Technology transforms ancient art of Bible translation
Orlando, Fla. — For most of its 50 years, Florida’s Wycliffe Associates built offices, guesthouses, training centers and airport runways for volunteers who traveled to other countries to assist Bible translators.
But in the past two years, the nonprofit has transformed the way it goes about its mission.
Now, as it celebrates its golden anniversary, the organization’s ambitious goal is to have the Bible translated by 2025 into all of the estimated 7,000 languages spoken worldwide.
“The magic is really unlocking the potential of the local people and encouraging and supporting them as a team as they do the work,” President and Chief Executive Officer Bruce Smith said.
Through computer tablets, custom-designed software and desktop printers, Wycliffe Associates helps native speakers in their home countries translate and print copies in a fraction of the time it once took. The New Testament, for example, can be translated in a few months instead of the 25 or 30 years required when it was done by hand, printed elsewhere and then shipped, Smith said.
In 2014, Wycliffe Associates shifted from American to foreign translators working through their local churches. The nonprofit, using a new translation method, provides a version of the Bible free of copyright restrictions and translation tips for complicated sections. As a result, the book was translated into 600 languages in two years, with the goal of adding 400 more this year.
“These people are the experts in their language and culture, and that’s what translation is about,” Smith said.
The backbone of Wycliffe Associates is its 7,000 volunteers worldwide. They serve in key management roles and also do a variety of jobs, including train other volunteers. Many are winter residents who live in an RV park on the campus during their stay.
“We want to give as many people as we can that opportunity to know about and accept Christ into their lives,” said Carlyle Kilmore, 78, a retired software developer from Rome, New York, who helped the ministry’s annual auction raise $65,000 this month.
A shared sense of purpose has nurtured friendships. The women who work in the postage-stamp ministry, for example, toil side by side from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday, exhibiting the patience of Job as they sort thousands of donated stamps by color, type, year and whether they are canceled.
They recharge by taking weekend trips together and participating in social activities. Recently, they saw manatees at Blue Spring State Park in Volusia County and went to a play in Cocoa. On campus, they go to movies, potlucks, pizza and game nights — and, of course, prayer services.
Volunteers operate in 76 countries — including Southeast Asia, the South Pacific, Africa and South America — some where Christians are persecuted.
Four translators were killed last year by suspected militants in the Middle East, who also destroyed equipment, Wycliffe Associates officials said. They would not reveal the country the attack occurred in, saying it would endanger more lives.
“The nature of our work takes us into places that are risky,” Smith said. “There’s worse ways to lose your life.”
Wycliffe Associates was founded in 1967 by three men who saw that Bible translators were spending time on tasks such as constructing buildings and raising money — time that could better be accomplished by others working in support roles.
In 2015, the nonprofit received $41.1 million in contributions and other revenue and spent $27.6 million on translation-ministry programs, according to its annual report.
It moved its headquarters from Southern California to Central Florida 13 years ago and shares a campus with Wycliffe Bible Translators, but the two are now separate. To add to the potential confusion, there’s also a Wycliffe Global Alliance, which Wycliffe Associates withdrew from a year ago over translation disagreements.
All three groups were named for John Wycliffe, a 14th-century English theologian who, with help from his associates, was the first to translate the complete Bible into English.
“We have a God of love and we want to give people peace of mind that they are forgiven for their wrongdoing,” said Dia Terhaar, 71, who lives near Toronto and handles sales for the stamp ministry. “Once they learn about forgiveness and love, it can change their life, and it’s nice to be able to spread that message.”