As the Christian church spread throughout the known world, the Bible was translated into various languages so that people could read it in their own tongue. By the time of the Reformation of the sixteenth century, the Bible was translated into more than thirty languages. The next three centuries saw an increase in that work to such a degree that another thirty languages were added. The missionaries who were sent to foreign fields recognized immediately the great need for the Scriptures in the native tongue. Those men, including William Carey in India, Adoniram Judson in Burma, and Hudson Taylor in China, dedicated much of their time to translation work. The translation work became necessary even in America, where John Eliot translated the Bible into the language of the Algonquin Indians of Massachusetts.
As interest in missions grew, there was a significant change in the way in which Bible translation proceeded. Instead of the work being done by Bible scholars, monks in libraries and monasteries, and missionaries trained in the original languages, the work was increasingly undertaken by teams of individuals with minimal or no theological training who were sent all over the world. These people were trained in linguistics, were not preachers, did not work to establish churches, but devoted their time and energy to translating portions of the Bible into the native languages. As soon as they accomplished the goal in one area, they moved to another. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, over 1,500 more translations of the Bible were published. Half of those have been since 1950. One man had much to do with that explosion in translations. His name was William Cameron Townsend, known as Cam, or Uncle Cam, to many.
W. Cameron Townsend was born in 1896 and was brought up in the Presbyterian faith in California. While attending a Presbyterian college in Los Angeles, he joined the Student Volunteer Movement and was inspired by missionary chapel speeches to get involved in missions. An opening came to sell Bibles in Latin America, so Cam applied and was assigned to Guatemala. But this was during World War I, and he decided to enlist in the military and give up his job as Bible salesman. A missionary from Guatemala made contact with him and rebuked him for being a coward by going to war, where a million other men will go, and refusing to go to Guatemala to sell Bibles. This single woman accused him of leaving the women to do the Lord’s work alone. Cam felt her rebuke and applied for a discharge from his captain, who remarkably approved the discharge, telling him that he would be able to do a lot more good selling Bibles in Central America than shooting Germans in France.
Soon after arriving in Guatemala in August of 1917 with a college friend, he found out that there were many languages other than Spanish represented in that country. As Townsend lived among and got to know some of the Indian tribes, one man took offense at his attempt to sell him a Spanish Bible and stated, “Why, if your God is so smart, hasn’t he learned our language?” This statement moved Townsend to spend the next thirteen years of his life learning the language of the primitive Cakchiquel Indians, reducing it to written form, and translating a Bible into their language. It seemed initially like an impossible task to understand the different sounds that were seemingly indistinguishable, until an American archaeologist advised him to quit trying to press the Indian language into the Latin mold and instead try to find a logical pattern within the language. This advice changed the course of Townsend’s language study, and it became the basis of his linguistic training program.
Townsend had an independent spirit. Once he saw the need for translating the Bible, he left his job selling Bibles and joined the Central American Mission (CAM). After he was finished translating the New Testament, the CAM desired to see him stay with the Indian tribe to build them up in the faith. But Townsend wanted to move on to another tribe and translate the Bible into their language instead. This resulted in resignation from CAM, and in 1934 he and another man founded Camp Wycliffe. This was not a mission organization, but was set up to provide linguistic training. The name was changed to Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL). But soon it began to serve a much broader audience of people involved in trade and government work who wanted to learn foreign languages.
In 1943, Wycliffe Bible Translators (WBT) was officially organized, and retired businessman Bill Nyman was appointed its president. This organization received funds for the support of Bible translators who were sent throughout the world. Today, WBT has its international headquarters in Singapore, is working in more than one thousand languages, and is completing translations of either the entire Bible or the New Testament in approximately thirty new languages each year. It takes an average of ten to fifteen years to translate the entire New Testament. It is estimated that there are almost seven thousand different languages spoken throughout the world, with the Bible or New Testament translated into about one third of them.
Townsend was a controversial figure in many ways. To his credit, he tried hard to avoid a one-man rule withthe organizations he started. He appointed boards of directors and others to lead those organizations. Often he was unhappy with and felt hindered by some of their plans, but he was willing to submit. To his fault, he often put a priority on good relationships with foreign governments above spiritual interests. He was often more involved in government social programs than promoting the gospel. He created controversy by authorizing the occasional use of mission planes and pilots for government use. He was willing to cooperate with and hire Pentecostals and Roman Catholics for translation work, an action that created tension within his organization. Although many of the translators did have college degrees and advanced degrees such as Ph.D.s, Townsend resisted all attempts to make college or seminary instruction prerequisite for Bible translation work. He himself was a college dropout, and although he was offered many honorary degrees and doctorates, he declined all but one from a Peruvian University, so that he could maintain affinity with translators without degrees.
Another controversial matter in the mid-1900s was Townsend’s willingness to get women involved in the work. Initially he balked at sending women into some of the remote jungle areas, but after a few persisted and claimed that God would protect them as well as men, he relented. Unmarried women were accompanying couples in missions by this time, but they were not being sent out in pairs alone. Doris Cox and Loretta Anderson began their work in 1950 among one of the most feared headhunting tribes in the Peruvian jungle. They admitted to being scared most of the time for the first five months. But eventually they won the hearts of the people, and even the chief was brought to confess Christ. Later the chief confided in Townsend that if two men would have come to their tribe, they would have killed both of them. If a couple had come, he would have killed the man and taken the woman for himself. But what could a great chief like himself do with two harmless girls who insisted on calling him their brother? This gave Townsend a testimony that he used over against those who continued to challenge his practice.
The one thing that motivated Townsend to press on in his work long after most men would have taken retirement was his view of the Bible. He insisted that the greatest missionary is the Bible in the mother tongue. He often said that the Bible never needs a furlough and is never considered a foreigner. Townsend was so focused on getting the Bible into as many different languages as possible that he overlooked some significant things.
We are thankful for the high view of the Bible that Townsend exhibited. We are grateful for the strides made in understanding, putting to print, and establishing dictionaries for many languages of the world. While we understand the need for preaching to accompany the written Word, as Romans 10:14teaches, who can object to the translation of the Bible into the languages of the world? We desire that God’s Word be taught and preached to as many people in the world as possible, in their own languages, prior to the return of Jesus Christ.
But is this a positive trend with regard to Bible translation? While WBT seeks to maintain accuracy, clarity, and naturalness in every translation, there are serious pitfalls when one becomes so focused on getting the Bible into as many different languages as possible. Three concerns can be raised.
First, is it really a high view of Scripture to subject the Bible to translation by those who have no knowledge of the original languages and no theological instruction? Regardless of the high standards that WBT seeks to maintain, the end results are going to differ tremendously based on the theological bent and linguistic abilities of the translator, and on the English translation they are using as their starting point.
Second, how accurate is a translation that is put together by a small team of individuals? The task of Bible translation is very difficult because many languages do not have words for the biblical terms required to translate the Scriptures. Many times hard questions come up, for which there are no ready answers. For instance, a translator among the Eskimos finds all references to agriculture difficult to translate. Bread is not known in many tropical countries. The translator is tempted to substitute other foods for bread. Terms such as justification do not have a proper word. Translators are required to find the closest, natural equivalent to the word, and coin new words and phrases at times. Working out these details is always very difficult. Historically these difficult decisions were faced by large teams of educated scholars who knew the original languages, were well versed in Reformed theology, and were committed to remaining faithful to the original text.
Third, should not those involved in the translating remain on the field to teach and instruct the people regarding the new vocabulary necessary for them to understand the Scriptures?
Townsend and WBT would argue that it is better to have at least a part of the Bible in the hands of the local people, than nothing at all, and that something, even if it is not as good as it could be, is still better than nothing. But when it comes to Bible translations, there are some that are best not published, because of the damage that they can do to the cause of Christ. The words of Matthew 18:6 are sobering. If a poor translation leads to a person subscribing to false doctrine, then judgment will be met on the translator. “But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” Jesus’ final words at the close of the canon in Revelation 22:18, 19 make the work of translation very sobering: “For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, if any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: and if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.”
Far better is the practice of churches being involved in the translation. Churches need to send missionaries to lands where they will devote their lives to language study, translation, and discipling the locals. A newly translated Bible that has language foreign to the culture of the people will have little use apart from preaching and study. And who is better equipped to do the preaching and teaching than those who were involved directly in the translating, those who understand the reasons behind the word choices.
Are we as churches willing to make the sacrifices necessary to undertake that kind of commitment to missions? Do we have men and women willing to give their lives to that kind of work?
Rather than lower the standard, we must keep the standard high as to what is required to equip one to translate God’s Word. There is a great need for godly scholars who are well grounded in the original languages, solidly Reformed, and equipped to translate the Scriptures and other Reformed literature accurately into the languages of the world. We are thankful for and can learn much from such mission organizations as WBT and SIM. Our prayer is that God will continue to raise up godly scholars and missionaries in our midst and give them the necessary gifts and graces to be willing to devote their lives to the important work of discipling the nations.