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The Early Days of Computers in Bible Translation

Have you ever wondered how Bible translation was done in the pre-computer age?

Wycliffe Bible Translators was founded in 1942, but of course, Bible translation was carried out by others long before that. A member of Wycliffe Singapore, Poh San, began her Bible translation career in 1977, just about the time computers were beginning to be used by Bible translators. She shared some of her memories:

One of the major concerns for missionary parents is how to provide an adequate education for their children so that they can eventually transition well into the education system in their home country. But what if the parents are serving in a location where the local schools are not suitable? Even if there are international schools there, those run on commercial lines charge very high fees. Not all families are able to homeschool, which also ties up at least one parent for significant amounts of time each day.

Missionaries are often torn between their call to serve God overseas and their responsibility as parents. Many missionary families are forced to leave the field prematurely because they are unable to find suitable educational provision for their children.

Datapoint computer terminal and dot matrix printer

She was first asked to work on a computer in 1977 in Ukarumpa, the headquarters of SIL Papua New Guinea. While waiting to begin an advanced linguistics course in Sydney, she was assigned to help one of the teams input corrections to their translation. The work was done on a Datapoint computer terminal, the ancestor of the PC.

It had a small screen showing only 8 lines in green and had about 8KB of memory (this is NOT a typo error!). She recalls being terribly nervous the first few days, fearful of pressing the wrong key. In those days, there were no “delete” or “backspace” keys! Mistakes made could not be deleted or corrected immediately.

Wooden "shoebox"!

Before the use of computers, many translation teams recorded their data and notes on index cards and stored them in shoeboxes. By the time Poh San and her teammate, Liisa, began their project, the Ukarumpa carpentry dept was selling wooden “shoeboxes” as cardboard in the hot tropics was susceptible to damp or white ants.

The first book they translated was Mark, and the drafts were all done on a typewriter. Whenever they made a mistake, corrections had to be made on several copies. And they went through 10 drafts of the translation before they could typeset that first translation! It was slow and tedious work.

Radio Shack Notebook

In the early 1980s, they purchased their first personal computer – a Radio Shack Notebook. It might not seem like much compared to modern laptops, but it meant they no longer needed to travel from their village to Ukarumpa to use the computers there.

Best of all, the Notebook ran on AA batteries. However, the storage capacity was so small (8-24KB depending on model) that they could only do a chapter of translation at a time, and then the data had to be stored – on audio tapes! Poh San recalls:

Radio Shack Recorder

"So we all had to get recorder machines, that went yi-or-yi-or for an hour to record that one chapter of text. And then some teams reported that their recordings were not 100 percent. They lost some parts of the text in between. So, to be on the safe side, we would put in another tape as backup, so another hour of yi-or-yi-or.”

Those Radio Shack Notebooks were sturdy – one team realised that something had gone wrong with a recording only after they had deleted the data from their Notebook. In anger, a team member flung the Notebook across the room. She immediately regretted her action, thinking that it must have been damaged. To her surprise, it still worked fine.

Compact audio cassette. Image by Orion, Wikimedia Commons

In 1985, colleagues returned to Ukarumpa with a Sharp laptop. It was the latest model, a clamshell design with the screen on the cover, the forerunner of modern laptops. Running on MS-DOS, this was more like the laptops we know today. And although the screen was still small, data could be stored on a floppy disk – there was no more need to use a recorder that went yi-or-yi-or.

Toshiba T1100 laptop. Image by Johann H. Addicks, Wikimedia Commons

Two years later, Poh San and Liisa finally bought Toshiba laptops which really speeded up their work. Corrections could be made immediately, storage was on 1.44MB 3.5” floppy disks (the machines had no hard drive), and copies could be printed out on dot matrix printers for distribution to the village checking committee and eventually for distribution to the villages.

In order to run the laptops and printers, they installed more solar panels, batteries and transformers to convert 12V to 240V power. They thanked God for advances in technology which enabled them to have lights and machines to help in their work.

Hand with floppy disk. Image by Ivan Radic, Wikimedia Commons

Along with the faster processing power and bigger storage capacities of laptop computers, developments in software also increased the speed and functions available to Bible translators. A computer program, Shoebox (named after the beloved shoeboxes of the past), was developed by SIL to help field linguists integrate lexical, cultural, grammatical, and other data; build a dictionary; and analyse and interlinearise text.

Translators could reduce the time spent organising their data and spend more time interacting with the people. Shoebox initially ran on MS-DOS but later also ran on Windows. It has now been superseded by other programs.

More and more programs have been developed to take advantage of the growth of computer storage and retrieval capabilities. Just to name a few (longer list):

  • Translator’s Workplace - a library of reference materials selected for the work of Bible Translation, including Bibles, Greek and Hebrew texts, dictionaries, commentaries, translation handbooks, articles and other reference materials. [SIL]

  • BART (Biblical Analysis Research Tool) – used with Translator’s Workplace for translators to analyse words of the Scriptures in the original languages, and how they are used in context. [SIL]

  • Paratext – for drafting and editing a translation of the Bible in any language, using any writing system; ability to view original language texts and other resources next to the active translation editing window; special features for checking the accuracy, quality, and consistency of the translated text; allows collaboration between team members in dispersed locations. [SIL and United Bible Societies]

Computers have truly changed the way Bible translation is done. Texts only need to be typed once instead of multiple times. Computers make it possible to search for, count and sort words and phrases. The ability to open multiple windows on a screen has made comparing and checking so much easier. There are now specialised programs which help Bible translators more easily listen to, identify and write down the sounds of each language. There are programs to aid font design, literacy, app development, publishing, and much more.

With all that, there is still a need for Bible translators to go to an unreached group, learn their language and culture, and put the word of God into that language. And Bible translators have the IT experts to help them use the technology available to maintain the quality and speed of their work.

If you are an IT professional and would like to find out more about how your skills can contribute to Bible Translation, do contact us!


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