Lost Bible translations recovered by keyboard volunteers

28 September 2020

Three Christian mission agencies have teamed up to make the Bible more widely available in hundreds more languages through an ambitious digitisation project.

MissionAssist, Bible Society and Wycliffe Bible Translators are appealing for volunteers to digitise Scripture translations so they can be made freely available on major platforms like YouVersion. The work involves copying translations which only exist in printed form because they were made before the digital age, or because older digital copies have been lost.

Many of these translations are in minority languages whose speakers don’t have access to the wealth of resources in their language that English speakers do. As well as serving the needs of Christian nationals and Bible students, digital translations – because they widen the range of literature available in these languages – help ensure the survival of these languages and cultures.

Digitising texts also means earlier translations can be revised and unfinished projects completed, and Braille versions can be produced for blind people.

Led by MissionAssist, the Bible Digitisation Project involves training volunteers in the keyboarding skills they need to transcribe Bible text in a language they don’t know. Volunteers need basic computer skills, but most important is accuracy and an ability to concentrate.

In the technique developed by MissionAssist, two volunteers work independently on the same text and their results are collated and checked against the original printed text and corrected as needed by another volunteer to ensure the highest possible level of accuracy.

Pauline Sutehall, from East Sheen, is part of a team working in Brahui, which is a language from Pakistan spoken by approximately three million people. A former administrator with Richmond upon Thames council, she began keyboarding with her mother, herself a long-time volunteer. When her mother died last October at the age of 95, Pauline took her place in the team.

She says: “I have a fabulous team leader – definitely now a firm family friend – who is there to help with even the silliest of questions, and she has the patience of a saint as between Mum and I we have asked some silly questions! The backup is brilliant, so you have no fear of failing as the team leader can always support you. I think the most rewarding thing is the work itself as you know you are providing a really practical and useful resource for the world and are a small part of supporting people spreading the gospel and providing the Bible to all people.”

She adds: “I would encourage anyone and everyone to take on the work especially if, like me, you are not a front-of-house person. This is a great way to be a cog in the wheel, vital but hidden. On top of that it is fun and interesting, you can work at your own pace and the programme they use makes the work relatively easy once you are in the swing of a language. And it is fascinating as the languages are so varied and beautiful.”

Another volunteer is Gweno Hugh-Jones, from Kings Norton, Birmingham. A librarian by training, Gweno began volunteering with MissionAssist four years ago as a proof-reader. She’s now editing John’s Gospel in Swampy Cree, spoken by the Cree Nation in Canada.

She says: “Probably the hardest thing is to get used to the special characters in each new project. I think its good to learn to be patient with myself and to recognise that a few weeks in, it will all become second nature! Usually I don’t have a clue how to pronounce the words I’m reading, typing or editing. For six months last year I was assigned to the Welsh Scripture Dictionary project. I am not a Welsh speaker but, having learned it at school many years ago, it was encouraging to have some idea of the meaning of the text.

“I was privileged from an early age to grow up reading the Bible in my own language. The fact that what I do can enable others to do the same is incredibly rewarding. I never know which project I’ll be assigned to but the possibility of helping unreached people groups receive the Bible in their own language is absolutely brilliant and very motivating!”

And Christine Dunmow, from Balham, London, is digitising the Psalms in Micmac, an endangered indigenous language used by fewer than 7,000 people in Nova Scotia. She said the work is demanding because of the concentration needed, as well as the skills she has had to acquire in order to key in Micmac characters. “I have to use keys I’ve never been near before,” she said. “Some letters require four keystrokes.”

She added: “It’s very satisfying because you’re enabling someone to get access to the Bible. You’re also helping to save an endangered language – the world goes wild about endangered species, but we forget that our own languages and cultures are disappearing. You’re not only meeting someone’s spiritual needs but keeping alive someone’s heart language.”

MissionAssist’s Chief Executive Officer, Revd Daryl Richardson, said: “A Bible cannot do much lying in a library storeroom covered by dust, but when people read or hear the word of God for themselves then lives are changed. It is such a valuable work – with eternal consequences – when volunteers give some of their spare time in making the Scriptures accessible in the nations for whom they are intended. These people are not part of the translation process but by using their computer keyboards at home, after training from MissionAssist, they make books of the Bible available for people to read or hear in their own country. It is a privilege to be able to send the word of salvation from the comfort of our own homes around the world.”

Wycliffe’s Executive Director, James Poole, said: “In a world where almost one in five people don’t have access to the Bible in their own language, but where smartphone and internet use is growing rapidly, this is a really strategic initiative. Having digital Scripture in both readable and audio form can be transformative for churches and communities, and Christians here in the UK can make a real difference in this.”

Bible Society’s Chief Executive Officer, Paul Williams, said: “Digitising translations of the Bible is hugely important. Bible Society has the largest collection of printed Scriptures in the world and within our archives are texts in languages which have no Scriptures online. We want to make them available as widely as possible so that more and more people can read the Bible in their heart language. We’re delighted to be working with other Bible Societies and translation agencies to make this happen. Keyboarding volunteers have a vital role to play in making God’s word accessible today.”

One of the translations being digitised is in Kare, a language of the Central African Republic. One indigenous speaker working with Wycliffe on a revision said: “Since my birth I have never seen a text in Kare. But now we have read a text in our own language for the first time!”

Read more about this story:

Bible Society – News and Articles (Published 9 September 2020).