Advancing Bible Translation for Non-Reading Audiences

The challenges confronting Bible agencies are greater than ever. The population of the world is increasing and the number of non-literates can be counted in the hundreds of millions. Furthermore, millions of children are going to school and learning to read and write; however, about half are likely to stop the learning process before actual skills for reading a daily newspaper have been achieved. There are likely more than one billion people who are classified as readers, but who are functionally non-literate.

Our habit has often been to neglect those who do not read, as it is difficult for us to imagine that God can work effectively with people in any other way than through the written text. We assume that people come to and grow in Christ largely through reading the Bible, so we can scarcely imagine that God could have worked before the invention of the printing press. Yet for thousands of years before printing made mass literacy possible, God was at work. He is not limited to one single medium of communication.

The issue of non-readers is an issue for all countries, as we see reading declining even in countries with high literacy rates. It has been estimated that in some African countries printed scripture only reaches around ten percent of the population. The challenge is therefore to develop translations that are relevant to the media, productions that are appropriate, and distribution systems for scripture that reach the non-reading population.

The word is alive when it is communicated, and new
media provide us with outstanding possibilities
for doing just that.

Several Bible agencies are now committed to providing scripture in audio and video media; in practice, however, the enthusiasm seems more restrained, as setting new priorities takes courage, energy, and dedication.

Bible Translation Is a Communication Task
The Great Commission is a communication commission. The word is alive when it is communicated, and new media provide us with outstanding possibilities for doing just that. There are many examples which demonstrate that the Bible can be communicated effectively through media other than print.

A strategy for “distributing” scripture to non-literates will need to be substantially different from the approaches used when distributing printed scripture. Active participation of the person in the process is necessary if effective communication of the message is to take place. The primary question is not which technique we should use, but rather the underlying philosophy or attitudes which we have toward non-literates. Recent calls for holistic involvement and engagement material are of extreme importance for agencies that aim at fulfilling their mandate of reaching all people.

Oral societies have a high tolerance for time expenditure, and the importance of an activity is judged by the amount of time devoted to it. A Bible reading therefore becomes a Bible communication event, where the text is set in its context, and where immediate application is achieved in the minds and context of the listeners. An event is experienced as a whole rather than as segmented, sequential parts. Participation is not only necessary, but participative communication brings the message in a mode which is customary for oral societies. All of this has implications for translation, as the text needs to inspire interaction and involvement.

Preparation of a Translation for Audio and Video Purposes
Whenever we are dealing with translation of scripture, we are in the area of cross-cultural communication. Bible translators are faced with the problem of understanding the meaning of a written communication coming from thousands of years ago, and passing that message on to another reader or listener in a totally different culture, age, setting, and language, hoping that the same meaning will be created in his or her mind.

If the audience consists of non-literates or functional non-literates, the Bible translator must translate for media other than print. Furthermore, many non-literate people are poor, so relevancy regarding the needs of the poor, the homeless, or the outcasts needs to be considered. If we want to reach such audiences, the relevancy of language and program format will be an increasing challenge to translation.

The original text of the Bible was composed for reception via the ear rather than the eye. Thus, it becomes important to investigate the communicative design of the original biblical source texts in Hebrew and Greek for features significant for translation and adaptations for oral, audio, and video productions.

Although some translations have used oral language, in most cases existing translations have been used in the audio and video media. Usually common language translations give the best starting point, as other translations may have outdated or difficult words that make hearing complicated. For oral presentations, we need to conform to the rules and requirements of spoken rather than written language.

Script writers are narrators of stories that are to be presented in a manner suitable to the chosen medium, so script writing may call for certain restructuring of the biblical text to fit the medium. This will then be a new translation which conforms to the features, style, and structure of oral discourse rather than to those of the print medium. We also need to find ways to express the meaning of such print characteristics as paragraph indentations, section headings, quotation marks, illustrations, maps, and footnotes.

Implications of Some Oral Characteristics for Audio Programs1

Oral Communication Characteristics 

Written Communication Characteristics 

Sound only Sight only
Rhythm Format 
Spoken aloud  Read silently 
Present time Past time 
Direct speech  Indirect speech
Personal interaction Objectification 
Emotional impact  Analysis 
More verbs  More nouns 
Repetition Movement 

Several of these features can be seen from the original text. Acts 12:14 is an example of direct speech made into indirect speech during the translation process. In written translations the text is indirect and reads: “She recognized Peter’s voice and was so happy that she ran back in without opening the door and announced that Peter was standing outside” (Good News Bible translation). The Greek text is direct speech, so in audio we can follow the Greek and make it direct: “…and said, ‘Peter is standing…’”

In written texts, we can have implicit information, as the reader can find the information from the context. In Acts 12:25 we read: “Barnabas and Saul finished their mission and returned from Jerusalem, taking John Mark with them” (GNB). The uninformed reader or listener would ask, “Returned to where?” The reader can go back to chapter 11:25ff to find the information, but a listener needs to be provided with such information.

There are many other examples of implicit information in scripture such as place names, people, and events. The original readers knew this, and in printed scripture there are many “helps,” including word explanations, headings, and maps. Such information also needs to be included in audio. Footnotes and word explanations, for example, will need to be provided up front or inserted where needed.

In written texts, headings are often just one word or a few words. In oral presentations, one or more sentences may need to be provided. Pictures and maps from written Bibles need to be inserted as stories. In the printed text, biblical vs. non-biblical material can be distinguished by different font size; however, in non-print formats this will normally require two different voices.2

Another issue relates to emphasis. Written texts are more ambiguous as to emphasis, but in audio the reader will need to be informed of where emphasis should be placed. Emphasis on the wrong word may totally change the message communicated. For example, Acts 1:8 reads: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth” (New International Version). From the structure of the Greek text, it is clear that only one word—my—should be emphasized.

Expression of surprise provides life to a text. Acts 2:7 is an example of a text where the written scriptures leave out words that are more oral in nature: “Utterly amazed, they asked, “'[—-] Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans?'“ (NIV). In Greek there is a word indicating surprise, but this has not been made clear in the printed text. In audio the word can be communicated through an expression or the tone of the voice.

Faithfulness of an Audio or Video Translation
As the message communicated through audio or video media will be influenced by numerous other factors (e.g., voice, personality, setting, production, clothing), the issue of faithfulness will not only be concerned with the written script, but the total presentation. Various guidelines have been prepared for this, but it will mean that translation consultants need to approve not only the script, but also the performance.

All elements in the audio or video production should be in accord with the message and theme of the biblical text, so that it is seen as a faithful rendering of the meaning of the original. The biblical text needs to be clearly distinguishable from other program elements, and it must be the main focus of any scripture product. All program elements should support that focus. By focusing translation programs on non-reading audiences, we may be able to actually make the word of God available to all people.


1. The examples are taken from “Communicating Scriptures: The Bible in Audio and Video,” published by the United Bible Societies, 2002.

2. Further illustrations and examples are given in “Communicating Scriptures: The Bible in Audio and Video.”

Dr. Viggo Søgaard is senior professor of communication at Fuller School of Intercultural Studies in California, USA. For seventeen years he served part time as media consultant for The United Bible Societies. He has been involved extensively with Lausanne as a conference speaker, member of the Strategy Working Group, and as a Senior Associate.