A Modern-Day Threat to Bible Translation

Bible translation is a messy business. It always has been. Whereas there are always “external” threats to this great task (being refused visas, terrorism, trouble finding nationals to work with), I am convinced that the greatest threat that faces us today is internal. Like the armies mentioned in the Old Testament that lost battles because they turned on one another, I fear that we too may be disoriented, thinking our colleagues are really our enemies. Instead of encouraging one another to press on in battle, I fear that we may actually end up destroying one another.
Hot-Button Issues
Here are a couple of the issues that I see leading to division among the world’s Bible translators:
Efficiency vs. Integrity
There are thousands of languages that do not have the Word of God in their language and thus there are many individuals dying apart from Christ. This is a tragedy and should make us feel a sense of urgency to get the Word of God translated for each and every language. And so there is a huge push to get as many Bible translation projects started as soon as possible. New, and sometimes controversial, methods are being considered and employed to speed up the process.
And then there is the other side that agrees that it is an urgent task but that it is also a sacred task that needs to be done well. These are those who often believe in God’s sovereignty to save every one of his elect and thus concern themselves not as much with the speed of translation but mainly with the integrity of translating the Word of God as carefully as possible. The new methods being employed to speed up the Bible translation process are at best suspect, if not rejected, by this camp because they are believed to compromise the integrity of the translation.
And so there is tension. One side looks at the other and says, “Why can you not feel the urgency here?!” while the other responds, “If we compromise the message through bad translation techniques, what’s the point?!” Both agree that there is urgency and both agree that we should translate the Bible well, and yet methodologies end up looking very different.
Role of the Nationals vs Role of Ex-Pats
There is quite a spectrum of opinion regarding this issue. Some missionaries see themselves as the principle translators who call the shots for the translation project from start to finish. On the other side of the spectrum, some missionaries see themselves in more of a PR role, crossing the ocean to convince the nationals that they themselves need to do a Bible translation and pointing them in the right direction to get the needed training. And if the nationals do not show any interest in the project, they are no longer pursued by the agency.
And then there are a million questions and opinions in the middle such as: Can an animist be on a Bible translation team? How much theological training should nationals get in order to be translators, if any? What is the role of the ex-pats? Are they there to lead the project through to the end? Or are they to wait until called upon to offer their expertise? If an ex-pat is part of the translation project, will the local church automatically assume he will do everything and fund everything and not take any initiative themselves? Should not the role of the ex-pat be to empower the local church to respond to the call of Bible translation? But what if the local church in the people group is steeped in heresy and syncretism? Are they qualified to translate?
Those involved in translation ministry come down on all sides of these issues and unfortunately there can be tension between the various camps.
I have listed just two hot-button issues among many, not even including theological issues like the “Son of God” controversy. And I mention these topics of debate to show that Bible translation is messy and there is room for lots of very strong opinions. But when there are differing opinions, we find ourselves at a crossroads: Either we will grow bitter and see “them” as opponents or we will humble ourselves and seek to sharpen and be sharpened by those with whom we disagree.  Whereas I turn mainly to those in Bible translation circles now, I think the same principles can be applied to anyone we disagree with in the church.

What is it Going to Be? Bitterness or Love?

Who is the Real Enemy?
When we start to grow bitter is when we think that those that disagree with us are our enemies. But, if they are Christ’s, they are not. Ephesians 6:12 says “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” It is not this person with this opinion or that who is “the problem” but instead there are real evil spiritual forces that are telling us lies about one another and seeking to pit us against one another.
Have we Been Forgiven Little?
Maybe there are those in our circles who are guilty of being belittling and insulting. Maybe there are agencies that have come in and booted us out of our projects that we have labored over for years. Maybe we have been wronged. Maybe we are frustrated with people always trying to micro-manage everything we do, making sure we do it their way. Maybe we have been sinned against.
So what are we going to do about it? Are we going to be like the man who chokes his debtor and demands that he repay every dime? Are we going to, like him, forget that we have a great King who has forgiven our great debt that we had towards him? Are we going to demand someone pay a debt they owe to us even when we have been forgiven of such a greater debt? (Matthew 18:23-35)
We are Christians and the very heart of our message is that we have a mighty King who has graciously chosen to forget our sins through his Son Jesus. As children of this great King, we are called to forgive in the same way as we have been forgiven.  
Making a Mockery of the Word of God
Finally, I pose the question: How can we go all throughout the world heralding a book that speaks of the love of God for sinners when we ourselves do not extend that same love to one another? Jesus said that all people will know that we are his disciples, how? By our love for the lost? No. By our commitment to the Bibleless peoples of the world? No. By our missionary zeal? No again.

What testifies to the watching world that we belong to Jesus is our love for one another. It is how we forgive one another, how we use our words to build one another up and not tear one another down. It is how we pray for one another and bear one another’s burdens.  This is God’s megaphone to the world that we belong to him. This is God’s missionary strategy.

To conclude, to fellow Bible translators, I write this not try to gloss over any issues that need to be discussed, but to call us to discuss the issues with love for our brothers in our hearts. I call us to not see our fellow-soldiers as the enemy but to see our sin of bitterness as the enemy. I call us to pray for one another’s ministries, to rejoice with Bible translators who rejoice and weep with Bible translators who weep. I call us to challenge one another, confront one another, and admonish one another all with the desire to sharpen and be sharpened, and never to tear down.
And to those who are supporters of the ministry of Bible translation, we ask you to pray for us, that we would show the watching world that we are disciples of Jesus by our love for one another. That we would honor Jesus not just in seeing the Bible translated but in working together in a way that honors him.
If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. – 1 John 4:20

Author: Stacey Hare

Stacey is a servant of Jesus Christ as well as a wife, mom, linguist, and Bible translator. Right now she is working creating literacy materials so the Kwakum people can learn to read and write in their language. She is also working on translating Old Testament stories into Kwakum with her husband and local Kwakum colleagues.