Ever since Wycliffe Associates (WA) debuted a new approach that can translate almost half of the New Testament in two weeks, the smaller sister organization of Wycliffe Bible Translators (WBT) has been inundated with requests.
The process, called Mobilized Assistance Supporting Translation (MAST), relies heavily on the local church to provide translators that are fluently bilingual. In a radical shift from earlier work, translators work simultaneously on the text instead of sequentially, and they learn translation principles (including proper names, idioms, and key terms) as they go instead of attending weeks of training beforehand.
By the end of 2014, WA had 115 projects underway. It added another 133 in 2015, and expects to begin another 500 in 2016. The world has about 4,100 living languages without any Bible translations, according to Mission Frontiers, the online magazine of Frontier Ventures.
“This is a breathtaking moment in the history of the church,” WA president Bruce Smith said in October when announcing MAST’s growth. “Christ’s Great Commission is doable. We can share God’s Word with every language group on earth—in our lifetime.”
Is this the death knell for longstanding translation practices, which invest years into language training and translation preparation?
Not quite, said Roy Peterson, CEO of the American Bible Society (ABS). That model was already dead.
“There is no such thing as traditional right now,” he said. “We are watching methodologies evolve right before our eyes that are accelerating translations.” ABS recently completed a New Testament in Zambia in three and a half years, he said. In 1980, the same text would have taken 10 years, according to Mission Frontiers.
Three and a half years is still a lot longer than MAST’s claims. But the accuracy of MAST was recently called into question by a peer-review assessment team, which included members of the Seed Company, Word for the World, WBT Ethiopia, and WBT Africa. They observed a two-week MAST project in Ethiopia in August.
While cautioning that “this review should not necessarily be interpreted as a ‘blanket assessment’ of other MAST implementations,” the group found that “the rate of progress and the quality achieved clearly do not substantiate the widely publicized claims made for the accelerated rate of translation that can be achieved through the MAST methodology.”
The review group had trouble with both of MAST’s time-saving techniques.
Having different translators work simultaneously on different parts of a Bible chapter “can only result in major inconsistencies in style and terminology, especially where they are working from different source versions,” the report said.
It also warned against skimping on pre-translation training: “Such shortcuts may give the impression that the goal is being achieved faster, but they inevitably result in loss of quality.”
A first draft of the Gospel of Mark in five languages was “achieved faster in the two-week Ethiopia MAST workshop than is typical in other initial translation workshops, but the quality was such that much more work will be needed to bring it to an acceptable quality and in a condition ready for wider testing,” the report said.
While all Bible translators want both speed and accuracy, accuracy is more important, six organizational members of Every Tribe Every Nation told CT. The alliance includes some of the world’s largest Bible agencies.
“The only thing worse than keeping someone waiting for the Bible in his or her heart language is a new translation that jeopardizes the clear communication of this same gospel message,” they wrote.
Making errors can cause lasting damage, said Peterson, whose society is part of the Every Tribe Every Nation coalition. “There’s something so delicate and important about the transmission of the Word of God. If we don’t give [local translators] the tools and training, if we let Scripture go out that has not had the care, then I think we’re playing fast and loose with the Word of God.”
Seed Company CEO Samuel Chiang agreed.
“There is deep historical precedence for training,” he said, pointing to the education Old Testament rabbis received. “I would never want to overweigh people with things, but [training] ahead of time is important.”
That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place for MAST, both Chiang and Peterson said.
“We want to build bridges with everyone who is trying new things,” Peterson said. “[WA is] passionate about translation and we want to affirm that, and ask in what ways we can make sure quality and accuracy are the hallmark of whatever methodology we embrace.”
The report had “elements that are helpful inputs and other parts that are both inaccurate and perhaps not as helpful,” WA’s Smith told CT. The Ethiopia MAST project was hampered by some specific problems, he said.
“We encouraged the church to bring whoever they chose to participate, and we ended up with people who were not actually fluent in two languages,” he said. “Bilingual speakers are really the foundation for all Bible translation.”
The lack of language skill “significantly handicapped the outcome,” he said. So did the size of the teams, which were smaller than WA prefers for MAST.
But letting the local church choose the number and fluency of the translators remains one of WA’s core commitments, he said. “Part of the results in Ethiopia are the result of allowing the church to exercise their full authority over stewarding God’s word in their language.”
The MAST process, correctly used, still turns out a level of accuracy that rivals slower translation methods, Smith said. But that doesn’t mean it’s perfect.
“We’re still on a learning curve,” he said. “We’re improving this.”
While MAST increases the options available to local churches, it doesn’t make other Bible translation methods obsolete, Smith said. “There remains an overwhelming number of languages without even one verse of Scripture. At this point, every strategy is needed to get God's Word to every nation.”