There are nearly 3,000 languages in which no part of scripture has been translated. 700 of those are in Papua New Guinea (PNG) alone, and as part of the BibleFresh initiative to raise money for translation work, the Lancashire District is raising money this year to support the work there. Tonight to publicise that work, we invited Eddie Arthur, executive director of the Wycliffe Bible Translators UK, to speak to us. I had always believed in the importance of Bible translation, but I had not thought about what could be the implications beyond getting the Bible out to people who do not yet have the Word of God. Two things in Eddie’s talk tonight stood out.
The first is what is a language. Eddie mentioned the 700 languages spoken in PNG and posed the question many have, ‘Aren’t those just dialects?’ He responded by saying that’s a political question and gave an example: the Swedes, the Norse, and the Danes can all understand each other. Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish are technically dialects of Scandinavian, but they are classified as languages. Eddie wryly suggested that the difference between a language and a dialect is having an Army and Navy. With this comment he highlights the snobbery many of us have when we think about how we view differences between countries.
Relatedly, Eddie talked about the fact that nearly 340 million have no access to the Bible. He said many have said this isn’t a big deal considering there are 6 billion people that in the world. But, most of those 340 million live on the margins of society. They are the poor who live with no education. They are those with no power who have been pushed away by those with power onto the land that is on the high mountains or the land that is near impossible to farm. Those are the people God is on the side of. Translating the Bible into these languages mean that people have better access to education, which empowers women and children in particular when they are the ones often kept illiterate. Eddie then told a heartrending story of a mother whose child was ill, but she didn’t have the money. Some missionaries gave the money which enabled the mother to get the life-saving medicine. Only, the baby died two hours later. The mother couldn’t read the instructions that said she was supposed to take the medicine and it would be given to the child through breastfeeding.
Bible translation is a social justice issue, and here we can see that the line we draw between ‘spiritual’ and ‘social’ issues is false. Evangelism and mission intertwine with each other wrapped in God’s concern that people know him spiritually and that he cares for justice.