Ordinary Christians Changing History: Christmas is upon us, and the year is nearly over! What a year it has been for heart-language Bible translation and the expansion of the Gospel. It has been a heady mix of blessing and difficulty for many; but Christmas puts it into perspective as we synthesize it all. It seems counterintuitive, but in the hardship, blessings emerge. 2022 brought a mix of blessing and difficulty; however, knowing the messiness of our Saviour’s birth gives us perspective to synthesize all our joys and sorrows throughout the year. Over the last two months of 2022, we have enjoyed understanding more about what it takes to be a heart-language Bible translator and are seeking to see the world from their perspectives. We have noticed that heart-language Bible translators are history makers in that their work impacts whole communities and generations beyond their own. Their impact is not through the temporal nature of fame and fortune as they tend to be ordinary people who do work that is often unseen. Translation work can be arduous, and for some, it is dangerous. Some work in war zones, refugee camps, high-crime countries, areas of famine and lack of clean water. Some have been kidnapped and killed. On the other hand, for others, there is no imminent danger; however, they have the daily domestic challenge of juggling multiple responsibilities and being stretched beyond their human capacity.
What motivates them? Why do they do this work? What is the impact on their lives, their families, and their communities’ lives? While every translator’s story is unique, there are some common threads. Their passion for God’s Word, the upliftment of their communities, and the faith and hope that the Bible will impact generations to come are some connecting themes. In a video from The Seed Company, this quote illustrates the perspective Bible translators around the world have: “Throughout history ordinary people have believed the Scriptures to be so important that they gave up their time, liberty and even their lives to ensure its faithful translation from culture to culture, generation to generation“.
Let’s take a look at several stories of these ordinary people who have given their lives to see that people everywhere have access to the Word of God in their heart languages.
One pastor from Zimbabwe visited some churches in England, and he noticed what a huge difference it made to the congregants to have a Bible they could understand. He decided to begin bringing the Scriptures to his community by inserting a portion of Scripture into his township’s newly-founded newsletter. In his heart, he longed for his community to be able to read the Bible in their own language. He also had a passion to help his fellow pastors to be enlivened and teach with new vigour and a deepening connection to God and their people. So, not having a Bible in his language, he decided to start with Genesis 1:1 and translate from there! About two years later, he was told about the training available with The Word for the World (TWFTW), and he was trained within a few years. Soon, he was part of a funded translation project and was working as part of a team – with computers, new skills and knowledge! Now, the possibility of the New Testament in his mother tongue was in view. For this pastor, his life as a Bible translator is full and varied. He and the team didn’t only work on Bible translation, they worked on other community projects as well. They regularly read the Bible in their mother tongue on the local radio stations, and one translator has become the editor of the local newspaper. This pastor leads worship, teaches other translators and has been part of starting new Bible translation projects too!
Nikola, who is a Roma Bible translator in Eastern Europe, balances translation work with many other ministries to which God has called him. His time is divided between youth leadership, worship leadership, preaching, visiting churches that have been planted, travelling for various church gatherings, as well as taking care of his own family. He says that when he was younger he used to ask God to help him to remain close to Him, and to provide a wife who also would be close to Him. He says, “Sometimes, when I look back and see everything that God did to prepare me for this Gospel work, I am amazed. Sometimes, this work is difficult; but, God has given me a wife who understands, and who is in it with me. She sees how much God is doing in the hearts of the people“. Together, they want to give themselves as a living sacrifice unto God, as Paul says in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12. Nikola believes that to do this, a translator needs support from their spouse, their pastor and their community. “It’s worth it,” he says, because it is God’s Word, and it is something we are doing that will bless generations to come”. The next generation of Roma people will have a foundation to build on because they will have the Bible in their own language for the first time in history, and this knowledge motivates him to keep going.
Reuben Kabwe, the Chief Development Officer for Africa in TWFTW, and his wife, served as missionaries in Tanzania for 13 years. Over those 13 years, they saw many people’s lives transformed by receiving the Bible in their mother tongue. He remembers a time when they produced the Gospel of Mark in the Pogoro language. They asked a local teacher (who happened to be a Muslim) to review Mark for them and give them language feedback as to how accurate and natural the translation was. The teacher knew Pogoro very well. After a week, he brought it back to them and said, “I want you to have this book back because at this stage of me reviewing it, actually I think this book is reviewing my life. So, I cannot continue reading it. As I am checking the language, this book is checking me“. In the end, this teacher became a Christian because of the Living Word of God!
William Cameron Townsend founded Wycliffe International. He said, “The greatest missionary work is the Bible in the mother tongue. It needs no furlough and is never considered a foreigner….”. Reuben discovered the truth of that statement as he recalled when a missionary tried to plant a few churches for the Nguu people in Tanzania. He kept trying but was unsuccessful for about 10 years. Later, Bible translators translated the book of Mark into Nguu alongside a Nguu booklet. They gave it to an ordinary Christian man to use for ministry purposes. This man was not a trained missionary; however within 6 months, he had planted 3 churches using the local language in the evangelism work. Reuben says that it totally transformed the community. We give glory to God and thank Him for all the ordinary men and women in history, and in our own time, from around the world who faithfully work to translate the Bible into mother-tongue languages. What a profound lineage in which Bible translators walk!
As we say goodbye to 2022, we rejoice at all that God has done in and through heart-language Bible translators as translation projects are exploding in growth around the world! We also look forward to the coming new year in hopeful anticipation for all that God is yet to do!
Look out for our first blog of 2023 in January – ’22 In Review’.