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  • Writer's pictureTWFTW Asia

Why Direct Oral Bible Translation

Traditionally, TWFTW’s focus was on written translations. TWFTW is involved in oral translations but this is usually only done after the completion of a written translation. The written translation forms the basis of the oral translation. Because TWFTW does not have the in-house expertise or experience to do these oral translations, we have relied on others such as FCBH and Davar to help us by doing the oral translations for us. However, instead of having a written text first, there are good arguments for doing a direct oral translation first and perhaps later translating the Bible into a written format. This article briefly explores the reasons for a preference for direct oral Bible translation to be done first in certain situations.

Oral Societies

Direct Oral Bible Translations (DOBT) will usually take place in the context of a Primary Oral Society i.e., a society or language community which are relatively untouched by literacy or have exceptionally low literacy rates.

Some typical traits of a primary oral society are:

People in Primary Oral Societies learn a lot and have great wisdom, but they do not study in the same way that literate people will study. They learn by apprenticeship. For example, hunting with skilled hunters, by seeing and doing, by listening and repeating, by learning songs and proverbs, by assimilating ideas and views and beliefs, by participation in communal reflection etc., but not by reading or revising from a text. Walter J. Ong 2002 “Orality and Literacy” Page 9

Oral Societies universally consider words to have great power. Sounds cannot be made without having power. A hunter can see a lion, smell, taste, and even touch a lion when the lion is dead, but if he hears a lion roar, he had better be careful: something is going on. Oral sound, which comes from inside living creatures, is powerful and impactful. Sounds in Oral Societies blend in with the environment and context, and one cannot easily remove or distance oneself from it as one can with reading. Sound enters deeply into people in Oral Societies as it is concrete and not abstract. It affects the way primary Oral Societies view the world and interact with information. Sounds and words for the oral person are all around them and not spread out before them. It encompasses their very existence. Walter J. Ong 2002 “Orality and Literacy” Page 32, 72

These traits entail that an oral Bible will feel as natural to the oral society as, for example, the NIV feels to millions of English speakers. Oral Societies will typically respond much better to an oral translation as that is how they access information and how they communicate. This is what is natural to them. So, apart from being able to understand the Word of God in their own language without first having to go through the process of learning to read and write it, they will immediately understand and identify with the oral (spoken) Word. In other words, in the context of an oral society, the oral Word is not second best, but a superior product which should yield greater results.

Remaining languages

Most of the remaining languages with a need for The Word of God in their heart language are Oral Societies. There are 5.7 billion oral learners in the world, of which 2.7 billion are unreached people. 350 million oral learners do not have a single verse of Scripture in their heart language1. Many of the remaining languages also do not have a written language i.e., their language has never been committed to writing. So reading in that language is not possible unless you first develop an alphabet for the language and implement an extensive literacy programme in the language.

Therefore, it makes sense that for these remaining languages we should consider moving away from doing written translations first to doing oral translations first. This will enable these Oral Societies in need of God’s Word in their heart language to have it in a form that is not only natural to them but that is also easily accessible to them.

Cross border languages

These are languages that are spoken across international borders. In other words, the same language is spoken in more than one country. Many of the languages that TWFTW is planning to get involved in are cross border languages. For example, many languages that are spoken in Laos are also spoken in countries bordering Laos, such as China and Vietnam. This is true for many languages where there are no scriptures available: in Vietnam, Myanmar, China, India, Nepal, Pakistan etc. The difficulties with this is that often, even though you may find that a language spoken in Vietnam is also spoken in China and Laos, these languages use different scripts as each country uses completely different writing systems. In other words, languages that are spoken in more than one country, even though they are the same, could not share the same written translation. The written translation, based on the sound system of the language, would then have to be applied to three different scripts. Therefore, it makes sense to do an oral translation as people speaking the same language on both sides of the border will be able to hear and understand the oral translation. This in turn will save a lot of time and energy which might have usually be spent in first developing multiple writing systems. These orthographies, based on the sound system of the language, would be reflected by totally different scripts in each country in which the language is spoken. With an oral translation, everyone speaking the same language will have immediate access to the Scriptures.

Accessibility and Distribution

In many countries, regions, and areas, accessibility to a language group may be difficult, dangerous or near impossible due to a variety of reasons such as political instability, religious intolerance or hostility to outsiders. These regions are by and large closed to the outside world and it will be almost be impossible to work on a traditional written translation without potentially dire consequences such as ostracization from the community, imprisonment and even death to the translators. Doing an oral translation first will mitigate a lot of the risks involved in translation of the Bible for these unreached people groups as translators will not require an office and expensive equipment that will draw attention. Once these translations, or portions thereof are completed, they can be immediately distributed over the internet or via memory cards, greatly reducing the difficulty of bringing truck loads of Bibles into hard to access regions.

Greater focus and emphasis on oral Bible translation

The last couple of decades has seen an increased awareness in the importance of oral translations and especially direct oral translation. Several organisations and networks were established to facilitate oral Bible translations and new innovations are continually emerging. For example:

International Orality Network (ION). ION is an affiliation of agencies and organizations working together with the common goal of making God’s Word available to oral learners in culturally appropriate ways that enable church planting movements everywhere. It is part of the Lausanne Movement and grew out of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelism in 2004. ION has since grown to be a global network of over 2,000 organizations.

As of March 2017, Faith Comes By Hearing has completed audio Scripture in over 1,000 languages. The ‘Jesus Film’, which uses the Gospel of Luke, has released the film in over 1,500 languages. New innovations are continually emerging. For example, the Lumo projects which bring the original Jesus narrative to the screen using all four gospel texts as its script. RENDER is another example of a new innovation. RENDER is an audio to audio Bible translation software-based system developed and tested by three partnering agencies: Faith Comes by Hearing, Pioneer Bible Translators, and Seed Company. The system supports the loading of audio recordings of Scripture to serve as sources for translation. A translator or translation team can listen to the source in one or more (up to four) languages, translate orally into the target language, and record the new translation. RENDER facilitates the various components of Bible translation, including drafting, peer review, revision, community testing, back translation, and consultant checking, and also serves as an audio workflow management system. It is designed with the oral communicator in mind, so it is intended to be simple, iconographic, and colour driven.

Every Tribe Every Nation (ETEN) was established in 2010 as an alliance of the largest Bible translation organizations in the world and Resource Partners committed to eradicating Bible poverty. It seeks to leverage the alliance partnership to ensure that by 2033 at least a portion of the Bible is translated into every language needed to reach every tribe and nation. ETEN* not only envisions that Scripture is translated into every language, but also that it is in the medium most fitting for the people group. For oral learners, this might be an audio or visual version of the Scriptures or, for those that are deaf, a sign language video rendering (ETEN-Roadmap to eradicate Bible poverty).

Final words

The important thing is that we use the most effective media when translating the Scriptures, whether it is an oral or written translation. As we have seen, written translations may have a limited usefulness in certain contexts and may not be the most desirable product at a time in the history of a people group without the Bible. However, we also need to keep in mind that Oral Societies are not an ideal society. To approach it positively is not to advocate that an oral translation is the ultimate in these societies. Literacy opens possibilities that are unimaginable without writing. While Oral Societies value their oral traditions most if not all oral cultures, if given the opportunity, will want to achieve literacy as soon as possible. Therefore, the ideal would be that a first-time oral translation should eventually be the catalyst for a written translation. In some situations, this may happen sooner rather than later, but in others it may take years for governments’ and people groups’ attitudes to change towards, not only the Gospel, but also towards linguistic diversity, and education in the mother tongue etc.


*International Orality Network, “Reaching Oral Learners”

**The ETEN, ten alliance BT agencies are: UBS, ABS, Biblica, SIL, Wycliffe-USA, SC, Lutheran BS, Pioneer BS, Deaf BS and TWFTW

Ong, W. J. (2002). Orality and Literacy (3rd ed.). New York: Routledge.

ETEN (2017). Roadmap to Eradicate Bible Poverty: A partnership-driven model to translate Scripture into every language by 2033. Oklahoma: Prepared by Calvin Edwards & Company for and in collaboration with ETEN (pdf)

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