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Why translation matters

by Josh Oldfield

To experience first hand what church is like for Christians around the world who don't yet have the Bible in their own language, and gain a deeper passion for God’s word in the process, why not hold a NoBibleSunday?

How good is your Latin?

Despite all the stereotypes of growing up in Cambridge, I don’t speak Latin. In fact, even though I have an undergraduate degree in History and Theology, I cannot read Greek or Hebrew either. Language modules weren’t compulsory for my degree – so I simply chose lectures that interested me more. I have rarely felt I have been missing out by only speaking my first language.

But for many people throughout the centuries, this hasn’t been the case. Far too often, language has been an impassable barrier, keeping Christians from growing in maturity and unbelievers from knowing God at all.

Martin Luther was responsible for one of the most influential Bible translations of all time. His Bible translation into the German language was copied 100,000 times during his lifetime and changed the face of Europe forever. He said this about access to the Scriptures:

‘Let us then consider it certain and conclusively established that the soul can do without all things except the word of God, and that where this is not, there is no help for the soul in anything else whatever. But if it has the word it is rich and lacks nothing.’

Without the word – translated, comprehended and believed – Luther argued that there is no help for the soul.

I owe my soul firstly to God. But if Luther is right, then in a way, I owe my soul secondly to John Wycliffe.

Wycliffe was the man responsible for the first Bible translation into Middle English, an earlier version of the English we speak today. Wycliffe realised that the Latin Vulgate was not sufficient, because ordinary people could not read it; it would not change them, and it would not change society. If English is your first language, then you probably owe your Christian faith partly to Wycliffe’s vision of Bible translation.

Translation matters because it changes this:

Sic enim dilexit Deus mundum ut Filium suum unigenitum daret ut omnis qui credit in eum non pereat sed habeat vitam aeternam. (Latin Vulgate)

To this:

For God louede so the world, that he ȝaf his `oon bigetun sone, that ech man that bileueth in him perische not, but haue euerlastynge lijf. (Wycliffe’s Middle English translation)

To this:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (New International Version – NIV)

But there is another reason that translation matters: God initiated it.

Utterly amazed, they asked: ‘Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs – we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!’ (Acts 2:7–11)

When God first preached the gospel at Pentecost, he chose to translate.

It is highly likely that, despite travelling from different lands, the Jewish audience of Acts 2 would have spoken Aramaic, the language of their religion, spoken in Israel, and Greek, the dominant trade language. Which means that God could have presented the good news about his Son pretty well in one language. But he didn’t. He wanted everyone to hear it in the language they understand best.

The way we communicate the message of Jesus shows people something of the God we worship. It is not that it is impossible to preach the gospel and see people saved in their second language. It is that translation truly demonstrates our incarnational God, who does not stand at a distance commanding everyone learns one language. Neither does he speak in a way which leaves his hearers unmoved and unchanged. Instead, just as he sent the Word in human flesh, so now he sends the word in human speech.

Translation of the Bible is still a great need in our world. There are more than 7000 languages spoken on our planet. The whole Bible has been translated into just under 700 of those. That leaves around 1.5 billion people who do not have access to the whole Bible in their language.

In fact, there are more people alive today without the Bible in their language than people alive on the planet during Luther’s lifetime.

None of this is to say that translation is the only way to share the gospel. Or that people cannot become Christians by hearing the message in their second language. And it is certainly not to discourage you from studying Greek and Hebrew! It is simply to ask the questions of all of us – how much do our souls depend on translation?

What would our devotional lives look like without an English Bible?

What about our evangelism?

Or our local churches’ discipleship?

How good is your Latin?

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