It's now published in 1,739 languages; New Bible translations multiply

Perry Priest recently handed over his professional offices in Riberalta, Bolivia, to the government and began packing to leave.

In another profession, it might have been the ultimate disappointment. For Mr. Priest, a translator with the California-based Wycliffe Bible Translators, it was the moment of success.

Since he and his staff first arrived at a remote clearing in Riberalta's steamy jungle lowlands in 1955, they have transformed the spot into a garden oasis with a teeming language center that serves the 20 Indian tribes of northern Bolivia.

General literacy has vastly improved. The New Testament has been translated into native tongues. And now the Wycliffe team think it's time for the Bolivians to take over. They're making the language center a gift to the Ministry of Education.

The Riberalta project is one of hundreds in foreign lands supported by US churches - most of which share a common long-cherished goal: making the Scriptures available in every language on the planet.

Some projects are criticized these days for being theologically biased or disruptive of other cultures. Yet in many ways translation efforts have never been riding so high:

* The Bible, or portions of it, now is published in nearly 1,739 languages and dialects -- an all-time high, says the latest American Bible Society (ABS) report. A new translation is coming out every two weeks, says veteran ABS translator Dr. Eugene Nida.

* The rate of translation has accelerated. The Wycliffe group, for instance, took nearly 46 years, ending in 1980, to translate the New Testament into a 100 languages. The 200th translation is expected by 1983.

* Distribution has soared. Ten years ago the United Bible Societies of America and Europe (UBS) was passing out 50 million Bibles per year. In 1981 the figure had skyrocketed to 500 million, says Dr. Nida.

* Translation efforts in world regions with strong restrictions on religion have gained momentum. UBS reports 12 major translation efforts under way in Communist-controlled countries (locations are not made public). UBS experts are collaborating on projects in Eastern Europe. In June, Dr. Nida goes to the People's Republic of China, where a major new translation project is under way in Nanking.

While their work in the 1,739 languages now has touched the speech of 97 percent of the world's people, the translators do not feel their work is done. They are determined to reach even the obscurest of minority languages: Tadzhik in the Soviet Union, for example, or Mbai-Moissala in Chad, or the Indian Tiwa-Southern dialect in the US.

Exactly how many Bible-less languages remain is debatable. When translators Ethel Wallis and Mary Bennett wrote a book on the subject in the 1950s, they called it ''Two Thousand Tongues to Go.'' Since then, hundreds of distinctive new language groups have been discovered. New Guinea alone has over 700 known languages - and more are being discovered all the time. The experts now estimate that a total of 2,500 to 3,000 languages still have no Bible translation.

Projects oriented to tribal peoples usually require missionary experts. But the global trend is to shift the work to trained native speakers.

''When I first joined ABS back in 1943, at least 75 percent of the work was being done by missionaries,'' says Dr. Nida. ''Now we estimate at least 95 percent is being done by nationals.''

For the linguistic missionaries who dare to venture into the world's remote climes, the translation enterprise can be formidable as well as exhilarating. Wycliffe's Bolivian team first had to convince a wary Bolivian government that its aims were benevolent and that it could improve the literacy of the region. Upon arrival in 1955, team members soon discovered that none of the languages of the 20 tribal peoples had a written form. That meant inventing one -- or rather, 20. To find meaningful metaphors to express biblical ideas, they lived for many years with villagers in the region. At the same time, the team offered villagers language training in the speech of the wider Bolivian culture - Spanish.

''The white man's civilization is rapidly encroaching on these peoples,'' says Dr. Don Burns, a longtime Wycliffe worker in Bolivia.

''We teach the language of the wider culture to help them meet that encroachment, survive culturally, be more self-sufficient. Otherwise these people are easy prey to exploitation, as you find in their long history of exploitation by traders.''

Despite humanitarian aims, the translators also have been criticized in recent years for being ''theologically imperialistic.'' Although ABS and UBS are nondenominational, other translation programs have more direct denominational connections. The Lutheran Bible Translators, for instance, are indirectly associated with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. Others have a fundamentalist bent, such as the Pioneer and Evangel organizations.

The practical, economic, and secular linguistic instruction offered by Wycliffe Bible Translators has also been questioned by the Cambridge-based research organization Cultural Survival, which champions the interests of cultures threatened by modern civilization. Although the training has been of some help to indigenous peoples, it has also been used as a vehicle to proselytize, writes Cultural Survival's director Jason Clay.

In the long run, such criticism may foster more cultural sensitivity and theological neutrality among the translators. The shift to indigenous translators also may help.

In the meantime, translators say they are seeing light at the end of the tunnel: Only 3,000 languages to go.

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