Last Languages for Bible Translation

  • Religion
  • 2008

About 6,900 languages are currently in use across the globe. Only a few hundred of these have a complete translation of the Christian Scripture; another 2,300 have a partial translation. There are 2,200 languages into which the Bible is currently being translated (often a laborious process—an alphabet or grammar sometimes has to first be created because the language is spoken but not written). That leaves more than 1,900 tongues for which no Bible translation has even been started; these have around 200 million native speakers.

Wycliffe Bible Translators was founded in 1942 by Cameron Townsend, who discovered while serving as a missionary in Guatemala that many of the people he was working with didn’t understand Spanish; they spoke Cakchiquel, in which no Bible text was available. Since then, Wycliffe and other nonprofits have made great progress in translations. University of Notre Dame professor Mark Noll describes the creation of Wycliffe Bible Translators as “one of the great Christian events of the century,” and “a turning point symbolizing the movement of Christianity from the northern hemisphere to the southern.” It has also been found that Bible literacy often becomes an entryway to multiple forms of progress for isolated peoples, not only in reading and writing but in bettering public health, agricultural improvements, human rights, and economic development.

However, it was a huge task that Wycliffe took on. By 1999 the group was launching Bible translations at the rate of 20 new languages per year; at that pace it would have required an additional century and a quarter to reach all remaining populations. So Wycliffe committed to a breakthrough: It promised to raise a billion dollars of donated money and use that to hire additional linguists and deploy new techniques to fast-track translations. Soon, the so-called Last Languages Campaign was launching 109 new versions of Scripture each year. The goal is to have a translation at least begun in every language under the sun within 17 years of the campaign’s 2008 commencement.

In short order the Last Languages Campaign had raised $235 million, including one anonymous $50 million gift. Today Wycliffe employs nearly 6,000 translators, linguists, aviators, and supporting humanitarian workers and teachers. Along with Biblical literacy, its teams now bring water purification systems, AIDs education, and other assistance to 90 poor countries.