A career in Bible translation.
Updated: 4 January 2020
By Nick H
I was about half-way through university when I started to wonder: what next? In just over a year, I would have my piece of paper and would need to be onto something else, whether a job, an overseas experience, or another degree. The answer that slowly presented itself was clear. Bible translation.
My undergraduate degree was in Linguistics, the science of language, and I was fascinated by communication, sounds, and language structures, as well as how language fits into people’s social identities. So, when I decided to pursue a masters degree, I was confident that it made sense to continue studying in the same area.
At the time, however, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to do Bible translation. I was aware of the need for it and the relevance of linguistics to the whole thing, but I didn’t feel strongly toward it. I did want to leave my options open, though. If God was calling me toward Bible translation, I wanted to be ready to answer. So I set out to find the best Linguistics master’s degree in the world that qualified me for Bible translation, in case that’s what I later decided to do.
I’m now a year into that degree, and I’m sold.
You might be young, thinking about what to study at university, what kind of career to go into, or how to get into missions. Or you might be approaching a crossroads later in life, looking for a new adventure that will draw on the skills and experience you’ve gained over the course of your career so far. Either way, this is for you.
So, why pursue Bible translation as a vocation? Here are five reasons.
List of reasons.
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1. It’s a way to fulfil the Great Commission.
In Matthew 18:19, Jesus commands us to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. Of course, you can do this from anywhere. Sharing the gospel in love with your neighbour, classmate, colleague, or anyone else in your corner of the world is fulfilling the Great Commission faithfully.
But God also calls us to go into all nations, not just our own. Participating in global Bible translation means bringing the gospel to some of the most unreached people in the world. It puts you on the front lines. It means being a pioneer for God’s Kingdom. It means helping communities with no history of Christianity to grow into spiritual maturity.
And, since the parts of the world most in need of Bible translations – places like West Africa – are the same places where the Church is growing exponentially, being involved in Bible translation often means helping to raise up the next generation of the Church.
2. There’s still a great deal of need.
Nelson Mandela once famously said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
Currently, there are 7,000 languages in the world and over 2,000 of them still await Bible translation projects. Most have no Scripture at all, while some have only portions or New Testaments. This means that hundreds of millions of people are unable to read the full Bible in their heart-language, unable to know God deeply in the way he has primarily revealed himself.
This is why Bible translation is such an urgent need.
When the Wycliffe Global Alliance conference of 1999 estimated that it was going to take another 150 years to complete the task of translating Scripture into every language that needed it, they decided that this was unacceptable. Imagine waiting until 2150 just to receive the first verse of Scripture in your language! To resolve this, Wycliffe Global Alliance adopted a resolution called Vision 2025:
“Motivated by the pressing need for all peoples to have access to the Word of God in a language that speaks to their hearts, and reaffirming our historic values and our trust in God to accomplish the impossible, we embrace the vision that by the year 2025 a Bible translation project will be in progress for every people group that needs it.”
Bible translators worldwide are still working hard toward this goal and every new recruit to the Bible translation movement brings this goal closer to fruition.
3. There’s something for everyone.
Often people think about Bible translation or missions in general as being restricted to a certain subset of people with the “call of God” on their lives – whatever that means – and a specific set of narrow skills. Maybe you struggled with learning grammar or foreign languages in school.
For one thing, high school experiences of such things aren’t always the best indicators of aptitude. You might be better than you think. Plus, Bible translation and linguistics has little to do with high-school-style grammar or language instruction anyway.
But for another thing, the Bible translation movement is a well-oiled machine of literally hundreds of specialised roles. Gone are the days of sole individuals translating the entirety of Scripture into unknown languages with bare-bones support. Today, Bible translation is a multi-levelled endeavour involving linguists and translators, yes, but also teachers, librarians, ethnomusicologists, engineers, truck drivers, IT technicians and programmers, administration and management staff, and many more.
If you have a heart to serve God in Bible translation, don’t think that you must be a translator to help. Chances are, you’ll be able to contribute in some way using the passions and skills that you have.
4. It’s a humanitarian endeavour.
Bible translation doesn’t just benefit a community by giving them Scripture. This is the primary aim, but it isn’t the only thing that the Bible translation movement does.
Quality Bible translations necessarily involve real, quality linguistic and anthropological research, as well as real language development. Language development involves studying a language and creating a suitable writing system for it, producing literacy materials, teaching native speakers to read and write, and much more.
A huge preponderance of evidence shows that language development brings with it to communities other social and economic benefits, including speakers’ proficiency in second languages. As just one hypothetical example, if a child has the opportunity (due to language development) to become literate in his mother-tongue, then he will be far more successful in becoming literate in a less familiar national language and will thereby have a vast amount more opportunity in life.
By being involved in Bible translation, you bring something of eternal significance while also improving the quality of life that people in these far-flung regions of the earth experience in the here and now.
5. It puts you on the cutting edge of human knowledge.
Language has long been of deep interest to philosophers and cognitive scientists because of the window it opens on the human mind and its ability to reason critically and communicate. Language reveals not only how we think, they say, but the fundamental workings of the mind.
Many translation workers, linguists, and the like are documenting and analysing languages that are next-to unknown or at least under-studied on the global academic stage. This means that, because of the quality research that is required to do a Bible translation justice, many translators make new discoveries every day – new contributions to science and human knowledge. Some even uncover language patterns and features out in remote communities in the Amazon or the Caucasus or Papua New Guinea that come to have large impacts on the entire field of linguistics.
And the more language data we have, the better we can explore the relationship between language and the mind – in doing so revealing the creative genius and beauty of the One who created both.
So how do you get involved?
Firstly, pray. Like all things in life, serving on the mission field is something you should seek God’s opinion on. If this is the right move for you, God will make it clear to you and open the door.
Secondly, contact Wycliffe New Zealand. Find out the opportunities that are available and the best ways that you might be able to serve. Talk with their team about where the needs are. Find out the steps you’ll need to take to help meet those needs, including what study you might need to complete.
While New Zealand doesn’t have a Bible translation training institution, there are several excellent programmes worldwide, all of which are listed on the SIL website. These include SILA in Melbourne, Australia, and (my personal recommendation) CanIL, in Vancouver, Canada, which both offer short summer programmes as well as full-length degrees.
Wycliffe will guide you through the process of studying, developing a support network, finding a field assignment, and finally going.
Get ready for a journey.