A Book That “Speaks” Living Languages
If the language in which a book is written dies, for all practical purposes the book dies too. Few people today can read the ancient languages in which the Bible was written. Yet it is alive. It has survived because it has “learned to speak” the living languages of mankind. The translators who “taught” it to speak other languages faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles at times.
TRANSLATING the Bible—with its more than 1,100 chapters and 31,000 verses—is an imposing task. However, over the centuries, devoted translators gladly took on the challenge. Many of them were willing to suffer hardships and even to die for their work. The history of how the Bible came to be translated into the languages of mankind is a remarkable account of perseverance and ingenuity. Consider just a small part of that compelling record.
The Challenges Facing the Translators
How do you translate a book into a language that has no written script? Numerous Bible translators faced just such a challenge. For example, Ulfilas, of the fourth century C.E., set out to translate the Bible into what was then a modern but not a written language—Gothic. Ulfilas overcame the challenge by inventing the Gothic alphabet of 27 characters, which he based primarily on the Greek and the Latin alphabets. His translation of nearly the entire Bible into Gothic was completed before 381 C.E.
In the ninth century, two Greek-speaking brothers, Cyril (originally named Constantine) and Methodius, both outstanding scholars and linguists, wanted to translate the Bible for Slavic-speaking people. But Slavonic—the forerunner of today’s Slavic languages—had no written script. So the two brothers invented an alphabet in order to produce a translation of the Bible. Thus the Bible could now “speak” to many more people, those in the Slavic world.
In the 16th century, William Tyndale set out to translate the Bible from the original languages into English, but he encountered stiff opposition from both Church and State. Tyndale, who was educated at Oxford, wanted to produce a translation that even “a boy that driveth the plough” could understand.1 But to accomplish this, he had to flee to Germany, where his English “New Testament” was printed in 1526. When copies were smuggled into England, the authorities were so enraged that they began burning them publicly. Tyndale was later betrayed. Just before he was strangled and his body burned, he uttered these words with a loud voice: “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes!”2
Bible translation continued; the translators would not be stopped. By 1800, at least portions of the Bible had “learned to speak” 68 languages. Then, with the formation of Bible Societies—in particular the British and Foreign Bible Society, founded in 1804—the Bible quickly “learned” even more new languages. Young men by the hundreds volunteered to go to foreign lands as missionaries, many with the prime purpose of translating the Bible.
Learning the Languages of Africa
In 1800, there were only about a dozen written languages in Africa. Hundreds of other spoken languages had to wait until someone invented a writing system. Missionaries came and learned the languages, without the aid of primers or dictionaries. Then they labored to develop a written form, and after that they taught the people how to read the script. This they did so that someday people could read the Bible in their own tongue.3
One such missionary was a Scotsman named Robert Moffat. In 1821, at the age of 25, Moffat set up a mission among the Tswana-speaking people of southern Africa. To learn their unwritten language, he mixed with the people, at times journeying into the interior to live among them. “The people were kind,” he later wrote, “and my blundering in the language gave rise to many bursts of laughter. Never, in one instance, would an individual correct a word or sentence, till he or she had mimicked the original so effectually, as to give great merriment to others.”4 Moffat persevered and eventually mastered the language, developing a written form for it.
In 1829, after working among the Tswana for eight years, Moffat finished translating the Gospel of Luke. To get it printed, he traveled about 600 miles by ox wagon to the coast and then took a ship to Cape Town. There the governor gave him permission to use a government press, but Moffat had to set the type and do the printing himself, finally publishing the Gospel in 1830. For the first time, the Tswana could read a portion of the Bible in their own language. In 1857, Moffat completed a translation of the entire Bible into Tswana.
Moffat later described the reaction of the Tswana when the Gospel of Luke was first made available to them. He noted: “I have known individuals to come hundreds of miles to obtain copies of St. Luke. . . . I have seen them receive portions of St. Luke, and weep over them, and grasp them to their bosoms, and shed tears of thankfulness, till I have said to more than one, ‘You will spoil your books with your tears.’”5
Devoted translators like Moffat thus gave many Africans—some of whom initially saw no need for a written language—the first opportunity to communicate in writing. The translators, though, believed that they were giving the people of Africa an even more valuable gift—the Bible in their own tongue. Today the Bible, in whole or in part, “speaks” in over 600 African languages.
Learning the Languages of Asia
While translators in Africa struggled to develop written forms for spoken languages, on the other side of the world, other translators encountered a much different obstacle—translating into languages that already had complex written scripts. Such was the challenge facing those who translated the Bible into the languages of Asia.
At the beginning of the 19th century, William Carey and Joshua Marshman went to India and mastered many of its written languages. With the help of William Ward, a printer, they produced translations of at least portions of the Bible in nearly 40 languages.6 Regarding William Carey, author J. Herbert Kane explains: “He invented a beautiful, free-flowing colloquial style [of the Bengali language] that replaced the old classical form, thereby making it more intelligible and attractive to modern readers.”7
Adoniram Judson, born and raised in the United States, traveled to Burma, and in 1817 he began to translate the Bible into Burmese. Describing the difficulty of mastering an Oriental language to the degree necessary to translate the Bible, he wrote: ‘When we take up a language spoken by a people on the other side of the earth, whose thoughts run in channels diverse from ours, and whose codes of expression are consequently all new, and the letters and words all totally destitute of the least resemblance to any language we have ever met with; when we have no dictionary or interpreter and must get something of the language before we can avail ourselves of the assistance of a native teacher—that means work!’8
In Judson’s case, it meant some 18 years of painstaking work. The final portion of the Burmese Bible was printed in 1835. His stay in Burma, however, cost him dearly. While he was working on the translation, he was accused of spying and hence spent nearly two years in a mosquito-infested jail. Not long after his release, his wife and young daughter died of fever.
When 25-year-old Robert Morrison arrived in China in 1807, he undertook the extremely difficult task of translating the Bible into Chinese, one of the most complex written languages. He had only a limited knowledge of Chinese, which he had started studying just two years earlier. Morrison also had to contend with Chinese law, which sought to maintain China’s isolation. The Chinese people were prohibited, under penalty of death, to teach the language to foreigners. For a foreigner to translate the Bible into Chinese was a capital offense.
Undaunted but cautious, Morrison continued studying the language, learning it rapidly. Within two years he obtained a job as a translator for the East India Company. During the day, he worked for the company, but in secret and under constant threat of detection, he worked on translating the Bible. In 1814, seven years after he arrived in China, he had the Christian Greek Scriptures ready for printing.9 Five years later, with the help of William Milne, he completed the Hebrew Scriptures.
It was an enormous achievement—the Bible could now “speak” in the language used by more people than any other in the world. Thanks to capable translators, translations into other Asian languages followed. Today, portions of the Bible are available in over 500 of the languages of Asia.
Why did men such as Tyndale, Moffat, Judson, and Morrison labor for years—some even risking their lives—to translate a book for people they did not know and, in some cases, for people who did not have a written language? Certainly not for glory or financial gain. They believed that the Bible is God’s Word and that it should “speak” to people—all people—in their own language.
Whether you feel that the Bible is the Word of God or not, perhaps you would agree that the kind of self-sacrificing spirit displayed by those devoted translators is all too rare in today’s world. Is not a book that inspires such unselfishness worth investigating?
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(For fully formatted text, see publication)
Number of languages in which portions of the Bible have been printed since 1800
68 107 171 269 367 522 729 971 1,199 1,762 2,123
1800 1900 1995
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Tyndale translating the Bible
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