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How many unknown Bibles are there? June 23, 2022

Posted by Pete B in Bible Translation.
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There are known to be translations of the full Bible in 720 languages and New Testaments in a further 1617. The answer to the question of how many unknown ones that there are should be obvious – “nobody knows”.

The known ones get catalogued in several places:

find.bible and ScriptureEarth.org exist to help people find scripture and other resources in all available languages.

progress.bible focuses more on being a resource for organisations involved in Bible Translation helping them to track where work is currently happening or is believed to be needed.

Many of the translations that exist are submitted to the Digital Bible Library, “an online digital asset and licensing management platform developed and maintained by the United Bible Societies”. From here they can be shared with platforms such as YouVersion and Faith Comes By Hearing, or the publisher isn’t quite ready to do that, simply stored to ensure that the latest electronic text is maintained in a standard format.

At a conference a few years ago I heard a seminar about work to digitise “lost translations” and at the start of the pandemic I helped spark some conversations that led to promotion of this Wycliffe, the Bible Society, and MissionAssist. Mission Assist’s keyboarding service has been running for over 30 years. At one point they had a “Bible for the Future” project, seeking to preserve texts digitally for when they were needed for reprints, revisions and further translation work, or could be shared online.

In the last few years I’ve been able to help track down and pass on information about a few translations that were known to exist but not easily available online, starting with some of those spoken in Europe. These include old translations which have scanned copies or exist only in print in a library or archive somewhere, or newer ones that have been completed with or without the involvement (or sometimes knowledge) of local Bible societies and translation organisations.

The most recent example I came across is in the Piemontèis language of Italy, (also called Piedmontese or Piemontese), available at https://pms.m.wikisource.org/wiki/La_Bibia_piemonèisa and translated by a retired pastor from the region who now lives in England.

The new testament is “a stylistic revision of the New Testament in the Piedmontese language of 1841, with a scrupulous comparison of the best Greek text at our disposal.” and the Old Testament makes use of the Net Bible and it’s 60,000 accompanying notes.

The language itself is currently spoken by between 700,000 and 2,500,000 people with varying estimates as to how many people can read and write in it (A 2006 survey quoted on the English version of Wikipedia suggests only about 2% of speakers can read and write in it, The Piemonteisa version of Wikipedia suggests 500,000-700,000 people).

Meanwhile, if you want to read a version of the New Testament from 1834 then the digital version of “L Testament Neuv de Nossegneour Gesu-Crist: tradout in Lingua Piemonteisa” can be found in the Reading Room of the Racconigi Castle with information about it found here, and perhaps more widely available sometime in the not too distant future.

Finding the Bible in the 4th Swiss Language June 13, 2022

Posted by Pete B in Bible Translation, Scripture Engagement.
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Switzerland is one of the many countries that doesn’t have a single national language. It has four (German, French, Italian and Romansh), but while Romansh was recognised as a ‘national’ language in 1938 it wasn’t at that point an ‘official’ language, and though it had been written for centuries, its different dialects had different orthographies.

In 1968 work began on a new translation into Romansh. The New Testament was published in 1988 and some of the old Testament (Psalms and Prophets) in 2014. These are available via the Swiss Bible Society but in a standard form of Romansh that official reports suggest hasn’t been as popular as hoped for.

For an earlier full translation you’d have to look a little harder.

adapted from image at wikipedia.org/wiki/Languages_of_Switzerland by Tschubby, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Bibles can be found on YouVersion in German, French and Italian but there isn’t anything there in Romansh. Neither is there anything on Bible.is or ScriptureEarth.org. Find.Bible has links to two portions in Romansh – but the links didn’t work (I’ll let them know).

The complete Bible was first translated into one of the dialects of Romansh in the 16th century and you can see a picture of a copy from 1679 on Kings College website.

I did find a version from 1818 on Google books, and even created a printable QR code to make it easier to share (click to follow the link, right click to save the QR code), but…

…while a Bible that is available is better than one that can only be found in history books and museums, translation and accessibility are only two factors in encouraging actual engagement with scripture, and even these two conditions require a bit more than “does something exist” and “can people get hold of it somehow”.

Modern Romansh speakers (and according to latest statistics there are about 40,000 of them) might be interested in looking at the 1818 translation, but that doesn’t mean they will find it easy to understand or indeed preferable to one in another of the languages they speak.

Scripture engagement specialists are not focused on a tick box approach of language and availability. Before “Appropriate translation” they speak of the need for “Appropriate language, dialect and orthography” and along with “availability” comes “accessible forms of scripture”. These are just four of eight conditions that emerged from many years of research and form the basis of many training programs and of a new website featuring a Scripture Engagement guide that helps communities think through some of these issues for themselves.

Finding Hidden Diaspora Languages: Who is looking? January 19, 2022

Posted by Pete B in Bible Translation, multilingualism, refugees, Scripture Engagement, Statistics.
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As part of my wider interest in Multilingual Church this is part 3 in a series on finding hidden diaspora languages. This section looks at “who is interested” (which includes perhaps anyone who makes it to the bottom of this blog), and who is interested enough to collect and explore the actual data.

Lots of organisations, both Christian and secular, collect and share information about or for the many diaspora communities

“Diaspora” is a title used both by self defined members of specific diaspora communities and those outside.

Today, some churches and Christian organisations talk about diaspora mission and think in terms of how we can find many ‘unreached peoples’ living in some of the major cities of the world. 

But how many? Which ones? And how do we connect?

Global Gates is one example of an American mission organisation, asking “Where should Christians prioritize work and prayer to see the least-evangelized peoples in North America reached with the gospel?”. Their publicly downloadable data covers just under 60 people groups across 60 metropolitan areas in the USA. They invite submissions of new information but state: “the people group must number at least 5,000 in the city to be included”.

Several other organisations including PeopleGroups.info and Joshua Project are looking for and sharing information.  Most are still only scratching the surface in terms of diaspora language information, but at least they are raising the questions. 

Who lives around us? 

Where else can we find members of a specific people group outside of their homeland? 

Personally, I have been interacting with other data sources and some of the people behind them for a number of years, first as a writer, webmaster, and communications specialist with Wycliffe UK, Wycliffe Canada and Wycliffe Global Alliance, then as an advocate and explorer of digital engagement (an emerging field within Scripture Engagement), and more recently in a broader field of missiology as well as data specialist with the SIL Global diaspora team.

In the last few years SIL has begun to talk about MUSE (Multilingualism Urbanisation and Scripture Engagement). We knew that people weren’t just moving from the villages to the cities, they were moving all over the world. And so without adding to the acronym there quietly emerged an SIL Global Diaspora Team, gathering data, stories, and a lot of questions with a remit, “to help SIL discern and articulate best modes of engagement with dispersed language communities and those who serve them, and to encourage and develop initiatives that advance meaningful development, education, and engagement with Scripture in urban, refugee and broader diaspora contexts.”

It is helpful to ask who else is interested in the questions of where languages are being spoken, and what languages people speak? Two clear audiences are Bible Translation agencies and Churches but they are not the only people. Governments and agencies collect or at least use what is available in terms of data on languages to plan and provide services. Thinking about who else wants to know opens up the way for discovering partnerships or data sources.

Questions I asked when presenting at the Bible Translation conference included:

  • Who is responsible in our organisation for knowing where to look and who to ask?
  • Is there someone responsible in your organisation?
  • How do we connect?

You can find key organisations, authors, and data sets through literature reviews, google searches, following some key social media feeds, and occasionally doing searches for key terms showing up in the news such as “languages” , “multilingual”, “multicultural” and “intercultural”.

Here are just a few of the organisations I’ve identified that collect information on communities and/or languages. They are all talking to each other yet but a lot of the available data can be explored and analysed.

Open Doors doesn’t specifically give information on languages but provides information about religious persecution of Christians. Many of the remaining needs for Bible translation are in countries on Open Doors World Watch list and different ethnic groups from these countries are often among the hidden diaspora, not yet recorded on the sites above.

The graphic at the top of the page also includes some sites for accessing scripture and other resources. The final links on this page points back to my first post in this series Finding Hidden Diaspora Languages: Intro and a bit more on Why it matters.

Finding (hidden) languages: Why? November 13, 2021

Posted by Pete B in Bible Translation, multilingualism.
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I was excited recently to get a detailed list of the 300 plus languages spoken in 152 local authorities across England and Wales. I already had the list of languages (Available here) but now I have details of where they are spoken and some clues as to by how many people, and I hope to use this to encourage churches to think more deeply about the languages spoken by the people inside their churches and the people around them. This includes new migrants who might need help learning English, but also people who speak English well alongside one or more other languages they grew up with.

In education, schools and local authorities want to have a better idea of the language backgrounds of their pupils and their families to help them in planning and provision. Some may continue to see other ‘languages spoken at home’ as a barrier to education, others are seeing that using ‘home languages’ more at school provides fresh opportunities for individual pupils or even the whole class.

Screenshot from an excellent video on First and Other Languages by Hampshire County Council

A video from Hampshire County Council in 2020 states, “Anyone involved in education understands the benefits of being able to speak and use more than one language – an asset that is becoming increasingly useful in our connected world”. Sadly one reason that they need the video, and the accompanying course is that this view hasn’t always been the dominant one.

A relatively new term used in multilingual education is “translanguaging”, explained in another resource pointed to by Hampshire, from Pearson International Schools “Translanguaging – what is it and how do you plan for it? FAQs“. I’ll be talking about it more as I discuss the implications with colleagues who presented on Bible Translation and Translanguaging at the Bible Translation conference I attended.

Photo of a wall at our local hospital

In healthcare, knowing the languages spoken in the community can be an important part of providing care, ensuring that some materials are available in multiple languages, and that translators are on call where needed. Working with SIL I’ve been aware for over 25 years that our work with local languages has a significant impact on health outcomes. SIL’s Language and Culture Archives have over 1500 resources categorised under Health and Hygene.

Again this isn’t always just about making information available to people who don’t speak or can’t read the national language, it is also about going the extra step of making it personal and relevant. In the UK one of the languages that didn’t show up in the 2011 census of England and Wales was Tetum, spoken in Timor. I spotted it on a census report in Northern Ireland and have since learned that there may be as many as 16-18,000 speakers currently in the UK. A couple of health authorities had already noticed this and produced information on Covid and vaccinations in the language.

In the church, making the best use of available data on people and languages has been part of making the case for mission, and making plans for centuries.

Some history…

In 1792 William Carey devoted a significant portion of his ‘Enquiry’ into setting out his understanding of the state of the world. Part of this was to combat a false narrative at the time that the missionary endeavour was largely complete, and that if God wanted to convert ‘the heathen’ he’d do it without the likes of ‘enthusiasts’ like Carey.

Some of the data today may help combat contemporary false narratives.

The Bible Societies kept records of what was known to have been done, and what was in progress. In 1939 Rev Robert Kilgour listed 1115 languages that had at least some portion of scripture, but stated that any definitive answer as to how many more were needed was impossible. That same year the secretary of the American Bible Society had used a figure from the French Academy suggesting that there were “2,776 languages in the world”. Levels of bilingualism were assumed for the non-majority languages, especially in urban areas and the aim was understood not to be translation for every language but ensuring that everyone had something in a language they could understand. “No doubt there are still several dialects in which it will be necessary to make a version of a Gospel in order to reach more surely the hearts of country folk.”
(A pdf of Kilgour’s The Bible Throughout the World can be downloaded at https://missiology.org.uk/book_bible-throughout-the-world_kilgour.php )

The assumption was that even then 90% of the world had at least something, and so conversely 10% did not. It wasn’t until Cameron Townsend. Leonard Legters, and other founders of SIL that a more comprehensive list of remaining languages began to emerge.

Speculation that there might be 1,000 languages gave way to the notion of “2,000 tongues to go” and the numbers kept going up as more languages were catalogued.

It became clear early on that the need for translation wasn’t quite as simple as counting languages and ticking off the list once ‘something’ was translated. In the early days of the Ethnologue some languages were classified as “too bilingual”.

It’s still common to present the big pictures needs to western monolingual churches and funders more in terms of languages than of people but the story is beginning to change, and that may in part be as we open our eyes and ears to the diversity in our own communities.

Beyond the issue of whether people need scripture in their own language in order to understand, are issues raised by theologian Lamin Sanneh and others about identity and connection. Bible translation is not just intellectual comprehension but head and heart connection. This is a view often reflected on by speakers of minority languages when the scriptures are first available in their language.

Some further research needed

Research and discussion needs to continue about the current and future role of languages in a multlingual world.

In 2019 SIL published a collection of essays on, “Language and Identity in a Multilingual, Migrating World“.

In 2020 SIL colleagues organised the God and Language Forum, reflecting on many issues including the theologies of language. An ebook is due early next year with a print one to follow in due course, but may of the individual papers are already available via the link.

As I’ll explain in my next post, while there is a lot of information about some of the places where some of the (mostly larger) languages are spoken, significant research also needs to continue into finding more data to answer the questions SIL is now encouraging project staff to think about:

“What are all the languages that this community uses?”

“Where are all the communities that use this language?” 

And the related questions I would love churches to consider:

“What are the languages spoken in your community?”

“What are the languages spoken in your church?”

Finding (hidden) Diaspora Languages – intro October 15, 2021

Posted by Pete B in Bible Translation, multilingualism, Scripture Engagement, Statistics.
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Good data can help us ask (and sometime answer) a number of questions. Two key questions I want to ask are: “What are the languages spoken in your community?” and “What are the languages spoken in your church?”

I’m looking forward to presenting a paper today at the 2021 Bible Translation conference, on how to find more of the languages that are spoken outside of their country of origin, and people that speak them. I’m also looking forward to saying why I think this is important.

I have a written a few posts on this already including, Ten Reasons for a More Multilingual Church, but I suspect that one reason that the church doesn’t talk much about language is that they still need to talk more about Race, Justice, Culture and Diversity.

I’ve read a lot more articles on issues around language use and linguistic discrimination (which can also include accentism), as well as about churches working towards greater inclusion and models of intercultural church. Part of my contribution into discussion and action in this area has been in digging deeper into data.

Did you know that over a 100 countries were due a census in 2020 or 2021? Some of these ask questions about how well people speak the national language (or languages) and about the main language(s) spoken at home.

2011 Census details for England and Wales include about 80 languages plus over 20 different broad categories of “other”. Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own censuses and picked up a few more. Results from the 2021 census won’t be available until at least March 2022 (probably later).

Meanwhile, frequent reports of there being over 300 languages spoken in London are based on data coming from schools. (2015 data is online and a freedom of information request got me the latest list and the ability to delve deeper).

Prior to 2020, the US Census and American Community Survey had details on over 350 languages but might include more that get reported in the 2020 census. In a 2016 review, “Any language that was written in at least once between 1980 and 2015 was given a code. This resulted in 1,334 language codes”American Community Survey Redesign of Language-Spoken-at-Home Data, 2016

Meanwhile, over 700 languages have been identified in New York.

While better data on the languages spoken in our multiethnic, multicultural, multilingual cities and towns is useful for Bible Translation and Scripture Engagement  – it may also be about justice, equity, inclusion, and richness.

In some upcoming posts I’ll share just a few of the questions I’m exploring.

Under the question of “Why?” I explore reasons for wanting to know more than is already known about the distribution of migrant languages and their speakers.

Under “Who”, I raise the questions of who has information and why.

In a category of “How” I explore how information can be obtained and arranged.

Exploring “What exists?” and “What next?”, I share some discoveries to date and further exploration that may be needed.

If Bible Translation was an Olympic Event… August 1, 2021

Posted by Pete B in Bible Translation, Statistics.
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If Bible translation was an Olympic event then looking at languages per country, the ‘medal’ table for the first 20 countries might look something like the chart below. But it all depends on what you count…

& Stories
1 India7212567264
4Democratic Republic
of the Congo
10Papua New Guinea16265137418
20Russian Federation10222961
data from progress.bible July 2021

The chart shows totals for translated scripture by the ‘hub country’ for each language. This avoids counting a language in more than one country but can sometimes give a distorted picture – as could assuming that all the athletes representing a country speak only the ‘national’ language of the country.

The truth is that many Olympic teams and many Olympic cities are a celebration of diversity. The website Olympic Cities states that London is “A world-in-one city”, “With no less than 230 languages spoken”. (most sources claim over 300 languages spoken in the city, and I suspect that to be an underestimate).

Charts showing the number of Olympic medals won by each nation rarely include columns about the numbers of athletes entering or the total population of the country. The chart on Bible translations above doesn’t show the total number of languages for each country.

Another ‘problem’ with my chart is that it doesn’t take into account how recently the translations have been completed, or how readily available they are.

So here’s a quick table of the world totals from the last few Olympic years, along with a couple of notes of explanation.

(so far)
New Testament96010341168127514421583
data from wycliffe.net and progress.bible

Translation statistics above are those reported by Wycliffe Global Alliance, usually up until September 30 of each year, so there are still a few to add for 2021. ‘Results’ don’t come in quite as quickly as for the Olympics – figures here are from July 2021.

The leap in 2016 is due to identification of some previously unreported translations plus a change in reporting which included selections and stories rather than limiting portions to the translation of a full book.

Currently, work is in progress in over 700 of the languages in which nothing has been published, and many languages that have ‘something’ will have a lot more by the start of the Paris Olympics in 2024.

As for availability, most published scriptures are available in print and/or audio somewhere (if you know where to look) and in recent years an amazing (Olympian?) effort has been made to make scripture available digitally with scripture now available in at least 2100 languages via apps and websites with about 200 of these being made available for the first time just this year. (almost 90 new on YouVersion since my last blog post and 28 new languages added in June to the audio recordings from faithcomesbyhearing.com ).

The apps with scriptures in the most languages are YouVersion and Bible.is and the most complete public index of these and others is ScriptureEarth.org.

A quick request. I don’t mind how many people link to this blog post, but I’d love to see more churches celebrating the variety of languages and cultures in their community, helping people find scripture online and exploring other aspects of being a more multilingual church. If your church website and social media doesn’t already link to online Bibles, why not suggest it?

The Bible: between 1500-1600 April 10, 2021

Posted by Pete B in Bible Translation, Scripture Engagement, Statistics.
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When I mentioned that YouVersion had scripture in 1555 languages, one facebook friend thought that I was talking about the language of the year 1555, not the number of languages. Perhaps I should have written my post to commemorate the first authorised translations in the English language “Great Bible” of 1539, also known as the “Chained Bible”.

“The Great Bible” 1539, also known as “The Chained Bible”

A lot of things changed in regard to the availability of scripture in the 1500’s. I’ll mention a few of them before reflecting on the amazing progress being made in our own century.

William Tyndale started translating the Bible into English in the 1520’s, with the New Testament first published in 1525. For this (and perhaps for some of the words used) he was forced to flee. In 1536 charged with heresy, he was tied to a stake, strangled and then his body burned. His final words are reported as, “Lord! Open the King of England’s eyes.”

His prayer was answered. The principle of an English Bible was legalised in 1536 and the first authorised text was approved in 1537 (here’s the letter). While not given official credit, Tyndale’s translation was built upon in the Matthew Bible (1537), The Great Bible (1539), and the Authorised Version or King James Bible (1611).

The Mathew Bible 1537, British Library
“The Byble, which is all the holy Scripture: in whych are contayned the Olde and Newe Testament
truly and purely translated into Englysh by Thomas Matthew.”
View more at https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/matthews-bible

You can read more about the various versions on the website of the British Library in a 2019 article by Alec Ryrie, “From Sacred Scriptures to the people’s Bible” .

The picture at the top of this post is of the “Great Bible” which as the caption says and the Wikipedia article explains, the name was due to it’s size and it was also referred to as the “Chained Bible”.

Suddenly, it wasn’t just legal for churches to own a copy, it was commanded,

In 1538, Cromwell directed the clergy to provide “one book of the Bible of the largest volume in English, and the same set up in some convenient place within the said church that ye have care of, whereas your parishioners may most commodiously resort to the same and read it.”


But, on display in the church was still different to being available in people’s homes. The Bible’s were often chained to prevent removal from the church.

Today, as I also mention a lot in my blog posts, the Bible is very widely available in a huge number of languages. There are full Bible in over 700 languages.

progress.bible/data March 2021

Many others have at least a New Testament

progress.bible/data March 2021

And still more have selections and individual books of the Bible published.

progress.bible/data March 2021

Published, still isn’t the same as freely available to everyone and freely available isn’t the same as people knowing where and how to access a copy, but through print and digital versions this is getting closer. Making scripture available on an app or website still doesn’t quite make it accessible to everyone, but it’s certainly a help.

I started the post with my friends confusion about YouVersion having the Bible (or at least part of it) in 1555 languages. This was on March 24, 2021. By the time I started writing this post that number had gone up to 1575 languages, and as I publish the number at the bottom of their page at bible.com has just shot up to 2375 versions in 1639 languages.
It might be more by the time you click the link!

YouVersion isn’t the only platform providing scripture as text, audio, and as part of films including the Jesus film and the new Lumo Gospel films. Also check out the recordings data base of Faith Comes By Hearing and via their bible.is app. ScriptureEarth.org is another fantastic resource, providing links to the major platforms and also hosting a large number of additional texts and recordings along with links to individual apps and scripture sites.

Do you know anyone who doesn’t know that an “unchained” Bible is available on their phone? Is your church making people aware of this?

Researching Bibles in Braille February 20, 2021

Posted by Pete B in Bible Translation, Statistics.
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I recently noticed that the Digital Bible Library now includes 53 Braille Entries in 41 languages. and I wondered how many Bibles are actually available in Braille …and how many people know about them.

The next day, I spotted a facebook post asking whether Wycliffe or SIL had anyone working on Braille Bibles. I didn’t know. But I know a lot more now…

I didn’t find much in the public SIL archives but I did find a literacy journal from 1974 that spoke of Braille transcription in four languages in Papua New Guinea. I also found a reference to work in Togo in the 1990’s. An article and infographic from 2015 on the Scottish Bible Society website talked about some of the challenges of Braille Bibles (40 volumes, not very portable, not really cheap), and why they are still important (people want to read them). It also mentioned that while the full Bible was available in over 500 languages only 40 had been transcribed into Braille. That was 2015.
It’s now 2021 and the full Bible is available in over 700 languages, with at least 46 having been transcribed into Braille. It is encouraging to read that back in 2015 some Braille Scripture was available in another 200 languages. I look forward to updating this post when I discover how many more have been added to that list.

According to an article I found on the Bible Society of Northern Ireland, the Luganda Braille Bible, launched in 2018 was the 45th full Braille Bible. In Nov 2020 this was followed by the Runyankole/Rukiga Braille Bible.

Just to be clear Braille is a writing system not a language so texts are transcribed not translated. Just as there are many different printed writing systems there are also a number of different Braille alphabets.

ScriptSource, a website dedicated to cataloguing the worlds writing systems currently lists 98 languages that use Braille https://www.scriptsource.org/cms/scripts/page.php?item_id=script_detail&key=Brai

The 2013 World Braille Usage report lists 133 https://www.perkins.org/international/world-braille-usage.

There are over 7,000 languages in the world. Fortunately some of them use the same alphabets.

So with a bit of research I know a lot more than I did this morning. I even know of a UK organisation that has spent the last 30 years helping to transcribe, publish and distribute Braille Bibles. Compass Braille’s website provides a full list of languages they have worked with, details of current projects, and stories of the impact this ministry is having.

I look forward to learning more.

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