Wycliffe: The Popular Questions on Bible Translations

This is part 2 of a 4-part series from Phil Prior of Wycliffe UK, a fine organization whose mission is to bring the word of God to everyone one, in every language.

Some of the popular questions relating to Bible translation,

Which version of the Bible do you translate?

What we don’t do is translate the New King James, New International Version, Authorised, or any other ‘version’ of the English Bible into a language. The oldest versions of the scriptures exist in Greek and Hebrew, so where ever it makes sense we stick as close to these as possible.

However, it’s pointless to do a word for word translation when it would make no sense to the reader. The Bible’s produced have to be understood and used, not sit on a shelf and only be useful to those people with special education.

Instead translation projects make sure that they convey meaning as well as accuracy. There are lots of stories of how this works. For example, from Luke 11

“…In verse 11 Jesus drew a picture. ‘Which of you fathers,’ He said, ‘if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead?’

As I described it, the men looked at me in surprise. ‘Why not?’ somebody asked.

‘Why not what?’ I asked back.

‘Why not give him a snake?’

‘Because of God’s goodness,’ I said. ‘When you ask for something that’s good for you, He’s not going to give you something that’s harmful. You can trust Him. He’s a father. He’s good.’…

…To a Folopa, offering a meal of snake is like serving roast turkey at Thanksgiving. They wrap it in a coil like a giant sweet roll and steam it between hot rocks covered with banana leaves. Since in a snake the heart and liver run much of its length almost every slice will contain a bite of these delicacies.

On the other hand, fish in Folopa territory are very small. They make a meal of no consequence. Each one is just a bite.”

This is taken from In Search of the Source, by Neil Anderson and Hyatt Moore who worked in Papua New Guinea. It’s a great illustration of how a direct translation wouldn’t work and would instead give a completely opposite meaning to the text of the Bible.

Isn’t it a bit unrealistic to translate the Bible into really small language groups? Are you really going to put time and resources into languages that have speakers of 1,000?

Before any translation begins survey work is carried out. The surveys identify if the language is living or dying. There are some very small language communities around the world, but due to their location, their language is going to carry on for generations, these are known as living languages.

Should any community be denied access to the Word of God based upon the number of people speaking their language?

Wouldn’t it be easier to teach everyone English?

I speak a bit of French. I can even read French words I don’t understand with a French accent and make some sense out of a sentence. However, I don’t truly understand what I’m reading/listening to until it’s in English.

It’s the same for many communities around the world. Often there’s a trade language which some people can speak and understand, but usually imperfectly. When they are at home as a family they will speak their local/heart language. It’s this language which speaks to them most clearly, can be understood properly and can allow them to relate to God most fully.

Making people learn a different language to get to know God is putting a barrier in place. Let’s not forget that it’s the God of the Bible that created these languages at the tower of Babel (Gen 11) and then gifted his people with the ability to speak different languages on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2). God continually reaches out to us in ways that we can understand, Bible translation is a continuation of what God is already doing.

How long does it take?

This is another question which is almost impossible to answer. Some New Testament translation projects can be completed in less than 10 years, which is amazingly quick if you think about it. Others can take 25 or more years. It really depends on where you have to start.

Many projects that Wycliffe are involved in require language learning, the development of a completely new alphabet, the development of a grammatical system… that’s even before you start writing. Then there’s a need to develop literacy in the community, teach them to read and write in the new language. It’s not always a short process.

What is clear, is when the work is done well, communities can learn to read and write really quickly. There’s an improvement in levels of literacy and education within a community and many other benefits.


Phil Prior is the Head of Communications for Wycliffe UK. His career was in Higher Education in the UK until Wycliffe made him an offer he couldn’t refuse and he joined them in February 2009. Phil blogs about his life and the things that interest him at http://www.philprior.co.uk/mylife . He can also be found  on Twitter as Phil77.

A list of Wycliffe Bloggers can be found with the Wycliffe UK Blog at http://wycliffe.org.uk/blog/

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