By Greg Pruett
I cocked my ear to one side, straining to understand the faint yelping I was hearing as I blinked a drop of West African dust and sweat out of my eye. I instinctively moved into the high grass to investigate and found a young boy with a long switch relentlessly whipping a starving puppy to near death.
I tried to tell him not to do that, but my first week of language learning just wasn’t enough. The boy’s eyes betrayed no shame. Nobody had ever told him the simplest lesson of Genesis my Sunday school teacher taught me when I was 2 years old: “God made the puppy. God loves the puppy.” This boy was living in the worst deprivation imaginable, a culture without the Bible in its native language.
Years later when I could begin checking our translation of the New Testament in the local language, I asked my friends, “Does God love you?” The confusion on their faces made their answer redundant. Shaking their heads dejectedly they said, “We have no idea if God loves us.” That’s the other thing I learned in Sunday school when I was 2: “God made you. God loves you.” Imagine your life if you didn’t even know that God loves you!
Have you thought about the Bible-less peoples of the world? Have you considered the devastation of a Bible-less life? Jesus said, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).
Jesus teaches that people can’t truly live without God’s Word, yet only 438 of the world’s 6,912 languages have the whole Bible translated. Only 1,168 languages have a New Testament—leaving about 200 million Bible-less people.1
How Valuable Is God’s Word?
What is the Bible worth to you? If you had never seen a Bible in English, how much would you pay for one? How has God’s Word shaped and changed your life? Without the Bible, what would your children or marriage be like? What would you give for the Word of God?
God says, “Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds. . . . Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deuteronomy 11:18, 19). God wants us to make his Word the core of our lives. We have it and we can do that.
What would it be worth to you for others to get the Bible in their language? For Bible translators, it’s worth everything; we are each giving our lives so the Bible-less peoples might get Scripture in the language they understand best.
How Does the Bible Get Translated?
When my wife and I first made our home in a small West African village to translate the Bible for a minority people, we had to begin by learning a language the people had not yet written down. We had already spent a year learning French so we could communicate with the few educated men in the village to learn how to say key questions like, “What do you call that?” in the local language.
Then we spent all day every day with the people asking questions and jotting down and analyzing the answers. After two years, we could speak well enough to begin the work.
We started by developing an alphabet and a system of writing for the language and literacy materials to teach people how to read their own language. In the beginning, we knew of only 40 Christians among the 70,000 or so speakers of that language in the country where we lived. These believers provided some talented minds to translate the first draft from the French Bible.
We would then compare the meaning of the drafts to the original Greek or Hebrew Scripture and propose ways the translation could be made more accurate to the meaning of the original text. Together we struggled to craft the clearest, most natural wording as close as possible to the meaning of the original.
After we considered the translation perfect, we would conduct a comprehension test by reading it publicly. When the listeners were struck by a hunger to know Jesus and could answer content questions accurately, the translation passed the test.
Occasionally people misunderstood the translation, like the time they thought the Bible taught that John the Baptist was a great sorcerer who could eat people’s souls. That’s when we would back up and try again. After the comprehension testing, the Scriptures would be checked by a translation consultant, and then published.
After working 15 years, the last remaining unpublished part of the Bible is now being printed so that this West African language group will finally have the whole Bible! God willing, we will soon record a dramatized audio version of the New Testament so the new Christians who can’t read in the five new churches that have been planted can grow spiritually.
Enduring Access to God’s Word for all Languages
Our ministry is part of a global Bible translation movement that will one day result in every viable language having God’s Word. The International Forum of Bible Agencies has set a goal to complete New Testament translation projects for every language with more than 100,000 speakers by 2030, and every language that needs it by 2050.
The number of translations being completed each year has gradually accelerated (see graph)2, and over the next 20 years I estimate the number of Bible-less people in the world will decrease from 200 million to fewer than 100 million people. My children’s generation could leave the legacy of a world where all people have enduring access to God’s Word in their own language!
We are living part of the fulfillment of the vision Jesus revealed to John in Revelation 7:9, “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every . . . language.” The day will come when God’s Word is transforming lives in every language on earth.
A few years back, I was privileged to present my Christian neighbor Mr. Camara with the first translation we did of the New Testament in his language. Not long after that, he brought a young couple to my front porch to get the wife’s swollen eye treated. I was upset, seeing that the man had beaten his wife.
Mr. Camara gently explained my reaction to the man, saying, “The time for beating your wife is past.”
Stunned, the man countered, “If you can’t beat your wife anymore, how can you keep her from doing bad things?”
Mr. Camara’s weathered face glowed with joy as he elaborated, “The thing that tells us not to beat our wives is the same thing that tells them not to do bad things.” That “thing” is the Bible in their language.
When Mr. Camara said, “The time for beating your wife is past,” that was his way of saying, “The kingdom of God has come among our people.” The Bible in our language has brought a new era in our history, a time when husbands love their wives, when parents care for their children, a time when Jesus is King.
I watched God’s Word in their language transform their hearts! It’s worth it to give our lives to get God’s Word to the Bible-less peoples of the world.
Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Mark 13:31). The Word of God is more durable and valuable than all the splendor of Heaven and earth.
Does your church’s missions program include a Bible translation element? Every church and every Christian can have a part in this movement to strive for transformed lives through God’s Word in every language.
1Forum of Bible Agencies; www.ifoba.com/bible_cause/.
2Ethnologue: Languages of the World, editions 9-15, Raymond G. Gordon and Barbara F. Grimes, eds. (Dallas: SIL International, 1978–2005).
Greg Pruett serves as president of Pioneer Bible Translators, Dallas, Texas.