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Scripture translations for 707 million people completed by Bible Societies amidst pandemic

Amidst the challenges and disruption caused by COVID-19 in 2020, Bible Societies around the world completed Scripture translations in 66 languages used by 707 million people. These include first Scripture [...]

Amidst the challenges and disruption caused by COVID-19 in 2020, Bible Societies around the world completed Scripture translations in 66 languages used by 707 million people.

These include first Scripture translations in 46 languages, with a potential reach of 13 million people. Six language groups received the full Bible for the first time – five in Africa and the other in the USA, where the Deaf community celebrated the completion of the American Sign Language Bible.

American Sign Language, which is the language of around 408,000 people, is the only one of the world’s estimated 400 sign languages to have the full Bible. The dedication service was held online due to COVID-19 restrictions. (The American Sign Language Bible was translated by Deaf Missions with the support of various partner agencies, including American Bible Society.)

First New Testaments in another 11 languages used by four million people were also completed. Two of these – the Epie and Ogbia New Testaments – were launched by the Bible Society of Nigeria.

“As I receive this [Epie New Testament] today, I am the happiest person,” smiled Elder Iwo Samson Famous, an Epie speaker in Nigeria. “For a long time we have been struggling with the English Bible. We can now read and understand.”

“This New Testament in our mother tongue will aid literacy and encourage our youth and others to understand the Word of God,” said Ogbia speaker John Okolubo. “Without it, it was like we lacked God’s presence, but with it we have reached the promised land.”

In Vanuatu, one of the few countries almost untouched by the global pandemic, Hano-speakers on Pentecost Island welcomed the long-awaited first New Testament in their language with traditional songs and dances.

Translation work began four decades ago but was disrupted numerous times by cyclones, which destroyed homes, livelihoods and, on some occasions, parts of the translation work. In the wake of Cyclone Pam in 2015, the translators had to live in tents for months, but the translation manuscript was safe, having been secured in a plastic container just before the cyclone hit.

Reaching a milestone in global Bible translation

In August, the number of languages with the full Bible topped 700 for the first time; it was a significant milestone for global Bible translation that provided a rare moment of celebration during a difficult year.

At the start of 2021, the full Bible is now available in 704 languages used by 5.7 billion people. More than 70% of these full Bible translations have been provided by United Bible Societies.

Another 825 million people have the New Testament in their language, and 450 million people have some portions of Scripture.

The Bible translation landscape looked very different 75 years ago, when United Bible Societies was first formed in the wake of World War II, in 1946. According to ProgressBible, which compiles data from Bible translation agencies across the world, fewer than 200 languages had the full Bible, just over 230 had the New Testament, and 620 had Scripture portions. The number of languages with some Scripture has more than tripled since then.

And yet, today, despite this progress, more than half of the world’s 7,359 languages have no Scripture at all. All together, 1.5 billion people still do not have the full Bible in their language.

“As we look back at more than two centuries of Bible Society work and 75 years of working together as United Bible Societies, we give thanks to God for blessing our common mission of making the Bible available to everyone,” says UBS Director General Michael Perreau. “Each completed Scripture translation makes it possible for more people to access the hope and peace in God’s Word, which is especially needed at this time of global turmoil.

“Yet more than a billion people still do not have the Bible in their own language. They are without the comfort of Scripture as they navigate the storms of life. That is why the task of Bible translation is so urgent.”

The Bible Translation Roadmap: an ambitious vision 

To reduce Bible poverty, Bible Societies are continuing to push forward with the Bible Translation Roadmap – a 20-year vision to complete 1,200 translations to make Scripture available in the languages of 600 million people for the first time. It builds on the increasing momentum in Bible translation, brought about by closer collaboration between Bible translation agencies, the generous support of donors and developments in technology.

Three years in, 80 translations have been completed, 312 are in progress, and another 808 are yet to begin. Around $30 million is needed each year to achieve the goals of the roadmap but less than half of that funding has been made available so far.

“Translating the Bible takes years of dedication and generosity, and is the first step in a community getting life-changing access to God’s Word,” says UBS Executive Director of Global Bible Translation Alexander M Schweitzer. “The availability of mother tongue Scripture makes it possible to develop Bible ministry programs to meet the needs of the community, such as literacy or trauma healing.

“Bible translation transforms lives – that’s why we are committed to fulfilling the ambitious vision of the roadmap.”

Greater access through new and revised translations 

Languages evolve over time, and it can be difficult for younger generations to understand outdated Scripture translations. Last year, Bible Societies published new or revised translations in 21 languages used by 694 million people, including nine full Bibles.

Among these were new Bibles translations in two of South Africa’s 11 official languages – isiZulu, spoken by 12 million people, and Afrikaans, spoken by more than seven million people. These two major publications formed part of the Bible Society of South Africa’s year-long activities to mark its 200th anniversary.

“The words contained in this book, when they enter the heart, are self-evidently true across any culture and language,” said Prince Dr Mangosuthu Buthelezi, 92, who represented Zulu monarch King Goodwill Zwelithini at the dedication service of the new isiZulu Bible.

The Bible has been available in isiZulu since 1883 but the most widely-used version today was published in 1959. Dr Buthelezi, who played a key role in the government of national unity led by Nelson Mandela, said that he felt blessed to have been able to read God’s Word in his own language throughout his life. He thanked the Bible Society for the new translation which, he said, would help more people “come to know the Scriptures and be led by faith.”

Study editions

To help people deepen their knowledge of Scripture, Bible Societies also published study editions in three languages – Chinese, Haitian Creole and Thai.

Socio-political turmoil and violence had delayed the Haitian Bible Society’s plans to launch the first Haitian Creole Study Bible in late 2019. Instead, the celebration took place in February 2020, just two weeks before COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic.

“We Haitians are a traumatised people,” said Haitian Bible Society General Secretary Magda Victor. “We need healing and are searching for a response to all the pain we have experienced. That’s why there’s a church on nearly every street corner. But very often, church leaders don’t really understand the biblical text very well. We feel confident that this Study Bible will support them in their ministry.”

Sign language translations open God’s Word for Deaf communities

“The completion last year of the very first Bible in a sign language – American Sign Language – after nearly four decades of work was a great encouragement to sign language translators and Deaf communities in other countries,” says United Bible Societies Deaf Ministry Coordinator Chris Dale. “After many years of being misunderstood, there is now new energy and urgency behind the task of opening up the Bible for over 400 sign languages.

“Despite serious challenges caused by the pandemic, Deaf translators found new ways to co-operate, supported by the very timely development of new software tools, which allowed them to make progress.”

As a result, 16 sign languages used by 2.1 million Deaf people received first or additional Scripture portions in 2020.

Can’t read or write

Like 99% of Deaf Mongolians, Javzaa can’t read or write and was frustrated at only being able to experience the Bible through the sign language interpreter at the Deaf church she attends. She is delighted to be part of the Mongolian Sign Language translation team, which completed five chapters of Matthew last year.

“There are many souls in need. The one help they need most is the Word of God in sign language,” signs Javzaa.

In December, the Paraguayan Sign Language translation team completed video translations of the story of Jesus’ birth and shared them on social media just before Christmas. The videos attracted great excitement among the Deaf community and were shared by many people.

Increasing Scripture access for People with Visual Disabilities

While COVID-19 hindered Braille Scripture distribution and engagement work in many countries, 2020 saw unprecedented progress in making the full Braille Bible available in more languages.

Five languages received the full Braille Bible, three of them for the first time, and Braille portions were published in another two. A total of 48 languages now have the full Bible in Braille.

“It has been amazing to see how technical developments with new Braille transcription software and a new Braille file archive in the Digital Bible Library® have resulted in a high number of new complete Braille Bibles published in one year. In former years this process would normally have taken five to 10 years!” comments Ingrid Felber-Bischof, who coordinates UBS’s global service for People with Visual Disabilities.

 

Saikhantsetseg, 19, who lost her sight as a child, has benefited from the new process, which enabled the Mongolian Union Bible Society to make the full Braille Bible available in Mongolian in record time. She read from the new Bible at the dedication ceremony and explained that although she enjoys listening to the audio Bible, being able to read the Bible for herself makes it “more interesting and alive”.

Digital Bible Library® puts Scripture at people’s fingertips

The Digital Bible Library® (DBL), which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year, is central to the goal of making the Bible available and accessible to everyone. It serves as a repository for Scripture translations in different formats completed by UBS and other Bible translation agencies, and enables the efficient sharing of Scripture through websites and apps, such as YouVersion.

By the start of 2021, the DBL® contained 2,696 texts in 1,721 languages used by six billion people, including 1,112 Bibles in 590 languages. 70% of the full Bibles in the DBL® are provided by Bible Societies.

Also stored in the DBL® are audio Scriptures in the languages of 5.6 billion people, and video translations of Scripture in 13 sign languages used by 1.8 million people.

In 2020, the first Braille Scripture files were added to DBL®, following the development of new Braille transcription software. The new software and the ability to store the files in the DBL® have made it much quicker and easier for Bible Societies to produce Braille Scripture in languages which have translations available. The DBL® now houses 53 Braille files in 41 languages, including 33 full Bibles in 27 languages.

United Bible Societies is a fellowship of around 150 Bible Societies working in 240 countries and territories. Together, they are the world’s biggest translator, publisher and distributor of the Bible. Bible Societies are also active in areas such as HIV/AIDS prevention, trauma healing and literacy. Bible Societies work with all Christian Churches and many international non-governmental organisations.

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