Mission World - May 2023

Translating the Bible: Quite an enterprise

An estimated 100 million Bibles are produced each year, and there are 6 billion Bibles currently in print! What adds to the complexity and enormous size of this Bible-publishing business is that there are around 7,000 versions of the Bible. Furthermore, in 2018, 17% of the Bibles distributed by the United Bible Societies were internet downloads, and this figure will probably increase. Apart from the printed Bibles, there are also digital Bibles found on CDs, DVDs and audio-players. According to the New Zealand Bible Society website, “globally just one in ten of every Scripture item distributed is a Bible” (https://biblesociety.org.nz). Scripture items include New Testaments, Gospels, booklets with selected Scripture texts, etc.

An interesting statistic from the Bible Society is that “the largest proportion of full Bibles were distributed in Oceania, a region accounted for independently for the first time in the 2018 figures”. People in the Pacific are far more interested in buying a full Bible than selected sections of the Bible.

Many of the different versions of the Bible are in the same language. For example, according to the American Bible Society (news.americanbible.org), there are 900 versions of the English Bible and paraphrases of the Bible! According to the Wycliffe Global Alliance (www.wycliffe.net), the Bible in its entirety has been translated into 724 languages, and the New Testament has been translated into an additional 1,617 languages. This source also claims that “Bible translation is currently happening in 2,846 languages in 157 countries”. It is hard to believe that so much time, effort and money is going into Bible translations to serve the cause of world mission.

Let’s put this into a wider context. There are said to be 7,168 languages in the world today. According to the BBC (www.bbc.co.uk/languages), “90% of these languages are used by less than 100,000 people … and 46 languages have just a single speaker”. Bible translations, then, are helping keep alive languages that might otherwise die.

One may wonder, therefore, whether proclaiming the Gospel is the purpose of many of these translations. Or is it to keep people in employment? Still, the admirable thing is that Bible translations are helping to keep alive not only languages but also cultures and distinct ways of life.

This translation enterprise must also deal with competition among translators over what is the proper or best written expression of a language. So there can be two or three translations of the Bible in languages that are spoken by only a few thousand people!

As against the 66 books found in the Protestant Bible, the Catholic Bible has 73 books. The number of books in the New Testament is the same. However, for the Old Testament, the Catholic Bible includes what is called the deuterocanonical books, wherein are such books as First and Second Maccabees. This involves additional translation work.

So it is a vast enterprise. And behind it are different approaches to how churches and missionary organisations, like St Columbans Mission Society, choose to use the Bible in carrying out the work of Christian mission. We will look at this question in a future article.

Columban Fr Tom Rouse lives and works in New Zealand.

Mission Intentions

May - For church movements and groups - We pray that Church movements and groups may rediscover their mission of evangelization each day, placing their own charisms at the service of needs in the world.

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