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Another Garage Industry

Language is the cornerstone of communication and communication enables us to convey information. Giving people access to the Word of God in their own language is the goal of Wycliffe, named after the man who first translated the Bible into English in 1384.

“At Wycliffe, we believe your first language is the one you understand best and that is what we refer to as a heart language. To truly internalise the depth and nuances of the Word of God, you need to hear or read it in your heart language,” says Karen Floor, CEO of Wycliffe South Africa.

Bible translation goes back as far as 2,300 years to 280 BC in Alexandria, Egypt, when the Old Testament was translated from Hebrew to Greek. The first English translation was done in the 1380s, when Oxford academic, John Wycliffe, saw the need to translate the Bible from Latin into the common language of the people, English. Wycliffe’s translation was completed in 1384, but accessibility to the Bible was limited until the printing press was invented by Johannes Gutenberg in Germany in 1450.

In 1525, William Tyndale translated the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into English, using the printing press to print his work. This greatly accelerated the distribution of translated Scripture. The King James Version was a new translation commissioned by King James I in 1611, which became the translation of choice amongst English scholars at that time.

“In this day and age, you would assume that every person has access to the Bible in their own language, but there are in fact still 1,778 languages across the world that do not have this privilege. Of these 1,778 languages, representing approximately 165 million people, 715 languages are spoken in Africa,” says Floor.
In 1917, 21-year old William Cameron Townsend, took a year off from college to sell Spanish Bibles in Guatemala. When he realised that many Guatemalans could not read or speak Spanish, he set out to learn the Cakchiquel language and translated the New Testament with the help of a Cakchiquel believer, Francisco Diaz. Uncle Cam, as he became affectionately known, believed that everyone should understand the Bible and in 1934 he founded the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) that trained people to do Bible translation. The work continued to grow and in 1942, Wycliffe Bible Translators was established, much like many a modern day tech start-up, in the small garage apartment of California business man, Bill Nyman.

Over the following decades, Wycliffe celebrated many milestones, from the first translation completed in 1951, all the way to the 500th translation completed in 2000. However, in 1999, Wycliffe Bible Translators realised that, at the speed that they were working, it would take until at least 2150 before a Bible translation could be started for every language that needed one. As they thought about people dying around the world every day without hearing the gospel, they felt God calling them to adopt a new goal and committed to doing whatever it took to see a Bible translation project in progress in every language still needing one by 2025. “This was the birth of Vision 2025 and with less than ten years to go, the race is on,” says Floor.

Wycliffe South Africa is part of the Wycliffe Global Alliance, a community of more than 100 diverse organisations and networks serving together in Bible translation movements around the world. The localised goal is to put translation programmes in place for 120 languages in Southern Africa. Through collaboration with likeminded organisations and the innovative use of technology, the pace of Bible translation has picked up significantly and continues to accelerate.
“The task of Bible translation is too big and important to achieve without the goal of Vision 2025,” explains Floor. “Transformational impact is the ultimate goal, with lives and communities lifted to a higher quality of life. Collaboration between people across all sectors of influence is the key to success in this enormous undertaking.”