A vision of translating the Bible took hold of salesman William Cameron Townsend of Santa Ana in 1917. He had just arrived in Guatemala, and the Mayan groups he had hoped to reach had little use for his wares: Spanish-language Bibles.
His epiphany is said to have come with a question posed by a potential customer: "If your God is so great, why doesn't he speak our language?"
When Townsend, an amateur at linguistics, set out to put the Cakchiquel language of Guatemala into writing, he set himself an enormously difficult task--from learning the complex language to adapting it to the Roman alphabet.
Fourteen years later, at the First Presbyterian Church in Santa Ana, Townsend dedicated the first New Testament written in Cakchiquel. Today, 13 years after Townsend's death, his vision of making the Bible accessible in a multitude of languages continues. This summer, the organization he founded dedicated its 400th New Testament translation--this one in the Barai language of Papua New Guinea. From its U.S. headquarters in Huntington Beach, Wycliffe Bible Translators has more than 5,000 translators and support personnel at work in 51 countries around the world. It is by far the largest linguistic enterprise in existence, secular or religious, with total project funding topping $100 million a year. The mass of data accumulated by Wycliffe translators has become a vital resource for university linguists everywhere.
Officially founded by Townsend in 1934, the organization takes its name from 14th-Century theologian John Wycliffe. Wycliffe encouraged his followers to translate the Bible into English for the first time, an act that challenged the authority of the Roman Catholic Church and served as inspiration to other reformers.
Today, the organization that bears his name has completed New Testament translations in languages ranging from Apalia (in Brazil) to Zia (in Papua New Guinea), and is at work on more than 1,000 other tongues. The work remains laborious, but the tools today include laptop computers.
Few missionary groups set themselves tasks as specific as does Wycliffe.
"Wycliffe made it their business to work with the groups that have been neglected" by other Bible-translating groups, according to Bob Coote of the Overseas Ministry Study Center in New Haven, Conn. "That is something that has made them very distinct."
Along with such successes, however, has come a measure of sometimes heated controversy, beginning in Townsend's day and continuing to the present. Anthropologists and rights groups have said the group imposes its values on people with valid belief systems of their own, while a book published this year accuses Townsend of working in collusion with oil companies and U.S. government interests in South America.
Wycliffe administers most of its far-flung operations from an unassuming office block on Beach Boulevard in Huntington Beach. Despite its many projects in remote spots around the world, Wycliffe's local profile is decidedly low.
"Nobody has the foggiest notion of what we do here," joked Arthur Lightbody, a Wycliffe spokesman.
Officially, Wycliffe is a fund-raising and support organization, while the Summer Institute of Linguistics is the name under which field projects are conducted. All institute members are also Wycliffe members, however.
In Huntington Beach, a staff of more than 200 works to ensure that money and other resources reach translators and others in the field. Here, there are video and radio production facilities, a newsletter-publishing staff, accountants tabulating checks that flow in daily from donors, and administrators mapping out new strategies to achieve an old goal.
"What we want to do is get the Bible in every language," Lightbody said. "What Uncle Cam"--as Townsend is called here even by those who never knew him--"talked about is what we still want to do."
In a small auditorium, a tour stop for supporters and potential supporters who visit the offices, a short video explains the organization and its mission. "Be sure the Word gets in their hands," a narrator pleads. Says another Wycliffe member in the video: "They're going to spend eternity somewhere. We're here to give them the choice between heaven and hell."
Down the hall, in a prominent spot at the top of the main staircase, hangs a portrait of Townsend, the man who started it all.
In 1934, Townsend offered the first course in what would become the Summer Institute of Linguistics.
Whereas other Bible-translating organizations focused on the larger language groups, Townsend's goal was to have the New Testament available in every language, no matter how few speakers it had.
"Two thousand languages to go" became his oft-repeated rallying cry.
Wycliffe linguists now count more than 6,000 languages in the world, and estimate that there are 700 million people without Christian Scripture in their language.
Nowadays, most of the translators sent into the field (many are husband-and-wife teams) have advanced degrees, including hundreds of Wycliffe members who hold doctorates.
Norm Purvis was a literacy worker in the Philippines who now works in administration in Huntington Beach. He said Wycliffe is not so much a missionary organization as a "scientific organization made up of Christians."
The work they produce is used by universities across the country; a handful of schools, in fact, have direct ties to the Summer Institute of Linguistics, notably the University of Texas at Arlington, and several theological institutions, including Biola University in La Mirada and Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.
Not only is training improving, but technology is as well.
Translators in the field are now equipped with laptop computers, powered by solar-charged car batteries: An entire New Testament translation fits onto a single diskette. Later this year, Wycliffe will unveil a new, highly sophisticated, CD-ROM-based computer translation program--the culmination of a five-year effort--that has raised interest throughout the linguistic community.
Technology is not the only thing that has changed dramatically for Wycliffe translators--so have many of the remote places in which they work.
Deforestation and road construction are making many small language groups less isolated than they once were. Lightbody remembers that when he first went to the Philippines, in the early '70s, he could fly for 45 minutes or more over unbroken forest; today, as much as 90% of the original forest cover is gone.
Bernie May flew for 16 years in the Amazon and subsequently directed flight operations for Wycliffe (he was later director of Wycliffe USA from 1980 to 1992).
"When I went to Peru in the 1950s, there were no maps of the upper Amazon," May recalled. "It was an interesting time. I flew to many, many villages where they had never seen a white man before. . . .
"Those people today," he added, "are using computers."
Still, even with technological breakthroughs and the world's changing landscape, translation is arduous, isolated labor. A New Testament translation can take as long as 20 years of almost unbroken work.
Health problems are a hazard: Lightbody had to leave his translation field project when a sudden heart ailment, probably caused by a virus, nearly killed him.
And there are rare but real political dangers as well. In 1981, in a widely publicized case, translator Charles Bitterman was killed by Colombian rebels who accused the Summer Institute of Linguistics of having ties to the CIA. Ray Rising, another Wycliffe translator, has been held captive by an undetermined group in Colombia since March 31, 1994.
Even considering his own experience, Lightbody downplayed the hazards, pointing out that thousands of Wycliffe personnel are in the field at any given time. Life, he said, is more dangerous in many American cities.
Although Wycliffe and the Summer Institute of Linguistics are officially nondenominational, they are most closely associated with evangelical Protestantism. Wycliffe members, however, do not take part in some of the activities normally associated with missionaries: They do not sermonize or baptize, do not engage in "marrying and burying."
They also do not establish a church, although they do encourage the people they work with to do so. Wycliffe's primary task is to leave a people with a New Testament in their language, and to do enough literacy work to ensure a critical mass of readers who can pass the skills to others.
Basic literacy work has always been part of the equation--translating the Bible would serve little purpose if no one could read it. Linguists in the field also translate health and agricultural materials, for instance, both as a way of disseminating vital information and of building local literacy.
Such work forms an increasingly important component of Wycliffe's work overseas. Some areas that would not otherwise allow large-scale Christian missionary activity now welcome--even invite--institute projects that emphasize linguistic and literacy work over Bible translation.
In Indonesia, which is 80% Muslim, the Summer Institute of Linguistics is conducting 54 active projects, with 160 personnel ranging from translators to pilots and mechanics. "All of us are there with a Christian motivation," said Larry Jones, director of institute operations in Indonesia. However, he added, "we are working in Indonesia as a development group."
All the areas in which they work have some degree of Christian presence, and institute linguists will translate the Bible "if asked," Jones said. But literacy work and other community development is the main order of business, Jones maintained, and services are offered to all, regardless of beliefs.
Such service-oriented literacy projects allow Wycliffe a toehold in areas that might otherwise be closed to the group. Beginning with Townsend, who counted a number of Latin American leaders among his friends and acquaintances, the group has always had a measure of political savvy to match its zeal for Bible translation.
And although the world is changing, and along with it the lives of once-isolated peoples, Wycliffe leaders believe their task remains vital.
In the Huntington Beach offices of Wycliffe USA, there is constant discussion on how to remain vital in this turbulent age.
In one office, Kiho Kim coordinates a fledgling effort to reach into the Korean community of the United States, both for financial support and for potential translators. There are, Kim notes, about 870 Korean churches in Southern California and almost 4,000 across the United States.
If his efforts bear fruit, similar outreach efforts into other ethnic communities could be launched.
A Wycliffe department called the Seed Co. is another experimental effort, now in its fourth year. It solicits support in the United States for locally based Bible-translation projects throughout the world.
"Most of Bible translation until now has been done by expatriates," said Bernie May, who heads the Seed Co.
Increasingly, he added, Third World nationals are showing "an ability and a desire to do it themselves. . . . You have some talented people, but they don't have the money or the technical support to do it themselves."
The Seed Co. provides both, for selected projects. Wycliffe member Bill Wells, who this summer spent four weeks visiting Seed Co. projects in Africa, used Nigeria as an example of the opportunities. The nation has many educated people with little opportunity for gainful employment but have, Wells said, a desire to translate the Bible into some of the 400 distinct languages there.
"The missing piece is money. . . . This is the equivalent of venture capital," he said. "We're trying to figure out how to work with Christian associates in other countries."
Such efforts, it is hoped by Wycliffe, will tap a willing pool of talent while lending an added legitimacy to translation efforts. At the same time, it addresses a nagging problem: a shrinking pool of U.S. citizens willing to devote decades to missionary work.
While Wycliffe has some short-term members, mostly for literacy work or teaching in missionary schools, it depends on long-term commitments for its core translation work. These translators must also raise their own financial support, primarily by securing support from churches.
"Anecdotal evidence would indicate the typical period of [missionary] service is eight to 10 years, compared to 25 to 30 years a generation ago," said Bob Coote, of the Overseas Ministry Study Center.
One attempt to counter this decline involves an increased presence at religious schools. "This makes it easier for [potential translators] to get training," said Pete Silzer, who heads a pilot program at Biola.
Meanwhile, Wycliffe is working on flashier ways to get the attention of young Christians who may decide someday to commit to long-term fieldwork. For example, Crystal Lewis, a popular contemporary Christian singing star, recently performed a series of concerts in support of Wycliffe.
"It's a real challenge to get the Word to the younger generation," Lightbody said.
The goal, he said, is to keep the Wycliffe project going until it is no longer needed--until all people have access to the Bible in their language, or in a language they understand.
Already, Wycliffe operations are winding down in the Amazon, once the group's primary focus. Translators have closed shop in Bolivia and Ecuador.
"The idea," Lightbody said, smiling, "is to work ourselves out of a job."
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Speaking in Tongues
Here is a sample Bible verse, and how it appears in five languages as translated by Wycliffe:
"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
* Language: Balangao
* Country: Philippines
"Te ah Apudyus, gapon anchi amchan way layadna hen tatagu, empalena hen anchi ih-iha-an way anana hen antoy lota way matey ta heno way mangafurot hen anchi anana, achi metap-ar te mi-iggaw an hiya ah ing-inggana."
* Language: Kewa
* Country: Papua New Guinea
"Gore Goteme su amaa pimi onaa rayo madaa pedo pu raaname omasapulu ora nipuna padane Si mea epenasa. Go peaga onaa rayome ni madaa kone rumaa-limiri nimu ora naomalimi pare oro yaalo yaalo pirama lama palimi."
* Language: Camsa
* Country: Colombia
"Mentsanaca Jesus tojanayana: Bengbe Betsa quem luare entsangbioye tsa yojanababuanyeshanayeca,che nye canye Uaquina ibobomna, bengbioye tbojichmo, nyetsca chabene osbuachiyenga ndone chamondobanama, y ain~e che nyetsca tescama yomna tsabe vida chamotsebomnama."
* Language: Jula
* Country: Ivory Coast
"Sabu Ala ka dununyamogow kanu haali fo Den kelenpe min bora Ala ra, a ka o di ka a ka saraka ye, janko ni mogo o mogo ka la o Den na, o tigi kana taga halaki lahara, nka o tigi ye nyanamanya banbari soro."
* Language: Chamula Tzotzil
* Country: Mexico
"Quel avil ti Diose mu noox albajuc laj xcuxbin scotol ti cristianoetic ti oy ta sjoylej banomile. Jech o xal ti Diose laj yac talel ti cajomal junomal Xnichone, yo jech ta xtojbat scotol smul ti cristianeotique, Buchuuc noox ti cristianoetic ti ta xichic ta muc Xnichon ti Diose, mu xchayic. Ta staic xcuxlejal sventa sbatel osil."
While the translations are based on the Roman alphabet, many translations require additional notation to denote pitch.