Progress in Bible translation

Many of the salient points of the Cape Town Commitment are difficult to measure tangibly: love, faithful witness, and discipleship, among others. Helpful indicators of actual progress for some of the topics referenced, however, are much easier to pinpoint. One of those is Bible translation. The Cape Town Commitment discusses Bible translation under the heading “unreached and unengaged peoples” as one of the many challenges facing eradicating “Bible poverty” in the world. The Commitment states that the church must “hasten the translation of the Bible into the languages of people who do not yet have any portion of God’s Word in their mother tongue” and includes a statement regarding making the Bible widely available orally. Defining the progress of Bible translation might seem on the surface like a relatively simple undertaking, considering the plethora of resources made available by numerous organizations who have a similar heart for the task. However, it is challenging because of the nature of that task: defining and tracking progress across 7,000+ languages can be burdensome. For example, the databases of the American Bible Society, the United Bible Societies, and Wycliffe Bible Translators contain many languages listed by different names, making it next to impossible to clearly define the progress of Bible translation in those languages.[1]

Bible translation is typically measured in three ways: availability of full Bibles, New Testaments, or portions (normally the gospels, but can be any published book of the Bible). It is important to view translation deficiencies through these three lenses in order to gain a more accurate depiction of the situation. Additionally, the size of the world’s languages must also be taken into consideration. There are approximately 7,000 languages worldwide, but they obviously do not all have an equal number of speakers. Therefore, language percentages indicating either translation progress or deficiency have to be examined in context. Another factor to give attention to is how Scripture reaches people: (1) in a mother tongue; (2) in a near language or cluster language (where no mother-tongue translation exists); (3) in an intercultural language (or lingua franca); or (4) in any given second language.[2]

Ninety percent of people worldwide have at least a portion of Scripture available in their mother tongue. However, these texts are not widely distributed, so many have never even seen one (such as in Yemen, where distribution is so low only one in ten have access to a mother-tongue portion).[3] Most of the work remaining in Scripture translation is in full Bibles. Only 8.2% of languages in Asia, for example, have a complete Bible translation, though the percentage is much higher for New Testaments and portions. It should be noted, however, that Asia is the continent with the most languages (2,107; Africa is second with 2,075). The complete Scriptures are least available to people in North Africa and Western Asia. In Melanesia, where there are 1,054 distinct languages (many of which are mother-tongue for only a small number of people), only 4.4% of them have a full Bible translation, the lowest regional percentage. The highest availability to full Bibles is in North America, Latin America, and Europe, where there are fewer mother-tongue languages, and more speakers of some of the largest languages (Spanish, English, Portuguese).

There are 4,723 languages in the world that currently have no Scripture translation available whatsoever; this accounts for 64.7% of languages (not individuals) worldwide. In addition, only 6.3% of languages have translations of the complete Bible.[4] On the surface this looks daunting, but a closer look reveals that the world’s largest languages have full Bible translations available (see graphic below), resulting in billions of people with linguistic access to the Scriptures. The 2,393 remaining languages with no full Bible translation represent “only” 200 million people; still a large number, but in perspective seemingly manageable. Many of the mid-sized languages in the graphic below have full translations in progress, but lack distribution methods and literacy programs for these efforts to be effective.[5]

Figure: Largest languages by translation category

Although there is still much work to be done in terms of Bible translation, the real issue is that of distribution. Distribution often comes in three forms: commercial (by secular or religious retailers at commercial prices), subsidized (by Bible societies selling at subsidized prices), and free (by organizations such as The Gideons). While true that most people in the world have access to at least a portion of the Scriptures, over 200 million people have no access whatsoever; these people primarily live in Northern Africa and Western Asia.[6] The reality is that printed words are only useful to those able to read them; therefore, literacy programs ought to go hand-in-hand with Bible translation projects. A significant phenomenon in this area, however, is that of digital distribution of Scripture. Digital delivery through the Internet and via cell phones/smart phones (such as in extremely remote places in Africa) is skyrocketing. It is the most dramatic thing happening today in Scripture distribution. A staggering example is the YouVersion Bible application, which hit 10.7 million users in November 2010 from its launch for mobile phones in 2008 by It is one of the world’s most popular apps; every 2.8 seconds someone installs the app, and in the same time period 12 other people are using it to read the Bible.[7] Other organizations involved in this work include the International Orality Network[8] and Faith Comes by Hearing.[9]

Bible translation organizations are teaming up together to tackle the task of translating the Bible into every language. The Forum of Bible Agencies International (FOBAI) brings together more than 25 Bible agencies throughout the world, “working together to maximize the worldwide access and impact of God’s Word.”[10] The 2010 Annual Report for the SEED Company—an organization with a vision for speeding up the process of Bible translation and distribution—mentions partnerships with SIL International, Pioneer Bible Translators, Word for the World, Wycliffe Associates, and New Tribes Mission, among others, each targeting a specific challenge facing Bible translation and distribution.[11] In 2010 the organization entered their 600th language partnership.[12] The SEED Company’s Vision 2025 aims to start a Bible translation for every language group with a need by 2025,[13] and FOBAI has a similar goal slated for 2050.[14] Both of these organizations highlight the need for—and great success of—collaboration with local churches and believers to develop programs focused on these translation goals. Intra-Christian cooperation is a key element in hastening the translation of the Bible and eliminate “Bible poverty” in the twenty-first century.

This article is a part of a pilot version of the Lausanne Global Analysis. A planning team has begun working on the production of the new Lausanne Global Analysis.  The Analysis will provide multi-lingual analysis of issues facing the church and wordwide evangelization from a global network of regional leaders, researchers and writers.  The launch as a monthly publication is tentatively scheduled for April 2012. (Learn more)

[1].  Todd M. Johnson and Kenneth R. Ross, Atlas of Global Christianity (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009), 300. The American Bible Society, the United Bible Societies, and Wycliffe Bible Translators are all members of the Forum of Bible Agencies International. By agreement of the Forum agencies, they look to Wycliffe and SIL to be the keepers of the number of languages worldwide. In turn, UBS is designated as the authority on the number of translations finished. As of June 2, 2011, the SIL database records that of the world’s 6,863 languages, 2,013 have active language development; 729 have adequate Scripture; 2,025 have “likely needs;” 1,600 have “unlikely needs;” and 493 have “unknown need.”

[2].  Ibid., 300.

[3].  Ibid.

[4].  Ibid., 301.

[5].  Ibid.

[6].  Ibid., 302.

[7].  Michelle A. Vu, “ YouVersion Bible App Users Grow to 10.7 Million,” The Christian Post, November 17, 2010, accessed June 5, 2011,

[8].  See

[9].  In April 2011, Faith Comes by Hearing developed an Arabic version of their popular Bible app, The organization plans on making this app available in the top 20 most spoken languages in the world. See

[10].  Forum of Bible Agencies International, “Mission & Vision,” accessed May 7, 2011,

[11].  SEED Company 2010 Annual Report, The SEED website lists at least twenty partnering organizations (See

[12].  SEED Company,

[13].  “Words from Roy Peterson ­– Winter 2010,”

[14].  Forum of Bible Agencies International, “Scripture Partnership Goals: Statement of Intent.” April 2008.