January 27, 2015
The Written Word of God: Is It Always Necessary?
by Brittany Tedesco
While eating dinner at a missions conference a few months ago, I learned that the couple I was sitting next to were Bible translators in Sierra Leone—that is, before they had to evacuate the country due to the Ebola outbreak. As inconspicuously as possible, I moved my chair a few inches in the other direction as I tried to remember if I’d touched the salt shaker they’d used. Not today, Ebola, not today.
Fascinated by their exotic jobs, the others at our table asked them all sorts of questions. The couple answered, in a sort of embarrassed way, that they were “definitely considered rich” by the locals because they stayed in a house with electricity and running water. No one else in the neighborhood had these luxuries.
The tribe for whom they were translating the Bible didn’t have a written language, and the project had already exceeded 30 years. In the meantime, as the decades passed by, the tribe’s oral language, fluid as it was, had significantly changed. By the time the translation was almost finished, the translators were told, by the few people in the tribe who could read, that the language sounded old, formal, and hard to understand, probably akin to us reading the language of Shakespeare.
“Wow,” I thought, as I tried not to breathe in the Ebola-laced air, “all that time and energy…to produce a Bible that few to none will read.”
That particular language in Sierra Leone had changed, but some languages die out altogether. In fact, according to Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, every two weeks another language becomes extinct.
Why? According to a New York Times article, in bilingual cultures, some languages are lost gradually, “as indigenous tongues are overwhelmed by the dominant language at school, in the marketplace and on television.”
The article goes on to say that 80 percent of the world’s population speaks only 83 (of the 6,800) languages, because these languages have “global influence.”
The English language has tremendous global influence. And certainly the internet, with its partiality toward English, is part of the reason increasing numbers of people throughout the earth are abandoning their tribal language (or even nationally spoken language) in favor of English. Speaking English provides numerous benefits, socially and economically.
States Living Tongues: “Languages are abandoned when speakers come to think of them as socially inferior, tied to the past, traditional, backward, or economically stagnant.”
Language can isolate, as in the case of the small, undeveloped African country of Guinea-Bissau. In a mostly French-speaking (francophone) region, people in Guinea-Bissau speak Portuguese and are therefore disconnected with adjoining countries. It has stunted their economy.
In my previous post, I wrote about how 90 percent of Vietnam’s population speaks Vietnamese. The tribal groups, several dozen of which comprise the remaining 10 percent of the population, linger at the bottom of the socioeconomic strata because they don’t speak the national language.
In the early 1980s, the Koma people of Nigeria were accidentally rediscovered after being hidden from society for more than 100 years. They lived in a remote mountain range, wearing no clothes and eating grubs. A ministry leader supported by Christian Aid Mission was the first to share Christ with them, after living among them and learning how to communicate with them.
Today, the Koma are able to read the Scriptures…but not in their own language. In English. The ministry leader didn’t try to put their oral language into a written language and then translate that written language into a Bible. He just skipped all of that and taught them English.
In 2005, the first Koma doctor graduated from medical school. There are 40 Koma churches in Nigeria today.
According to Wycliffe Bible Translators, it would take another 125 years to complete written translations of the Bible for the remaining 2,000 language groups without God’s Word.
Muslim man hears the Word of God for the first time through a digital audio Bible.
Maybe we should just teach everyone to speak English—I say, impatiently.
Except…that would be incredibly colonial.
There is another option: audio translations. This might just be the key to shortening the amount of time necessary to provide all language groups with access to God’s Word.
World Mission, which produces digital audio Bibles, states that “70 percent of the world prefers a non-literate form of learning.”
The same Nigerian ministry leader who shared Christ with the Koma by first teaching them English uses audio translations in the languages of the illiterate, Muslim-majority people groups he’s trying to reach.
In four years, he has reached more than 40,000 people through audio Bibles. For many of these, it was the first time they’d ever heard Scripture.
“Hundreds of persons have been converted through this medium,” he said. “This is a major tool in giving the unread access to the Bible by listening to the word. It has changed people and communities.”
Audio translations are quicker and easier to produce than written translations, and you don’t have to know how to read to access them.
No doubt, this tool is perfect for many people groups around the world—but not all.
When the Kimyal people of Indonesia received the written Word of God, they were overjoyed. Said one Kimyal pastor in this video: “It has come to us Kimyals and we have received it, held it in our hands, and placed it in our hearts. Because of this our hearts are very happy.”
Native missionaries in Myanmar developed an alphabet for the Laydu people, who can now read and write their own language.
An indigenous ministry in Myanmar, supported by Christian Aid, works among several illiterate people groups. For whatever reason, they decided that one people group in particular should have the Scripture in written format. For the Laydu people, who had no written language, they developed an alphabet and primer. Their first literacy class was attended by 60 Laydu people who are now able to read and write their own language.
Written translation? Audio translation? It’s easy for me to theorize from afar how to best reach the world. But theorizing and knowing are two very different things.
The indigenous ministries we support know what method will work most effectively with the people they’re reaching, and we trust they’ll choose wisely. It’s our job to support their decisions.
And until the task is finished, I’ll just have to be patient.