Since the earliest centuries of the church, Christians have been translating the Bible into new languages. Yet by 1900, only 404 languages—fewer than 7% of the world's languages—had at least some portion of Scripture. Translation tended to be the work of a few trained experts who spent decades working on one language, and ordinary men and women often could not understand the translations they produced.

The situation at the beginning of the 21st century is very different, thanks in large part to the pioneering work of two men. Cameron Townsend and Eugene Nida developed new approaches that greatly increased the number of Bible translations and made those translations easier to understand.

Training translators

In 1943, Cameron Townsend founded what has become the world's largest missionary organization, Wycliffe Bible Translators. Yet Townsend did not start his missionary career intending to found an organization or to translate Scripture. In 1917, the 21-year-old Townsend went to Guatemala to distribute Spanish Bibles. Sales were slow. Many of the people he met were Cakchiquel Indians who did not know Spanish.

Townsend believed that the Cakchiquel needed a Bible in their language. But there was one problem: the Cakchiquel language had no written alphabet. Rather than abandon the project, Townsend and his wife Elvira spent the next 10 years studying the language, creating an alphabet for it, and, with the help of native speakers, producing a Cakchiquel New Testament.

Townsend had discovered a new calling: translating the Bible into the world's unwritten languages. Because he knew that one person working alone would not make much progress, he decided to teach other people how to analyze unwritten languages and create ...

Subscriber Access OnlyYou have reached the end of this Article Preview

To continue reading, subscribe now. Subscribers have full digital access.

Already a CT subscriber? for full digital access.