Gospel in Translation

Article featured in 2015 East Asia Insight Q1
“We hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Acts 2:11
In 1992, Okhio became one of the first Christians in post-Communist Mongolia. Since then, he has served the Lord for more than 20 years and is now pastor of the Kingdom of Heaven Christian Church there.
Last fall, Okhio joined a group of fellow Mongolian pastors studying the “Life of Christ” as part of a course offered through Mongolia TEE (Theological Education by Extension). MTEE currently offers about 25 different Bible courses in Mongolian; most of the books and course material have been translated from English and are based on material produced by S.E.A.N International.
Despite being a mature believer, Okhio has experienced transformation through the course. Although a complete Mongolian Bible translation was finished in 2000 (and recently revised), commentaries and other resources useful for understanding the Bible in its historical context are few.
“As someone who enjoys historical study as a hobby,” Okhio said, “I have begun to understand the historical background to Jesus’ life and the outline of Jesus’ life simply and easily. It’s a great blessing to grasp these things that are so necessary to a pastor.”
Since the early days of the church until now, hearing the gospel in one’s native language has been integral to evangelism, discipleship and church growth. Likewise, throughout the 150-year history of OMF International, translation work has also played a vital role. Jobs related to Bible and Christian literature translation have their own section on the OMF International Opportunities website. “The fruit of Bible translation work,” the site states, “results in indigenous people groups having God’s Word in their heart language…Where OMF is pursuing evangelization and translation is lacking or incomplete, we place workers with the gifts and tenacity to serve in Bible translation.”[1] Currently, OMF International has active translation projects (whether directly or indirectly engaged) in places such as Cambodia, Mongolia and Thailand.
A Commentary for Mongolia
In addition to Bible translation, translation ministry also includes translating gospel tracts, discipleship materials, books for Christian families or other resources useful for outreach or personal spiritual growth. One such project currently ongoing is the translation of InterVarsity Press’s New Bible Commentary from English into Mongolian. Once finished (hopefully next year), it will be the first commentary available in Mongolian covering the entire Old Testament.
“Mongolian pastors are anxious to get it published as quickly as possible,” said one longtime OMF International worker in the country. “It will significantly improve the ability of pastors, teachers and students to understand the meaning of the Bible and should flow on to an improvement in the quality of a reasonable proportion of sermons.”
Christian Publishing in Thailand
When the China Inland Mission (now OMF International) first withdrew from China and began ministry in Thailand, publishing Christian literature was one of the immediate priorities. Thus, the work of Kanok Bannasan (OMF Publishers) began in 1952; it is now the largest Christian publisher in Thailand and is led by Thai believers.
Kanok’s stated purpose is to “strengthen individual Christians, to build up the church and to present the gospel to readers throughout Thailand in forms that communicate effectively.”[2] To that end, Kanok has translated a host of titles from English into Thai over the past six decades. The books range from children’s material such as the One-Year Bible Story Book to classics such as The New Pilgrim’s Progress to Bible study tools and commentaries by John Stott.
Translation work has been integral to the advance of the gospel in Thailand, where more than 90 percent of the population is literate. A recent study by OMF International missionary Martin Visser found that among Thai Christians, 63 percent cited Christian literature as the most effective media in leading them to Christ. The literature includes tracts (both translated as well as ones written and produced solely by Thai believers) and the aforementioned books.
“Most Thai people can read and do read some,” explained current OMF International Thailand Field Director Mark Leighton. “Most Thai do not understand the gospel the first time they hear it or read it. Thus, literature of all kinds is needed to help them consider what the gospel means. If, after a conversation, I leave a booklet with them, I give them the opportunity to consider further what we have talked about.”
Challenges and Successes
Translation work is often a long-term enterprise that requires translators to have both endurance and expertise. The Mongolian New Bible Commentary project began a decade ago and is the MTEE’s most ambitious project in terms of length (the English version is 1,455 pages). Attrition has been high; several members of the original translation team have left to study overseas or taken higher-paying jobs making the translation’s continuity a challenge.
There is also the difficulty of translators working with material that is in their second or third language. As an example, one of the foreign workers involved in the Mongolian project cited a mistranslation of a sentence from the commentary that referred to “stock metaphors” (i.e. standard metaphors) that reinforce basic beliefs about God, such as the “the LORD as shepherd.” While reviewing the Mongolian translation, he noticed that “stock metaphor” had been translated as “livestock metaphor.” This example “illustrates how high a level of English is needed to do a perfect job,” the worker said.
Similar issues have affected translation efforts in Thailand, said Leighton. Sometimes, English terms or idioms such as “heart language” are difficult to translate and direct translations can result in clunky, stilted or even incomprehensible translations in the eyes of native readers. The key to good translation work is the find words and phrases that accurately communicate the verse or passage, while also using the local language in a way that makes the meaning clear to native readers.
In places like Mongolia, the challenge is compounded. Due to the young church, very few Mongolians have an expert grasp of English and theology—both of which are necessary in projects such as the translating of a commentary—and the ones who do have such knowledge are too busy teaching in Bible schools and pastoring churches to devote much time to translation.
Even so, the results make the effort, including the years and multiple edits, worth it. A Mongolian commentary on the New Testament only—the Applied New Testament Commentary—was published in 2003 and has been an influential resource for Mongolian believers and foreign missionaries in the country over the past decade. One seasoned Christian worker, Urnaa, in the country noted how much more fruitful small group Bible studies became after the publishing of the Applied New Testament Commentary.
While working as the academic coordinator for MTEE from 2005-2008, Urnaa traversed the Mongolian countryside to meet with church leaders and pastors. They often told her how important the commentary was for them as they prepared their teachings.
“It is a mere 20 years since the gospel entered Mongolia and it is still very early for Mongolians to be writing their own books—especially reference works like Bible commentaries,” Urnaa said. “Therefore, books translated from English like the Applied New Testament Commentary and the IVP New Bible Commentary provide an important foundation for Mongolia‘s own Christian literature.”
Bamar Media Project (Myanmar): “The aim of this project is for all Bamar people to have access to quality Christian books and materials in their own language. The love of books in Myanmar has made literature a proven tool in evangelism and discipling of new believers.” (https://omf.org/us/product/bamar-media-p90034/)
Christian Publishing House (Cambodia): There is a growing need for Christian literature in Cambodia, specifically in the Khmer language. Christian Publishing House (CPH) produces a range of publications from Bible study materials to children’s books. In addition, it aims to develop skills within the Cambodian community that are needed to produce excellent written resources through regular training workshops in the fields of writing, translation, editing and graphic design. (https://omf.org/us/product/christian-publishing-house-p70010/)
Lion Handbook to the Bible – Thai Edition (Thailand): The Thai edition of the Lion Handbook to the Bible has become one of the most helpful and accessible guides to the Bible in the Thai language. It has over 100 special articles by leading scholars from around the world, including character studies of important biblical figures and advice on how to approach the different kinds of writings—story, poetry, prophecy, history, wisdom, apocalyptic—that appear in the Old and New Testaments. The original English version has been extensively revised and the Thai edition cannot be reprinted without extensively revising the text. For more information about this project, contact stewardship@omf.org.
[1] “Bible Translation,” OMF International, accessed March 12, 2015, https://opportunities.omf.org/roles/0188.
[2] “About Us,” Kanok Bannasan (OMF Publishers), accessed March 24, 2015, http://www.kanokbannasan.org/page/en/about.

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