Borrowing words? Or stealing?

January 7, 2014 in Mark, Bible, Bible translation, Language

Earlier this week I came across an article about how 300 Bibles in the Bahasa Malaysia language were seized for using words that originated from the Arabic language, including the word for God. This seems to be the latest in an ongoing controversy in Malaysia about whether Christians speaking Malaysian languages should be allowed to use words that historically came from Arabic in their translations of the Bible in those languages.

From a sociolinguistic point of view, a language borrowing “loan words” from another language is something that happens all the time. Of course, “loan words” is something of a misnomer, as the new words become as much part of the language as any other words, and will never be returned! English has borrowed words from a whole range of languages – French, German and Greek to name just a few.

Whenever a new concept occurs in a language, there is a need to name it, and the new name is almost never random. People generally make up the new name, either by modifying existing words in the language (hence we now talk about a “selfie”), or by using the word that was already used by speakers of another language for that concept (e.g. “pizza”). Sometimes the name is borrowed from a similar concept in another language, but the meaning changed, for example the English word “safari”, meaning a trip to see wild animals, comes from the Swahili word meaning “a journey”. The word then becomes a legitimate part of the language – a Swahili speaker can’t tell an English speaker that they are using the word “safari” wrongly just because its meaning in English is different from its meaning in Swahili. Read the rest of this entry →

Ikizu Bible translation: Hopes and Challenges in northern Tanzania

March 4, 2011 in Prayer, Wycliffe, Africa, Bible translation, Language, Tanzania

Our friends Andrew and Michelle are working alongside translators and literacy workers from nine language groups in Tanzania’s Mara Region, an area that I was involved in a linguistic survey of back in 2005 and 2006. Since I was there the languages have been analysed, alphabets developed, and the first parts of Scripture published in many of these communities.

Andrew and Michelle have begin a series of blog posts focusing on each language group in turn in order to help people around the world to pray for the communities and for the needs of their staff in the translation project. They have started with the Ikizu and Sizaki peoples, who speak languages that are close enough to be able to use the same written materials.


There are about 132,000 Ikizu and Sizaki people, a few of whom are pictured here. While Ikizu and Sizaki people consider themselves to be different people groups, their languages are very closely related, and Sizaki is considered a dialect of Ikizu. There are a few minor pronunciation differences, but their vocabulary and grammar is essentially the same. The groups get along well, and the Sizaki (who are significantly fewer than the Ikizu) seem happy to accept the Ikizu writing system and Bible translation as their own.

As with all the groups in Mara (Mara is a region of Tanzania), there are Christians, Muslims, and people who practice traditional religion. Roman Catholic is the largest denomination, followed by Seventh Day Adventist. There are also Mennonite, Anglican, and a variety of small Pentecostal churches. Some villages have no churches at all and people have to travel to another village on Sunday if they wish to attend. In the traditional Ikizu religion, the sun is the main god, and deceased ancestors play an important role. There are various taboos to follow and special places to worship, such as groves of trees.

When the translation project began, there were two Ikizu translators. One of them has recently moved away and we are not able to hire another one right now. Rukia, the lone Ikizu translator at this point, is pictured above. Unfortunately, she has recently been plagued by health problems. Medical care in Musoma is a bit lacking, so Rukia really needs prayers for her health.

The Ikizu translation of Luke is almost ready for beginning the publication process. There are just a few final checks that need to be done. Unfortunately, with there being only one ill translator working on the project, these steps might take longer than planned. The book of Ruth and some tracts are also in process. A committee of Scripture reviewers and a language committee have recently been formed, each having their first meeting in February. Read more

Please pray for the Ikizu and Sizaki peoples, and follow Andrew and Michelle’s blog for upcoming profiles on other language communities in Mara Region and the challenges they face.

Google still has a long way to go

August 25, 2008 in Mark, Bible translation, Language, Swahili

Google now has a homepage for its search engine in Swahili: http://www.google.co.tz/

According to this page Google has translated at least 1% of its main site in 152 languages. Not bad, especially considering that these languages are spoken by several billion people worldwide.

According to Wycliffe Bible Translators, the most translated book of all time, the Bible, has been translated into 438 languages. Another 2,016 have at least some of the Bible translated into them.

But that leaves over 2,200 with a need for Bible translation and no project yet started. Many of these languages don’t have a written form, so in order for the Bible, Google or any other text to be translated and written down, an alphabet and writing system must first be developed.

The efforts of Google and others (like Ubuntu, who are currently translating into 189 languages) are to be applauded, and will make their products accessible to the vast majority of people worldwide. But for the Bible, a message from God’s heart to man’s heart, it’s not enough to translate into the 150 or 200 most major languages in the world.

Rather, the message of God’s good news to all nations must be made available to each and every person in the language of their heart, however uneconomical it may seem. No businessman would ever translate his product into a language spoken by 100 people in a village in Papua New Guinea – it just doesn’t make business sense. But then not many shepherds would leave 99 sheep on their own in order to search for the one sheep that wandered astray.

Which is why the Bible will always be the most translated book. God has created each and every person uniquely and loves them just as they are. He will stop at no lengths to draw each person to himself. If we are to reflect God’s character as we join in with his mission to the world, we must make the Bible available to every person in their own heart language.