Frequently Asked Questions
What is the triad of BT disciplines?
The triad of BT disciplines includes: theology (biblical and systematic), exegesis (biblical languages, textual criticism, and hermeneutics) and linguistics. A good and faithful translation includes expertise in all these fields, and at times additional expertise in the various topics found in Scripture. Obviously, no one person can be an expert in Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, OT studies, NT studies, NT use of the OT, hermeneutics, textual criticism, biblical theology, systematic theology. This is one reason why the major English versions are committee translations, such as the ESV’s 50 contributing scholars. Unfortunately, BT work in the remaining languages of the world do not attract the same kind of attention. We ought to pray that the Lord would thrust more workers into His harvest, where the laborers are few (Mat. 9:37). We at BTF want to heighten awareness of the many roles and jobs necessary for producing faithful translations, so that many more of you would be those laborers, going to not only do the work but to train national believers who can be laborers and trainers in their own language (2 Tim. 2:2). Many people, in thinking about the work of BT, picture an introvert scholar who knows many languages and sits at a desk all day. While this picture may be true of some who do BT in the field, there are many other gifts and skills necessary to support the work of BT. Logistically, this is why JAARS was started, to help provide aviation and radio services to translators. Additionally, as we are putting forth here at BTF, BT work needs the help of local pastors, exegetical consultants, target language stylists, theologians, people who can manage a team well, etc. We want to help resource-rich churches to identify many more gifts and skills in their congregation, and to encourage their members to participate in BT work. SIL is often at the cutting edge of linguistics, but they depend on others to help with the other disciplines in the BT triad. BTF wants to encourage a new generation of missionary translators in the BT triad of disciplines to partner with BT organizations, societies, church planting networks, Bible colleges, and seminaries.
D. A. Carson critiques SIL/Wycliffe, “I am a huge admirer of their work, some of it undertaken in highly challenging circumstances. Some of them are linguistically well trained. But I have to say that rather few of them are trained in exegesis, biblical theology or systematic theology. Very few of them have an MDiv, let alone more advanced training. With rare exceptions, I have not found them to be deep readers of Scripture, with the result that their approaches to translation challenges tend to be atomistic. No one can be an expert in everything, of course—but if I have any hope for this book, it is that some of these diligent and learned workers will begin to see the importance for Bible translation of the considerations I am advancing here, and that more of them will pursue advanced theological training as part of their preparation for a life in translation” (Jesus the Son of God, 107-108).
Before we begin critiquing BT organizations, BTF hopes to bring awareness and education on the many roles of BT projects. We should ask ourselves and our churches what we are doing to serve both lack of quantity and promotion of better-quality bible translations. While it would be good if trained linguists received more theological training, one person cannot do everything. At BTF, we hope to promote team/committee translations. We want to help support teams of theologians and pastors and biblical exegetes to go join linguists, thus helping in the much needed work of BT. We also hope to encourage that BT work will be more tied to local churches.
What is a pastor-translator & why have them?
Pastors work hard at exegesis and exposition. Exegesis involves working in the biblical languages, textual criticism, and hermeneutics, all for the purpose of understanding what the original text says and means. Additionally, pastors are trying to understand how a given passage fits within its context, and within the context of the whole Bible, which means that a pastor is engaged in biblical and systematic theology, NT theology, OT theology, and NT use of the OT. These disciplines are all meant to lead a pastor to understand the passage he is preaching in its context, so that he can then work on exposition, explaining the meaning of the ancient text and communicating its principles to modern ears.
A translator’s work is interdisciplinary by nature. Translators are working in all the disciplines of a pastor, plus linguistics. There is a common misunderstanding that translation is simply rendering one word for another word in another language. Rather, translation involves knowing the biblical languages, doing textual criticism, engaging in hermeneutics and theology. Often the translator has a lot of training in linguistics but not in these other disciplines (see triad of BT disciplines above). Various models of translation attempt to get people who know the biblical languages interacting with the translation, or a back-translation. Indeed, it would be difficult for one person to become proficient in all these disciplines, at least at a level that allows for sound exegesis and translation.
Historically, many translators were also pastors, or at least churchmen (e.g. William Tyndale, Martin Luther). Today, many translators and those on translation committees are linguists and scholars. There is so much work and so few laborers (Matt 9:37-38). We must pray and we must train a new generation of pastor-translators, churchmen who are also serving alongside translators but then ministering the translated Word in local churches.
The pastor-translator is a missionary who is trained as a pastor, in exegesis and theology, but serves to help Bible translators in his missionary work. This service can take many different forms. Many translators often seek the advice of pastors for various attempts at rendering a translation. Since pastors and translators are both doing so much of the same work, in exegesis and theology, pastors can be more involved in the process of translation. In fact, a pastor-in-training who helps with translation will have a significant grasp of the Bible when he goes to start preaching and ministering the Word.
If we simply train linguistically-minded translators (whether foreign or native), we will not only receive translations that are not as faithful, but we end up with linguistic specialists. The pastor and pastor-in-training who engages in translation work will be well-served in studying the Word for the teaching ministry of the pastorate. Additionally, the pastor-translator will be equipped to go on to author Christian books, commentaries, Bible-study helps. When the translation is complete, he will be a prime candidate to engage in theological education to train the next generation of pastors, translators, theologians, authors and Christian leaders. We wish every Bible translation could involve committees of dozens of scholars and pastors adept in the biblical languages, theology, exegesis and linguistics, but in the Global South where living is difficult and education is a luxury, this is far from realistic. While we do encourage team-translations, we also recognize the value in training generalists instead of specialists. While the rich West thrives on specialization, it does not come without its own costs; and its not a reality in the majority world countries where translations and translation revisions are needed. Even in the West’s rich history of biblical studies, arguments are now being made for more generalists. See Michael Bird and Craig Keener’s article on the need for generalists. See also Carl Trueman’s 3-part blog, “In Praise of the Generalist“ at www.mortificationofspin.org.
Pastor-translators can be these generalists. Whether the pastor simply acts as a consultant or is involved in daily translation work, we encourage that missionary-translators be pastor-translators. And we encourage that these pastor-translator-missionaries train and equip national believers to be the same. When translators simply train Mother Tongue Translators (MTTs) and not pastor-translators, these linguistically-trained MTTs are too specialized to be of much use in service to the church, except as a linguist. What the church needs is NOT just a Bible but men who are able to rightly divide the Word (2Tim 2:15) and able to faithfully preach, reprove, rebuke, exhort, minister, suffer, and evangelize (2Tim 4:1-5). A translation, no matter how good it is, cannot convey all meaning. God gives the church pastor-teachers for the purpose of equipping the saints to do the work of the ministry (Eph 4:11-16). So let’s train pastor-translators to move from translation to pastoring, shepherding, teaching, ministering the Word in the life of the local church. What better men to then go on to disciple the next generation of pastors and translators (2Tim 2:2)?
What kind of training do I need to be a translator?
- First, become a member of a good gospel-preaching church and get to know the pastors so they and other mature believers can be discipling you and affirming your gifts in various areas as you seek to disciple others in the body.
- Second, check out the translation standards listed at the Forum of Bible Agencies International, as it will give you a good idea of minimum expectations.
- Third, see the FAQ above on the triad of Bible translation disciplines.
- Finally, see our Resources page for schools where you can study these disciplines.
Why not just point people to Wycliffe/SIL?
This is the most common question we get.
First off, SIL/Wycliffe is not the only organization doing Bible translation (hereafter, BT) work, though they do a lot. For other agencies, see the Forum of Bible Agencies International, or agencies like ABWE and MTW whose translators are more integrated with church planting and theological education.
Second, we are not a Bible agency or society, we are a Fellowship. Bible agencies and societies are para-church organizations that are supposed to come alongside the church to accomplish the special task of translation. We are attempting to (re)integrate translation work with churches and their missionary work of church planting and church strengthening through theological education. To “fellowship” is to participate and cooperate together, as the Philippians did with Paul in the furtherance of the gospel. We want to educate and encourage churches to co-labor in the work of Bible translation, but doing so while re-integrating that work with church planting and theological education. Find out more on joining the Fellowship.
So, why not just point people to Wycliffe and SIL? Well, we do, and we don’t.
SIL/Wycliffe missionary-translators deserve great respect. We have met and corresponded with many of them who are on the field or have retired from the field and are now training and producing resources to help their fellow-soldiers in the work. Since 2002, BTF’s founder has traveled in more than 30 countries, interviewed many missionaries, talked with SIL/Wycliffe and JAARS personnel, read correspondence and articles related to BT, and received graduate education in translation, linguistics, biblical languages, and theology. There are many excellent translators working for SIL/Wycliffe, many of whom we have much appreciation for. We should praise God for their work.
Putting faithful SIL translators aside for a moment, it should be noted that certain influential individuals within SIL and Wycliffe have been going in a direction that concerns many evangelicals (see past articles in Christianity Today). That said, we at BTF are not attempting to affiliate with or recognize one BT organization over another. There is too much work to be done to select just one agency as the end-all-and-be-all of BT.
Most Christians are totally unaware that out of over 7,000 languages, only 554 have a full Bible translation in their language, and that many of those need revision. We want to educate Christians about the needs for quality and quantity, and encourage people to get involved. Before we criticize Wycliffe, or SIL, or any organization, we should pray that God would send more workers into His harvest, and come alongside our brothers and sisters in the work of Bible translation. In recent conversations, we’ve been encouraged by changes that Wycliffe USA and SIL have been making in order to provide theological training for missionary-translators.
Finally, BTF is aiming at different goals, which we hope will complement the linguistic work of SIL/Wycliffe, and other BT organizations, through encouraging a new generation of churches to send well-trained missionaries (trained in the BT triad, see above FAQ). These missionaries, we hope, will join forces with many BT organizations overseas, especially those individual translators working to integrate church planting and theological education with BT. While the publishing of English Bibles affords dozens of scholars on a committee, we hope and pray that at least a small committee of missionary translators, each with differing gifts in the BT triad, will be thrust into His harvest to tackle every remaining language in need of the Bible, and thus to help establish healthy churches rooted in the Word.
The hope and aim of BTF is to educate and encourage churches to gather a force of well-trained missionary-translators who complement and strengthen organizations like SIL and Wycliffe, so that the Word my run rapidly and be glorified (2Thess. 3:1), so that healthy churches will be built throughout the nations, for the glory and praise of His name! May the Lord give us grace for the work ahead. Let’s partner Together 4 the Bible!
Does BTF support audio resources or just written?
There has been a good emphasis in recent missiological practice to provide audio versions of the Bible for those who cannot read, and this is a wonderful thing. However, it seems there are a number of organizations which are moving away from written Bible translation (and the audio versions of those translations) in favor of Bible storytelling, drama (including recorded drama, e.g. The Jesus Film).
Storytelling (often called Chronological Bible Storying, or CBS) can be a great means of evangelism when the stories aim to get the main point of a biblical passage and convey that point in simple, re-crafted (i.e. not translation) formulas for oral proclamation. Some within the orality movement (e.g. Freedom to Lead) actually keep their eye on literacy and include literacy as the end game. Unfortunately, many in the orality movement have done away with the Bible and Bible translations, replacing the written, faithfully translated Word of God with re-crafted stories of men, which they call the “oral Bible.”
This is not to decry orality initiatives insofar as they can be used for evangelistic purposes. However, 1 Timothy 4:13 is clear that the life and health of the local church is dependent upon the Word being read aloud, along with the rest of the NT making it clear that the Word is to be preached, prayed, and sung (2Tim. 2:15; 3:14-17; 4:1-4; Col. 3:16). Whereas orality initiatives like CBS can be a great tool for evangelistic purposes, nothing but a full Bible translation in each language can supply the full Truth needed to sanctify a people for the Lord (John 17; Matt. 28:18-20).
Therefore, in obedience to Scripture, and in response to so many who are doing good evangelism through Bible storying, and in response to so few who are working to support Bible translations and the people who work on them, BTF is focused on translation work which brings about written Bibles for the literate and the audio readings of those written Bibles for the non-literate. Moreover, BTF is especially concerned with integrating BT work with church planting and theological education, so that not ONLY is the Word translated, but pastors are trained to read (aloud), preach, pray and lead others in the singing of the Word. God has provided a method in His Word for reaching both literate and non-literate alike, and it is the local church, led by faithful pastors, who read, preach, pray, and lead others in singing, hearing, and obeying the Word (Eph. 4:11-16).
In today’s modern economy and the globalization of technology even to the remotest villages, BTF would like to encourage more workers in BT to consider the model of the NET Bible, which provides both print and online Bibles, along with the translators’ notes, an invaluable resource for translators, pastors and theologians.
How does Bible translation work relate to church planting? In our view, BT should follow the work of church planting, or at least be simultaneous to it, but should not out run it. There are thousands of languages needing translation work, so how do we decide where to send limited people and limited money? Evangelism, discipleship and initial church planting can occur orally, while pastors and pastor-translators begin working at BT when God begins saving people. The languages which still need translation work are often known by people who speak multiple languages. Western missionaries ought to train pastor-translators who can read and preach from the language of wider communication, while at the same time those pastor-translators can be working on the translation.
Where does the money go?
BTF does not take donations for others. Rather, BTF is building a network of people and projects that we encourage churches and individuals to consider supporting directly. Our list includes Bible translation projects and the people who work on them (see links under “Fellowship” tab). Translators, translation societies, churches, and anyone working in a discipline which directly supports Bible translation (i.e. theology, biblical languages, hermeneutics, pastoral training, etc.) may be on our list.
BTF gives preference to projects and personnel directed at languages which are in great need of translation work, though revisions of outdated translations may also be considered. Preference will also be given to those serving in the under-represented but necessary role of exegetical consultants and trainers of mother-tongue translators, pastor-translators, and the like.
Are BT projects producing stable texts?
We have hundreds of versions of the English Bible. This is in part due to revisions of the same translation (i.e. NIV 1984, TNIV, NIV 2011). These revisions are grounded in many motivations, from financial to historical changes in the English language. The anomaly of the KJV’s legacy of a few hundred years is likely never to be seen again with the modernization and urbanization of the world and the impact that has on language change. However, we at BTF believe that translations should strike a balance between reflecting the modern use of the target language (even working to be a stabilizing force for it, as seen in the history of the English Bible and English-speaking culture), while also having a stable enough text that a given generation of Christians can grow up on the reading, praying, preaching, singing and memorization of 1 or maybe 2 translation revisions.
Too often in the work of BT, the local church and its leaders are not consulted. Sometimes this is the case because translation work is begun where there is no church or believers. BTF seeks to reintegrate BT work with the local church, even if that means training Christians in an area that neighbors the targeted unreached community, so that national believers would be equipped and equipping others in the triad of BT disciplines, serving both the local church and the unreached community.
Men like Martin Luther and John Calvin were not just translators and ivory-tower scholars, they translated and wrote because they were concerned with people in their local congregations and throughout their country. The interplay of BT work and the work of the pastorate overlap in the triad of BT disciplines and thus BT work ought to involve local church pastors and theologians who are churchmen, not simply language and linguistic scholars who are not thinking about the Reverberation (cf. Jonathan Leeman, Reverberation) of the Living Word in the life of the local congregation, and in the networks of congregations that participate together in missions and evangelism.
Does BTF support other Christian literature and resources, or just BT work?
Our priority is to get the Bible into every remaining language of the world, where there is legitimate translation need for churches in that language. However, depending on the dynamics of language use, we may at times choose to recommend support for the revision of an older translation or even translation helps (i.e. study Bible with exegetical notes, other Christian literature such as Bible helps). Languages of wider communication (LWC) often cause minority languages to go into disuse, limited use or total extinction. The BTF board will consider encouraging the support of these other works if strong language research can show that the priority of a revision of the Bible or publishing Bible helps in the LWC is more profitable than funding a Bible in a minority language where its native speakers are disinterested in using written and/or audio Bibles in their language and would prefer the Bible in the LWC.
How does BTF prioritize which projects to encourage that others support?
There is no magic to this. God sovereignly works through the board of advisors, its relationships, language research, and the needs that are made aware to the BTF board. Please pray for God to give wisdom and discernment to the board. We do have priorities at BTF, such as encouraging the support of those working in the triad of disciplines which are largely underrepresented by translators and are in great need in the Global South, for the dual purpose of not only supporting BT work but healthy local churches and the men who lead, teach and equip the saints in those local churches to do the work of ministry (Eph. 4:11-16).
Does BTF endorse a certain philosophy of translation?
First off, there is a spectrum between more literal (formal equivalence, e.g. NASB, ESV) and more dynamic (functional equivalence, e.g. NLT, GNB). Translations in English are all along this spectrum, and some, like the HCSB, even call themselves “Optimal Equivalence,” in trying to strike a balance between the extremes (cf. NIV). The founder (not speaking for the Board of BTF) prefers a more literal approach to BT, but understands that many of the minority world languages are very simple in their vocabulary and syntax, and may require a more mediating or simplistic approach (i.e. functional at points but not in the whole), so that the language is not overwhelmed with too many new or borrowed terms and the translation becomes unintelligible, especially to the community’s first literates. However, whenever a more functional translation is used initially, there should be a clear plan that moves the first generation of Christians, in their own lifetime if possible, to progress to a translation that is more formal. Peter Williams, Warden of the Tyndale House, has presented the history of BT as a history which, prior to 1950, has been more literal. We highly recommend this resource for thinking about the history of BT.
How does Bible translation work relate to church planting?
In our view, Bible translation should follow the work of church planting, or at least be simultaneous to it, but should not outrun it. There are thousands of languages needing translation work, so how do we decide where to send limited people and limited money? Evangelism, discipleship and initial church planting can occur orally, while pastors and pastor-translators begin working at Bible translation when God begins saving people. The languages which still need translation work are often known by people who speak multiple languages. Western missionaries ought to train pastor-translators who can read and preach from the language of wider communication, while at the same time those pastor-translators can be working on the translation.
Which languages should be prioritized for translation?
While it is a good and profitable thing when portions of the Bible are translated before there are any known believers in a language group, so that those portions can be used for evangelistic purposes, it is also a biblical principle and historical fact that evangelism can and does happen through oral proclamation (or sign language) instead of written media. Therefore, we at BTF believe that the priority of written Bible translations be focused on language groups where there is a local church in need of the Word in their language. An established, healthy church is where God dwells and manifests His glory in a language group (Ephesians 1-3). Where the church has the Word and lives by and under the Word, it will be faithful in evangelistic proclamation to other language groups that lack believers. In other words, a written translation is ESSENTIAL for the life and health of a church, but not essential for evangelism, since believers can learn another language and share the gospel even before a translation is available.
What about women Bible translators?
There has been no shortage of women serving on the mission field, a fact for which we praise God for. There is, however, an incredible lack of well-trained men to serve as pastors, and as pastor-translators, so this is the focus of BTF; we want to educate churches on these needs, and encourage them to co-labor together in meeting those needs. God has called pastors to equip the church in the work of ministry (Eph. 4:11). And yet, when a man is trained for pastoral ministry, his training involves the same tools that enable him to be a great asset as an exegetical consultant on a BT committee (see above on “what is a pastor-translator”). That said, what about women serving as translators?
We are complementarian in our views on women in ministry, thus there is a lot of freedom and opportunity for women to serve in translation roles. Some of these opportunities involve: the linguistic roles on the analysis and documentation of how the target language works, all the support roles that keep linguists on the field, and also the exegetical role which BTF talks a lot about, which involves advising the translators on the meaning of words and phrases in the original languages. Women are often better at languages than men, and we highly encourage women to be involved in BT work. Submitting to Paul’s instructions that women not exercise authority over men in the church involves a web of relationships for women on the mission field, including her pastor in the local church, her husband, her missions agency, and her sending church. In short, we encourage women to keep on serving and we praise God for their service. We at BTF have a special burden to see churches raise up more men who can pastor and serve on translation committees as exegetical consultants. If you’re a woman desiring to serve, we advise you to see our relevant FAQs above on getting training, our Resources page on where to get training, and to seek counsel from your church as to the best way you can offer your gifts on a like-minded team somewhere where Christ is not yet named, for the glory of God!
What is the Process of Translating the Bible? What are the Steps Involved?
First, watch this 4 minute video from Wycliffe USA about the process of BT.
Katy Barnwell, in an unpublished paper, listed the following 12 steps for BT:
- Study the meaning of the source texts (exegesis)
- Make the 1st Draft
- Prepare Supplementary Helps
- Keyboard the Text
- Do the Team Check
- Review the Translation of Key Biblical Terms
- Test the Translation—Preliminary
- Have Someone Make the Back-Translation
- Do the Consultant Check
- Test the Translation Widely and Distribute to Reviewers
- Final Editing, Consistency Checking and Polishing
- Final Read Through
There are number of questions that should be raised when considering the whole process, even from the beginning of the language survey (see video above). What factors lead the surveyor to determine a translation is needed? Are these factors merely anthropological and linguistic, or are they also consistent with biblical-theological principles (see above FAQ on church planting and BT)?
Without getting into the details, notice steps 6-10. These are PERFECT places to involve local churches and pastors. In fact, if the translator is not versed (often the case) in the biblical languages, hermeneutics, and theology, how will he do step number 1? This is where it behooves the long-term health of the national church to train pastor-translators, who can not only act as consultants (involved in many of the steps, including the back translation, consultant check and even producing supplementary helps and footnotes and testing the translation), but who will be well equipped to then USE the translated Word in the church, by teaching, preaching, counseling, singing, reading aloud, and praying the Word.
Training a national pastor is training a Bible translator’s best friend, and if they are elder-qualified men, these pastor-translator-consultants are the men who will lead healthy churches, revise the translation in 20 years, author good Christian books, and disciple the next generation of pastors, translators, and disciplers in their country.
What do we mean by “resource-rich”?
In God’s providence and sovereignty, some churches (largely in the Industrialized West) have enjoyed a significant amount of peace and economic prosperity for many generations. With a stable economy and established justice system, the West has enjoyed prolonged periods of economic and social stability. This stability has enabled hundreds of years for Christian thinkers to build upon one another in the areas of the triad of BT disciplines, producing millions of Christian books, thousands of Bible colleges and seminaries, and an entire industry has thus built up around these disciplines which support healthy local churches and networks of churches. However, Scripture provides the example that churches think it a privilege to care for their brothers and sisters in churches where there is greater need, whether it be physical (2 Cor 8-9) or spiritual need (Philippians; 2 Cor 10; Rom 10, 15). Thus, we at BTF want to encourage a new generation of theologians, pastors, scholars and translators – indeed anyone with facilities and gifts in the BT triad of disciplines – to be missionary theologians, missionary pastors, missionary scholars and missionary translators, or else to be senders who support these missionary goers (Rom 10:13-17). Eighty percent of the world’s evangelical wealth is in North America (http://biblicalstewardship.net/statistical-research-on-stewardship/)! We are not only economically wealthy, but we are rich with Christian books and colleges and seminaries, which all help to train new generations of Christians to be leaders in the world, pastors in the church, and disciple-making church members who love and follow the Lord faithfully. Meanwhile, many of our resource-deprived sister churches in the majority world are lacking the ability to translate the Bible, write and produce biblical helps, and plant healthy churches among the unreached around them.