We would like to thank Bill Feltner of Pilgrim Radio for having Dr. Aaron Shryock, director of the Tyndale Center for Bible Translation at The Master’s Seminary, on his radio show on April 9, 2019. We have provided below an edited and abridged version of their conversation on the topic of Bible translation.
Q: Dr. Shryock, tell us how you became interested in Bible translation.
From an early age, I wanted to give my life to serve the Lord. When I went to college, I realized that I enjoyed studying, analyzing, and even teaching languages. And the Lord guided me providentially to use these gifts and abilities in Africa in the ministry of Bible translation.
It’s exciting to think that we each have different gifts, and I believe this is how the Lord has gifted me, from the way I think about language to the way I study and translate a passage. It’s just all the outworking of the gifts that He’s given me, and I, in turn, try to use it for His glory and His church because I see the translation of His Word as so fundamental to all that the Lord is doing in and through His church.
Q: Describe to us a little about what you were doing in Africa.
I first went to Africa in 1989. At that time, I was a student at UCLA, and I decided to spend three months in Chad. So, I went to work with Bob and Joan Duncanson in Gounou Gaya, Chad. I worked with this missionary couple while living across the road from their home with the family of Kaygama Yacoub.
I spent the mornings assisting Bob in various ways with translation. The rest of the day, I would spend with Kaygama and his family and learned to speak their language, Musey. I also did different things with their church which helped me learn more of the language and better understand their culture.
In fact, the first thing Bob asked me to do was draw pictures. They were putting together a primer to teach people to read and write the Musey language. When they first started the translation work, they had to create an alphabet. Then once they created that and began to translate, they had to create books to teach people to read.
There’s nothing greater you could give a group of people than God’s word
That was an unexpected request for me, but it turned out to be a great way for me to learn the Musey language. As I attempted to draw pictures of different things, I had to go and talk to people and ask them what a given word in the primer referred to. One word in the primer was derekka. It’s a local plant like spinach. I had to find that plant because I couldn’t draw just any plant. Everyone knew what that plant was, so my drawing had to match it closely.
I eventually finished the illustrations. Later, I was able to help make a biblical index of their New Testament. It was a concordance with notes to help better understand key words. I also produced a practical dictionary for the Musey church a few years later. These were all created to help the Musey believers better use their Scriptures.
Q: Do most of the languages around the world already have the Bible?
The majority of the world’s languages don’t have a Bible. There are 7,361 languages in the world. Of all those languages, only 9% have a complete Bible. In other words, only 683 languages have a complete Bible. There are a lot of languages with no Scripture.
Some of these languages are spoken by millions of speakers. There are, for example, the Kurdish languages. Several of them don’t have the Bible, and they’re spoken by millions of speakers. Yet many of the language groups without Scripture are relatively small, with only a few thousand speakers.
Wherever you go in the world, there’s an incredible need. With the advances in computer technology, it now takes about 9 years to complete a New Testament. You’re not going to do this on a short-term trip. It takes a serious commitment, but it’s a great joy. I think there’s nothing greater you could give a group of people than God’s word.
Q: Can you give us a bit of the history of the English Bible and how revolutionary it was?
The Tyndale Center is named after William Tyndale. He lived during the Reformation and translated the Bible into English. He was unique in that he knew Greek and studied the Greek New Testament. During that time, at the beginning of the Reformation, the Greek New Testament was available for the first time and few scholars knew Greek. Yet Tyndale learned Greek and then compared the Greek New Testament to the Scriptures he had in Latin. Then he came to the conviction that he had to translate the Scriptures into English. He made that his life’s work.
At that time, it was illegal to translate into English unless you had the bishop’s approval. So, Tyndale went to London and asked the bishop for permission. However, the bishop said he couldn’t. Realizing that he couldn’t translate in his own country, he went to Germany and then moved around Europe, translating and printing while hiding from the authorities.
In 1526, he published the New Testament in English and had it smuggled into England, and it set England aflame. The people desperately wanted the Scriptures. Even the Church of England bought copies of Tyndale’s New Testament, but it was so that they could publicly burn them. It really fueled the Reformation in England.
William Tyndale had quite a significant impact. Even our King James version, published in 1611, was so influenced by Tyndale’s work that 85% of the King James New Testament matches up with Tyndale’s New Testament. This just says that Tyndale translated so well from Greek into English that the translators who came roughly 80 years later couldn’t improve on it. He was an excellent translator.
Q: What kind of training does a Bible translator need?
As the director of the Tyndale Center, I’m first a professor in the classroom. I teach courses that help train our students to better understand the ministry of translation. I have a course called Introduction to Bible Translation, where we look at the history of translation, the theology behind translation, and why you actually translate. We also look at different current issues in translation.
Then that class is followed by more technical courses where we look at exegesis and linguistics and the different facets of translation. I was just lecturing today on the importance of the names of God in the Old Testament, how they’ve been translated in different languages, and the kinds of steps you would take to ensure that you make a good translation of these terms.
Translation is technical, but it really starts with the heart. I think it’s important that a person sees this as their ministry to the Lord and that this is about being faithful to the Lord with the gifts they’ve been given. It’s an expression of their love for the church as a faithful servant.
That’s why we talk about training pastor-translators. We want to train translators who view their translation work as a ministry of the Word and part of ministering to the church. When I was studying linguistics, and linguistics is very important, I didn’t know how to teach the Bible. I didn’t know how to handle the word in that sense. When I went to Cameroon, I would say, “I’m a linguist”, and the people would say, “Come preach for us.” In my mind, I was a linguist, not a missionary, but in their mind, there’s no distinction.
I tell people, in many contexts in the world, before someone will read your translation, they’re going to read your life. They’re going to say, “What is the character of this person?” Because if your character and your love for the Lord and the church aren’t there, they may not be interested in reading your translation.
Q: Is there a biblical mandate for Bible translation?
I would say there’s definitely a biblical mandate. I would root translation of the Scriptures in the Great Commission and in Christ’s command to make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:18-20). Jesus said, “… teach them all that I have commanded you …” In order to make disciples, to teach them effectively, and to give them the Word so that they can grow in their faith, they have to have the Scriptures in their own language.
I preached at a church last week from Acts 2:1-13 on how the Spirit fell on the day of Pentecost. There was a wind and the tongues of fire, and then they began to speak in languages that they didn’t know. They apparently flooded out into the streets and started proclaiming the mighty works of God.
If you look at the context of that passage, the mighty works of God must have included the very event in progress, the coming of the Spirit, and the good news about Jesus Christ. Peter preaches about these very topics when he preaches later in the chapter.
When I think about the day of Pentecost, this is a really the exciting thought: the Spirit wanted the message to go to the different peoples gathered in Jerusalem in their own languages so that they would understand. That prepared them for Peter’s message, and 3,000 people were baptized that day. From the very beginning, the church has been multilingual. It’s made up of many nations speaking many languages, beginning from that first day in Jerusalem until now.
Then, if you fast forward the video to the end, what do you find in the book of Revelation? In Revelation 4-5, the Apostle John is given a glimpse into heaven. He sees the Lamb being worshiped at the throne of God because the Lamb has redeemed saints from every tribe and tongue and nation and people.
Here the apostle sees the culmination of the age, with all the redeemed around the throne. That’s where it all leads—praise of the Lamb around the throne. So, there is a clear biblical mandate to translate the words of Christ until that day when all the languages of the world are united in praise of Him around the throne.