Wycliffe 101: The How and Why of Bible Translation

  • June 30, 2017
  • By: Jennifer Stasak
man reading the Bible

Pop quiz:

In 30 seconds or less, can you guess how many different languages there are in the world? (Don’t cheat and ask your nearest search engine.) You’re probably sitting at your computer or with your phone in hand, mentally tallying every language that you know. “Okay, there’s English. And then Spanish. French. German. Italian. Chinese. Latin. Is Pig Latin a language? Do Greek and Hebrew count? Do I even know anyone who speaks Greek or Hebrew? ... ”

Time’s up! Are you ready for the answer?

Here it is: There are around 7,000 different languages in the world.

Did you guess anywhere close to that number? If your mind is a little bit boggled right now, you’re not alone. Most people don’t know there are that many languages spoken around the world, so it’ll be equally surprising to discover that there are more than 1,600 languages that still need a Bible translation started. That number represents up to 160 million people who don’t have a single word of Scripture in a language they can clearly understand.

And that’s precisely why Wycliffe exists: to ensure that people around the world have access to God’s Word in the language they understand best.

You might be wondering exactly what Wycliffe is all about and what we do. So let’s break down some of the most frequently asked questions about Wycliffe and the work of Bible translation.

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As of 2017, this is what else we know about people’s access to Scripture worldwide:

  • More than 1,400 languages have access to the New Testament and some portions of Scripture in their language.

  • More than 600 languages have the complete translated Bible.

  • Approximately 2,400 languages across 165 countries have active translation and linguistic development work happening right now.

William Cameron Townsend in Guatemala
Cameron Townsend (right) in front of his house in Guatemala.

In 1917 a missionary named William Cameron Townsend went to Guatemala to sell Spanish Bibles. But he was shocked when many people couldn’t understand it. They spoke Cakchiquel, a language without a Bible. Cam believed everyone should understand the Bible, so he started a linguistics school (the Summer Institute of Linguistics, known today as SIL) that trained people to do Bible translation. The work continued to grow, and in 1942 Cam and a few others officially founded Wycliffe Bible Translators.

Since that time, Wycliffe and its partner organizations have been involved in the translation of Bibles and New Testaments in more than 900 languages worldwide.

A key thing to note is that Wycliffe USA is just one of many organizations working in partnership around the world to make Bible translation happen. Many of these organization are part of the Wycliffe Global Alliance, which includes more than 100 organizations and networks.

You can read more about different regions of the world where work is being done here.

Wycliffe works in partnership with local communities and believers in order to help them identify their Bible translation needs and achieve their goals. Depending on the needs, Wycliffe may also assist with literacy, language documentation, Scripture use and more.

A “heart language” is the language that someone thinks, prays and dreams in. Most often it’s the language that they learned at their mother’s knee (hint: that’s where the term “mother tongue” comes into play later).

mother-tongue translators
Mother-tongue translators working on the Old Testament.

Many people around the world speak multiple languages. For example, a person might speak both Spanish and English fluently. But though they speak English, Spanish might be their “heart language” — the language that speaks most clearly to them.

“Mother-tongue translator” is another way of referring to a translator who grew up speaking that language. As a result, he or she is able to help translate the Bible clearly and naturally.

The process of translating the Bible for people who have never had it in their own language requires an understanding of their way of life. Only through that understanding can we properly communicate the complex, powerful concepts found in the Bible.

handwritten translation work

For example, we are called to love God with all of our hearts, and we often talk about accepting Jesus “into our hearts.” But in many cultures around the world, the heart is not considered the center of the emotions. Consider the Awa people of Papua New Guinea, who express feelings and importance with the liver. They wouldn’t say “I love you with all of my heart”; they would say something along the lines of “I love you with all of my liver.”

Cultural context aside, we must also consider the many complexities of language. For example, some languages have multiple ways to describe something that may be a single-word concept in English, while other languages may not have a word for that concept at all. And some languages take entirely different forms, like those that are whistled or signed. (There are nearly 400 different sign languages in the world, and most of them are without any part of the Bible!)

All of these factors help explain why Bible translation takes so much time, dedication and personal investment. And in the end, nothing can replace that personal connection.

Greek and Hebrew text
Greek and Hebrew texts

To achieve clear and accurate translations, we train our translators to look to the original biblical Hebrew and Greek texts. They also have to carefully study the language they are translating into in order to understand how it works and how people who speak that language think and communicate.

Additionally, when developing a new Bible translation, the source text used can vary from country to country or people group to people group. The local people who are translating Scripture into their language for the very first time have to start somewhere, and will often refer to the Bible in the national language or language of wider communication that they can understand.

Working with a consultant
Working with a consultant to ensure accuracy

In some cases, mother-tongue translators are able to work directly from the Greek and Hebrew themselves. But even if they can’t, our consultants and facilitators are able to work from those texts to ensure the accuracy of the translation. In any case, the goal of every translation product is for the end result to be clear, natural and accurate to the original text.

There are many jobs that are vital to making translation happen — some that you might not even expect! Linguists, administrators, IT staff, air, land and sea transportation staff, language support and literacy staff, facility and service-related staff, marketing and communications staff, managers and many more join together to make translation work happen. And though a Bible translation often takes many years to complete, the result of this collaborative work is often life-changing.

The range of skills needed to support Bible translation is striking, but when a team of individuals comes together with a people group to translate their language, it is truly remarkable.

We don’t only need people to serve in the work of Bible translation! We also need people to pray earnestly for those around the world without the Bible in their language and people to give to the work.

Quite simply, the Bible is God’s love letter — written to us and for us. And when the Bible is available to people in the language that speaks directly to their hearts, lives — and even entire communities! — change as people are drawn into a personal relationship with God. People are freed from addictions. Families are healed. And lives are transformed.

Read stories and watch videos about how Bible translation continues to impact people today.