Thursday, 19 April 2018

Speaking in Different Languages

The very first believer from one Central Asian group we worked with said that it wasn't possible to pray or preach in his mother tongue. 'Our language is too poor, it doesn't have the right vocabulary for prayer or preaching. How would you even say the word "prayer" in our language? The word "doga" means "charm" as well as "prayer". We couldn't possibly use that word in church! We should use Russian, which is a rich language and has all the right words for these things!'

This is a very common response when people first become believers. They see their own language as inappropriate for use in worship. This is because what they see as 'Christianity' is being modelled in a language of wider communication like English, French, Russian, Urdu or Classical Arabic. To use a more local language seems like a step down to something too basic for spiritual use.

In the end a whole bunch of young men became believers, and they didn't have the same hangups as the first believer. They began meetings where people used their mother tongue, sat on a carpet on the floor instead of pews, drank tea while having fellowship, and wore Central Asian clothing.

The word used for prayer, by the way, was 'doga' but it was obvious when saying 'let us make/do doga' that they were talking about 'a prayer' not 'a charm'. In the Bible translation the translators used a combination of words doga-dileg, meaning 'prayer-request'. New believers are taught to give up using charms and amulets, of course, as soon as they trust in Isa Mesih (Jesus the Messiah).

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

It's not just about getting people saved

Media products often end with the resurrection. Why? We just want to get people saved. This is the wrong strategy, imho. We are commanded to make disciples. People need the message of Acts. Some people need to be able to see the road ahead before completely committing themselves to Christ. Acts teaches us that:
  • God is at work!
  • The Holy Spirit who came after Jesus ascended to heaven, works through us
  • Where there are no churches planting new ones is needed 
  • Those churches are missional in nature, i.e. self-reproducing
  • Local believers are the ones to lead those gatherings
  • We may encounter persecution
  • Some areas have people who are more open to the good news than others
  • Many Jewish leaders had misunderstood the Bible and what it taught about the coming chosen one
  • Nevertheless many Jewish background as well as Gentile background people believed, so churches were often made up of both, often causing some tension
It's about growing, discipleship, and moving forward as a body. Therefore, let's think about how we can include both halves of Luke's message to us in our presentations of the good news: Luke (Vol 1) and Acts (Vol 2).

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Which Musical Instruments is it OK to Use in Worship?

This is a controversial topic for some! There are those who think that only pianos and organs are appropriate for worship. Others are OK with drums, electric guitars and so on. What does the Bible have to say?

Instruments used in the Bible

Some instruments were used for false worship:
'Therefore, as soon as they heard the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp and all kinds of music, all the nations and peoples of every language fell down and worshiped the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.' Daniel 3:7

'They have harps and lyres at their banquets, 
         pipes and timbrels and wine, 
 but they have no regard for the deeds of the LORD, 
         no respect for the work of his hands.' Isa 5:12

Some for true worship:
      Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet
            praise him with the harp and lyre
      praise him with timbrel and dancing
            praise him with the strings and pipe
      praise him with the clash of cymbals
            praise him with resounding cymbals. Psa 150:3-5 

David and all Israel were celebrating with all their might before the LORD, with castanets, harps, lyres, timbrels, sistrums and cymbals. 2Sa 6:5

What do you notice about these lists of instruments? They are virtually identical:

So you can see that there weren't special instruments used for worship. Therefore it's good to use whatever is already used in our culture or subculture. For instance if you're area is full of ex-hippies, you might want to have acoustic guitars, electric guitars, bass, keys and drums. If your area is full of house music or hiphop fans, you might want to have drum machines and keys. And so on.


In some parts of the world 19th century missionaries, who weren't afraid to be directive, told people not to use instruments that were perceived as being used to contact the spirits. The trouble with this is the people themselves probably didn't have a problem with using them to worship God. Also there is a huge advantage in people using their own instruments to worship God, and write their own songs, and it becomes culturally theirs, and not a colonial import. It's true that some instruments may need to be prayed over and 'redeemed' or 'cleansed' for use in worship before we bring them into our gatherings.


As we have seen, any musical instrument can be used for worship. In fact it is much better to use instruments already used in the wider culture, whatever they may be. This will depend on the cultural background of the audience in question (not just church-goers, who may be from a different generation and/or sub-culture).

Bible quotes from: The New International Version. (2011). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Relevance Theory and Testing Translations

In Katy Barnwell's 'Ten Ways to Test a Translation' we are advised not to ask any questions that ask for the opinions of the hearer, only factual questions should be asked. Certainly we don't want to ask, 'Is this a good translation?' Nor do we want to ask, 'What do you think of the translation?' We might, however, want to ask, 'Why, in your view, did Jonah run away from the Lord?' when testing Jonah 1. This is because it finds out if the hearer has understood the main point of the plot in chapter 1, despite the fact that this is only implied, not openly stated. Jonah is running away from the Lord because Nineveh is a major Babylonian (Iraqi) city full of non-Jews who might want to kill him. Not only that, we later find out that Jonah doesn't even want the Ninevites to repent. His view is that they deserve punishment simply for being non-Jews, and therefore non-believers. He is falling into the religious trap of being judgmental, like the older brother in the prodigal son story.

The reason we want to ask people's opinions is that, as Relevance Theory has taught us, most communication includes implicatures (implied information) as well as explicatures (stated information). If we ignore the former and concentrate only on the latter we do a disservice to the aims of the original speaker (author) of the utterance or text we're studying and wanting to translate.

Many stories, jokes, poems and proverbs rely on implicatures. Here's a joke for you:

    Mother: Anton, do you think I’m a bad mother?

    Son: My name is Paul.

What's the implicature? She's such a bad mother that she doesn't know her sons name. If you explain that, as I have just done, you destroy the joke. Why? Because the hearer has to do some work if you leave the implicature as an implicature, rather than stating it explicitly. This gives the joke greater impact.

That's why, in Bible Translation, we test for people's opinions - we want to know if they have understood the implicatures, and we also want to know if the story will have the same impact as the original story had (and the author intended).

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Bible Translation, Scripture Engagement, and Missiology

The relationship between Bible Translation, Scripture Engagement, and Missiology can be seen as a Venn diagram with quite some overlap:
The relationship between some of these is fairly obvious (SE and Missiology, especially), and I will come back to the relationship between Translation and Missiology another time.

In addition we also talk about 'Language and Development'. Without language we would not need to translate, nor would we be able to express our trust in God, or desire to share him with our neighbours. So, language and its development (and general development of a minority people), is key. Our actual activities, however, are often more to do with translation and Scripture engagement, depending, where we work, and what the needs are. Our goal is not to create languages, but to create Scripture access. Our goals might include developing bilingual education programmes, but the greater goal is Kingdom growth (via bilingual Bible apps and in other ways). The language is the channel, not the target of our activity. We have to be careful not let our love of languages and linguistics turn into an idol. Nevertheless we work hard at these things - whatever we do, we need to carry it out to the best of our abilities and for the Lord, not for ourselves. May the Lord inspire us through the Holy Spirit, and help us when we are weak!  

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

A History of Bible Translation - Bibliography and Useful Links


Barnwell, K. (2002) Bible Translation: An Introductory Course in Translation Principles. 4th edn. Dallas: SIL International.

Dye, W. (2009) ‘The Eight Conditions of Scripture Engagement’, 26(2). Available at: (Accessed: 2 May 2018).

Gutt, E.-A. (2000) Translation and Relevance - Cognition and Context. Manchester: St Jerome.

Hill, H. et al. (2011) Bible Translation Basics. Dallas: SIL International.

Hill, H. and Hill, M. (2008) Translation the Bible into Action. Carlisle: Piquant Press.

Sperber, Dan, and Deirdre Wilson (1995) Relevance: Communication and Cognition. Oxford: Blackwell.

Wilt, T. (ed.) (2003) Bible Translation - Frames of Reference. Manchester: St Jerome.

Useful Links

Websites you may like to look at for further information:

Bible Gateway
Bible Society (UK)
Blog on Scripture Engagement
Scripture Engagement website
Wycliffe Bible Translators (Global stats., UK)

Sunday, 14 January 2018

A History of Bible Translation: Chapter 7 - Post-Colonial Translation and Globalisation; Bible Storying

The decision to move to a more open model of work wasn’t just taken for pragmatic reasons. Missions in general have been realising that we need to move away from colonial approaches, where the foreigners are in control, and away from post-colonial approaches, where the foreigners feel guilty that they are even involved in the work. In these days of globalisation, we can all be involved without anyone feeling guilty or misused in any way. Post-colonial approaches have affected many areas of academic study, including translation. We now realise that languages can be used to adversely influence people (colonialism), and that translators are more than linguists, they are cross-cultural intermediaries (post-colonial approaches and globalisation). For instance, if an interpreter hears something that they consider might be insulting to those they are interpreting for, they might modify what they say and tone it down a bit to make it more acceptable. On top of that we know that the cultures we come from tend to share a body of information, and this might be different in the host culture. Therefore translators naturally make up for these differences by sharing background information in one way or another. In the Bible there are many situations where the narrator supplies two names for a place – perhaps the Aramaic (or Hebrew) and the Greek name, or the old name and the current name (as it was in the narrator’s day). This is so readers can gain background information. Other ways of providing such information is by using maps, pictures, glossaries, footnotes, introductions etc. These are known as the para-text or para-textual helps. New translators are tempted to skip these means of conveying information, but as time goes on they realise the importance of them. In some contexts it might be that the audience need training in how to use such helps. If the translation is mainly for audio only the team need to be very creative in how they are supplied.

The decisions made by a translation team as they go along will often refer back to a project brief that they have agreed with positive stakeholders (i.e. partners) and those in the translation committee. That document should carefully define the audience(s) and the skopos of translation. Roughly translated this means ‘function’ or ‘purpose’. Without a clear idea of the intended audience(s) and the skopos it is quite hard to make good and consistent decisions about translation issues. This project brief also needs input from a Scripture Engagement consultant, who will advise the team, partners and committee on how best to reach the goal of the translated and distributed Scriptures transforming lives. This consultant might refer to Wayne Dye’s Eight Conditions or to the barriers to Scripture Engagement mentioned in Harriet Hill and Margaret Hill’s Translating the Bible into Action.

In the nineties and early two-thousands a mission agency called ‘New Tribes Mission’ realised that it is far more effective to ‘story’ the Bible than to try and teach it in a traditional (to us, i.e. Western, top-down, analytical) way. They started to act it out and this gave birth to a new movement called ‘Bible storying’ which has been very effective in some parts of the world. Many Mission and Bible translation agencies are now involved in Bible storying, and it has resulted in much church growth. Those trained in storying seek to start Bible-storying fellowships, and pass on the stories they have crafted. These then multiply exponentially. The huge advantage is that a) little training is needed b) the story sets can be developed and passed on relatively quickly. That’s not to say that this approach replaces traditional approaches to Bible translation, but it certainly guarantees greater Scripture engagement – lives are transformed and people learn what it is to walk as a believer, without any need for literacy classes, long-term linguistic research, and so on.

A History of Bible Translation: Chapter 6 - The Development of the Modern Missions Movement and Modern Bible Translation

The major push that occurred in the 19th century resulted in mission work and Bible translation beginning in many fairly major languages, but it was not until the 20th century that smaller groups and minority languages were considered a need. It has only been in the last one hundred years ago that phrases like ‘every tribe, every nation, every language’ were used to call workers and others into mission work and partnership in it.

Cameron Townsend, the founder of Wycliffe Bible Translators, actually began in the 1930s by starting a training programme called ‘The Summer Institute of Linguistics’, to equip those already studying linguistics at university to analyse an unwritten language from first principles. The early recruits went to Mexico, where they researched and analysed the indigenous languages such as Nahuatl and Mixtec. They lived in villages, worked with ‘language informants’, as they were then known, and produced phonology write-ups, grammars, dictionaries, primers for the orthography (alphabet) they had developed, and also began translating the New Testament into those languages. This was carried out with the permission of the government: SIL worked with mainly governments and universities at that time. Back at home, however, Townsend found that churches were uninterested in ‘all that linguistic stuff’ and he began a second organisation, Wycliffe Bible Translators.

The work has gone through several paradigm shifts since the early days, and I will try and summarise them here:
  1. The first shift was to working with mother-tongue translators, rather than language informants. These translators were encouraged to write up the translation themselves, and either type it up or keyboard it into a computer. They worked alongside the SIL members as equals, rather than subordinates. The community were encouraged to form a language or translation committee, to make decisions about the choice of mother-tongue translators, choice of key terms, layout of the portions published, and so on. In addition, Eugene Nida’s ‘Dynamic Equivalence’ model[1] was used to produce meaning-based translations.
  2. The next shift was start up more and more local organisations, led by local people, that would eventually take over the leadership of the work. There was more of an emphasis on training, but this was mainly carried out in partnership with local universities. SIL also began to train local exegetes to advise translators and local consultants to visit the projects.
  3. The most recent shift has been for SIL to become a service organisation. This has led to SIL working with many partners: local churches, other mission organisations, other Bible translation agencies, amongst others. In some parts of the world foreigners don’t even join SIL but remain part of their home Wycliffe organisation, and simply partner with a local organisation. In other parts of the world SIL continues to play a role, but in a much more flexible way. The aim is for programmes to be initiated and owned local, with some input from SIL or Wycliffe members as and when needed. Many translators work independently, carrying out their own exegetical research before making a draft. There are many expatriate consultants based in their home countries, making trips all over the world to consult for projects. They give input, but don’t have the final say in what goes on in the locally-owned programmes. There is also more of a two-way interaction – the SIL consultants are learning as well as teaching. No one person knows all the information needed.
The Bible Societies have gone through similar paradigm shifts, with most of their consultants now being based in a local Bible Society and working with projects there. There are also roving trainers, who support such consultants and others involved in the work.

Let us not forget, however, that Bible translation is often carried out by local believers, church-planters and others, who see the need, get stuck in, then realise they need some help and training. In fact that’s the norm, these days. One advantage of SIL and other Bible translation agencies taking more of a back seat (without doing less work, you realise), is that the work can progress much more quickly. In the mid to late nineties SIL realised that at the current rate of progress the work would take a century or more to complete (not that the work is every completed, in one sense). Taking that long was felt to be unacceptable, and we realised we had to open it up to other groups and individuals. 

[1] Nida developed this model, also known as the ‘Code Model’, in the 1960s. He started out as a member of SIL, then worked for the UBS.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

A History of Bible Translation: Chapter 5 - Early Missionary Translations

During the 17th and 18th centuries some Bible translation was carried out in non-European languages, but the main movement forward was in the 19th century. William Carey, of the Baptist Missionary Society, and known as the father of modern missions, began translation work in Hindi and Urdu, and later this was completed by Henry Martyn, the complete Bible being published in 1843. Henry Martyn was a prolific translator, working with local colleagues, and translating the Bible into several languages: Hindi/Urdu, Persian (Farsi), and Judaeo-Persian. Urdu is an artificial language based on Hindi grammar with many Persian and some Turkic loan words. It was needed by the Moghul hordes from Central Asia who invaded Northern India and built and empire resulting in edifices such as the Taj Mahal.[1] Martyn passed away[2] aged only thirty-one. It’s extraordinary to think that he achieved more before the age of thirty than most of us do in a lifetime.

There were many other translations carried out in the 19th century. A new translation was made in Turkish and published in 1878. After Ataturk’s reforms in the 20th century this version was republished in the new Latin script. The Bible was translated into Russian by the Russian Bible Society, who began work in 1813 and finally published the ‘Synodal Bible’ in 1876. Today it is available in several different formats, for Orthodox and Protestants alike.[3]

The British and Foreign Bible Society was formed in 1804, and although it wasn’t the first ‘Bible Society’, it became the most influential. It’s first project was to publish the Bible in Welsh, the language of Mary Jones, who walked twenty miles to her nearest town, Bala, to obtain a Bible in her mother tongue. The BFBS had a policy of publishing Bibles ‘without note or comment’ due to their non-denominational stance. The Bible should be available to all, no matter what their background, they believed. After the BFBS many other Bible Societies began around the world, all them loosely connected by a global network called the United Bible Societies. The Bible Society exists in many countries, and is locally owned, and exists to publish the Bible in the national language and larger minority languages. In some cases they carry out new translations into those languages, as and when they are needed.[4]

The focus during the 19th century tended to be on word-for-word translations, sometimes called ‘literal’, ‘modified literal’, or ‘form-based’ translations. These are not necessarily more accurate, however, and as a result there has been a shift to meaning-based translations over the last century or so. In practice any translation is somewhere on the spectrum between form-based and meaning-based, and also on the spectrum between literary[5] and colloquial. It’s quite possible, however, for a translation to be both meaning-based and literary (and poetic, in places), or form-based and colloquial.

It’s impossible to translate literally. That’s because languages vary in their features: some are separative, some agglutinative.[6] Some tend to put the verb first in a phrase, others last. People use idioms and metaphors all they time when they speak, as language is inherently figurative, and on top of that we now know that communication is pragmatic – we tell people what they need to know and no more – i.e. a lot of communication uses implicatures. Recent studies into cognitive linguistics, relevance theory, and speech act theory show us that communication involves way more than words used in a certain grammatical construction.

[1] They were led by Timur, known as Tamerlane, who was Turkic and Mongol in ancestry, but also spoke the language of wider communication of the area, Persian.
[2] From fever, or exhaustion, or both.
[3] The Orthodox version contains the Apocrypha.
[4] For instance there is a new Russian Bible Society translation known as the Contemporary Russian Version. It is a meaning-based translation, and complements the Synodal translation.
[5] A focus on high style of language, and perhaps a greater emphasis on using poetic forms where appropriate.
[6] These stick affixes on words, making them very long, not like German, but like Turkic languages, which often  have words eight to ten syllables long. On top of that they are very ‘productive’ in that a certain affix, such as the pluraliser -lar/-ler can be used in a variety of places adding to both nouns and verbs.

Friday, 12 January 2018

A History of Bible Translation: Chapter 4 - After the Reformation

There were other translations carried out during the Reformation period. The Bible was translated into Slovene during the 16th century, and into Turkish during the 17th century, albeit by a Polish convert to Islam who called himself Ali Bey after his conversion.[1]

The result of all this translation activity – and I haven’t covered all languages translated in the reformation period – was that as Christians started to spread around the world as the result of persecution or to trade they took Bibles with them, and began churches, albeit in their language. So, the gospel began to reach parts of the world outside Europe such as North America, where many Puritans, both Reformed and Anabaptist, planted churches. This paved the way for the modern missions movement, which has tended to focus on Bible distribution, for very important reasons. Church planters and bible translators are often either the same people, or very closely related to one another i.e. working in close partnership.

Because of this focus on printed books, the main book being the Bible,[2] there has also been a focus on literacy. Without teaching people to read and write how could they have access to the Bible? Indeed, those who become committed followers of Jesus and join churches are positively encouraged to read their Bibles (and pray every day, as the song goes). Mission during this era tended to be centripetal – drawing people into a Mission compound, where they would gain education, join a church, be given work to do, and be generally looked after. Though we now look back on such work as colonialist, it was a product of its age. When the gospel first reached Britain via both Celtic and Roman missionaries, many monasteries were built, and the gospel spread via the work of those monasteries, which had a surprisingly outward focus, at least to when they first started.[3] It’s no surprise, therefore, that reformation and early missions used a similar model.

The real leap forward in terms of both missions and Bible translation began in the 19th century, however, and we will look at that expansion in the next chapter.

[1] This was commissioned by the Sultan of Turkey himself.
[2] The Greek term for Bible is ho biblios ‘the book’.
[3] Or when they were rejuvenated, or new movements began.

A History of Bible Translation: Chapter 3 - The Reformation

The reformation really got going when Erasmus began a new translation of the Bible into Latin, based on Hebrew and Greek. He decided to produce a ‘definitive’ Greek text, now known as the Textus Receptus or ‘Received Text’. When Luther saw this, he said to himself, ‘If it’s ok to produce a fresh translation of the Bible into Latin, why not go the whole hog and translate one from Greek (and Hebrew) into German?’ And so the reformation begun. Within a few years Bibles were being translated into a number of European languages. William Tyndale, another Oxford linguist and theologian, began an English version of the New Testament, again working from Greek manuscripts, and within a century this was reworked by a committee commissioned by King James 1st into what we now know as ‘The Authorised Version’ or ‘The King James Version’, also using Coverdale’s edition of the Bible that included the Old Testament.[1] Many of these translators were, or became, leaders in the reformation, and for the first few years there was much persecution. Tyndale himself was executed just a few years before the King of England gave permission for the Bible to be published and distributed in English. The English and German Bibles came out just as the printing press was invented, and so mass distribution of the printed word became a possibility for the first time in history. We are now experiencing a similar revolution with the advent of digital publishing, so can appreciate how quickly such a new method catches on and is used for good to get the Word of God into the hands of many. The publication of these Bibles, in the ordinary spoken language, sometimes known as the 'vernacular' or 'mother tongue', was a revolutionary move away from the use of Latin in churches, and this caused a lot of waves. The strange thing is that we never learn from history, and whenever Scriptures are published in the local vernacular it causes waves amongst many in authority, and those who have grown up reading the Bible in a language of wider communication such as Spanish, French, Russian or Classical Arabic or a national language such as Urdu or Tagalog.

The Textus Receptus is still the basis of many Bible translations, though of course it was basically the work of one scholar many centuries ago. Today we have more manuscripts available (such as the Dead Sea scrolls), and more advanced scholarship, so most modern Bible translations are based on  Hebrew and Greek texts published by the Bible Societies, though it is usual practice to show variations between those and the Textus Receptus in footnotes, in case someone is worried when they find differences between the modern translation and an older translation such as the King James Version or Luther’s Bible.

Occasionally people ask me whether or not we translate the Bible from the ‘original’, meaning the King James Version. Sadly, I have to disillusion them, and explain that this translation, though the first of its kind in English, was not the ‘original’ Bible. Important though it is in the history of English Bible translation, and indeed in the development of English as a literary language, it is, at the end of the day, a very good 17th century translation.[2] Let’s not forget how much it depended on the work of Tyndale and Coverdale.[3]

[1] Much of the Old Testament was translated by George Joye.
[2] It was published in 1611. Tyndale and Coverdale’s work had been published in the 1530s, some seventy years earlier.
[3] Coverdale’s Bible was actually a combination of work by Tyndale, Joye and others.

Speaking in Different Languages

The very first believer from one Central Asian group we worked with said that it wasn't possible to pray or preach in his mother tongue...