The official number of languages needing Bible translation just went up—not down! The new statistics were released just over two months ago. I noticed because I was watching, and because it was so opposite of what we had seen in the past.
This unexpected turn in the numbers points to something significant. But first, the numbers.
Last year, there were “1,636 languages with no Scripture.” Now, there are “2,163 languages needing Scripture translation.” Two primary factors caused the increase:
New languages were identified. Sign languages account for most of those. The people responsible for official language statistics decided to include more sign languages than had previously been included as official languages.*
Definitions changed. Previously, the official record-keepers only included languages where no translation work had ever been done. Now, they are wisely including languages where work began but was left uncompleted—with no Scripture published and in the hands of the people.
What is significant about the unexpected increase? Follow me along these signposts, and I think you’ll see the conclusion coming before we get to it.
Languages can increase!
Not all increase in the number of languages is due to changes in record-keeping and definitions. I won’t pretend to know all the factors that led to increasing the total number of languages from nearly 7,100 to over 7,300. But it’s not impossible for new languages to develop, even though in our day it’s much more likely to go the other way.
The numbers can can also increase as new languages are discovered. Again, this is not something we tend to expect today. But did you know that there are pockets of South American jungle where only God knows for sure how many tribes and languages exist?
Languages do change!
“Forsothe God so louede the world, that he gaf his oon bigetun sone, that ech man that blieueth in to him perische not, but haue euerlastynge lyf.”
I’m glad English Bible translation didn’t stop with John Wycliffe’s 1384 Bible, aren’t you? Even the 1611 KJV would likely not be in popular use today if updated editions had not been published over the next 150 years to adapt to the changing English language.
Many languages, smaller and less widely used than English, change much faster.
The Old Testament is part of the Bible!
According to one source, only one in five Bible translation projects includes the Old Testament. Is the final 26% of God’s written Word adequate without the first 74% that lays the foundation for it?
When the numbers say over 1500 languages have the New Testament, should we breathe a sigh of relief or pray and get to work?
Some translations are poorly done!
Not every method is a good method. Finding the fastest way possible to accomplish a thing doesn’t always mean it will be well done. This is proving true in Bible translation today.
Not every translator or team cares about the right things. Less than honorable motives sometimes enter into Bible translation. Money, prestige, control, political connections, and the good will of big organizations or majority religions are all corrupting factors.
And if a translation is poorly done, then what?
Some translations are unsatisfactory!
Not every way of expressing the meaning of a Scripture text is equally impartial. The trend in recent decades in Bible translation has been toward including more of the translators’ interpretation in the wording. The idea is to make it simple and easy to read for people unfamiliar with the Bible. This is often referred to as dynamic translation.
Believers and churches in many communities are asking what can be done to provide them more literal, less interpretive translations.
Will Bible translation be finished before Jesus returns to gather His own from every nation? Peter Brassington, who participates in Wycliffe Global Alliance’s effort to gather and publish reliable statistics about languages and Bible translation, has the answer.
“There will be no more need for translation when languages stop changing, when each generation is the same as the last, when everyone has all they need. Not ‘Christ won’t return until translation is done’ but ‘translation work won’t be done until Christ returns'.”
*248 sign languages are said to need Bible translation. If you’re struggling to understand how there can be so many sign languages and why the Deaf need their own Scripture translations, you’re not alone. Perhaps we can write about that on this blog sometime.