Wycliffe Associates (WA), an affiliate of Wycliffe Bible Translators, USA, has come up with a financial plan that they claim will work for Bible translation programs in vernacular languages in areas of the world where the NT is still lacking. In an electronic flyer requesting money, they advertise that a donor can “help national translators give people God’s Word in WEEKS!” To me, this is scary!

This endeavor by WA is justified by them because they claim it is taking others (like Wycliffe and SIL) “so long to translate God’s Word”. Now, thanks to WA, it won’t, because they have a MAST (Mobilized Assistance Supporting Translation) methodology that “is allowing New Testament translation to be completed in months or WEEKS instead of years”. For only $19,600 WA can “launch a full team of 26 translators into action to translate the ENTIRE NEW TESTAMENT for an entire language group in JUST WEEKS.”

Having been involved in a NT translation program in Papua New Guinea that took us 15 years, then another three years sometime later to provide a revision, I gasped at the assertion WA was (and is) making. Granted, initially we relied on typewriters and carbon paper instead of computers and programs, but it still took time to provide a written alphabet for the language, figure out the grammar and compile a dictionary, teach the people to read, and so on. However, I don’t think computer programs would have been the answer.

As a matter of fact, we did use computer programs to assist us in the revision. And yet, with competent speakers of the language and a base text to work from, it took another three years to do the revision. So I am awed at the drive-through, NTs-to-go approach that WA is advocating, the details of which are obscure.

Think for a moment simply about the pay: $19,600 divided by 26 would give each translator just over $753 dollars, not bad for, let’s say, 6 or 8 weeks of work. It shouldn’t be hard to find people to work for that wage. Of course they would have to find food and lodging, which could easily take $45 of their $95 a week, still leaving them $30 for transportation, soap and other basic needs. We assume that WA would pick up the $20,000 or so that would be needed for computers and related items, as well as the thousands of dollars to hire consultants, provide training and checking—assuming, of course, that such menial tasks would be needed once MAST gets done with the translation.

My skepticism is showing because I have been reading Lesslie Newbigin (an outstanding missionary theologian who worked in India) who claims there is a common factor that enables Christians to develop: it is “the presence of a believing, worshipping, celebrating congregation of people deeply involved in the ordinary life of their neighbourhood” (1987, Mission in Christ’s Way: Bible Studies, p. 20). And, as he reminds us, no one can program this because it is primarily a work of the Spirit, “a spill-over from Pentecost”. That doesn’t happen in weeks because sustainable translation programs require on-going community and congregational support. Outside money helps, of course, but it is the insiders who keep a program running.

WA means well, I’ll grant them that. But I would wonder how many of their leaders have ever learned a vernacular language, trained or consulted national translators, or know anything about the cultural adjustments necessary in a viable vernacular translation. Instead, what is being marketed is SPEED, and of course speed is of high value in our U.S. culture. It is even, somewhat prophetically perhaps, the name of one of the mind-bending drugs that people use to get into an ecstatic frame of mind, outside of reality but, apparently, somewhat “joyful”.

I would caution anyone about giving money to organizations that claim translations can be done quickly and accurately. It seems to belittle the efforts of small communities who want God’s word and are willing to spend the time necessary to help provide it. Outsiders who want speed appear to disparage such small indigenous community efforts. But of course speed is one of the main values of our Western society.