lapses in contact is nearing completion.

“What this has enabled them to do is involve many people in this final revision process,” Jones says. “That they can do that on-site involves many more people and so they’re getting a higher quality product. They’re getting more engagement with the community, which is excited about getting Scripture in their own language, and they’re also getting it much faster.”

This type of cooperation is producing spin-off benefits. Two years ago, a physician in India invited the Seed Company to his region. His effort to create a translation over the previous decade had modest results. Instead of waiting for a Bible translation, the doctor—a believer—wanted help producing scripturally based stories in a matter of months. He promised to use them in ministry to people in the medical clinics, orphanage and schools he supported.

Just after the first set was completed, severe flooding drove thousands of local people into refugee camps. Storytellers visited the camps to tell the scriptural stories in a familiar tongue.

“[The refugees] had never heard the name of Jesus in their ... language before,” says Roy Peterson, president and CEO of the ministry. “Churches have been started in six people groups”

Wycliffe Senior Vice President Ruth Hubbard traces the origins of this acceleration to 1999 when various ministries adopted Vision 2025—a campaign that set 2025 as the year for seeing a translation in progress in every language needing one.

After establishing that goal, a linguist with the language-development nonprofit SIL International developed Adapt It, one of more than 60 software products the Seed Company offers to support field workers. The program helps translators navigate languages that have a common base; for example, French, English and Spanish, which have Latin as their common root. 

It speeds up the process by enabling a draft that is about 85 percent accurate, Hubbard says. While considerable refinements are needed, a first-draft Bible can be ready in weeks instead of years. Augmenting this are programs that accelerate the process of interpreting passages.

Other developments are enhancing work elsewhere. One Wycliffe translator in Florida visits a people group in Asia regularly and confers the rest of the year with them on the Web phone service Skype. 

“God allowed man to create and develop the computer and all the technology that went with it for His purposes and lets the rest of the world use it,” Hubbard believes. “Skype is affecting our work, and it’s phenomenal.”

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