In 2011 Wycliffe Bible Translators were growing uneasy with the concept of computers replacing Bible translators. With advances in Bible translation software came the reality that machine intelligence was replacing human Bible translators. Their concern was indeed valid—from 2000-2010 Wycliffe software engineers were completing work on two Bible software packages to speed up the digitization of Bible translation. They created “Fieldworks,” a software to be used by the missionary or linguist for inputting linguistic information. Fieldworks then accesses its “Language Explorer” to create four functions for the newly written language: Lexicon, Interlinear, Bulk Edit, and Grammar. Fieldworks then facilitates formatting, back-translating, error-checking, and exporting the final product. Once the Fieldworks phases are complete, the new Bible translation can be imported into “Paratext.” Paratext is the United Bible Society’s (UBS) proprietary software for all present and future Bibles that it publishes.
Simultaneously the field of linguistics is exploding. Funded by the National Science Foundation, Eastern Michigan University partnered with Stockholm University to develop a Linguist List Map and MultiTree projects, now overseen by Indiana University. Wycliffe’s Summer Institute of Linguistics runs www.ethnologue.com, a website containing information on “7,097 known living languages,” categorized as either Institutional, Developing, Vigorous, In Trouble, and Dying. Beginning with 19thCentury Protestant missionaries, Bible translation is now facilitating linguistic analysis of all the languages of the world.
But who controls the ethereal realm of the digital Bible? To gain an understanding of the complex web of cooperative agreements, we look back 50 years.
In 1968 the United Bible Society (UBS) was 24 years old. The UBS served to unite many major worldwide Bible Societies after World War II. Prior to that time these Bible societies cooperated on the basis of networks of comity agreements forged on the mission fields of the world in the 19thCentury. However, the 20thCentury ushered in an ecumenical wave. It was truly the “Great Century of Ecumenism.” The World Council of Churches organized in 1948. John XXIII announced the Second Vatican Council in 1959. A new day of Christian cooperation reigned in Western Christianity—especially impacting mainline Protestant and Orthodox churches, and a group of Roman Catholic leaders.
Meanwhile, within Evangelical Christianity, the Bible reigns supreme. The Bible and its translation informs and edifies both the Evangelical theologian and practitioner. The hearts of the trained and untrained are fed by the words of the Bible—as translated. God speaks through His words—as translated. The “nerve center” of Evangelical Christianity is Bible translation. In these past two centuries Bible Societies have exerted important oversight over Bible translation, publication, and dissemination.
It all started in 1802 when the Bible Society Movement was conceived in the Board Room of the Religious Tract Society in London. On February 1, 1803, the British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS) was launched, its rules were adopted, and it became an official organization. Seventeen years later, in 1820, it reported, “The Auxiliaries of the Society itself amount to 265, and the Branch Societies to 364; forming together a total as of last year, of 629.” The BFBS had grown exponentially as Evangelical Christians worldwide resonated with its Great Commission purpose of Bible distribution for the purposes of evangelism and discipleship.
Fifty years ago, in 1968, the modern Bible Society movement was 165 years old. Also in 1968, the United Bible Society (UBS), a different organization, was 23 years old.
In its 24thyear, the UBS became one of two official signers of the 1968 Guiding Principles for Interconfessional Cooperation in Translating the Bible. The other signer was the “Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity” (SPCU). The SPCU was founded on June 5, 1960 by the Catholic Church. The Dutch cardinal, Augustin Bea, assumed its first presidency. The SPCU was organized for Catholics to participate in activities surrounding the “Great Century of Ecumenism.”
The Second Vatican General Council was called on Jan 25, 1959 and held its first meeting on October 11, 1962. However, the SPCU could not wait for Vatican II’s ecumenical decrees to begin its work. Four years after the founding of SPCU, on September 14, 1964, three mechanisms for ecumenical cooperation “were approved and promulgated by the Pope”:
- Unitatis redintegratio (schemata on ecumenism);
- Orientalium Ecclesiarum (on the official view of other churches); and
- Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution of the Church).
Then the doctrinal and organizational framework was in place for Rome to “catch the wave” of Protestant and Orthodox ecumenism.
Two months after these Vatican II decrees were in place, a meeting of three persons was held in Crêt Bérard in Lausanne, Switzerland in November of 1964. They met to discuss ecumenical cooperation in Bible translation. The three persons were: Olivier Béguin, Secretary, Prisoners of War and Bible Departments, World Council of Churches; Augustin Cardinal Bea, president of the SPCU and rector of Rome’s Pontifical Biblical Institute; and Eugene Nida, Executive Secretary of Translations, American Bible Society. At that meeting, Nida took up pen and paper and handwrote the original draft of what was to become the Guiding Principles and then Guidelines. He devised principles by which Protestants (and Evangelicals) could be leveraged to cooperate as equals with Catholics in translating the Bible—all under the banner of the United Bible Society.
Following this preliminary meeting these Guiding Principles began to circulate through various committees on both sides of the aisle, Catholic and UBS. Then, as if by magic, the following year, on September 14, 1965, after nearly 800 years of repeated prohibitions against Catholic lay persons reading the Bible, Vatican II allowed and encouraged Catholics to read the Bible. The Constitution Dei verbum (Constitution on Divine Revelation) allowed this change, all without the Catholic Church conceding any doctrinal changes. The way was being prepared to market Nida’s Guiding Principles to Protestants and Evangelicals.
The Guiding Principles continued through another two and a half years of negotiations. Finally, on Pentecost Sunday 1968 (June 2), the Guiding Principles for Interconfessional Cooperation in Translating the Bible were jointly approved by the UBS and SPCU.
The scope of Nida’s Guiding Principles was sweeping. The document considered what original language texts should be used. It discussed “borrowings.” It addressed cross-references. It recommended the makeup of translation committees. It covered copyright and the publishing of Bibles. The following illustrate salient points of the 1968 Guiding Principles, as well as its 1987 revision, the Guidelines.
1. Original language texts (OT and NT):
In order to facilitate “joint translations” the translators were to follow the Greek New Testament as published by the UBS. Byzantine tradition readings could be included when it was necessary for a certain constituency (1968). However, by the 1987 version, all Byzantine readings were to appear in the footnotes.
As far as Old Testament original language texts, the 1968 “Guiding Principles” recommended the Wurttemberg Bible Society text. By 1987, the UBS Hebrew Old Testament Text Project was to be considered.
2. Canon (Apocrypha, yes or no?):
Decisions regarding the publication of Bible using the Apocrypha or Deuterocanonical books was left to the direct requests of respective churches.
The development of a “common exegetical base should be established.”
4. Supplementary features:
Cross-reference systems: “run the risk of subjectivity.”
Differences in Protestant and Roman Catholic interpretations: “it is better simply to omit reference in the interest of joint undertakings.”
Anonymity of the Bible translators was encouraged: “It is not the practice of the United Bible Societies to associate the names of translators or revisers with translations of the Scriptures.”
The 1968 document recommended that “borrowings should be kept at a strict minimum, for all such languages have a sufficiently large vocabulary or phrasal equivalence to make borrowing relatively unnecessary.”
It is in procedures where the “psychological climate” of various churches created difficulty as described in the documents:
“Procedures will differ radically, depending upon the nature of the project (a new translation or revision), upon the level of training and education of the constituency, upon whether the psychological climate is conducive to cooperation, and upon the adherence of one or another constituency to its distinctive traditions”
Low education language groups are especially vulnerable to manipulation, according to these guidelines.
7. Climate for cooperation
The first part of the “Procedures” explained how to approach the “Climate for Cooperation”:
“Whether a revision or new translation can be undertaken jointly in a particular area depends largely upon the climate established by the respective constituencies.
“The strategic importance of the psychological attitudes involves a basic policy and procedures of the Bible Societies, which, though they generally hold the publishing rights for the Scriptures, only do so on behalf of the churches. Therefore, any cooperative undertaking will need for its success as wide an agreement as possible on the part of the constituencies concerned.”
“Psychological attitudes” and “psychological climate” seem to be code words for “doctrinal climate” or “ecumenical climate.” In like manner, “distinctive traditions” appears synonymous to “doctrinal distinctives.”
8. Organizational structure of translation committees
A landmark feature of the 1968 document was its principle of equal composition of Protestants and Catholics on translation committees overseen by and funded through the UBS.
“For the most adequate development of a translation program, there is need for three groups: 1. a Working Committee, 2. a Review Committee, and 3. a Consultative Group.
“Working Committee: Consisting of 4 to 6 persons equally divided between Protestant and Roman Catholic constituencies…”
The language in this section was changed in the 1987 revision:
“For the most adequate development of a translation program, there is need for three groups: 1. a translation team, 2. a review panel, and 3. a consultative group. …
“Translation team: Consisting of not more than six persons of high competence from the Roman Catholic and other Christian constituencies…”
9. Appointment of personnel
The text of the 1968 document reads as follows. May the reader make his own conclusions:
“To find the most qualified persons to constitute the Working and Review Committees, it is necessary to use informal decision-making procedures. That is to say, an extensive investigation is made by some qualified individuals so as to assess the technical capacities of such persons and the probabilities of such persons being able to work together effectively in a committee. After determination, in consultation with church leaders, of the availability of such individuals in consultation with church leaders, they may be formally nominated by their respective churches and appointed by the Bible Societies. Without careful preliminary investigation unsuitable appointmentshave sometimes been made to the detriment of the whole project.”
10. Formulation of principles and translation consultant
The development of translation principles was determined to be vital in “collective efforts.” Prior agreements in translation methods can help avoid “a number of psychological problems” (1968). The 1987 edition of the “Guidelines” added the work of a “translation consultant.” This consultant would help choose and train the translators, as well as edit and submit the final edition.
These ten points identify poignant elements in these two documents. A half-century view of the long-term impact of these agreements is possible.
Societal Changes: The onset of Bible digitization has definitely energized Bible study:
- Searchable digital Bibles have revolutionized the study of the Bible;
- Open-source Bible software and non-copyrighted Bibles have even allowed the proliferation of low-cost and even free Bible study tools;
- Although hard to prove cause and effect, in some parts of the world the availability of Bible software has occasioned a resurgence in conservative biblical Evangelicalism;
- Both the pulpit and the pew have benefited from Bible software.
Even while significant spiritual gains have coincided with the advent of Bible digitization, the advent of Bible software created administrative vacuums which were being filled following the above “Guidelines.” The long-term impact of these “Guidelines” may not benefit the ongoing proliferation of Evangelicalism. Surely the missional advice of Jesus applies to an analysis of biblical digitization:
“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” Matthew 10:16.
Bible Digitization: The following suggests disconcerting aspects of the digital Bible revolution:
- Digitization has inadvertently facilitated the centralization of editorial control of Bible translations to a smaller group of individuals;
- The UBS’ proprietary software (Paratext) has served to advance its functional monopoly over control of wordwide Bible translations;
- Copyright laws can be used to squeeze low cost Bible software in three ways: (a) charging excessive fees for books, fonts, and access, (b) requiring organizationally intrusive cooperative agreements for the use of materials, and (c) requiring access to software and personnel in exchange for the use of copyrighted materials;
- In various language groups and places, digitization has resulted in the selective unavailability (or censorship) of certain Bible translations;
- Digitization has streamlined the ability for rapid changes to be made to many worldwide Bible translations simultaneously;
- The multitudes of untrained Christians worldwide can be misled through the Bible translations made available to them.
It is difficult to ignore that differences in Bible translation are often related to the doctrinal presuppositions of the translators or controllers of a Bible’s copyright. Therefore, the doctrinal makeup of those who control Bible translations do matter.
Exegetical Changes in Bible Translation: The following three points are circumstantial, deduced or inferred from the past 50 years of Bible translation:
1. The Louw-Nida Lexicon (1988) has replaced Strong’s Concordance (1890) in worldwide Bible translation;
2. First, the 1952 Revised Standard Version, and more recently, the 1991 Contemporary English Version, the Good News Translation (GNT, 1992) and the 1992 French Le Semeur, have replaced the King James Version as the exegetical standard for worldwide Bible translation.
3. The UBS Nova Vulgata (1979, 1984, 1992) now rivals the UBS Greek New Testament as the original language text for worldwide translation by the 1987 Guidelines’ appointment of personnel:
a) Allowing Latin-only translators to use the Nova Vulgata as their base text;
b) Assuring Latin-only scholars were credentialed to sit on translation committees; and
c) Opening the door for Latin-only scholars worldwide to populate every translation committee.
All of these decisions are made in total anonymity due to the UBS practice of not disclosing the names of translators with their work.
By way of analysis, even while the Louw-Nida Lexicon’s organization into “semantic domains” was helpful, it did suggest doctrinally-focused readings.
However, if point 3 is accurate, then it represents a 500-year alteration in Protestant Bible translation philosophy. Since Luther’s 1522 German New Testament, Protestant Bible translations lean toward a Greek NT textual priority. The 1987 “Guidelines” appear to reverse this 500-year precedent, reverting worldwide Bible translation efforts of the UBS to a Latin-textual preference. This explains why the Nova Vulgata (New Vulgate) was simultaneously released in 1979 with the Nestle-Aland 26th edition, mimicking its textual variants. The Nova Vulgata appears to have been prepared to function as a parallel original language text for worldwide Bible translation.
This seismic return to a Vulgate preference in worldwide UBS Bible translation has apparently been overseen by the UBS and is now funded with its monies.
Therefore, while digitization has definitely revolutionized Bible translation, Bible software comes with blessings and concerns. Machine intelligence in Bible translation brings questions for future generations: How are Fieldworks and Paratext being programmed? Who controls the programming of doctrinal terms and concepts? How can doctrinal integrity be maintained in a digital world? There is another fundamental question that need to be addressed by friends of the Bible. How should Evangelicals address the contemporary Bible Society movement in light of the 1968 Guiding Principles and the 1987 Guidelines?
Simon Crisp and Bryan Harmelink. “Computers as Translators: Translation or Treason?” The Bible Translator (2011) 62.59-60.
Thomas P. Johnston, “Virtualized Biblical Authority: A 50-Year Megashift from Biblical Inerrancy to Automated Translation Work”; available at: http://www.evangelismunlimited.com/documents/virtualized-biblical-authority.pdf (Online); accessed 24 Nov 2018; Internet.
“British and Foreign Bible Society, Abstract of Sixteenth Report,” Christian Watchman and Baptist Register, 27 January 1821, 1.
Thomas P. Johnston, “Worldwide Bible Translation and Original Language Texts: An Analysis of the Impact of the 1968 and 1987 UBS and SPCU ‘Guidelines for Interconfessional Cooperation in Translating the Bible’”; available at: http://www.evangelismunlimited.com/ubs-spcu_text20090116b.pdf (Online); accessed 1 Oct 2018; Internet.
“The Second Vatican Council wished to be, above all, a council on the Church. Take in your hands the documents of the Council, especially ‘Lumen Gentium’, study them with loving attention, with the spirit of prayer, to discover what the Spirit wished to say about the Church. In this way you will be able to realize that there is not—as some people claim—a ‘new church’, different or opposed to the ‘old church’, but that the Council wished to reveal more clearly the one Church of Jesus Christ, with new aspects, but still the same in its essence” (John Paul II, “Mexico Ever Faithful,” Osservatore Romano[5 Feb 1979], 1).
“Guiding Principles for Interconfessional Cooperation in Translating the Bible”; in Thomas F. Stransky, C.S.P., and John B. Sheerin, C.S.B., eds. Doing the Truth in Charity: Statements of Pope Paul VI, Popes John Paul I, John Paul II, and the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity 1964-1980 (New York: Paulist, 1982), 166.
“Guidelines for Interconfessional Cooperation in Translating the Bible”; Available at: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrstuni/general-docs/rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_19871116_guidelines-bible_en.html (Online); accessed 5 Oct 2018; Internet.
Consider the functional authority when Roman Catholic translators are in a majority using the Louw-Nida Lexicon to translate the word “drink,” used in John 6:55:
“5.6 πόσις, εως f ; πόμα, τος n: liquids used for nourishment or to satisfy thirst – ‘a drink.’ πόσις: τὸ αἷμά μου ἀληθής ἐστιν πόσις ‘my blood is true drink’ Jn 6.55. πόμα: μόνον ἐπὶ βρώμασιν καὶ πόμασιν ‘these relate only to food and drink’ He 9.10.
“Though in many languages the equivalent of πόσις and πόμα would be a verbal derivative meaning basically ‘that which is drunk,’ in other languages the equivalent may be ‘watery food’ or ‘liquid food.’
“In some languages, however, one cannot refer to ‘blood’ (Jn 6.55) as being ‘drink,’ since blood is classified as food rather than as drink. On the other hand, it may be possible to translate ‘my blood is the real drink’ as ‘my blood is real nourishment.’ The expression ‘food and drink’ (He 9.10) may be better rendered in some languages as ‘all kinds of food.’” (Louw-Nida Lexicon, Bibleworks 10.0.8.858).
The concept of transubstantiation looms large in the improper rendering of John 6:55. While the Catholic priest would be keen to use of this verse to teach transubstantiation, the unsuspecting Protestant linguist may never understand that the issue under discussion in the priest’s mind in translating this verse is transubstantiation.
“The fundamentalist approach is dangerous, for it is attractive to people who look to the Bible for ready answers to the problems of life. It can deceive these people, offering them interpretations that are pious but illusory, instead of telling them that the Bible does not necessarily contain an immediate answer to each and every problem. Without saying as much in so many words, fundamentalism actually invites people to a kind of intellectual suicide. It injects into life a false certitude, for it unwittingly confuses the divine substance of the biblical message with what are in fact its human limitations” (“Pontifical Commission on Biblical Interpretation”; available at: http://www.ewtn.com/ library/CURIA/PBCINTER.htm; accessed: 17 Oct 2009; Internet).
Consider, for example, the unavailability of hard copies of any Greek Orthodox texts of the OT and/or NT in Greek in American bookstores.
For example, the American Bible Society’s 1992 Good News Translation rendered ὑστερέω (fallen short) in Romans 3:23 as “being far away from one’s presence”: “everyone has sinned and is far away from God's saving presence.” The French 1992 Le Semeur mirrored this unusual translation, “Tous ont péché, en effet, et sont privés de la glorieuse présence de Dieu.” Both translations betray a doctrinal bias in this translation.
Consider the Louw-Nida Lexicon addressing the translation of the adjective θεόπνευστος (“breathed out by God”) in 2 Timothy 3:16:
“33.261 θεόπνευστος, ον: to a communication which has been inspired by God – ‘inspired by God, divinely inspired.’ πᾶσα γραφὴ θεόπνευστος καὶ ὠφέλιμος πρὸς διδασκαλίαν ‘every Scripture divinely inspired and useful for teaching’ or ‘all Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching’ 2 Tm 3.16. In a number of languages it is difficult to find an appropriate term to render ‘inspired.’ In some instances ‘Scripture inspired by God’ is rendered as ‘Scripture, the writer of which was influenced by God’ or ‘... guided by God.’ It is important, however, to avoid an expression which will mean only ‘dictated by God.’” (Louw-Nida Lexicon).
The last two sentences appear to influence the doctrinal result of the Bible translation.