Bibles and Languages

What follows should be considered as informational but not, as you will see in reading it, totally reliable.

I began a search to discover how many languages, principal and otherwise, the Bible had been translated into. The first article I came up was originally published nearly a century ago, using as a principal source a “book seller.” I include some of the content here as a “curiosity item:”

The Bible is published today,” continued this book dealer, "in every known language of the world. It has been put into every tongue ever since. Knott, one of the early missionaries, translated it into the Tahitian language, thus starting the movement of spreading Bibles all over the world. It Is a curious fact that the beginning of this movement saw a number of languages without written characters. The missionaries could not, of course, translate and publish the Bible into these. They then set to work and formed written characters of those languages which were without them, and in this way made permanent translations of the Scriptures.

“In this way, there have been 150 written languages created by these missionaries during the past century. When the Bible Is translated into any of these non-Caucasian languages, there is no trouble selling it. Said a missionary in China: “For many years our work has consisted largely of creating a demand for the Scriptures. The past two years has found us unequal to supply the existing demand. The question was formally, “How many people can be urged to buy?” Now it is, “How .many books can we supply; how many men to distribute them?” *Only the answers to these questions set the limit to our opportunities.” - The Bible a “Best Seller,”, Published July 4, 1909 © New York Times [My emphasis]

The article has a lot of information but, personally, I don't give it much credence. First of all, the source is a “book seller.” While such a person might be expected to know intimately the sales and demand for books in his store and, to a lesser degree, in the industry, he offers no real source for his information. The highlighted sentence grabbed my attention. The source seems to imply that Bibles were not often, if at all, being translated into other languages until Knott finished his Tahitian translation. This book seller apparently was not aware that very early in the post-Pentecost era, missionaries and scholars were hard at work translating the Bible into local tongues. I imagine that the earliest translations were of the pastoral letters, at first using the originals or near-contemporary copies and, later, the Roman version as their source. One such fellow was Ulfila, a Gothic priest of the Roman church who labored as missionary to the Goths. He translated the Bible (all but Kings) into the Gothic language, but first had to create for that people a written language and a dictionary so that they might use it. (Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion, p. 77)

Shortly after we entered the new millennium, the Bible was available in a lot more languages, according to data provided to members of a regional branch of the Canadian Bible Society in 2001.

The goal of Bible Societies in more than 200 countries is to see lives and hearts changed through the Word of God. By 1999, all the national Bible Societies, which make up the United Bible Societies (UBS), had together translated the Bible into 2,233 languages. There are still, however, many languages for which there is a recognized need for Bibles. – David Kilgour, The Bible in A New Century, April 28,2001

I did a bit more googling. A West Coast newspaper provided an update on the language count:

An international fellowship of Bible societies has registered the translation of the Bible into 24 additional languages in 2001.

The total number of languages in which books of the Bible are available now stands at 2,287, according to the annual tally–the Scripture Language Report–by the United Bible Societies. Bible Published in 24 More Languages in '01, February 09, 2002, Copyright 2008 Los Angeles Times

How does this information break down?

The above graphic informs that the great bulk of those 2,287 translations of the Bible are, in actuality, parts of the Bible. According to this chart, translations of the entire Bible, are available in but 392 languages. This means that, while some parts, from perhaps a few carefully selected proof texts to entire books or testaments are available to people who speak, read or understand one or more of some 2287 languages.

The nmber of languages in which the Bible was available continued to grow, as this report shows:

Highlights of the 2006 Scripture Language Report
• At least one complete book of the Bible in 2,426 languages at the end of 2006
• Translations in 23 new languages and dialects registered in 2006
• Three new Bibles
• 31 New Testaments -registered for 34 languages which do not yet have either an Old or New Testament and for 21 languages which have the New Testament but not the Old. In 26 other languages in which translation and publication had already taken place, new or revised versions of Portions, Testaments or Bibles are now available. -- United Bible Societies, LATEST NEWS # 390, January 23, 2007, “2006 SCRIPTURE LANGUAGE REPORT”

I do not believe that, using the breakdowns in the above charts, that it is possible to come up with a precise figure of how many languages into which the Bible has been translated. There are Christian and pseudo-Christian missionaries at work all over the globe. I do not doubt that some of them may have been, or still are, translating passages or books of the Bible into the language in use where they are.

The next question that comes to mind is: How many languages are there?

As was the case with Bible languages, there are a number of opinions, some from what I consider to be informed sources.

READING, England — The number of languages into which at least one complete book of the Bible has been translated reached 2,426 at the end of 2006, according to the United Bible Societies' (UBS) 2006 Scripture Language Report. The report records each Scripture translation carried out by UBS or another translation agency which is received at the library of either the American Bible Society (ABS) or the British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS).

By the time UBS celebrated the bicentenary of the Bible Society movement in 2004, 95 per cent of the world's population theoretically had access to Scripture in a language they could understand, although not necessarily their first language. But just because the remaining task concerns only five per cent of the world's population (the 300 million people who speak 'minority' languages), it doesn't mean that UBS or its partners are reducing their translation efforts. Completed translations in twenty three new languages and dialects were registered in 2006 alone, while over a 10-year period the number has risen by some 260. In human terms, this represents many thousands of individuals who now have direct access to at least part of God's Word in their own language.

Along with three new Bibles, the 2006 Scripture Language Report lists 31 New Testaments, of which five are the first recorded Scripture publications in those languages. Additional Portions were registered for 34 languages which do not yet have either an Old or New Testament and for 21 languages which have the New Testament but not the Old. In 26 other languages in which translation and publication had already taken place, new or revised versions of Portions, Testaments or Bibles are now available. - United Bible Societies, Op. cit.

So, it appears, the entire Bible has been translated into about 400 languages. If we include passages and books, then we are talking about some 2500 languages and that means, we are told, that about 95% of the world's population have access to a Bible in a language that they understand. It's been nearly 2000 years since Pentecost and the written revelation of God is available – if they can get access –to all but 300-400 million souls in this world. I'd say that the Bible societies and other translators have been doing their best to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

Why isn't every human being in the world able to obtain and read a Bible in his own language? One reason is that there is a whole bunch of languages being used today. Another is that not all of these have a written form. For these latter souls, it would appear that the ball is in the court of missionaries like Ulfila to compile a written form and then teach these folks to read it. Is that practical – or even possible? I dunno.

There are 6,800 known languages spoken in the 200 countries of the world. 2,261 have writing systems (the others are only spoken) and about 300 are represented by on-line dictionaries as of May 11, 2004. Below are the ones we currently list. New languages and dictionaries are constantly being added to; as a result, we have the widest and deepest set of dictionaries, grammars, and other language resources on the web. - © 1996-2008 LoveToKnow, Corp

Whether the Bible has been translated in 2426 or more of the world's 2261 written languages is just another example of how difficult it is to come up with reliable information, even when drawing from supposedly authoritative sources. Be that as it may, that's a good-sized number.

What about those other 300 or 400 million souls who don't have a Bible or parts of a Bible in their language? How to find missionaries who are able to understand languages spoken by small groups, such as tribal Indians in the jungles of Brazil? I recall watching a progrtam on a Mexican government educational channel while staying in Mexico City some 16 years ago. The program dealt with the difficulties involved in bringing the native peoples living just in the Central Valley of Mexico into the 20th Century. The commentator said that, in that relatively small area of the country, there were 73 virtually xenophobic villages in which 73 different languages were spoken. In order to prepare residents of those villages for living in the modern Mexican Hispanic culture, first would have to be found teachers fluent in Spanish and each of the 73 languages.

On the other hand, I do not doubt that God will find and enable missionaries and teachers to go to peoples living in remote areas of the world according to His timetable

I offer the following for its "Gee Whiz!" value:

Most Americans only use 800-1,000 words in everyday conversation. A typical American college student knows 20,000-30,000 words by the time he or she graduates. While this is 20-37 times more than the average person who has not gone to college, it is still less than 2% of all English words. WikiAnswers

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