Consider what your life might be like if you lived in a country such as Chad, Africa. You speak a minority language. People in the villages and towns twenty miles from you speak other languages, which you are not able to understand. There is absolutely nothing written in your language - no newspapers, no magazines, no pamphlets, no books - and no Bible. The only biblical input you and your family receive is at church on Sunday morning, when the pastor teaches from a foreign translation of the Bible and attempts to translate some of it on the spot. In addition, from time to time as you get the chance to share your faith with your neighbours, you have no way of referring to scriptures that would speak to them in their situation. On other occasions, the difficulties of life become overwhelming. Your children become ill, you don't have enough money to support your family, some of your fellow villagers ridicule you for your faith. What then? How could you find encouragement and peace and hope for the future?
How do you think you would have become a Christian if there had never been a translation of the Bible nor any Christian literature in English? How far do you believe you would have progressed in your faith without God's Word in English? Wycliffe Bible Translators believe that it is imperative that people receive a translation of God's Word in their own language and that through reading and hearing that translation, many will have their lives transformed as they are brought into the Kingdom of God and as they grow in understanding.
Ros and I each joined Wycliffe Bible Translators as singles back in the late 1980's (Steve in the States, Ros in the UK). We had been impressed with the importance of providing scriptures in the mother tongue to people around the world, and we felt that God had given us gifts and personalities that would be of benefit in this kind of work. Following our training in linguistics and translation, we each were assigned to work in francophone central Africa - specifically Cameroon and Chad. We arrived in Africa on the same flight from Paris, developed a relationship with each other over the following months, and got married the next year.
Since then, other than for being on 'home assignment' periodically, we have lived and worked in Chad. The needs in Chad are great. Around 120 distinct languages are spoken in the country, many of which have no written form. While French and Arabic are the official languages of the country, many Chadians speak neither of them particularly well. It's not surprising then that the literacy level is quite low, as well as the level of economic development.
Although we had originally aimed toward translation work, our assistance was more urgently needed in our main office in N'Djamena, the capital. This led us into administrative roles, which allowed our colleagues who were already involved in translation projects to continue their work. These past four years, I have been serving our group as Field Director while our fellow Wycliffe members have been working in 14 language projects throughout the country.
The work of Bible translation requires a long-term commitment and extensive training as well as healthy teamwork.
- A good translation depends partly on a sound linguistic analysis of the language.
- A written form of the language must be developed.
- The grammar of the local language must be respected, in order to avoid making the translation sound foreign and unclear.
- A solid understanding of the biblical passages themselves is needed to make sure that the translation is faithful to the original message.
- Speakers of the local language must be heavily involved in the translation process to ensure that it is natural and communicates well.
- Consultants are needed to check the work, give guidance, recommend improvements and ensure the quality of the translation.
- Finally, literacy materials need to be produced and classes organised, so that the people learn to read and write their own language and have access to written scriptures.
In the past, translation projects were most often directed by expatriates (foreign workers). Now, however, more and more national Christians are receiving training to lead the work themselves. For example, two years ago a Chadian couple finished their MA studies in an Evangelical seminary in Nairobi, Kenya, returned to Chad and began a translation project in a Chadian language other than their own. This recent development is a great benefit to the work. It benefits the church in Chad to be thus involved and increases the overall rate at which translations are completed.
During the 1900's that rate accelerated dramatically. However, in the last decade or so, it has reached a plateau. If the situation doesn't improve, it could take another 150 years before the remaining 3,000 languages of the world receive a translation of at least the New Testament. The more people involved in the work, the sooner speakers of these languages will have God's Word in their heart language.
As I write this, we have less than five weeks left in Chad. On February 22nd we move to Nairobi, Kenya, where I shall work in SIL's Africa Area office, taking on the role of Regional Director for central Africa. New challenges face us at work as well as adapting to a different culture, finding a house and furnishing it, Laura (age 7) starting at school in September (Ros will finish the current year homeschooling her), making new friends, etc. We'd appreciate your prayers in this transition time, that we keep the Lord at the centre of our focus and lives. And we encourage you to pray that God would call more and more of his people from every nationality to join together in the task of Bible translation.