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The Future of Scripture Translation

By Bryan Harmelink
September 2009

Scripture translation has been an integral part of the growth and expansion of the Church through the ages, motivated by the desire to have access to the Word of God in new languages. The long and rich history of scripture translation is a fascinating area of study that gives perspective on the future of this foundational activity of God’s people.

History of Scripture Translation
This history began more than two centuries before the time of Christ, when the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek. This translation, the Septuagint, became the “Bible” of the early Church and is still in use today. Other ancient versions followed in languages such as Syriac, Coptic, and Latin as the Church expanded into other regions. By the year 1500, there were scripture translations in twenty languages, and over the next three hundred years this number increased to eighty.

The formation of the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1804 was the beginning of a new era of scripture translation. This article does not allow for all the details of the history of the Bible Society movement, but it is important to note that it was the beginning of more focused attention on the task of scripture translation and distribution in the world’s languages. More than a century later, the Bible societies were joined by other agencies such as SIL International, New Tribes Mission, Lutheran Bible Translators, the Institute for Bible Translation, Pioneer Bible Translators, Evangel Bible Translators, and The Word for the World.

Together, the Bible societies and translation agencies have served the Church by providing access to scripture in an unprecedented number of languages. As a point of reference, in 1820 scripture was available in 107 languages. In 1910, the total was 722, and by 2010, this number will surpass 2,500. As we look to the future, a significant challenge remains: to provide scripture for more than two thousand more language communities who still have no access to scripture in their language.

My Personal Walk into Translation
My perspective on the future of scripture translation has been shaped by my experience working with SIL International over the last thirty years, and by an increasing awareness of not only the history, but the impact of translation around the world. When I began my training with SIL, I had no idea that I was part of one of the largest movements in the history of scripture translation.

Bible translation agencies should ask themselves,
What is our appropriate role in light of the growth
of the global Church? How can we best serve
the Church?

From my perspective in the late 1970s, I was merely following my interests and God’s guidance. In retrospect, I can see how several different streams were converging in the middle of the twentieth century that, in some direct or indirect way, gave rise to this movement. One of the main streams was the vitality of the modern mission movement. Another stream, specifically related to scripture translation, was the growth of Descriptive Linguistics as a field of study.

Closely related to the growth of Descriptive Linguistics was Eugene Nida’s development of Functional Equivalence as a theory of translation. The analytical principles and methods of these developing disciplines were at the heart of the training provided in the summer training programs of SIL and other translation agencies. As a result of these converging streams, many translators were trained and became involved in an unprecedented number of translation projects in languages around the world under the auspices of various Bible societies and translation agencies.

Other key initiatives Nida set in motion in the mid-twentieth century have had a lasting impact on the way translation is carried out today, thus laying a foundation for the future. One of these was to produce editions of the Hebrew and Greek texts for translators. Another important initiative was the training of translation consultants who would work closely with teams of translators on location with the goal of helping to improve the quality of translation.

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Bryan Harmelink is international translation coordinator for SIL International. He began his work with SIL International in Latin America, working for many years with the Mapuche translation team in Chile.