By Roxanna Andrews.
Imagine what it would be like to not be able to read. Now imagine what it would be like to have never seen your language in written form. Imagine it could not be written because there isn’t even an alphabet in your language.
This was and still is the plight of many language groups around the world.
In 1917 a man named Cameron Townsend felt a burden to reach all people with the word of God. He went to Guatemala and handed out Bibles. One man asked, “What language is this written in?” Mr. Townsend told him it was in Spanish. The man replied, “If your God is so great, why can’t he speak my language?”
Cameron Townsend returned to the U S with a new purpose. To see that all the people of the world had God’s word in their own language. A daunting task as most of these languages had no written language.
In 1934 Camp Wycliffe was born from a handful of men who shared Mr. Townsend’s vision. The camp was named for John Wycliffe, a scholar from the 1300’s who was the first to translate the Bible into English. In 1942 the Camp became Wycliffe Bible Translators, a missionary organization that recruited members to begin this awesome task. Linguistic training was needed for the translation process and The Summer Institute of Linguistic was formed so the missionaries could get training in how to write an unwritten language. (As an employee of Wycliffe, I have seen demonstrations of how this is accomplished. It is daunting and fascinating.)
The missionaries were sent around the world where they lived with the local people and learned their language. They began by translating folk stories passed down from generation to generation. They trained nationals in linguistics who became translation helpers and had a part in seeing their language written for the first time.
There are so many incredible stories told by the missionaries of their experiences, and one of my favorite stories is of a missionary name Ethel Wallis. She was an amazing, brilliant woman who had a heart for an Indian people in Mexico. The Indian groups were the lowest in the class system. They had no representation in the government and were badly treated. They were poor, uneducated and had no hope for a better life.
When Ethel lived among them to learn their language, one little Indian boy asked her in Spanish, “Why do you want to learn our language? We are animals, and our language is nothing but animal sounds.”
Ethel could have given these people their stories and the Bible in Spanish, which most understood and spoke, but it would not have the same impact or the empowerment of hearing and seeing their “heart” language.
Ethel learned the language and developed an alphabet. It would take many years of hard work, but one day the people would see their stories and the Bible translated into their heart language. Next would come literacy classes to teach the people to read and write their language for the first time in their lives. Young and old clamored to take the classes.
For some of these translators it would take forty years to translate the Bible, and that was often only the New Testament and just a portion of the Old. But with the amazing technology of today, many translations of the entire Bible are taking less than five years. Wycliffe has translated over 3000 languages and estimate there are less than 2000 language yet to be translated. They have set a goal of having started translations in all these languages by the year 2025.
Because of the work of dedicated Wycliffe missionaries, thousands of people all over the world now have their language in written form. Because of this seemingly small thing, lives were and are dramatically changed… not just changed but completely transformed. The written Word gave these indigenous people a feeling of self worth and value that they had never known. That little Indian boy no longer saw himself as an animal. Those thought too ignorant to learn were getting their Master’s and PhDs, becoming pilots, doctors, linguists, professors and returning to their homelands to help their people have a better life.
I had the great honor and privilege of knowing Ethel Wallis. When I say she was amazing and brilliant, I am being modest in my praise. She went on to do many more translations, and her stories would keep you spell bound. She was truly a great lady and her death at the age of ninety-six left a void that will never be filled.
But the amazing and vital work of Wycliffe goes on. The dedicated missionaries who give up so much: closeness to family, financial security, many modern conveniences, who live with hardship in counties where their lives are often in danger, keep to the task. Some have even lost their lives, but if you asked them, “Is it worth it?” You would hear a resounding “Yes! It is worth everything!” And you would hear it in over 3000 languages. The written Word gives life!
I was born very young in a tiny desert town in So Calif named Hinkley. Hinkley was a great place to grow up, well except for the fact that the power company contaminated the water and gave everyone cancer and they have now bulldozed the town, which is all super sad. However it was a great place to develop a very active imagination as there wasn’t one thing to do there. I had a great imagination and it has come in very handy for ideas for writing. Super Pig is a product of my over active imagination. In fact I’m never really sure if I have really written my stories or if I am imagining it. Just kidding, I think.