There is scarcely a century in the Christian era when Bible translation of some sort was not going on somewhere. That is remarkable.
It really does seem that Bible translation has always been integral to God’s mission. Nowhere is this more striking than in the early Syrian Church. Amazingly, the Church that Saul intended to persecute in Acts 9 became a centre for mission. The first translation of the Scriptures in the Christian era was into Syriac around 170 AD, as spoken in Damascus!
Bible translation activity then spread out from Syria over the following centuries into Armenia, Georgia, Samarkand and beyond. The Septuagint was almost always the source text for the Old Testament at this stage. This was a translation from Hebrew into Greek, completed around 130 BC, for Greek-speaking Jews. It was what Paul used when quoting the Old Testament. You know what they say: ‘If it was good enough for Paul, it’s good enough for…’
Making the Scriptures available to ordinary people
One man not convinced by this argument was Jerome. Around 382 AD the Pope commissioned his secretary, Jerome, to produce a new translation in Latin, as the Septuagint-based versions were, shall we say, rather messy. Jerome set about the task with reported trepidation, but also with great seriousness. He learnt Hebrew and, thanks to the work of Origen, was able to access Scripture texts in both Hebrew and Greek. The remark, attributed to him, that ‘ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ’ reveals something of his passion.
The resulting translation, produced in the Latin of the people, is known to us as the Vulgate. We scarcely realise how many of Jerome’s key terms we have adopted into English. Words like Scripture, salvation, justification and regeneration made their way into English via their Latin form in the Vulgate.
Translation in the Middle Ages
You might think that the ‘Dark Ages’ would not have seen many Bible translators at work. It was, surely, the time when Islamic expansion caused the Church to go into lockdown mode and look inwards. And yet this was the time of Cyril and Methodius, missionaries and Bible translators for the Slavs. There was also impressive activity in translating passages of Scripture into Arabic in Seville, Baghdad and Damascus. We know too that Bede translated John’s Gospel into Old English. Peter Waldo did similar things in France.
John Wycliffe emerged in 14th century England as a high profile opponent of privilege and power in the Church. Towards the end of his life he gave expression to his convictions by translating the Scriptures from the Vulgate into Middle English for the ordinary people. After his death Wycliffe was excommunicated, his body exhumed and burnt. But unlike those before him, Wycliffe had an effect that rippled across Europe: Jan Hus and others in Prague produced Scriptures in Hungarian and Bohemian. Hus was declared a heretic and promptly burnt at the stake.
Two events in the 15th century changed the course of Bible translation like little else. Gutenberg’s development of the printing press is well known, but the fall of Constantinople in 1453 is often overlooked. Knowledge of and access to the Greek and Hebrew texts had dried up in the Western Church. It was the Eastern Church that had kept this old knowledge, so when Constantinople fell, scholars fled westwards clutching their Greek and Hebrew texts. They ended up in Paris, in London and Rotterdam. It was Erasmus of Rotterdam who produced an edition of the Greek text of the New Testament in 1516.
Printing Bibles created entirely new distribution possibilities and having the Greek text available meant translation was far more accurate. Combine these two factors with the growing desire aroused by such as Wycliffe to read the Scriptures for oneself and you can see how the Bible translation scene had been altered. By 1600, printed versions of the entire Bible had appeared in 15 European languages.
William Tyndale’s translation of the Bible into the English of the 1530s stands out for English speakers. He coined so many expressions that communicated powerfully. His use of the archery term for missing the mark, ‘to sin’, was masterful. So was his ingenious invention ‘at-one-ment’. Many other phrases, such as ‘land of the living’, ‘the parting of the ways’, ‘apple of my eye’ are so familiar that we forget their biblical origin. The King James Version, published in 1611, retained much of Tyndale’s groundbreaking work.
The pace of Bible translation slackened in the next 200 years, but following the growth of mission around the coasts of Africa and India, it picked up again in the first part of the 19th century. Henry Martyn died exhausted in Armenia at the age of 31, but not before he had translated the New Testament into three languages! William Carey’s mission out of Serampore in India saw work in 40 languages. By 1880, Yoruba-speaking Anglican Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther had become the first African mother-tongue translator. However, this was all brought to a halt when colonial attitudes took over: ‘European languages sufficed’. It was a new dark age!
The 20th century saw increasingly hopeful signs, once the bloodletting of 1914–18 was out of the way. SIL, founded in 1934 by Cameron Townsend, and the Wycliffe organisations that followed were at the heart of a growing focus on people groups who hadn’t yet heard the gospel.
This was the century when new technologies again made a huge impact on Bible translation efforts: the computer, mobile phone and internet revolutionised the method, pace and quality of translation as well as distribution.
Women began to lead the way in Bible translation. Pandita Ramabai, a high caste Indian convert to Christianity, provides a remarkable example. At 24, she found herself destitute: an impoverished, orphaned widow. She learnt Greek and Hebrew in order to translate the Scriptures into Marathi, and completed her translation just before her death in 1922. The third SIL training camp, held in 1936, saw Florrie Hansen (later Cowan) and Eunice Pike go off to work together in Mexico – without husbands!
By the end of the century, Bible translation organisations were emerging in one country after another. What had been an occasional flurry of translation activity had become a global movement!
The ongoing story
Today, the whole Bible has been translated into nearly 700 different languages, and with over 2,500 active translation projects in progress, the Bible translation movement is stronger than ever.
However, this movement is not unchallenged. Both governments and churches continue to argue for the sufficiency and efficiency of just a few global languages at the expense of the rest, and the translation agenda tends to reflect the desires of those with financial power rather than those with local insight.
But the lesson of history is that the Bible translation movement is not easily extinguished. If, as the late Gambian-born historian Dr Lamin Sanneh suggested, Christ himself is the greatest act of translation – God translated into mankind – we can be sure that the Bible translation story is not over yet!
David Morgan worked in multiple roles in Central Africa for 16 years; he then headed up Wycliffe’s training programme in the UK for 12 years and now works in a management role supporting Bible translation in Eurasia. He gives an annual presentation on Bible translation history at the School of Language and Scripture.