In the providence of God, I studied at Canterbury Boys’ High, where John Howard did his Leaving Certificate Examination in 1956 and where there were more language teachers than maths or science teachers on the staff.
Australia was then a very ethnocentric county; it was the day of the white Australia policy and people used to have the attitude that foreigners ought to use the “Queen’s English”. For all that, I majored in classics through high school and proceeded to Sydney University. At the end of my third year I was challenged by a zealous Baptist about what I was going to doing to do with my life. When I revealed that I was doing honours work in Greek and Latin, he urged me to consider doing Bible translation.
This came as a message from God, and my wife-to-be Helen and I felt that this would be a good way to exercise the gifts that God had given us. She too was studying Classics at Sydney. Despite the liberalism of much of the Presbyterianism of the NSW Church, we both had a conservative view of Scripture. In the course of time, we found a Presbyterian congregation which did receive the Bible as the infallible word of God and prepared ourselves accordingly.
We did not go to Bible College, but privately read Scripture, theology and Reformation history. We studied at the Summer Institute of Linguistics (Wycliffe Bible Translators) from 1965 to 1966 and found it very helpful in our preparation. Hardly any of the students were professional linguists, but soon became competent in understanding languages. We learnt phonology (alphabet construction), grammatical analysis, primer construction and practical anthropology. The fact that there were “2000 Tongues to Go” was put before us on a regular basis, and it was good to be among Christian people who were committed to spreading the written word of God among needy people of the world. Since that time we have discovered that there are more than 6900 languages in the world, so there are somewhat more than “2000 tongues to go” in Bible translation.
One of the finest statements about Bible translation is found in the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1:8: Of the Holy Scriptures, which reads as follows: “The Old Testament in Hebrew, which was the native language of the people of God of old and the New Testament in Greek (which at the time of the writing of it was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God and by His singular care and providence kept pure in all ages, are thereof authentical; so as in all controversies of religion the Church is finally to appeal to them.
“But because these original tongues are not known to all the people of God, who have right unto and interest in the scriptures, and are commanded, in the fear of God, to read and search them, therefore they are to be translated into the vulgar (common/ordinary) language of every language unto which they come, that the word of God, dwelling plentifully in all the people, they may worship him in an acceptable manner and through patience and comfort of the scriptures may have hope.”
This statement means that the Hebrew and Greek originals are the texts immediately inspired by God and are the words to which we are to have recourse in any theological controversy or problem, be that the ordination of women, the lawfulness of homosexual activities or the permissibility of musical instruments in worship.
It is, however, unrealistic to expect large numbers of Christians to know the Biblical tongues, but it is necessary for a body of faithful translators to comprehend and translate the original texts from age to age and from generation to generation. Cameron Townsend, the founder of Wycliffe Bible Translators, did the Christian Church a grand service by inspiring hundreds of people to leave their places of origin and go to places like Mexico, South America, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea and the New Hebrides.
In this way the word of God became known to people who had previously lived in utter darkness. We have been beneficiaries of this great blessing. Yet Townsend was not the first in a line of translational pioneers. The first Bible translators began their monumental work in about 250 BC with the Septuagint, although its history is a bit shadowy. Septuaginta means Seventy in Latin (LXX). It is alleged that 72 Jewish experts were engaged to translate the Torah from Hebrew into Greek and produced an identical text! The Septuagint is a fine translation but it is not separately inspired. The New Testament writers used it, but not exclusively.
To meet the requirements of the spreading gospel in the early centuries, other versions of the Scriptures were produced as follows: Itala (Latin versions), Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Gothic, Georgian (USSR) and Arabic. The manuscripts date from the 4th Century AD.
Pre-eminent among translators was Jerome, who produced the Latin Vulgate, which is revered by the Roman Catholic Church. Despite its tendency to use the word “penitence” rather than “repentance”, it is the word of God. Late in the 14th century Wycliffe’s team translated the Vulgate into contemporary English. This created a milieu in which it was important to know and follow the teachings of the Bible. Jan Hus was one such reformer in Bohemia. Then followed Luther. A large body of Bible translations emerged in Europe from the 15th to the 16th century. But it was not till the 19th century that the work grew apace beyond Europe, by luminaries such as William Carey in India and Adoniram Judson in Burma.
The South Pacific, where my family and I lived for 14 years, is a great repository of languages. There must be 1000 languages, as there are about 112 languages in Vanuatu alone. In the 1850s and beyond, the Protestant missionaries understood that they needed to learn the local languages if they were going to communicate the gospel. John G. Paton took a printing press with him to Tanna and Aniwa with the expectation of producing Scripture in vernacular languages. He did not know at the outset how utterly different they were. Here is the word for Lord in three languages that we studied: BIG NAMBAS: Mlin; FILA: Teriki; LENAKEL: ïremïra.
The most important piece of advice given to us by Dr Dick Pittman about learning exotic languages was “make mistakes”. The second rule was “make mistakes boldly”. This doesn’t mean to continue in error, but it means to be corrected humbly. One week in a Romanian Baptist Church, I had to read Micah 6 which had quite a fund of Romanian tongue-twisters. My pundit stood at my side and when I made an error, he loudly corrected me.
There is plenty to challenge us. Recent statistics have indicated that in the world of 6.5 billion there are 6500 languages. 457 have the whole Bible, 1668 have the whole New Testament. Therefore 2125 have a substantial portion of the Scriptures. It can take up to 14 years to translate the New Testament into a vernacular language. 2100 language groups may need translation.
Perhaps some reader may be called by God to engage in this work. Whatever our gifts, God requires our prayers and our concern for those who are perishing for lack of Biblical understanding. May God stir up our hearts to serve Him in this latter stage of the Church’s history.
Greg Fox is an experienced Bible translator in four languages in Vanuatu as well as Lithuanian, and Romanian.