I live my life in English. I think in English, speak in English, sin, pray and love in English. But in spite of that, I firmly believe that I need the Bible in Hdi, a language of Cameroon – even though I don’t speak a word of it – and that you do, too. Let me tell you why.
It might be tempting for those of us who speak English as our first language to think that we no longer have any need for Bible translation, or that it would be better to teach people English than to help them translate the Bible into their own languages. After all, English Bible translations have been available since the 16th century, and today we can access about 60 of them on BibleGateway alone.
‘Scripture in my language is satisfying… like a sweet banana. I can’t get enough of it!’
But the reality is that people are far more likely to come to know Jesus when the Bible is available in their own languages: ‘Reading the Scripture in another language is like eating a banana with the skin on,’ a lady from Asia once said. ‘Now the Scripture in my language is satisfying… like a sweet banana. I can’t get enough of it!’ And when people are able to taste and see that the Lord is good, the effects ripple out, as the story of the Hdi New Testament translation shows.
Actually, when I said I don’t speak a word of Hdi, that’s not quite right, because I do – just one. It’s a word that can give us new eyes to see God’s character. When I first discovered this story, I learnt the Hdi word for love:
Lee and Tammi Bramlett were serving with Wycliffe Bible Translators alongside the Hdi people. They had found that almost every Hdi verb had forms ending in i, a, and u. But when it came to the word for love, they could only find i and a. Why no u?
Lee asked the Hdi translation committee, which included the most influential leaders in the community: ‘Could you ‘dvi’ your wife?’
‘Yes,’ they said. That would mean that the wife had once been loved but the love was now gone.
‘Could you ‘dva’ your wife?’ Yes - that kind of love depended on the wife’s actions. She would be loved as long as she remained faithful and cared for her husband.
‘Could you ‘dvu’ your wife?’ Everyone laughed. ‘Of course not! If you said that, you would have to keep loving your wife no matter what she did, even if she never got you water, never made you meals. Even if she committed adultery, you would be compelled to just keep on loving her. No, we would never say ‘dvu’. It just doesn’t exist.’
Lee sat quietly for a while, thinking about John 3:16, and then he asked: ‘Could God ‘dvu’ people?’
‘Do you know what this would mean?’
For several minutes, nobody spoke. Then tears began to roll down the weathered faces of these elderly men. Finally they responded: ‘Do you know what this would mean? This would mean that God kept loving us over and over, millennia after millennia, while all that time we rejected his great love. He is compelled to love us, even though we have sinned more than any people.’
God has chosen to reveal something about himself through Hdi. The unconditional nature of his love is baked right into the grammar. It’s not that you can’t express it in English – it’s that you can’t avoid it in Hdi. Every time you talk about God’s love in Hdi, you have to remember that he keeps loving us over and over, millennia after millennia.
The primary reason for Bible translation is so that every person can come to know the God who speaks their language. But what generosity - through his word in the language of one people group in Cameroon, God blesses me, too! As I see him more clearly, I love him more and learn to love others more, too. As 1 John 3:2 says, ‘when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is’. And this is a taste of that truth.
The effects of Bible translation ripple out, transforming communities and strengthening the global Church. Christians can grow in faith and play their part in obeying Jesus’ command to go and make disciples of all nations. And as one body, isn’t their need for Scripture in their languages also our need?
In Romans 12:15 we are told to weep with those who weep and to rejoice with those who rejoice. As we share one another’s burdens, we also share each other’s joy. In December 2013, the Hdi New Testament was launched, and even now they are pressing on with translating the Old Testament, both great causes for rejoicing.
But with 1.5 billion people worldwide who still don’t have access to the whole Bible in their own language, what treasures are still waiting to be uncovered? What bananas are still to be tasted? I for one can’t wait to find out.