Language Vitality Through Bible Translation

by Marianne Beerle-Moor (Volume editor) Vitaly Voinov (Volume editor)
©2015 Monographs X, 248 Pages


This interdisciplinary collection of articles, written by scholars involved in translating the Bible into various languages around the world, demonstrates that such translation projects are promoting the vitality of local languages, both those that are endangered and those that are still fairly healthy but non-empowered. Bible translation and activities typically associated with it, such as linguistic documentation, vernacular literacy work, cultural engagement, community development, technological advancement, and self-esteem building among native speakers, help languages to develop and strengthen their position in society and should therefore be welcomed by linguists and all who care about stemming the growing tide of language death all over the world. This book is immediately relevant to the global community of documentary and conservationist linguists, as well as to anyone interested in translation studies, the sociology of religion, and the relationship between language, culture, and the Bible.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • Advance Praise for Language Vitality Through Bible Translation
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Foreword: Bible translation as transformative language revitalization
  • Introduction to Language Vitality through Bible Translation
  • Part I. East Asia
  • 1. Language endangerment in the light of Bible translation
  • 2. Bible translation’s contribution to Agutaynen language vitality
  • Part II. Africa
  • 3. Bible translation, dictionaries, and language development: The case of Gbaya
  • 4. Bible translation and the promotion of mother tongues in Africa
  • 5. The Nuba Moro literacy program
  • Part III. The Americas
  • 6. Bible translation and language preservation: The politics of the nineteenth century Cherokee Bible translation projects
  • 7. The new Lakota Bible as anti-imperial translation
  • 8. Endangered languages and Bible translation in Brazil and Papua New Guinea
  • Part IV. The South Pacific
  • 9. Bible translation as Natqgu language and culture advocacy
  • 10. Encouraging language revitalization through education and Bible translation among the Ap Ma of Papua New Guinea
  • Part V. North Eurasia
  • 11. Bible translation as witness to a forgotten language: The case of Caucasian Albanian
  • 12. The role of Bible translation in preserving the languages of Dagestan
  • 13. The effect of Bible translation on literacy among Nenets Christians
  • 14. Can Bible translation revitalize the dying Shor language?
  • Language index
  • Series index


Foreword: Bible translation as transformative language revitalization


As a child, I was exposed to Bible translation through my missionary parents who worked with the Ermineskin Cree Nation in Alberta, Canada. We had Cree Bibles and hymnals around the house, and although I did not read the Cree syllabary, I enjoyed looking at the curly and angular shaped letters. On a portable wind-up gramophone, I would listen to Cree versions of famous Methodist hymns like Fanny J. Crosby’s “Pass me not, O gentle Savior.” I first heard this hymn in Cree, not understanding the words, but singing along with the syllables. Years later I would hear it performed by folk-rock luminary Bob Dylan, rapper MC Hammer, and various gospel singers, finding it equally moving across languages and genres.

Can scriptures and hymns be accurately (and adequately) translated? And what value does the process of translation add to the language itself? Translators grapple with these problems daily, not only in the realm of semantics and syntax, but in the poetics, the prosody, and the metaphor. As German Orrin’s 1885 Cree Hymnal notes in the introduction, “There are imperfections in the translation. It is difficult to compress this sweetly flowing tongue into the measure of English verse.”

Full Bible translations now exist in 511 languages, according to a 2013 report by United Bible Societies. An additional 2,139 languages have partial translations. This makes Bible translation by far the most ambitious, most multi-lingual translation effort in the history of mankind. It is the largest parallel corpus that has ever existed, and far exceeds in cumulative line count any other work of literature. ← vii | viii →

And there is no sign of letting up. The United Bible Societies estimated in 2012 that 4,455 languages still lack any translation, and new translations are being started each year. For example, in the Federated States of Micronesia the Mokilese (1,500 speakers) and Pingelapese (2,500 speakers) communities began their Bible translation projects in 2012. While visiting Mokil Atoll in 2013, I was honored to meet elder Ichiro John, a leader of the Mokilese Bible translation team. He sat in his lagoon-side boathouse with his Bible, concordance and notebooks spread out on a board, laboring over verses from the Gospel of John. “We decided we want the Bible in our own language,” John explained.

Mokilese is a good example of how Bible translations can be truly community-driven. The Mokil people conduct Sunday services almost entirely in the Mokilese language, including the announcements, hymns, sermon, and after-church conversations. But scripture passages must be read in Pohnpeian, a sister language, since it is the closest available Bible translation. Even though all Mokilese people understand Pohnpeian, they would prefer to have the Bible in their own vernacular. And so they have begun the long and arduous project. Along the way, they will be contributing to the vitality of their endangered language, by coining new words, producing new texts, and creating new modes of public discourse in their church and other social spaces. Apart from those benefits, a Bible translation will bring prestige and respect for Mokilese, both within the community and without. Prestige is a key (yet intangible) variable in language resilience and survival, and factors into young people’s decisions to keep or abandon a language. So the translation project will breathe new life into this threatened tongue, while also serving the Mokilese community’s spiritual needs.

Bible translators (both indigenous and expatriate) were doing crowd-sourced translation and language revitalization long before these concepts existed. They have made major contributions to the introduction of orthographies, literacies, and texts into languages that were otherwise exclusively oral. And they continue to make an outstanding contribution to language vitality, as the papers in this volume amply attest. Bible translation is transformative for a language, especially during the life of the project itself, when it engages some of the best minds of the community in solving formidably difficult problems in semantic mapping, orthography, metaphor, and language standardization. But it also extends in influence far beyond the original project, and shines as an example of best practice in ensuring language survival. ← viii | ix →


Introduction to Language Vitality through Bible Translation

Institute for Bible Translation in Russia/CIS

The original impetus for producing this collection of articles was a Russian-language volume of papers (Gadilija et al. 2010) focused on Bible translation and language preservation in the former Soviet Union. That volume, Perevod Biblii kak faktor razvitija i sokhranenija jazykov narodov Rossii i stran SNG (‘Bible translation as a factor in the development and preservation of the languages of the peoples of Russia and the nations of the CIS’), was published by the Moscow-based Institute for Bible Translation (IBT), with which both co-editors of the present collection are affiliated. Since the Russian materials are not easily accessible for many people interested in language preservation and Bible translation, and because such endeavors are carried out not merely in Russia but around the world, it was deemed advantageous to broaden the discussion geographically and to shift to English in this volume. Our primary goal is to present case studies from around the world which show that Bible translation projects taking place in many countries today are promoting the vitality of local languages, both those that are endangered and those that remain fairly healthy but are unempowered, and furthermore, that in many cases it is precisely Bible translation and associated activities that have helped vernaculars to develop and strengthen their position in society.

Bible translators began actively talking and writing about language endangerment soon after the seminal article by Michael Krauss (1992) in Language, but a hands-on approach to language maintenance and revitalization has been present in the Bible translation (or BT) movement since the very beginning of BT activity in the modern era. In fact, the BT movement itself was to a certain extent responsible for raising awareness about endangered ← 1 | 2 → languages among general linguists before the clarion call of the early 1990s, and also for preserving data in many endangered languages where no or few other lingusts were working, by analyzing and describing these languages, publishing grammars and dictionaries, and developing vernacular literacy materials. Although a large number of such efforts by Bible translators have been reported in scholarly venues, the specific publications were fairly insulated and limited in distribution—mostly working papers and articles published in more or less in-house trade journals, such as the United Bible Societies’ The Bible Translator and SIL’s Notes on Translation and Notes on Linguistics.1 It is a shame that much of this valuable material, very relevant to the present worldwide interest in language conservation, has so far been accessed by only a small number of readers who are insiders to the BT movement. With the present volume, we want to bring the relevance of BT for language vitality to the view of a wider audience of linguists, anthropologists, sociologists, NGOs, and minority language speakers—all those who are concerned about worldwide language loss.

The perspective that BT may actually be beneficial to languages and cultures under stress is not new. For example, Sanneh (1989) argues that Christian translation work “touches on the vitality of language” (p. 206) and was partially responsible for the rise of anti-colonialism and the resurgence of national cultures in various parts of the world. In certain ways, the present volume could be seen as a further fleshing out of Sanneh’s argument. But this perspective is not universally subscribed to. Among certain linguists and anthropologists, the opposite belief is deeply entrenched: that BT is necessarily an expatriate missionary activity and therefore must be detrimental to local languages and cultures, since all missionary activity is by definition believed in these circles to be inherently harmful to indigenous forms of thinking and speaking. The debate about this attitude is in particular closely tied to the work of SIL International, as witnessed to by the symposium on “Missionaries and scholars: The overlapping agendas of linguists in the field” at the 2007 annual meeting of the Linguistic Society of America, and subsequent articles published in Language as “SIL International and the disciplinary culture of linguistics” (Dobrin et al. 2009). Although our volume is not intended to be polemical, it does seek to make the following contributions to this discussion.

First, the articles in this volume demonstrate that it is not only expatriate Westerners who are involved in the BT movement, but also representatives of the indigenous peoples into whose languages the translation work is being carried out. Thus, it is not completely accurate to automatically identify BT with a “mission endeavor” that is “irreconcilable with the principle of self-determination, because it brings about change according to terms largely ← 2 | 3 → determined outside the community itself” (Epps & Ladley 2009:645). Although missionaries definitely play a part in many BT projects around the world, they are often there at the invitation of native speakers, who typically have a major role in the BT process and are uniquely qualified to determine whether or not they believe the given BT project to be advantageous for their language and culture. Likewise, it is not only native Christians that initiate and support BT activities in their language, at least in the Russian context; in many cases, non-religious people and members of other faith traditions who consider the Bible to be world class literature also promote its translation into their language for purposes of language development.

Second, whereas the LSA and Language discussions centered specifically on the role of SIL International, the present volume shows that there are other significant players in the world of Bible translation as well. While it is acknowledged that SIL International has been a leader in the contemporary BT movement, other organizations exist, with overlapping but non-identical agendas to SIL’s. They, too, are making major contributions to BT and are likewise concerned with the vitality of the language communities they work with. All organizations have their own institutional goals; it is hard to find any two institutions in any field that have identical goals. Thus, as Dobrin & Good (2009:623) point out, the ultimate institutional goals of academic linguistics are distinct from those of SIL International, although there is a shared interest in the linguistic description of marginalized languages. Likewise, every organization involved in BT work has its own story, and these stories are often different from that of SIL. Some are evangelical Protestant, while others are not. Some are focused on BT as an integral part of Christian mission activity, while others are primarily concerned with producing the translations, with little or no concomitant mission activity, leaving language communities to use the translation however they wish. Thus, whatever institutional specifics there might be in SIL International, these should not be automatically associated with Bible translation per se, since this is a multipolar movement involving numerous and variegated movers.

The organizational membership of the contributors to this volume includes the United Bible Societies, SIL International, the Institute for Bible Translation in Russia, Pioneer Bible Translators, The Seed Company, and the American Bible Society. Not all of the contributors are primarily linguists in their main line of work, although all have had advanced lingustic training and are conversant with issues of language endangerment and revitalization. Some are field workers currently involved in a specific BT project; others are roving consultants for translation projects, either in a specific part of the world or globally; yet others are currently administrators, but have formerly ← 3 | 4 → been involved in the actual workings of specific BT projects. Besides linguistics, other specialized fields that the contributors are experts in include translation studies, anthropology, literary analysis, Biblical studies and Christian theology. Some are expatriate missionaries; others are natives of the area and/or language group about which they write. This variety of backgrounds, experiences, and academic specializations brings a valuable diversity of viewpoints and interdisciplinary approaches to the table; we do not seek to homogenize them so that they would all be the sort that one finds in the writings of Western academic linguists. What unites all of the contributions, however, is the belief that the practice of BT is primarily positive in relation to language vitality.

The exact title of this volume was deliberated at length. The initial Russian volume dealt with language preservation through BT. It is no surprise that all Bible translators want the language they work in to enjoy use by their community of speakers for many more years and hope that their translation work will facilitate this. Certain languages which are now no longer spoken have been preserved in the historical record solely or primarily by means of written Bible translations (e.g., Caucasian Albanian [see Beerle-Moor’s article, this volume], Old Georgian [Manning 2001:69]). In this regard, BT might also be viewed as a form of language documentation, in that it produces a significant textual corpus in underdocumented languages, including those that are still spoken today. This textual data can be used for obtaining at least basic linguistic descriptions of these languages. For example, Heider, Hatfield & Wilson (2011) describe an innovative project headed by Matthew Dryer at SUNY Buffalo that uses data from Bible translations in several Papuan languages to produce grammar sketches of these languages. However, this is not the rigorous and full-fledged documentation aimed for by today’s documentary subdiscipline of linguistics, which focuses on archiving digital recordings of primary data. Nor is the data produced by BT in itself equivalent to the tripartite descriptive approach—dictionary, grammar and texts—of the Boasian tradition. Likewise, it is readily acknowledged that, at least historically, translated Scripture texts have often not been ideal representatives of the actual structure of the recipient language due to the overly literal translation approach that was dominant among Bible translators until the principles of dynamic translation gained popularity in the mid-twentieth century thanks to the work of Eugene Nida and others (e.g., Nida & Taber 1974). Even in the production of dynamic translations, the text remains a translation and is rarely completely natural.

Next, we thought about framing the volume as being primarily about language endangerment and BT, since most of the languages discussed in ← 4 | 5 → this volume are endangered. But not all are, and not all BT projects around the world are working with an endangered language. The BT process has relevance for the strength of unendangered languages as well. We briefly considered the title “Language revitalization through Bible translation”, but quickly realized that some languages into which BT is being conducted are still healthy and do not require intentional efforts at RE-vitalization. Finally, we settled on the more general title “Language vitality through Bible translation”, because we firmly hold that BT together with its associated activities help to at least maintain the existing level of a language’s health, and in many cases also boost its vitality to higher levels. In choosing this catch-all term as our title, we suggest that BT inclusively benefits the above mentioned activities of language preservation, documentation, revitalization and maintenance.

In general, there are two main ways that BT can contribute to an increase in a language’s vitality level. The first of these has to do with the actual, physical book (or in oral translation projects, audio recording) that is produced. This has historically taken place in European languages such as English and German, in which an authoritative version of the Bible (the King James Version and Martin Luther’s translation, respectively) has become a foundational part of the literary canon and to a large extent been responsible for standardization in the language (see Nicolson 2011). This type of vitality increase typically occurs among peoples who already belong to the Christian faith tradition and can be expected to make heavy use of the Scriptures in their language.


X, 248
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (June)
Bible projects Cherokee Lakota anti-imperial Shor imperialist
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. X, 248 pp., num. ill.

Biographical notes

Marianne Beerle-Moor (Volume editor) Vitaly Voinov (Volume editor)

Marianne Beerle-Moor received her doctorate in linguistics from the University of Zurich, Switzerland. Her primary sphere of research is the languages of the Caucasus, especially Lezgi. Among other honors, she has been recognized by the president of Kalmykia and the president of Sakha (Yakutia) for her contribution to language development in these regions of the Russian Federation. Beerle-Moor has also been awarded an honorary doctorate by the Russian Academy of Sciences for her work as director of the Institute for Bible Translation from 1997 to 2013. Vitaly Voinov received his PhD in linguistics from the University of Texas at Arlington, United States. He is one of the main editors of the first-ever translation of the Bible into the Tuvan language of Siberia and the author of Politeness Devices in the Tuvan Language. Voinov currently serves as director of the Institute for Bible Translation in Moscow, Russia.


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