Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Global Church - Bridging the Translation Gap

I ended last week's post with this quote from Philip Jenkins:

“Christianity will enjoy a worldwide boom in the new century but the vast majority of believers will be neither white nor European, nor Euro-American.”

Here's Michael Gerson, former Bush speechwriter making a similar point in a 2006 Newsweek article:

"The center of gravity of the Christian world is now arguably in central Africa, with more than a third of a billion Christians on that continent."

Apparently, the center of Christian world isn't just has already shifted.

Yet, the vast majority of evangelical Christian materials are published in English and not accessible to most of these believers due to a language barrier. While church growth in these emerging regions is impressive, the lack of sound doctrine is a concern for many churches and Christian organizations operating in those regions. The lack of supplemental materials to train and encourage new converts in the basic doctrines of Christianity is a substantial problem. If left unaddressed, this deficit in biblically rich, gospel centered materials will have a detrimental effect on the church worldwide.

The need for bible translations have long been accepted but it is also important to translate secondary, supporting materials to strengthen the doctrinal foundations of the church. In the history of the Christian church, there is a tradition of building upon knowledge and works of prior generations. However, in the case of this rapidly developing church in Africa, Asia and Latin America, this progression is impeded by the translation gap.

Translating gospel centered materials into various languages is a vitally important need.

Over the years, there has been substantial time and resources poured into enabling translation of books and articles into other languages. However, despite the fine efforts of many publishers, the problem remains largely unsolved due the enormous challenge of translating into numerous languages and the cost of undertaking a translation project.

The fundamental issue is that the existing model for translation and distribution of Christian content is both limited and expensive. Publishers often have to decide whether to undertake translation projects based on economic/financial parameters. In practical terms, this means that books that do not sell well in the popular US market are not likely candidates for translation. Unfortunately, this also means that many (most?) doctrinally sound, gospel centered books fail to make the cut. This is no critique of Christian publishing but rather a statement of the economic realities they have to operate under.

The other challenge with the current model is the cost of distribution. Today, distributing Christian materials to other non-English speaking countries means printing and distributing a physical, hard copy book in the hands of the reader. The cost for doing so relative to the number of Christians in these nations makes it non-scalable and economically infeasible. Furthermore, the price point of the books that are translated, printed and distributed overseas would typically make it prohibitive for the average Christian in many of these nations.

In today's digital Web 2.0 economy with its social networking, virtual communities, blogs, wikis, etc... might there be a way to tackle this challenge? I think so.

My next post will propose a strategic approach - and you won't have to wait a week to hear about it. ;-)


L.L. Barkat said...

Perhaps it could be handled the way lawyers handle their practices. A percentage of pro bono work. Translated: a percentage of low-return titles from publishing houses, for the good of the church around the world.

Every Square Inch said...


It would be wonderful to see that although I think there are so many compelling economic parameters at play for most publishers that it is difficult to see good quality, translated content made freely accessible to the emerging global church.

I think there's a way to address this using the power of mass collaboration...which is what my next post will suggest

Halfmom, AKA, Susan said...

I'm glad you're not making us wait for your solution!

Thanks for your book suggestions. Both authors are favorites of mine and there is a well-worn copy of the Welch book on my bookcase at home. In fact, I had already planned to quote it within this particular series of posts.

Jonathan Moorhead said...

What books are being considered for translation, and in what languages?

Ted M. Gossard said...

ESI, Good thoughts here. And I wonder how much illiteracy plays into this problem. Though there's no doubt that these people need books. What we take for granted is hungered for by them.

I do think Africans present a way theologically of looking at scripture that supplements western theology. That has emerged and is surely developing today among African theologians. Their read of scripture, like everyone's read, is unique to their perspective.

I believe scripture and the Story in Jesus takes on many facets, and that we benefit from them all. Different angles in reference to the same "old, old story".

Every Square Inch said...


stay tuned...I'll probably post next this weekend.


I have no doubt that there are wonderful works that have been or will be written by our non-Western Christian brethren. However, in church tradition, theology doesn't get created in a vacuum "from scratch" but rather in the context of prior generations of Christian learning/study. Also, fruitful Christian living comes from application of biblical doctrine. If we don't do translations of these works, we're not caring or serving our non-English speaking brothers and sisters.

Every Square Inch said...


Thanks for stopping by. You're a little ahead of the curve since I haven't specifically spoken about the approach we're taking but we're looking to translate contemporary evangelical writings that are particularly gospel focused.

We're starting with content (books, articles, etc...) from partner organizations like Sovereign Grace Ministries, Desiring God Ministries...

In terms of languages, we're hoping to tackle any and all languages as God provides the means.

I'll get into more of the details in the next post. And, I welcome your thoughts and feedback.

Please stop by again

Real Live Preacher said...

Boy I hate to be the pessimist. But if I speak words that sound pessimistic, it is with the firm belief that the gospel will find a way. It's like flowing water. It will get there, but the path is uncertain.

Let's face it: Christian publishing is about making money. I don't mean that those who write and publish are all about money, but they need it. They need money because they live in our culture. Just like you and I need money. Publishing houses cannot survive printing books that don't sell.

Getting good materials into indigenous languages is going to have to be seen as a ministry. Our history is to put about 95% of our energy into nurturing Christians within our culture, and maybe 5% is given as "missions" money to the less fortunate.

Never fear. The very earliest Christians had no New Testament at all, and they survived quite well. These cultures will not wait for us. They will find a way (again like flowing water) even if they have to reinvent the wheell and publish everything themselves.

Every Square Inch said...


Thanks for your thoughts.

I agree that the gospel will "find a way" - God has faithfully preserved the 'message of the cross" over the centuries. But here's the strange thing as I see it - for some reason, He loves to use people to proclaim the message, explain the message, teach the message and defend the message. Perhaps He will choose to use common means of grace like technology and human initiative to promote His purpose.

I think publishing houses are doing a great service but perhaps there's a different way to think about tackling the translation challenge.

BTW, I think translation is important because there's no need to "reinvent the wheel" when it comes to biblical's the way the Christian faith has been transmitted over the centuries. One example - Calvin's Institutes was translated to English after his death and those writings have made a huge impact on the church worldwide.

That's not to say that we in the West won't substantially benefit from good biblically centric writing coming from Asia or Africa or Latin America. I think that will happen as well.

Halfmom, AKA, Susan said...

Ok - just waiting - have a Wickliff translator in training just waiting for some help to finish training and is ready and willing to go - already been to Africa to work and wants to translate and work with them again!

Ted M. Gossard said...

ESI, Agreed. The African theological work done is not being done in a vacuum. They are read in western and in Christian theology in general. They do have their unique contribution to bring to the table, I believe, which comports with the whole of Christian theology.

danielcberman said...

I realize this post is old, but I was just curious as whether you had an update on some of the work you have done over the past year?