Insights into the world of Bible translation – and praying for the work of Bible translators

Aug 13, 2021 | INSIGHTS

Four Gospels: A Discussion Between Rd. E.V. Rieu and the Rev. J.B. Phillips

Not being a Greek scholar myself, I suppose I have always been content to follow CS Lewis’ opinion that the original Greek in the New Testament does not make for a literary masterpiece – certainly when compared with the more complex classical Greek of such giants as Plato and Demosthenes. After all, it was not even written by people for whom Greek was their number one language. I was glad to have that prejudice challenged last week when I ended up visiting our wonderful local telephone kiosk, which serves as a book exchange, and where I often seem to pick up worthwhile Christian books.

After some thought I decided to take EV Rieu’s Penguin translation of The Four Gospels. (Rieu was the pioneer of the Penguin Classics Series) I hesitated because it is not as though I am short of good translations of the gospels. How blessed we are in the English language! Rieu set out to show what magnificent as well as vital literary documents all four gospels really are, warning that in a sense, the very beauty of the Authorised Version actually risks drawing people’s attention from the power of the Greek original.

I greatly appreciated this dialogue between two of the great solo translators of the twentieth century: JB Philips and EV Rieu. (As opposed to those who were primarily denominational or committee based).

I had not realised before what a prominent part CS Lewis had played in encouraging Philips to pursue this project. (But see this remarkable story in Vale of Tears of how this encouragement continued even after Lewis had gone to glory – page 205.) Rieu’s introduction is particularly helpful.

Although this conversation took place seventy years ago, well before the appearance of such versions as the NIV and the ESV, let alone all the modern paraphrases, when it comes to the specific details of bible translation it feels not only decidedly contemporary but also deeply interesting.

Translating the Gospels

I have read somewhere that there are 3,400 languages that have some portion of the Bible, and about 700 languages have a full translation – but that still leaves something like 2,200 main languages that are waiting to have any portion of the Scriptures in their own tongue. Pray for the work of Bible translators. What works of grace the Lord must have done in the lives of each one of these people to have directed them to this vital field!

You may have come across the remarkable story of Don Richardson, and his book The Peace Child; how he set out on the incredibly daunting task of reaching out to ‘Stone Age’ cannibalistic tribes, teaching love not treachery, forgiveness and not revenge.

It is worth reminding ourselves of what people faced as recently as the year of my birth, 1955, when a call went out for Bible translators to Papua New Guinea – then Dutch New Guinea and full of isolated and extremely hostile Stone Age tribes.

Richardson was warned:

  • that would-be pioneers would face on the one hand ice-bound jagged mountain ranges, and on the other entangling malarial lowlands where extreme heat and humidity would sap their energy.
  • That they would be operating in the midst of tribes that had never known any form of authority over them, and where cannibalism was rife.
  • That they would have to start from absolute scratch with nothing to help them linguistically by way of dictionaries or grammars.
  • In order to succeed in winning the trust of people they would have to understand strange customs and beliefs.
  • They would have to do their very best to treat loathsome tropical diseases, and yet run the risk of being blamed if the patients they were caring for subsequently died.
  • They would have to endure all forms of loneliness weariness and slow progress.
  • Most of all they would have to they will find themselves in a battle with the prince of darkness who had had their own way in holding these tribes’ captive for thousands of years, and who would fight intensely to preserve their strong holds.

It is such an amazing tribute that their faithfulness of those who went and the Lord’s power in converting that so many came to faith so relatively swiftly. In the process Don Richardson discovered fascinating things in the culture of the tribes that pointed towards the coming of Christ.

As Richardson lived with these people, and painstakingly deciphered the language, word by word and concept by complicated concept – so complicated in fact that every verb has nineteen tenses! – everything highlighted the gulf that separated his worldview from that of the Sawi people. By their standards, it was Judas rather than Jesus who was the hero of the Gospels, and Jesus ‘fall guy’ to be laughed at.”

Rather than starting with traditional methods of evangelism, therefore, when Richardson became aware of a legend in the Sawi culture that spoke of a Peace Child, he recognised that this was the ‘redemptive analogy’ he had been looking for, and which provided the starting point from which he could begin to explain Christ’s life. Even so, nothing but the power of God could overcome entrenched local culture that served as barriers to understanding and accepting Christ’s subsidiary work of atonement.

The breakthrough came at a time when three tribal villages were in constant battle at this time. The Richardson’s were on the point of leaving, but the Sawi people wanted them to remain. As a result, the embattled villages came together and made the far-reaching decision to make peace with their traditional enemies. As a sign and symbol of this, young children were exchanged between opposing villages, with one man even handing his own son over to his son to his hated foe. Richardson was amazed, and wrote: “if a man would actually give his own son to his enemies, that man could be trusted!”

This was the breakthrough moment they had been praying for, and villagers started coming to Christ. Their painstaking work to master the Sawi language culminated in the publishing of a New Testament in Sawi. Meanwhile, Don’s wife, Carol, continued to minister medically to thousands of patients from among the Sawi and neighbouring tribes. Wikipedia claims that in 1972 the Sawi built the world’s largest circular building made from un-milled poles as a meeting place for services. Wow!

Richardson went on to do much pioneering missionary work before returning to Canada to set up extensive training projects, including writing the seminal book Perspectives on World Evangelism.

What incredible courage and lengths Bible translators have shown in sacrificing so much in order to make the word of God available to the different tribes and nations of the world. Behind each person involved in this work must lie powerful testimony to God’s leading. It is so good to get behind these projects in prayer.

Father we pray that you will reinforce your work of Bible translation give all skill and aid that those involved that the harvest may grow year on year – and that You will provide for those who are sacrificing everything for the sake of the gospel Amen.

Some of you might perhaps like to participate in this scheme to give Bibles regularly to remote parts of China, where it is thought that 1,000,000 are coming to faith every year. May the Lord bless and make full use of this window of opportunity – and may we play our part too.

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