Bible translation jumps ahead by light years

By January 12, 2015
(Stock photo courtesy Wycliffe Associates)

(Stock photo courtesy Wycliffe Associates)

(Editor’s note: we did a follow up to this story on February 10, 2015. If you’d like to read an update on this issue, click here)


International (WAS/MNN) — Wycliffe Associates sets the bar really high when it comes to efficiency in Bible translation work. They’ve taken to heart the ideology of “work smarter, not harder.”

Bruce Smith, president and CEO of Wycliffe Associates describes the MAST (Mobilized Assistance Supporting Translation) pilot program. “What it really means is a group of people coming together with complementary resources and skill sets to assist a language group as they launch the Bible translation process in their language, and to train them and coach them in a new strategy that accelerates the process of drafting and checking Bible translation.”

Huh? Smith explains it this way. “MAST gathers a larger group of people who speak the target language, where the translation for Scripture is aiming, and it organizes them into working in parallel instead of working in sequence.”

The ministry has just completed a test run in Asia where 13 national translators were divided into teams of four. Here’s how it works: “We had a couple dozen people working simultaneously in parallel through Scripture. So, one group would work on Matthew, another group would work on Mark, another group would work on Luke, and so on, so that the progress through the translation happened faster.”

(Stock photo courtesy Wycliffe Associates)

(Stock photo courtesy Wycliffe Associates)

The breakthrough: “It was really quite a miraculous experience. 13 translators drafted and checked half of the New Testament in just two weeks.” Smith says the traditional translation approach used to require foreigners (people from outside the language group) to come in, learn the language, the grammar, and do a linguistic study in order to begin the process of Bible translation. Usually, that involved a team of translators who began in Matthew and worked together through to the book of Revelation. That approach proved costly in terms of time. Once technology opened communications, the rules of the game changed.

“Typically translations have taken 20-30 years in the traditional models. Even in the fastest mother tongue translation models, they’ve been in the 6-8 year time frame.” But, two weeks? Smith notes, “It’s not printed, typeset, and ready for publishing, and everything else; there’s still a fair amount of work to do to get it ready for distribution. But the majority of the work in the translation drafting and checking process was accomplished in a 2-week period of time.”

Keep in mind that this group of Christians, who are in the minority in their nation and suffer ongoing persecution by members of the majority religion, only finished half of the New Testament in the 2-week trial run. “That same group of people will be gathering here in the coming months, with the goal of finishing the New Testament, with the other half of the drafting and checking process taking place in a similar time frame.”

The group hopes to print their first New Testament and also record it in audio by summer 2015. In the Asian nation where these translators live, there are an estimated 30-40 more languages without any of the Bible.

“It’s another move of God toward getting His Word to every language in the world. We’ve been aiming at a Vision 2025 that by the year 2025, every language group in the world that needs Scripture would have it.”

It’s overwhelming, when you consider the possibilities, Smith adds. “These kinds of breakthroughs encourage us that this is really an achievable goal, and it may happen sooner than that date [2025].”

It’s another tool helping the Church BE the church. “It reinforces and affirms the role and the responsibility and authority of the local Church in terms of Bible translation for their own people. That kind of a partnership is really exciting for us. We certainly invite people to participate in prayer and in being involved in serving in some of the teams.”

(Stock photo courtesy Wycliffe Associates)

(Stock photo courtesy Wycliffe Associates)

Twenty-five other groups have asked Wycliffe Associates to facilitate the MAST strategy for their languages, and Wycliffe Associates has made plans to begin additional translations in 2015 using the MAST program. They’ve got their work cut out for them. “We’ve tested this strategy in three locations; two additional ones, as I said, in Asia are underway this week. In the coming year, we have 76 languages that are across Africa and Asia, specifically, that will be using this kind of strategy.”

Think this isn’t a story for you? It’s a story we’re all a part of. You can pray, give, or go. There’s more info here.

Click here to support MAST.




  • David Abbott says:

    If we agree that “Fast, Good, Cheap — pick two” applies in business, why should we assume it does not apply to Bible translation? Maybe it does and money is the solution to ensure the Bible translation remains accurate when employing a dramatically accelerated process. This process also requires a prerequisite of an established body of believers in the people group. (1 Corinthians 3:12-14)

  • Mel Grant says:

    It would be nice if what you said was true.

    Your 2 week story doesn’t include al the time it takes to get ready and finish. Generally groups are not considered to have the scriptures until they have been printed and delivered. I believe your story gives a very false impression.

    Your statement, (“It’s another move of God toward getting His Word to every language in the world. We’ve been aiming at a Vision 2025 that by the year 2025, every language group in the world that needs Scripture would have it.” ) is missing one word that should have been the last word. That word is “started”.

    The Vision 2025 goal was to have them all started, not finished.


  • Roberta M says:

    I’ve been “praying without ceasing” for Bible translation, as I’m sure many have. This is wonderful news and an answer to our prayers. I hope that many more will pray, give, or go, in response to this story.
    God is good!

  • Greg Yoder says:

    Hi Mel:

    Thanks for the response. While I understand what you’re saying here, please don’t “slay the messenger.” This wasn’t an expose’ of all Bible translation. It was an update on how Bible translation is getting more efficient, especially as it relates to work with Wycliffe Associates.

    The quote you’re referring to in your comment is a direct quote from the President of Wycliffe Associates Bruce Smith.

    We’re know The Vision 2025 goal is to have translations ‘started’ in each major language. We also realize more languages are being discovered. So, if we weren’t clear on that, we apologize.

    However, the great news is — we could see the translations started in each of these languages in our life-time. That makes me incredibly happy. How about you?


  • Roger Doriot says:

    Well, I’d like to take a middle road between what Greg reported, and what Mel objected to!

    Having done a New Testament translation myself in Irian Jaya/Papua, Indonesia, and having been loaned for various ministries for short periods of time to the Translation Department of the Linguistic Center in Dallas, to The Seed Company, and to Wycliffe Bible Translators USA, I understand what is involved in getting a translation done – and in getting one started.

    I would agree somewhat with Mel, that this DOES give a false impression. I’m an avid proponent of the Vision 2025 goal, passionate about the need for people to pray for and support that in every way possible, and I’m excited with every advance in technology, methodology, and strategy.

    But what is explained here takes place in a VERY ideal situation! In very few of the areas that need Scripture the most, can you find this many qualified people who want to be involved in translation for their language group. In the majority of the remaining language groups that are included in the Vision 2025 goal, it is often difficult just to find two or qualified national translators who are willing to do this work!

    Even if all the necessary money was available, we could not begin to have the results that many people might assume, just by multiplying some factor of time estimated from the example above, by the number of languages still needing translation.

    On the other hand, I agree with Greg that we should rejoice in every type of increase in efficiency, capacity, etc. This strategy can be used, with some adaptation, in numerous situations, and with further adaptation, it can expedite work in quite a few more situations. Sufficient funding in itself will not accomplish the task, though providing more funds will definitely expedite the work in many, many situations.

    Prayer is so important to this whole process of getting Scripture into every language as soon as possible! Every Christian, every church, should be praying for the Vision 2025 goal, and that some Scripture would be in every language by that date, or even before. And we should be praying for all these new efforts, new strategies, etc., for wisdom for all those involved, for many capable workers from all of these language groups, and much more. (Slight commercial here – I have developed a prayer calendar in which I’ve tried to cover most every aspect of the process to reach the Vision 2025 goal, and I’d love to share it with anyone interested, and encourage wide dissemination! No copy right! 🙂 … Contact me at [email protected], on Facebook at Roger Doriot, or from our web site: .

  • Mike Cahill says:

    It would be interesting to know more about the translators and about the process by which they worked. What were the qualifications of the translators? Did they have any training, or were they just enthusiastic folks who happened to be available? Did they consult ANY translation helps? Did they discuss any alternatives among themselves? If they hit a snag, did they just table it for the time being, and say “it’s just a draft; we’ll fix it later?” I’ve come to see that the quality of translation is highly dependent on the process used, including what training the translators have.

  • To add to Mike Cahill’s questions, which are very fair, and something I believe Mel Grant was alluding to: has the translation been consultant-checked?

  • Ron Radke says:

    I must admit that this sounds too good to be true and I’m skeptical about quality. Drafting 34 verses per half day is very fast for new translators. Likewise, as a consultant, in my experience (my experience is not vast), I have not been able to check 34 verses per half day with new teams. Working in parallel is a great idea if and when you have 13-26 qualified translators, but I think our experience is that translation is a learning process where translators grow significantly in their skill through work on each successive book (and each successive consultant check). A translation team generally arrives at the end of a NT, and realizes the need to revise their early work. Working in parallel and finishing the NT in 2 weeks doesn’t allow for translator growth.

  • Doug Higby says:

    I’m all for accelerating the task of Bible Translation. In fact, it is my and my wife’s motto: Harnessing technology to accelerate the translation of God’s Word.

    However, reading your article leaves me completely perplexed: What were they translating God’s Word from? You see, every translator is skilled in two languages, and if not, we can’t call them translators. It is hard to imagine that these 13 translators were all skilled in Greek, the language of the New Testament. And if not Greek, then what was the language that they translated from?

    Remember The Living Bible? When it came out, it gained popularity, but suffered from a very poor image because the translator paraphrased it from another English version without any consulting of the Hebrew or Greek. Years later, Tyndale Publishers went back and revised it, going back to the original languages, and this time, the word “translation” is in the title because of its attention to the original languages: The New Living Translation

    At best, what these teams have produced in record time can only be considered a paraphrase of another translation — the one that they worked from as their model text. Sure, it contains God’s truth and may change lives, but let’s not call it a Bible translation.

  • Mike Cahill says:

    I do think it’s important to recognize that Wycliffe Associates, the organization in this article, is a separate organization from Wycliffe Bible Translators.

  • Mary Pearce says:

    I like Mike’s questions and I would add that there is the whole area of key terms being translated in the same way in places where they should be the same – how is this addressed? Also is the way the language is written down working well – or do they need to look more at the orthography first? Are people going to value a translation that took just 2 weeks? And why all of the rush when generally the process of working on a translation gives the group so much more than just a written text? God is not rushed. I appreciated how Vision 2025 got us working with others more, but we shouldn’t give up on excellence and experience just to be more efficient. If 2 weeks is all you have because of circumstances, God is capable of doing a miracle and getting His Word translated adequately, but if we have more time so that people can really soak in the Word of God and understand the meaning because they apply it, that will give a much better translation surely?

  • How long has this language group been writing their own language?
    Are the majority of the speakers literate in their own language?
    How much time did it take to find these 13 people who are capable of doing translation?
    What level of education do the translators have?
    How much time was invested in training before the translators started translating?
    Who is consultant-checking the translation?

    How will MAST be applied to language communities:
    –where the language hasn’t been written yet?
    –where most people are not literate in any language?
    –where the general highest level of education is sixth (US equivalent) grade (or less)?
    –where very few people speak the national (or a majority) language and so can not translate from the majority language Bible?
    –where no one is the least bit interested in having the Word of God in their language?

  • Larry Seguin says:

    I worked for several years as a professional translator in the private sector. It seems this approach is based on a fallacy: that just because someone speaks two languages (even fluently) they can translate well. Professional translators and interpreters hone their skills through years of study and experience; they have intimate knowledge of the two languages, the differences between them, and how to make the transfer from one to the other. This is an intriguing approach but I hope it isn’t trying to throw out years of expertise that has been developed in the area of Bible translation. It’s almost like throwing out years of growth in engineering expertise just to build bridges faster.

  • I’ve worked with three languages in different parts of one country and ten translators for those languages (three, four and three, resp.). They all had reasonable conversational English skills. They worked in parallel. I definitely saw growth in translation skills over the course of time (11 years for one but not yet finished in the others). But mistakes average about one per verse, gospels being fewer and epistles being more than that. Some of it was peer checked, but I didn’t see any significant difference in the mistake rate. In one recent case, a verse was mistranslated to teach universalism and I don’t think any of his peers would have caught the mistake as it was subtle. I agree with Larry Seguin. I would also say that for this approach to have any hope of producing a reasonable first draft, the translators would all need to be experts in translating from English to their mother tongue.

  • Bruce Smith says:

    Since this report was posted I have been following, and pondering, the responses and questions. I’ve been prayerfully considering how and when to respond. I’m concerned that silence is too easily misunderstood, so in an effort to reduce misunderstandings I am responding today.

    The questions in the preceding posts are the very same questions that our team has been asking. The answers have come from a lot of different sources, and have often surprised us.

    For example, our first experience applying the MAST parallel translation method was in a cluster model, with small teams from five different languages. Their goal was to draft and check 1 & 2 Thessalonians during this workshop. The basic approach was to provide two weeks of training and then have two weeks of translating. Four of the teams arrived in time and completed the training. One of the teams missed the training completely and arrived the day after the other teams began translating. That created a quandary about how they should proceed. After discussion they decided they would just wade into the translation process and learn by doing.

    During the consultant checking of these five translations I think everyone was surprised that the quality of the work from the untrained team was equal to the quality of the work by the four teams that had received two weeks of training. The other thing that surprised many of us was the pace at which these teams worked. They were not rushing, or frantic. They were focused, reflective, prayerful, and very productive.

    At the end of this workshop the translators who had missed the training were so excited to have this first scripture in their language they asked if they could return with a larger group to translate more scripture. We agreed to assist them in any way possible. In the subsequent months they recruited a group of 26 multi-lingual mother-tongue *Ng speakers, and we began adjusting our support plan to involve this larger number of translators.

    Ultimately several of the Ng speakers were unable to attend the second translation workshop due to personal and professional reasons. This is how they ended up with a group that averaged 13 translators instead of 26.

    My observation was that they spent about 25% of their time drafting and 75% of their time checking. This includes checking available reference resources in multiple languages (available in the Paratext software), peer checking, community checking, and finally checking by experienced Bible translation consultants. At the end of two weeks several of them stayed up all night to print the first copies of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and 1 & 2 Timothy so they could take them back home.

    Winter is hard upon the Ng communities right now, but they are using this time to prepare for their next translation gathering in April – where their goal is to translate the rest of the New Testament.

    I am not a prophet. It is also not my place to argue against the wisdom of others with greater experience in Bible translation. I am just a servant. I don’t know whether they will meet their goal of having the entire New Testament translated into Ng in April. But I am willing to serve them as they pursue their goal, and I trust their judgment about the quality and value of God’s Word in Ng.

    Their thirst for God’s Word is palpable. If I can offer a cup of cold water I will gladly give it – and drill a well for more water. Other language groups are hearing about this parallel translation approach and asking for our help. We are responding.

    These language groups share the same desire for, and commitment to, accurate, clear, and natural Bible translation that we all share. They are personal stakeholders in the outcome. We are rallying every possible resource to serve them as they translate so that they can have the best possible result.

    Everyone posting here is invited to share in serving these communities. I’m easy to find. Just let me know how you’d like to help.

  • Cameron Hamm says:

    I appreciate your reply, Bruce. I love the idea of people working together to get the job of translation done faster. However, it doesn’t seem that you have answered the questions raised by others above. I acknowledge that at least some and maybe many of these translation programs where you have tested the MAST system are in areas which are sensitive for Christians and so you can’t report freely online. But to evaluate this new trend in Bible translation, people need to understand the pros and cons of the approach versus other approaches, and a lot of the background information is missing in the article here in order to do that. It can take years just to just come up with a decent writing system for a language that has never been written before. Then having a core group of people to grow a literacy movement where literacy is not valued. And not much has been said about the consultant checking – I have been involved in some of that, and it is a feat when a qualified and experienced consultant can check more than 75 verses in a day. That is not a sustainable pace at which any translation consultant can keep up. So, there must be some corners cut in the process of MAST versus traditional translation approaches. You did say that there would be much work left over after two weeks (12 hour days!). I would hope that part of that work would be consultant checking by a qualified and experienced translation consultant.

    Overall, I’m impressed at how much can be done in a short amount of time. Bravo on the initiative. I would call it a first draft of half of the New Testament done in exceptionally ideal circumstances, or else you are not reporting on the full time it takes from start to finish. To adequately compare years in traditional programs to weeks in this new approach, you need to count all the weeks from first contact with the people until the time that the New Testament is in the hands of the people. Then we can compare oranges to oranges.

    In the fastest mother tongue translation programs, they can also do quite a bit of drafting in a small amount of time when they are working in parallel (granted, not as small as you say here), but that is after all the ground work has been laid (usually measured in years). It is possible that in some areas, there are more than 20 qualified well-educated people that don’t need much training that can take two weeks off from their normal lives and work, and do this, but I would suggest that this is the exception rather than the rule. I have some experience in Africa, and I can’t imagine this many quality people ever coming together even in ideal situations, let alone in the realities that people face in developing countries far from internet access, and good education, nutritious food, etc.

    I once had a dream: ramp up translation workshops so that instead of producing a couple of short epistles in 2 weeks in 5 languages, you could do that in 50 languages. Then it dawned on me when I woke up: there are way too many restrictions on availability of qualified people for this to work that way.

    I know I seem to be highlighting the challenges to this new approach. But I sincerely wish you success in this. Some places and situations need this kind of program. Let me also say that I love the idea of making lots of progress, and having many people have access to the Word of God faster. I would hope that it is communicating accurately, clearly, and naturally.

  • Ron Maines says:


    You are out there blazing a new trail, and attracting some arrows.

    You have always been good at that.

    Not everyone will agree with this approach at the front end, but the proof will be in the results after you get through the first few completed translations and evaluations.

    But you already knew all of that.

    Straight ahead.


  • Which method of translation is being employed: formal correspondence or dynamic equivalence?

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