Through Old Testament authors, He spoke in Hebrew, the language His people understood best. In the New Testament, He spoke in Koine Greek, the trade language of the first century. Today, He continues to speak to many people in many languages, through translators.
The first translations
The early church needed few translations. Believers copied and circulated Scriptures in Greek that most could read. There were translations into Coptic, Arabic and Syriac.
But during the fourth century, Latin began to replace Greek as the common language. Several Latin translations, often inaccurate, leaked into circulation. The Church needed an official translation.
Pope Damasus assigned the job to Jerome, his theological advisor and perhaps the most learned man of the time. Jerome’s translation, called the Latin Vulgate (Vulgate means ‘common’, ie the common, normal Latin which the people spoke) became the Bible of the Middle Ages.
The Vulgate would outlast its purpose. As centuries passed, Latin became the language only of the highly educated. Common people could no longer understand the Church’s liturgy or Scripture reading. Instead of promoting new translations, clergy clung to the Vulgate because it forced people to rely on their interpretation.
John Wycliffe, often called the Morning Star of the Reformation, defied the clergy. He translated the first English Bible and recruited traveling preachers, called Lollards, to spread God’s Word in English. Wycliffe’s Bibles, and later his bones, were burned, but he had sparked a Reformation.
William Tyndale, a scholar fluent in seven languages, left England to work on the first English translation based on the original Hebrew and Greek. In 1525, smuggled copies of his New Testament began circulating England.
“I had perceaved by experyence how that it was impossible to stablysh the laye people in any truth, excepte the scripture were playnly layde before their eyes in their mother tongue.” (William Tyndale)
“I have undertaken to translate the Bible into German. This was good for me; otherwise I might have died in the mistaken notion that I was a learned fellow.” (Martin Luther)
James I (1564-1625), King of England, alarmed by all the versions appearing, commissioned a group of biblical scholars to produce an authorised version, combining the best of earlier translations. The Authorised Version, written in the language of the day, appeared in 1611, the first Bible produced by an authorised group of scholars.
The Bible, however, was virtually a European book since the majority of Scripture translations were done in languages spoken only in Europe. Missionaries changed that. Matthew’s Gospel in Malay, which appeared in 1629, broke a thousand year drought: there had been no Scripture translation outside Europe since the seventh century. In America, John Eliot translated the Bible into the language of the Massachusetts Indians. His translation appeared in 1662 and became the first Bible for missionary use in America.
By 1800 there were 66 languages with some portion of Scripture, 40 with the whole Bible. God used an English cobbler named William Carey to forward translation in India and Asia. Believing that the Bible was the most effective way to advance Christianity, Carey translated or helped translate Scripture in over 20 Indian languages. With his colleagues he translated and printed Scripture in 45 languages and dialects in Asia, 35 for the first time. This work was done between 1793 and 1834.
Beginning in 1804 Bible societies were formed for the translation, publication and distribution of the Scriptures, and translation became a worldwide effort to reach people who had never heard the Good News. Missionary efforts in the twentieth century resulted in giant leaps in Bible translation.
A new vision
In 1917, a young missionary named William Cameron Townsend found it difficult to evangelise the Cakchiquel people with a Spanish Bible. One man challenged him with these words, “If your God is so great, why can’t he speak my language?”
While working on a Cakchiquel New Testament, Townsend caught a new vision for Bible translation–every people group, no matter how small or remote, should have a Bible they could read.
Townsend founded Wycliffe Bible Translators in 1942 and its sister organisation, the Summer Institute of Linguistics, to fulfil his vision.
Borrowing the name of the pre-Reformation hero, John Wycliffe, who first translated the Bible into English, Townsend founded “Camp Wycliffe” in 1934 as a linguistics training school.
The first translation done by Wycliffe personnel (Kenneth Pike and Donald Stark) was completed in 1951 in the San Miguel Mixtec language of Mexico. Twenty-seven years later, in 1978, the 100th was completed – in the Amuesha language of Peru. Just seven years later, the 200th was completed – in the Hanga language of Ghana, Africa. In January 1989 the 300th was completed – the Cotabato Manobo of the Philippines. On 18 March 2000 the 500th New Testament was dedicated for the Suriname Javanese.
Today, Wycliffe Bible Translators partners with other organisations internationally to translate Scripture, train field personnel in linguistics and promote interest in translation. Over two thousand more translations are in progress.