The Bible—Only 4,263 Languages to Go
January 1990

“The Bible—Only 4,263 Languages to Go,” Ensign, Jan. 1990, 17–18

Learning to Love the Old Testament

The Bible—

Only 4,263 Languages to Go

I take the Bible for granted. Sometimes I feel as if it has always been around in English—at least long enough for the language to become quaintly different. Oftentimes when I read, I am oblivious to the fact that the Savior and the prophets spoke any language other than English. When I do pause to think, I realize that I am indebted to many inspired scholars for the King James Version. In fact, virtually all of us depend on translations to read the Bible. 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.

How Many Translations Are There?

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 has at least one book of the Bible to read. Most of these translations have been done in the last thirty years.

The surge 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.

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

Most countries have Bible societies. In 1946, the various national Bible societies joined together to form the United Bible Societies (UBS). The UBS 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 well-versed in Greek and Hebrew. The UBS also writes and prints exegesis—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 UBS.

It seems reassuring that 97 percent of the world has some or all of the Bible. Many of us may even feel that all we need to do is 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 more than 6,170 known languages (not dialects, but languages). After subtracting the 1,907 we’ve started on, that leaves 4,263 to cover the last 3 percent. Almost all of the remaining languages are spoken mostly 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.

One of the pioneers of this effort was William Cameron Townsend. In 1917, Townsend, then twenty-one years old, contracted 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, 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, he started what would become the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL). From two students that first year, the SIL has grown to more than three thousand linguists and trained technical people. In teams of two, translators go to the remote peoples of the world, learn the language, teach the people to read and write, and then, with a team of native speakers, translate the New Testament. The whole process takes twelve to fourteen years. Some SIL teams stay twenty years to do the Old Testament as well. After translating the Bible into two or three languages, a linguist has expended a lifetime.

SIL workers face real dangers. Many live primitively, often in isolation. Large numbers of them have been incapacitated by exotic diseases. And still they go.

They are not insensitive to danger. Flying in and out of jungles with half-sober bush pilots prompted Townsend to organize his own missionary flying service, the Jungle Aviation and Radio Service (JAARS). Today, their skilled pilots move Bible missionaries to virtually inaccessible locations. In forty years and after millions of flight miles, there has been only one fatality.

What Motivates a Bible Translator?

In June 1984, I squeezed my family and a few belongings into a truck and headed for Norman, Oklahoma, where I would be the first Latter-day Saint to study with SIL. That summer was the first of two summers I studied linguistics with the SIL and Wycliffe Bible Translators (the support organization for SIL and JAARS). I took the courses, my wife played the organ for the midday devotionals at the nearby Lutheran Church, and the children enrolled in Bible School.

The course work was demanding but invigorating. From the two hundred friends I made and the informal talk in dorms and the dining hall, I also learned more about what drives a Bible translator. The quality of people and their sense of dedication was always visible.

There were Bob and Nancy Schaffer, who had just finished the Fra-Fra New Testament in Ghana. They were back “home” to refresh their linguistic skills before tackling another language in the same area. There was Gail Weibe, a Mennonite missionary on leave from her work with the Senoufo people in Burkina Faso. There were Bryan and Diane Thomas, workers with the New Tribes Missions in the Philippines. There was Lillian Howland, working with the Garifuna people of Guatemala. She returned each summer to teach new students the bewildering variety of sounds used in human languages. (The class was informally referred to as “Basic Grunts and Groans.”)

These people were seriously undertaking the commandment to preach the gospel to all the world. Many in the English-speaking nations hold a latent belief that somehow all the world will learn English and thus the gospel will reach everyone. That attitude, however, is a cultural one—it does not come from the scriptures. Trying to teach everyone English is not the answer.

The enormity of the task, though, raises a question: Do people really need the Bible in all 5,150 languages? 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 Kenneth Pike, a coworker with Townsend and a world-renowned linguist: “Cultural arrogance is perhaps often expressed more directly through one’s disinterest in another’s language than through any other cultural expression. … God chose to work within man’s language system in his relation to man. And now he calls on us in turn to speak the language of the people we wish to help. Refusal to do so, when we could have done so, is an affront to that person’s worth.”

Lillian Howland gave me another good answer: “In addition to your Mormon 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 pattern. 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.”

Another woman affiliated with SIL, Barbara Grimes, explained another drawback in restricting translation to regional or national languages. Among minorities, men are far more likely to be educated and conversant in a national language, while women often have little opportunity to learn it. In cases in which churches use only the official language, women of minorities are virtually unable to participate in active worship and study.

Steve Doty, a Wycliffe worker, suggested I try an experiment. I would attempt to read the scriptures for a week in my second language instead of English. It didn’t take me 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 nuances would not come to me. Clearly, my appreciation of the scriptures was tied to being able to read them freely and thus think about them freely.

I now believe that there is a 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, more than half a million dollars. At that price, a Bible in a new language is a one-time operation. You have to do it right the first time.

How Hard Is the Bible to Translate?

One of the worst horror stories of Bible translation was the first translation of the Twenty-third Psalm [Ps. 23] into Tlingit, an Indian language of Washington and Oregon. It began, “The Lord is my Goatherder, I don’t want him; he hauls me up the mountain; he drags me down to the beach.”

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. This can be especially difficult because the biases may be unconscious. These kinds of difficulties are problems with the translator.

More challenging are the problems posed by the text. The following nine versions of Isaiah 52:15 serve as one example. [Isa. 52:15] (The French, Hebrew, German, and Arabic have had to be rendered into English, so keep in mind that they are translations of translations.):

So shall he sprinkle many nations. (King James)

So shall he purify many nations by sprinkling. (French Louis Segond)

So shall many nations sprinkle him. (literal reading of Hebrew text)

So shall he scatter many nations. (German Luther Bible)

Many nations shall leap at him. (Arabic)

So will the crowds be astonished at him. (Jerusalem Bible)

So shall he startle many nations. (Interpreter’s Bible)

So now many nations recoil at the sight of him. (New English Bible)

Which of these versions is correct? The answer is, in a sense, all of them! If you think that only one of them could be, then you’ve fallen into a common cultural trap. We tend to forget that phrases often have more than one meaning, and in a sense, all of the above are accurate even though the intended meaning of the original text may be different from the perceived meaning of the translations.

For instance, here is an English sentence with at least two meanings: “When it comes to giving, some people will stop at nothing.” The sentence is a humorous pun because the two meanings are opposite: some people will do anything to give, and some people will give nothing. The double meaning causes us to pause, smile, and think.

Isaiah seems to have done something similar, though more complex, in Isaiah 52:15 [Isa. 52:15]. Notice that the King James Version and the Hebrew text have the subject and object reversed: he sprinkles nations as opposed to nations sprinkle him. The first thing translators see in the Hebrew is that the grammar of the verse says something different in Hebrew culture. Isaiah says that many nations do the sprinkling, but culturally, the verb translated sprinkle refers to one priest in Israel who sprinkles the blood of a sacrifice on many people to signify a release from sin.

The expression of an idea by reversing it is a rhetorical device used for impact, forcing the reader to make the change in his mind. In Alice in Wonderland, the White Rabbit gets excited and confused when Alice grows so tall that she breaks through the roof of his house. He says to a bystander, “Don’t just do something, stand there!” We laugh at this, knowing he meant to say, “Don’t just stand there, do something!”

Likewise, a Jew reads “So shall many nations sprinkle him,” but, because of his culture, he understands “So shall he sprinkle many nations.” Of course, few of us would have the cultural background to understand this. The King James Version has thus enabled us to read it as the Jews would read it.

Translators must also worry about conveying ideas suggested by the sentence. Sprinkling in Jewish culture represents purification. The Louis Segond Version makes this idea clear in its translation, adding words not in the original.

There is also the problem of multiple meanings of words, especially when puns are used. For example, the verb for sprinkle also means scatter. Martin Luther saw this possibility in the sentence and chose “scatter many nations.” The Hebrew letters that mean to sprinkle (nzh) sound almost exactly like another word still used in modern Arabic (nzw) that means leap back. The word suggests surprise or astonishment, revulsion, or wonder. Many modern translations follow the play on words and choose one of these possibilities.

It may seem odd to think that Isaiah made sacred puns or jokes, but we ought to realize that he was a master at language. He was the best writer of his day. He could put many meanings into a sentence for people of different times. Because of Isaiah’s play of opposites with both grammar and words, the verse can suggest the opposite in meaning. The opposite of scatter is gather, which is one more idea suggested by the phrase. Interestingly, Joseph Smith’s translation of the phrase is “So shall he gather many nations”—emphasizes Isaiah’s meaning for the world today.

Though this verse is extreme in its variety of meanings, there are many other verses that also use puns and multiple meanings and refer to cultural practices that are no longer common. Words are not the only parts of language that convey meaning. Connotations, allusions, intonation, sentence construction, figures of speech, mood, imagery, discourse patterns, and logic all contribute to meaning. Because of these things, exegesis is helpful for translators.

The language the Bible is being translated into also creates difficulties. 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.

Another example concerns a mode of language totally foreign to English. One translator in the Philippines finished 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 language had two story patterns, one for fiction and one for true stories. His translation used the fictional style. He redid the translation in the other style, and the new translation was a success.

Translators must also consider their audience. One group reported on their work in Ukarumpa, in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. They said that they had to carefully search out and observe local taboos. The SIL leader explained, “When you come to the healing incident in Matthew 9:20–22 [Matt. 9:20–22], be careful! It is taboo in many villages to use the words blood and woman together. If you do, they will consider the book obscene and refuse to use any of it. I feel that if you say the woman had an affliction instead of an issue of blood, you stay true to the intent of Matthew in showing that the woman’s faith was fruitful.”

They also 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 leader’s solution: “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as a cockatoo feather.” [Isa. 1:18]

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.)

We should have deep respect and gratitude for Bible translators. Even now, there are brilliant, selfless 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.

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

Photography by Yigael Yadin. Courtesy of the Shrine of the Book Museum, Jerusalem

Photography by Philip S. Shurtleff

Once, monks copied translations by hand. Today, translators work in teams and review their work with consultants (top). Many translators must teach people to read before they can translate and teach the Bible. These African students (middle center) can read their language—unlike people in many areas where translators work. At the Summer Institute of Linguistics (middle right), translators learn about language and culture from native speakers and experienced colleagues, and about remote conditions at a “jungle camp” (bottom).