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Bible translators hope to have every language covered in 15 years
A testimony to all nations about to be complete? - Bible translators hope to have every language covered in 15 years


"And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come" (Matthew 24:14).

A Christian endeavor of almost 2,000 years could be substantially completed by 2025.

Protestant translators expect to have the Bible — or at least some of it — written in every one of the world's 6,909 spoken languages.

"We're in the greatest period of acceleration in 20 centuries of Bible translation," said Morrison resident Paul Edwards, who heads up Wycliffe Bible Translators' $1 billion Last Languages Campaign.

Portable computers and satellites get the credit for speeding things up by about 125 years.

Previously, a Wycliffe missionary family or team would spend decades learning and transcribing one language in a remote corner of the Earth.

Wycliffe's missionaries had the credo, "one team, one language, one lifetime," Edwards said.

At that pace, the target date had been 2150, Edwards said.

Help from technology

Contemporary missionaries, armed with technology and making greater use of apprentice native translators, might now be able to oversee transcriptions of several languages in their lifetimes, Edwards said.

"Wycliffe missionaries don't evangelize, teach theology, hold Bible study or start churches. They give (preliterate people) a written language," Edwards said. "They teach them to read and write in their mother tongue."

The missionaries develop alphabets. They create reading primers. They translate the Bible.

About 2,200 languages remain without a Bible. About 350 million people, mostly in India, China, sub-Saharan Africa and Papua New Guinea, speak only these languages.

Working on this "to-do" list are about 6,600 career and short-term missionaries with training in the Bible and linguistics.

They are following the New Testament directive of Jesus in the Book of Matthew: "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded of you."

The missionaries have to come up with their own means of support, often a church sponsorship, in the field.

Katie Zartman, a 27-year-old Loveland native and Colorado State University graduate, is a senior graphic designer with Wycliffe at its Orlando, Fla.-headquarters.

She recently returned from a two-week mission to Senegal in French-speaking West Africa, where she taught a workshop on layout and design to Saafis, a small Senegalese minority for which Wycliffe is not only translating the Bible but also helping to create a small body of native literature.

"Half weren't confident in their basic computer skills when they began, but they were book publishers by the end of two weeks," Zartman said.

A people's first books

Twelve participants using open-source software (downloaded for free) completed a dozen rough drafts of 24-page booklets in the Saafi mother tongue. Most were children's stories.

"Once they have the Bible in their heart language, then it's almost like a dictionary for them to write about their oral traditions and culture," Zartman said. "The Saafis see the danger of being swallowed up by the cultures around them. Now they can create their own books."

The modern era of Bible translation began with William Cameron Townsend in 1942. He founded Wycliffe, named for the Oxford don John Wycliffe, who first translated the Bible into English in the late 1300s. Previously, English- speakers read the Bible in Latin.

So far, Wycliffe and its related organization, the Summer Institute of Language (now known as SIL International), have participated in more than 700 Scripture translations.

SIL has formal consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council and the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Edwards, a former fundraiser for Stanford University and promoter of the Colorado- grown evangelical men's ministry Promise Keepers, has raised more than $170 million in less than two years for this final big push, the Last Languages Campaign.

Edwards said that Wycliffe is helping preserve indigenous peoples' languages and cultures.

"Five hundred years ago, there were twice the number of languages we have now," Edwards said.

Many more languages are close to extinction — spoken by only a few elderly people and no children. Yet once a language is written, it can't be lost completely.

Anthropologists have been more skeptical about the effect of missionaries on indigenous cultures.

"These folks, whatever good they might do, are not disinterested parties," said University of Colorado anthropology professor Paul Shankman. "They have their own goals."

Bringing foreign ideas

Associate professor David Stoll of Middlebury College in Vermont, who has studied Wycliffe, has written that Wycliffe missionaries' activities, like those of all missionaries, become bound up not only with religious traditions but also with the expansion of English-speaking culture, economics, technology, medicine and political aims. They bring all these things with them.

"If you are not able to satisfy the leadership of the village that you are doing good and are a helpful addition, there is no reason for them to presume that what you are asking to bring to them — a written language — is particularly valuable," Edwards said. "Helping improve a village water system or bringing in the harvest with them might get you a pass to work on your project."

The Bible itself is no small influence on culture.

Yet the translators believe they bring only gifts.

"I am excited to put God's word in all people's heart language," Zartman said. "Until people can read the Bible in their own language, God is a foreign concept."

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