Would You Buy a Microwave Bible?

I try to read about translation methodology and principles as I am able. So, when I saw an article called “Microwave Bible?” I could not resist the draw. This particular article was about new methods being used to speed up Bible translation, a goal that I (theoretically) love. Here is a basic summary of the article:
Wycliffe Associates (a sister organization to Wycliffe Bible Translators) has a program for rapid Bible translation called MAST (Mobilized Assistance Supporting Translation). They seek out very small people groups that are unlikely to be targeted for a Bible translation project by any other organization. They work with a group of mother-tongue speakers who simultaneously translate multiple texts of the Bible. What prompted this article was the announcement that WA had translated almost half of the New Testament in two weeks with one of these people groups. WA president, Bruce Smith, said that theoretically using this method a group could translate the Bible in two months. This is a stark contrast to the traditional method which usually takes 15-20 years to translate the New Testament.
There are around 1,900 languages that still do not have a single word of the Bible and not enough translators to do the job. I am eager to think through solutions to this problem, but in reading the article, I could not help but ask a few questions.
1. Can We Be Faithful to the Bible?
I was talking to a translator here in Cameroon that spent decades working with one people group. He said that one issue he is still wrestling with the people over is the word that they are using for sorcery. Magic is a big part of life here and according to many Cameroonians, it can be used for both good and bad. So, his people group has resisted using the generic word for “sorcery” in their language, not wanting to condemn the practice as a whole. What is the problem with this? The Bible condemns sorcery, not just “bad” sorcery. Saul went to see a witch for the “good” purpose of wanting to get advice from already-dead Samuel. And what was God’s response? Judgement. God hates sorcery and does not want his people using it, ever.
This story illustrates the fact that translation is difficult, and native speakers are not always the best in choosing how to translate, especially when they are not Christians! The Bible is a book that confronts culture. A book whose main hero was murdered while confronting culture. In many situations where the Bible is not translated, the people are not saved. Unsaved people do not want their culture confronted. And, I fear, leaving the translation process in the hands of unsaved men (or even immature Christians) would result in a neutered Bible.
This really only leaves two options: learn the language and guide the translation project, or learn the language and disciple people to maturity. The former is what we are doing, the latter is very difficult without having the Bible. Both take a very long time.
2. Would You Buy a Microwave Bible?
I see many comments on Facebook regarding Bible translations. We are blessed as English speakers to have an enormous wealth of options in this regard. Most pastors that I know use multiple translations to prepare their sermons. And, of course, this at time leads to arguments over which translation(s) is the best. But imagine a new translation came out, we will call it the RQT (Really Quick Translation). The name sticks out and you decide to research it. On the RQT website you find a listing of the Bible translators and their methodology. You find out that of the 13 translators: 10 were farmers, 2 were businessmen, 1 was a teacher, 0 had any Bible training. In fact, none of the translators were Christians at the time of translation. Also, none of the translators were literate in English, though all spoke it fluently. The translation was done over the course of two months and then checked by several other illiterate English speakers and a German Bible translator (after the Bible had been retranslated into German by one of the translators that was bilingual). Would you buy this Bible? My guess, you are saying “no.” That is what I say too. How about this, would you give it as a gift to an unbelieving friend? If the answer is no, should we be producing this kind of translation for minority people groups?
3. Is it “Better than Nothing”?
These translations are being done for people groups that are VERY small. So small, that they are not “on anybody’s priority list.” You might think that is funny, but in reality there are people groups in the world that do not have any of the Bible that are over a million people strong. Our people group (the Bakoum) are considered small in the Bible translation community and they number around 10,000. All that to say, if these small people groups (one I looked at was under 200) ever get the Bible, many will have died waiting. And in talking to someone who worked on a MAST project, I was told “it is better than nothing.” Is that true? I have been told that in one country in Asia a translation was completed after many years that had a minor mistake that left heresy in the church in that country. It took decades to weed that heresy from the church. With all of the time and effort that we put into English translations, there was one translation that said “Thou shalt commit adultery.” If mistakes are made with YEARS of training, learning and checking, think about what could go wrong in a rapid translation.
Another helpful illustration: a translator told us that in the translation process he had pastors teaching the Bible as the various books were translated. One pastor had conversations with a young man in his church about sex before marriage. He went to the newly translated Bible to talk about sexual immorality to find that the translators had chosen the word meaning “adultery” every time the Bible condemned “sexual immorality.” This pastor told the translator that he could provide this young man with no reason to stay pure before marriage because the Bible only condemned sex outside of marriage for an already married man. Fortunately they were able to correct this before the whole Bible was printed and were thus able to confront sexual immorality in their culture as the Bible would have them. These are the kinds of translation issues that are only caught over time.
4. Is There Another Way?
I have come to the conclusion that translating the Bible is like baking a cake. For certain types of cakes it takes a long time to prepare and bake them. You could turn up the temperature or alter the ingredients to speed up the process, but the end result would be different. And that is the one thing that we as Bible translators do not want: something different. The salvation of the people in our culture depends on the Gospel we are translating being the same that it was thousands of years ago. I believe that we have to resolve ourselves to taking time when translating it in order to be faithful. But is there not ANY way to speed up the process?
I believe that there are two ways that we can make things go faster:
  1. We can learn from MAST projects and seek to involve a greater number of translators. When you read about the lives of our predecessors (Adoniram Judson, William Carey, etc.) the idea was that the missionary was the main translator that worked mainly with one mother-tongue speaker. I know of several projects that have moved to a model of having multiple mother-tongue translators who do most of the actual translation work. The missionary in this situation acts more as a consultant, but one that is very involved in the process and must actually speak the language well. This can be a prayer for your Bible translation missionaries. It is much harder to get people to sign up for a translation project that takes years than one that takes weeks.
  2. I believe that translation must be tied in with discipleship, when possible. The more biblically trained men and women in the culture, the more people who can take the burden of the work from the missionary. This means that the missionary needs to be trained and needs to seek to train others. This is one reason we are very happy to be a part of Together for the Bible. This is a group that is dedicated to sending out missionaries that are theologically trained that are dedicated not only to Bible translation, but also to church planting and training up leaders. The goal here is to raise up a church, not just to translate the Bible.
We are always open to considering other methods of Bible translation and hope that we can have the greatest impact possible. However, even taking in consideration the above principles, we are planning on being here for a long time. And, at the end of the day, we are doing it because we believe that fidelity to the Bible requires time. I am hopeful that things can move more quickly with our project, but a lot of that is out of our hands. We ask that you would pray not primarily that we would do the job quickly, but that we would do it well.

Author: David M. Hare

Dave is a husband, father of four Africans, and is currently helping the Kwakum people do Oral Bible Storying and Bible translation in Cameroon, Africa.