The whole point of Bible translation is that the Word of God be read or heard by those who did not have this access before. Unfortunately, many Bible translations have been completed after years of hard work and the Bibles are not read by their intended audience. Obviously, no Bible translation organization wants to waste resources to translate a Bible which will not be used. To avoid this scenario, Bible translation organizations seek to ensure the translated Bibles will be used once they are translated. This leads to some organizations only working among people groups where there is an established church requesting a Bible translation. For those projects which are completed but have low engagement with the Scriptures, they assess how wider engagement can be encouraged. This post looks at this approach to Scripture engagement, and then compares it with All-Nations’ vision.
Veteran Bible translator and Scripture use consultant T. Wayne Dye addresses the issue of Scripture engagement in an article titled “The Eight Conditions of Scripture Engagement.” In this article, Mr. Dye identifies eight main categories of circumstances which influence how much a people group will use a Bible translation. His purpose is to help Bible translators maximize the chances of the final translation being widely used, and encourage wider engagement for those projects that are already completed.
Condition One: Appropriate Language, Dialect and Orthography
The choice of the right language for a Bible translation may not be as obvious as one would expect. Some people groups view their mother tongue as inferior to other languages and incapable of expressing God’s truth. In some people groups, the historic mother tongue may be rapidly falling out of use, with everyone learning and using a nearby dialect or language. In these cases, a Bible translation in the historic mother tongue of the people may go unused. The orthography chosen for a Bible may also influence its usage. In Muslim contexts, people are used to reading sacred texts in the Arabic script. Some groups may accept the Bible as God’s Word more readily if it uses the Arabic script as well. Other Muslim-background groups may prefer another script for the Bible translation because they view the Arabic script as too closely linked with Islam and therefore unsuitable for the Christian Scriptures.
Condition Two: Appropriate Translation
For a people group to accept a translation as the Word of God, they must be confident that the translation faithfully communicates the content of the original manuscripts. This confidence will be present only if reputable individuals translate in a way that is acceptable to the community. Some people groups are used to religious texts employing certain literary styles and will reject a translation which does not have the right “sound” to it. Other people groups are fiercely proud of their language and will reject translations which use borrowed terms or sound foreign in other ways.
Condition Three: Accessible Forms of Scripture
The completed translation will not be used if the intended audience is not able to access it. In some cases, this will mean conducting a literacy program to teach people how to read the Bible. In other cases, it will mean making audio or video recordings of the translation for those who cannot read, or cannot see or hear.
Condition Four: Background Knowledge of the Hearer
If the intended audience of a Bible translation do not understand what the Bible is or what it is trying to teach, they will quickly abandon its use. It’s important to help the audience understand the background of the Bible (where it came from and why it was written) as well as the historical and cultural context of the individual books. The Bible provides much of its own context (such as the Old Testament providing background to the New Testament), but other background information must be taught for the audience to understand how certain passages are relevant to them.
Condition Five: Availability
The intended audience of a Bible translation must know about the availability of a Bible translation in their language before they will be interested in reading it. The translation team must be intentional about developing interest while the translation is in progress, and then advertising widely when the translation is completed.
Condition Six: Spiritual Hunger of Community Members
If a people group is disinterested in or hostile to Christianity, they will not be interested in reading the Bible in their language. Conversely, if a high percentage of the people group are hungry for the Word of God, Bibles will be in high demand.
Condition Seven: Freedom to Commit to the Christian Faith
Bibles may be used less in areas where individuals are persecuted for converting to or living out Christianity. This is especially true for those cultures where the persecution or ostracism comes from the potential convert’s community or immediate family.
Condition Eight: Partnership Between Translators and Other Stakeholders
If a foreigner or group of foreigners enters a language community and completes a Bible translation without ever asking the input or advice of the community, the translation will likely not be used much. On the other hand, if the translation team asks some members of the language community to join the translation team and solicits review help from other members, the language community will be invested in the translation project. If they know how the translation was completed and feel their opinions and feedback were heard and taken into account, readership of the completed translation will likely be higher.
Mr. Dye’s Conclusion
Mr. Dye notes that Bible usage among the target audience will likely be high if all eight of the above conditions are met. The translation team would do well to assess these eight conditions in the receptor community throughout the duration of the translation project. If one or more conditions are not met, the team should focus on strategies to develop the condition(s). If the project is already completed, the translation team (or others) can still encourage Scripture engagement by working to change these conditions
An All-Nations perspective
While any Bible translation team can learn from Mr. Dye’s article, All-Nation’s Bible Translation has a different paradigm which leads their teams to approach the issue differently. All-Nations’ vision is “communities of believers in every language group living out the Word of God.” At All-Nations, Bible translation is simply a tool used for a larger purpose. To achieve the vision of All-Nations, each team expects to teach the Bible and disciple new believers, in addition to translating the Bible. This is especially important because of All-Nations’ focus on those people groups which have no, or very few, Christians.
Some organizations focus on Bible translation only. For them, success is measured by the number of Bible translations completed and high Scripture engagement among those groups which have received new Bibles. But high Scripture engagement may not always mean those accessing the Scripture are truly seeking to follow God. Scripture engagement is perhaps not the best success metric. All-Nations’ vision is a God-glorifying church among each people group. In this paradigm, success means a vibrant and growing group of Christians who are equipped to seek out the truth of the Scriptures and teach it to others. Providing the Bible in each language is a means to this end.
An All-Nations equivalent to Mr. Dye’s article could be titled “Conditions Which Promote Godly Indigenous Churches.” Included in the list would be the following: access to the Scriptures, local church leaders with a passion for discipleship, evangelists willing to live the Gospel as well as teach it, etc. Scripture engagement is certainly not irrelevant, but it’s only part of the goal.
Resource: The Eight Conditions of Scripture Engagement: Social and Cultural Factors Necessary for Vernacular Bible Translation to Achieve Maximum Effect by T. Wayne Dye. Published in the Summer 2009 issue of the International Journal of Frontier Missiology.