How the evolution of language impacts Bible translation

By February 7, 2018
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International (MNN) — When you start reciting the Lord’s prayer, are you someone who says “thy Kingdom come” or “your Kingdom come”?

The evolution of language isn’t unique to English-speakers. Every generation around the world has different verbiages and word meanings as language adapts. Hans Combrink, Biblica’s Global Translation Director, says this naturally has a profound impact on Bible translation.

Kurdish Bible (Photo courtesy of Biblica)

“We all know that languages change over time and there is no language that is static forever. Now in Biblica, we do have a number of translations in major world languages. Some of them are historic or legacy translations so they’re older. They may date back to the days of The Living Bible. But even from those days — from the mid-70s onward — we’ve had a commitment to keep our translations evergreen; to continually update them in terms of exegesis [and] in terms of language use to ensure that the languages remain current and contemporary and speak to today’s generation of speakers.”

For example, Combrink shares, “In Isaiah 3:20, we read in the King James Version of ankle chains. And today that reminds us of prison manacles rather than the jewelry that’s described, which we now refer to as anklets.

“Another good example is the word ‘thong’ which referred to leather straps. But today it’s commonly referring to women’s underwear. So you know in Judges 16:7 in some of the older translations, Samson answered Delilah in saying, ‘If anyone ties me with seven fresh thongs that have been dried, I will become weak as any other man.’ And today in the New International Version, the word is ‘bowstrings’, not ‘thongs’. Language changes and it’s important for our translations to reflect that.”

Just as English Bible translations have these examples of changes in phraseology, there are examples in every language around the world of evolving verbiage. This impacts how each generation interacts with God’s Word.

However, while it is good and necessary to keep Bible translations in all completed languages up-to-date, what about those languages that still have no copy of God’s Word at all? Roughly one-third of the world’s languages still do not have a copy of the Bible. That’s around 300 million people currently living in the dark with no access to the Gospel.

(Photo courtesy of Biblica)

So where is the balance between refreshing old Bible translations, and yet making sure we are wasting no time in getting the Gospel message to those who don’t yet have on jot or tittle of Scriptural text?

“One organization cannot do everything, cannot translate the Bible for both majority languages and minority languages,” says Combrink. “That’s why partnership is important.”

Ministries like Biblica, Wycliffe Bible Translators, DOOR International, and many others come together in this model of partnership to collaborate for the maintenance and translation God’s Word in all languages.

“We recognize that we do not have the capacity to put people and translation teams in all of these languages, and that’s good because there are people who feel that that is their ministry focus to work in these languages. We obviously do not want to duplicate efforts and we do not want to work where they are already working because that would not be a good or wise investment of Kingdom resources.”

Combrink says Biblica holds to a specific ministry niche in the world of Scripture translation. “Biblica has decided some time ago that we will only focus on major strategic world languages — so that means languages with seven million speakers or more usually. But the limiting factor is not just the size of the language. We look at a number of factors to determine strategic priority.

“It also means when we decide to translate or revise the Bible into one of these strategic major world languages, we do not close our eyes to the need in minority languages. We try and work together in partnership with other organizations who specifically feel that it is their calling and their mission to work in some of the small language groups around the world. The way that Biblica invests in that process is by making available our major world language translations as reference texts for Bible translators working in these languages.”

Bible translation really is a team effort. But that team is not just made of ministries and field workers. Every member of the Body of Christ is on this team.

(Photo courtesy of Biblica)

So how can you play a part on the team for Bible translation? Combrink shares, “One of the most important ways would be through prayer, because we do see the ministry of Bible translation as a frontier ministry. Many mission scholars or missiological experts have said that Bible translation is really the most important aspect of missions because through Bible translation the Church is equipped with God’s Word.

“We have seen so many examples of translation teams’ efforts being thwarted — especially towards the end of a translation, but oftentimes also at the beginning — because we recognize that we are in a battle with evil forces who try and stop God’s Word getting out. So prayer is crucial.”

You can also get involved by stewarding the money God has given you as an investment in Bible translation work! Click here if you would like to support Biblica financially.

“Bible translation has a cost factor. We have to pay people, we have to support their families through full-time or part-time involvement in Bible translation. It costs money to publish Bibles, to distribute Bibles, and for all of these things we need resources.”

Finally, Combrink says, “Then, of course, we always need people. If there are readers or listeners out there who feel that this might be something for them, please feel free to contact Biblica or any other organization they may know of that’s involved in Bible translation and begin to find out what the needs are and try and discern where God may use their skills, their abilities, their talents, and their giftings to help get his Word out to the peoples of the earth.”

Click here to contact Biblica and learn more about getting involved.

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