Pushing a Rope Uphill

A Christian could not invest his life in any occupation more valuable than translating the eternal, living words of God into a language in which it has never existed. The Great Commission cannot be fulfilled without a Bible. With modern technology, Bible translation should be easier and faster than at any time in history. Not long ago, a Bible translator typed and retyped the New Testament twenty-five times before it was ready to print. Despite digital technology, it is still a very difficult work. It requires proper spiritual, physical, mental, intellectual, and linguistic preparation. Praise God that some see the need for Bible translation and are expressing a desire to engage in this worthy work, and we do not want to discourage them. However, they must “count the cost” and be aware of the long-term commitment required and the endurance needed to overcome many obstacles. While each language and place have their special challenges, you can be sure that the work of Bible translation is not easy anywhere.

The prospective translator must understand the futility of beginning without the proper training in linguistics and translation principles. Bible translation must be done right! To spend fifteen years producing a New Testament, only to discover that the people cannot understand it or do not accept it is tragic, but it has happened. Good, well-intentioned people with sound doctrine do not necessarily produce good Bible translations.

A BBTI graduate, who we will call Fred Jones, works with an unreached people group in a dangerous and restricted part of the world. He compares his efforts to translate the Bible for this ethnic group to pushing a rope uphill. Not all places will seem as impossible as Brother Fred’s. His is probably a worst-case scenario, but there is an enemy with many wiles who wants to stop all Bible translation. Fred attempted to reach part of this group who lives in a country controlled by godless atheists. The leaders hate Christianity, and they sometimes hate the ethnic people who will not give up their cultural and linguistic identity. After a time, Fred was forced to move to a neighboring country and work with another part of the same group. However, the situation there is not much better. First, he must have a reason to justify being in the country, and “missionary” is not one of the options. He must operate some type of business or offer a skill that would benefit the country. The government of the second country is controlled by a religion that opposes Christianity, and those in power also hate the ethnic group that Fred loves. After a few years, the government began to practice genocide against Fred’s people. Men from his neighborhood disappeared; some were reported killed and others imprisoned. When Fred and two other foreign workers bought food for the wives and children of the missing men, they were accused of aiding terrorists. Two of them were jailed, but Fred escaped before being arrested. Nevertheless, he is determined to return and with God’s help push the rope further up the hill. Yes, there is political and religious opposition, but Fred is proving that it can be overcome.

The Bible translator must expect to push the rope up a steep linguistic hill. Unless the major language is English, he must first learn the trade language and then the heart language of the people group. The first language is difficult, but the second one is often much more complex, without a language school to attend. Since the second language Fred needed to learn had never been written, he had to learn it without books and teachers, develop an alphabet, and write the words in the correct morphological and syntactical order. Thankfully, Fred and his wife learned these skills at BBTI.

It is always difficult to move God’s Word from one language to another. It can be painstakingly slow. The missionary translator should never attempt the task of Bible translation without the help of native speakers, but it is challenging to find them. There may be no Christians among the group, and even if there are, they may be afraid to help. Sometimes, helpers will only work secretly.

The Bible translator must go and live where people do not have a Bible, and usually that means living in inhospitable places. Places where translation work is needed can be unpleasant, difficult, and sometimes dangerous. Primitive living conditions require enormous amounts of time and energy to accomplish simple daily tasks. (No hot showers or electric range!)

Consider Fred’s wife. She must be as tough as he is. She raises her children and homeschools them under the same conditions. She, too, must learn both the trade language and the heart language of the people group. She must learn to understand and love a people that are sometimes hard to love. At BBTI, Fred’s wife received the same pre-field training as Fred. This enables her to learn and cope with the culture and analyze and learn the language. She can communicate and teach women that may be culturally off limits to Fred. They make a good team.

Bible translation usually proceeds slowly. Often it is put on the back burner because of all the other work that the missionary must do. He needs to evangelize those around him and teach them the Word of God, even though it does not yet exist in the language. He must work at his business to retain his visa and good standing with the government. Some supporters may question why he is not winning the multitudes and establishing churches reported by other missionaries in other places. He must report to them and explain why he is not producing the same results.

As we pray for laborers for God’s harvest field, let us also pray that many of these will labor in the work of Bible translation. Pray that our homes and churches will produce soldiers of the Jones’ caliber equipped for God to send. Pray for laborers who can patiently endure the spiritual, mental, and physical hardness required to accomplish the task and push the rope up a steep hill!