Currently almost 1,800 living languages, spoken by about 165 million people, lack even a partial Bible translation, according to the Wycliffe Global Alliance.
These languages remain short on Scripture for a reason, said Robin Green, project manager at Faith Comes By Hearing (FCBH): “They’re the more difficult ones.” Many of the languages aren’t written and lack even an alphabet.
That makes Green’s project perfect for them.
For more than two years, Green—who wrote a 2007 master’s thesis on how to solve this problem—and her team have been developing Render. The software allows Bible translation to be completely oral, and to be undertaken by translators who are illiterate. Traditionally, translation has required a written version to bridge even two oral cultures.
The software has been developed in partnership with Pioneer Bible Translators (PBT) and the Seed Company. Its first project will begin in Brazil this June.
Render allows a local translator to listen to the Bible in a major language spoken nearby and record a new spoken translation, saving a translator from having to first create an alphabet, teach the community literacy, and write down the translated Bible.
“It’s an idea whose time has come,” said PBT president Greg Pruett. “[Render] is uniquely designed for the conditions that exist in the last languages we’re going to be working on.”
Render is now possible for two reasons, he said. The first is a recent FCBH project to record dramatized Scripture in more than 900 languages. “In most cases, minority languages exist in a context where one or two New Testaments are already done nearby.”
The second ingredient is a bilingual speaker of the minority language who can interpret from a neighboring language of wider communication.
“There’s probably a person who is skilled as an oral interpreter, and when somebody speaks in the majority language on Sunday morning, he or she translates,” said Pruett. “We’re after that person’s skill set.”
Render gives native speakers more agency and confidence in the process by capitalizing on “the mode they’re comfortable with rather than the way we’re comfortable with,” he said, “which makes sense on a lot of levels.”
One advantage to oral translation: it tends to be instinctively clear. “When writing, [translators] tend to end up with extraordinarily literal translations,” he said. “Whereas if they speak, [the message is] likely to be natural.”
And since Render doesn’t need to wait for a people group to first build an alphabet or gain literacy, translated Scriptures can reach more communities more quickly, Green said. “Render means that some languages that might have fallen through the cracks will get Scripture.”
Render isn’t a magic wand, Pruett said. For one, there’s no search-and-replace function to quickly switch out a word.
And so far, Render has been tested only on the Gospels and Acts—the narrative parts of the New Testament.
“We have a limited experience with epistolary material,” said Larry Jones, the Seed Company’s senior vice president for Bible translation. “It’s much more difficult as a genre, and the translation adjustments required are much more complicated.”
Render follows the same rigorous checks for accuracy as written interpretation, which ensures an accurate product but will take some getting used to, Jones said. Translators who have worked only with written Bibles will face a learning curve on working without text.
“In some sense, the audio translation is more slippery,” he said. “You can’t see it, so trying to ascertain that the rendering is faithful requires some additional skill sets.”
But the strict standards are also an advantage, because the result is a faithful translation, Jones said. For minority languages that may never achieve literacy, the ability to receive a Bible in their preferred way of communicating is a good thing.
“They could build their faith on that,” he said.
That doesn’t mean those languages will never get a written Bible, said Russ Hersman, COO at Wycliffe Bible Translators.
“I don’t see it taking the place of written translations long-term,” he said. Eventually, as people groups learn to read, they will need a written translation as well.
“It’s not the end,” he said, “but it’s a good start.”
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