By the end of 1992, translations of the entire Bible had been published in 329 languages, the New Testament in 770 additional languages, and individual books of the Bible in 910 other dialects and languages. All told, these 2,009 languages account for over eighty percent of the world's population. Yet with an estimated three thousand to six thousand languages in the world, Bible Societies still face a major task in translating the scriptures.

The earliest translation of the Hebrew scriptures was into Greek (the Septuagint), made in Alexandria in the third century BCE, and it was this form that New Testament writers knew and quoted. Ensuing translations followed fairly slowly in succeeding centuries. By 600 CE, the Gospels had been translated into eight languages: Latin, Gothic, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Georgian, Ethiopic, and Sogdian.

When Johannes Gutenberg invented the art of printing with movable type in about 1450, a mere thirty‐three languages had any translations of the scriptures. In fact, when the Bible Society movement began early in the nineteenth century, the Bible had been translated into only sixty‐seven languages. Soon thereafter, however, the number skyrocketed: with the rise of the missionary movement in the nineteenth century, over four hundred languages received some part of the scriptures. By the end of the first half of the twentieth century, parts of the Bible had been published in five hundred additional languages. In many cases, the language in question had no alphabet before the Bible translator undertook to encode the language in written form.

Until relatively recently, missionaries, with the assistance of native speakers, were generally responsible for translating the Bible. Now, however, native speakers often assume primary responsibility, with missionaries sometimes serving as consultants. This has many virtues, since it is invariably easier for properly trained people to translate into their own mother tongue than into a foreign language, and the end product is likely to be more effective.

A crucial aspect of recent developments in Bible translation is the realization that cultural differences among peoples must be considered in order to assure that the text is meaningfully and accurately rendered. Often, a literal translation will result in wholly erroneous understanding; for instance, “the wicked will not stand in the judgment” (Ps. 1.6) was understood in one African language to mean that evil people will not be judged; and “smiting one's breast”—a sign of contrition and repentance in biblical times—was taken to mean self‐congratulation. Alternately, a given language's syntax may be ill suited to convey, for example, rhetorical questions. In Hebrews 2.3, the writer is not actually looking for an escape when he asks, “How can we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?” Rather, he is declaring emphatically that there can be no escape whatsoever. In some languages and dialects, then, one must employ a negative formulation such as “There is no possible escape if we …”

In spite of such difficulties, the task of translators is to reproduce the message of the original text with the closest natural equivalent—an assignment that sounds simpler than it is. For instance, Amos 4.6, “I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities,” is potentially perplexing, for it refers not to dental hygiene but to the results of a severe famine.

Over the past generation, biblical translators and revisers have often justified the preparation of several translations within a single language area, depending on the use that the rendering will serve. Basic types of translations to meet different needs are: simplified translations for new readers; common language translations for evangelistic purposes; standard or traditional translations to meet the needs of traditionally oriented readers; literary‐liturgical translations employing the total resources of the language and intended primarily for church use.

As of the beginning of 1992, the United Bible Societies and associated groups were involved in approximately 608 language projects, of which 312 were languages in which at least one segment of the biblical text was being translated for the first time. The following statistical summary (see Table below) shows the number of different languages and dialects in which publication of at least one book of the Bible (designated “portions”) had been registered as of 31 December 1991.

Circulation of the Bible

Continent or Region Portions New Testaments Bibles Totals
Africa 231 223 122  576
Asia 227 167 104  498
Australia/New Zealand/Pacific Islands 160 139 26  325
Europe 105  24  60  189
North America  43  20  7   70
Mexico/Caribbean Islands/Central and South America 142 197  9  348
Constructed Languages  2  0  1   3
Totals 910 770 329 2,009

Bruce M. Metzger