The Vernacular Treasure: A Century of Mother-Tongue Bible Translation

By Hill, Harriet | International Bulletin of Missionary Research, April 2006 | Go to article overview

The Vernacular Treasure: A Century of Mother-Tongue Bible Translation


Hill, Harriet, International Bulletin of Missionary Research


We celebrate the centennial of the birth of American Pentecostalism, which in turn celebrates Pentecost--the outpouring of the Holy Spirit when people miraculously heard the wonders of God in their mother tongue. That the Holy Spirit broke through the ordinary language of communication and spoke to people in their mother tongue shows the importance of people's linguistic and ethnic identity in the plan of God. This point is underlined again in the Book of Revelation, where the multitudes gathered around God's throne include saints "from every tribe and language" (5:9; see also 7:9). When God speaks to us in the language we learned in our mother's arms, the message of his acceptance of our identity penetrates the very fiber of our being. Ask anyone who has recently received God's Word in his or her mother tongue for the first time. It awakens something that has been nearly extinguished inside and brings tears to the eyes.

The need for people to have God's Word in their mother tongue has been recognized throughout the church's history. Although church growth is influenced by a variety of factors, times of increased emphasis on mother-tongue Scriptures, such as the Reformation, often correlate with times of church growth. Times when mother-tongue Scriptures were neglected in the communication of the Gospel, such as the early Middle Ages in Europe, often correlate with times of spiritual stagnation. Churches that experienced persecution and isolation from the rest of the Christian world, such as those in Madagascar and China, have often endured and even multiplied if they had Scriptures in local languages. (1) In contrast, churches without Scripture in local languages, even those at centers of Christianity like Alexandria, have disappeared from the map. (2) These correlations were evident before 1906. But now from the 100 years since 1906, what can we learn about the relationship between mother-tongue Scriptures and church growth?

Great Progress

During the first 1,800 years of Christianity, Scripture was translated into about 70 languages. During the nineteenth century, the number of people called to missionary service increased dramatically. Wherever they went, they encountered a language barrier. If they intended to communicate, they had to learn the local language, and in order to communicate God's Word, they had to translate it into the local language. The result was Scripture in 460 more languages during the nineteenth century, a quantum and unprecedented leap. (3)

In the twentieth century, the pace of Bible translation accelerated even more. Between 1900 and the year 2000, a total of 1,768 more language communities received Scripture in their mother tongue for the first time. By the year 2004 the number of languages with Scripture totaled 2,388. Within the twentieth century, the momentum of Scripture translation increased dramatically after 1960, jumping from an average of 11.4 languages per year for the years 1900-1960 to an average of 27.2 per year for 1960-2000. (See table 1. (4))

Even at this rate, however, it would take another 125 to 150 years to begin translation in all of the world's remaining languages that need it. In 1999 SIL International and Wycliffe Bible Translators International decided that this pace was unacceptable. They formulated Vision 2025, which states, "By the year 2025, together with partners worldwide, we aim to see a Bible translation program begun in all the remaining languages that need one." This vision called for a radical rethinking of the way Bible translation is carried out. As the firstfruits of this vision, translation organizations are working more intentionally with partners, recruiting and training translators from all nations of the world, and working with clusters of related languages rather than with one language at a time. Under the impetus of Vision 2025, the number of new translation project starts has increased from an average of 25 per year in the period 1990-93 to 64 per year in the period 2001-4. …

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