A translation project takes a long time, and a lot of effort. Many times the languages we work in have no written form, so part of our job may involve transcribing their oral language into written form, developing an appropriate alphabet, and teaching them how to read and write in their own language. All of this happens alongside the many years of work required to translate the Bible verse by verse into that language. So, naturally, the question arises: “Why not just teach them English (or another majority language)?”
Reason #1: A second language is not your heart language
At a Good Friday service in 1980, Leonard Bolioki stepped to the front of the church he attended in Cameroon and began to read the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. Before, this passage from John’s Gospel had always been read in French, the trade language of Cameroon, but this time the priest had asked Leonard to read it from the newly translated passage in the local language, Yambetta.
As he read, he became aware of a growing stillness; then some of the older women began to weep. At the end of the service they rushed up to Leonard and asked, “Where did you find this story? We have never heard anything like it before! We didn’t know there was someone who loved us so much that he was willing to suffer and die like that… to be crucified on a cross to save us!”
Leonard pulled out his French New Testament and showed them that the story was in the Bible. “We listen to this Passion Story every year during Holy Week,” he told them, but they insisted that they’d never heard it before. That instance, Leonard says, is what motivated him to translate the Scriptures into the only language his people could really understand—Yambetta!
Even though these people knew French, French was not the language that spoke to their hearts. It’s true that over time, and with great effort, you can learn a foreign language enough to communicate. But, when it comes to the truths of the Bible, these must resonate on a deeper level than merely a head knowledge–the Scripture must penetrate to the heart. That can only be accomplished in their native language, their “heart language.”
Reason #2: Language is tied to identity
Reason #3: God loves people of ALL languages
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:9-10 ESV)
The Bible tells us that there will be believers from “all languages” and “all peoples,” and commands us to make disciples of “all nations,” not just those in the majority.
Scripture is replete with examples of how God meets us where we are and communicates to us in the language and culture we understand best. No human language or culture is supreme, and there is no human language or culture God cannot communicate in. God gave his Word to the Hebrews in Hebrew, to Arameans in Aramaic, to the Greeks in Greek, and to all who were present at Pentecost in their own language. If it’s a good enough strategy for God, it’ll work for us!
Food for Thought…
There was once an island, on which the people had a Bible, but it was in a language that only the educated people could understand. Then a man came and translated the Bible into the local language. The government at this time permitted the Bible, but only in their original translation. As soon as the Bible was available in the local language, the leaders feared what this would do to their power over the people. They declared this new translation illegal and burned every Bible and killed every translator, every printer, every user of the Bible that they could find. But God was with our Brothers and Sisters on that island, and He changed the hearts of the government. Finally, after many generations, the Bible was now not only available, but also legal.
“For God louede so the world, that he gaf his ‘oon bigetun sone, that ech man that bileueth in him perische not, but haue euerlastynge liif.”
This was John 3:16 in the first translation of the Bible in the local language on the island called…England.*
Brothers and Sisters, you and I are living proof of the impact of God’s word in our heart language, English. We have been blessed to have God’s Word in our heart language for over 600 years since the first translation by John Wycliffe, and over 400 years since the translation of the King James Version. What a blessing that our ancestors weren’t satisfied to merely teach us Latin!
*I am indebted to Tiffany Archer, a fellow Wycliffe member whom we met at Equip, for this illustration.