The Bible: Only 4,263 Languages to Go


With this year’s course of study in the church being the Old Testament, it is interesting to see how the Bible is reaching the far corners of the earth.

I don’t appreciate the Bible as I should. Often when I read, I am oblivious to the fact that the prophets and the Savior spoke any language other than my own. When I do pause to think, I realize that I am indebted to many inspired scholars for their translations. How helpless we would be if we all had to read the Old Testament in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek.

We Latter-day Saints owe much to Bible translators. Rarely have our missionaries begun proselyting among a people who did not already have a Bible. Having the Bible is a vital step in preparing people to receive the fulness of the gospel.

The Bible is now printed in 310 languages. Most of us are not even aware that the world has that many languages. But that is not all. The New Testament is printed in an additional 695 languages. And at least one book of the Bible, usually one of the Gospels, has been translated and published in another 902 languages. With these 1,907 languages, 97 percent of the world’s population have at least one book of the Bible that they can read. Most of these translations have been done in the last thirty years.

The growth in Bible translation started in the last century. At that time, the major Christian churches did most of their own translating, with little cooperation among themselves. In this century, a much more cooperative effort to publish and distribute Bible translations has developed. Furthermore, the trend has been to have native speakers be the translators.

Most countries have Bible societies that distribute the Bible. In 1946, the various national Bible societies joined together to form the United Bible Societies. The organization assists all Christian churches in publishing and distributing the Bible. They also provide consultants to local churches who want to start Bible translations. These consultants, often translators themselves, are knowledgeable in Greek and Hebrew. The United Bible Societies also writes and prints a phrase-by-phrase explanation of important meanings in every Bible verse and alternative wordings to clarify relationships between ideas. Very often, several Christian denominations work together on a translation, with help from the organization.

(Today, the largest Bible-promoting organization is the American Bible Society. Though not the oldest society, it has more than one million contributing members and has more than 50,000 volunteers serving in its various tasks. It is a major resource in providing new translations.)

It seems reassuring that 97 percent of the world has some or all of the Bible. It might be assumed that all that needs to be done now is to finish the full Bible in the languages that already have part of the Bible and then start a few more to reach the whole world. Unfortunately, it won’t be that easy.

There are an estimated 6,170 languages (not dialects, but languages). After subtracting the 1,907 already started on, that leaves 4,263 to cover the last three percent—the languages spoken only in remote areas by small groups of people. Almost all of these languages have never even been written—they are spoken languages. Yet there are still translators who believe that the Bible will be translated eventually into every known language.

The enormity of the task, though, raises a question: Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to provide the Bible in the official national language and certain regional languages used for trade?

One answer comes from the Doctrine and Covenants: “For, verily, the sound must go forth … into all the world, and unto the uttermost parts of the earth—the gospel must be preached unto every creature, … (D&C 58:64; italics added).

Bible translator Lillian Howland gave me another good answer: “In addition to the Latter-day Saint concept of the Church supporting parents in the home, there is another important reason for having the scriptures in the first language of a home—conversion. If people speak a different language in church than they do the other six days of the week, they will develop religious behavior in the same way. Their religion will tend to affect their behavior only one day a week. They will read the Bible only one day a week. They will pray only one day a week. Because of language, God is removed from their daily experience. Scriptures in a person’s native language are firstly for the salvation and daily growth of that person and only secondly to aid him in his responsibility to his family.”

At the suggestion of another Bible translator, I tried an experiment. I attempted to read the scriptures for a week in my second language instead of my native language of English. I didn’t do it even for a week. The Bible became so uninteresting that once I set it down, I couldn’t pick it up again. The reading was difficult, and subtle distinctions in wording did not make sense. I learned that my appreciation of the scriptures was tied to being able to read them freely and thus think about them freely.

After that experience, I can better appreciate the need to translate the Bible in every language, though it may not seem practical. Consider the cost. To translate the Bible into one tribal language costs, on the average, over half a million dollars. At that price, a Bible in a new language is a one-time operation. It has to be done right the first time.

Nearly every language differs in unique ways from other languages. For instance, English is similar to Hebrew and Greek in that they all tell events in a sequence of time. But there are some languages, like Yagua in Peru, that tell events in a sequence of location and distance. Instead of joining sentence parts with words like before or then, a translator must use phrases like from there or away from that.

Translators face numerous problems when they begin to translate. Zealous missionaries have often translated into languages they still could not read or write fluently. In the past, some translations were based on another translation, not on the best available Hebrew and Greek manuscripts. Translators also have to be careful not to let their own doctrinal and cultural beliefs influence their choice of meaning in a text.

In addition, translators must consider their readers’ background. One group of translators reported on their work in Ukarumpa, in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. They said that they had to be careful to use words the natives were familiar with. Isaiah 1:18, for instance, compares sin to red and forgiveness to white, using snow and wool as examples of white. The tribespeople had seen red and white, but no one had ever seen snow or wool. The translator’s solution: “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as a cockatoo feather.” [Isa. 1:18]

A translator in the Philippines discovered another problem. He completed his translation of the Gospel of John, printed it, and gave some copies to the tribe he was with. Nobody liked it, and nobody read it. After some investigation, he found that the native language had two forms for stories, one for fiction and one for true stories. In his translation, he had used the fictional form. He redid the translation in the other form, and the new version was a success.

An example of unfortunate choice of words was in the first translation of the Twenty-third Psalm into Tlingit, an Indian language of the state of Alaska in the United States. It was rendered “The Lord is my Goatherder, I don’t want him; he hauls me up the mountain; he drags me down to the beach.”

Because of the multitude of difficulties in rendering one language and culture into another language and culture, there is no such thing as a “perfect” or complete translation. The limitation that Joseph Smith pointed out in Article of Faith 8—“as far as it is translated correctly”—is ever with us. [A of F 1:8]

There is, nevertheless, a partnership between the Spirit and human language in Bible translation. The translation conveys the Spirit, and the Spirit in turn bridges the deficiencies of human language. The Lord has commanded us to teach all nations and to preach the gospel to every creature. Our faith is that he has all power to enable us to do it (see Matt. 28:18–20; Mark 16:15). The Lord explained his manner of communication with man:

“These commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding” (D&C 1:24).

Known … Only to God

One of the pioneers of Bible translation was William Cameron Townsend. In 1917, Townsend, then twenty-one years old, was hired by contract to sell copies of the Bible in Central America. In the Guatemalan jungle, he came face to face with reality and the Cakchiquel Indians. He could sell them Spanish Bibles, but few could read them. And even though Spanish was the official language in all the schools, few Cakchiquel could express themselves freely in Spanish. Their own language had never been written.

One native asked Townsend, “Why doesn’t your God speak my language?” The missionary could not give him a good answer. Townsend stayed past his contract time, learned to speak Cakchiquel, and invented a way to write it. Then he translated the New Testament. It took him twelve years, but that translation gave those people dignity, hope, and love for the scriptures. It also gave Cameron Townsend his life’s mission.

In 1934, in an abandoned farmhouse in Arkansas, Townsend started what would become the Summer Institute of Linguistics. From two students that first year, the Institute has grown to more than three thousand linguists and trained technical people such as pilots, radio operators, nurses, and teachers. In teams of two, translators go to the forgotten peoples of the world. They learn the language, teach the people to read and write, and then with a team of native speakers, they translate the New Testament. It still takes twelve to fourteen years. Some Institute teams stay twenty years to do the Old Testament as well. A linguist can use up a lifetime translating the Bible into two languages.

Institute workers have been decimated by exotic diseases and other dangers. In 1982, one was shot by guerrillas. Many live primitively, often in isolation. Still they go.

We should have deep respect and gratitude for Bible translators. Even now, there are brilliant, unselfish translators and their families in deserts and jungles, working with peoples sometimes known almost only to God. Remember them with kindness. Remember them in your prayers. We need them.

[photos] Photography by Phil Shurtleff

[photo] Bible translators, like these in Papua New Guinea, have found that to make even the most simple biblical terms understandable, they need to use words familiar to local tribespeople. (Photographs courtesy of Wycliffe Bible Translators.)

[photo] Translation of the Bible is a vital step in preparing people to receive the fulness of the gospel. Here, a translator reviews a Spanish translation of the Bible with local residents in Mexico.

[photo] Founder of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, William Cameron Townsend, 1896–1982. (Photograph courtesy of the Townsend Archives.)

Joseph G. Stringham, a linguist with the Church Translation Division, is the mission leader in the Val Verda Sixth Ward in Bountiful, Utah.