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Just How Broken Is the Bible Translation Industry?

Big numbers, simple math, unavoidable conclusions

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OPINION—At a recent meeting of Bible translation organizations in Newport Beach, Calif., one of the speakers stood at the podium and asked the 50 or so leaders there a series of simple questions:  How long does it take to translate the Bible?  And how much does it cost to translate the Bible into a new language?  How many Bible translations have been completed in the past year?  How many will be completed in the coming year?

You’d think these questions would be simple enough to answer.  After all, ask an executive of almost any business on the planet these same questions about his or her business, and that leader will have a ready answer.

But if you ask a leader in the Bible translation industry, the answer you are most likely to get is: “It depends.”  To drive home this point visually, the speaker held up a coffee mug on which he had printed the words “It depends.”  His prop generated some laughter, and a few tight-lipped smiles.

In fairness, that answer – “it depends” — has some truth.  Every project is different.  The people doing the work vary in efficiency and training.  But the same things might be said of virtually every service sector business operating in the world today.  In those industries, it is hard to imagine that “it depends” would long work as an excuse for not knowing or not finding out.

But “it depends” has become part of the culture of the Bible translation industry.  It has helped produce a lack of transparency and accountability that should be a giant red flag to the tens of thousands of donors who give hundreds of millions of dollars to Bible translation organizations every year.

To understand just how big a red flag, we will have to do a little math.

Doing The Math on Bible Translations

First, it’s important to note that the Bible translation industry is huge. I define it very loosely as the 150 or so organizations that make up the Wycliffe Global Alliance (plus a few others, such as Wycliffe Associates, which has withdrawn from that group).  Another global network, the U.K. based United Bible Societies, has more than 200 members, mostly the Bible societies of the nations of the world.  Many organizations – such as the American Bible Society – are members of both networks.

In total, these organizations take in about $500 million a year from donors – though even this number is the subject of some dispute, as millions of dollars are passed around between Bible translation agencies, sometimes allowing for “income” to be counted twice, a fact which is itself an example of the problems in the industry.  (More on that below.)

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They’ve been taking money at that rate for years, if not decades.  By far the largest of the Bible translation organizations is Wycliffe Bible Translators, which took in more than $227 million in 2020.  The American Bible Society does many things besides Bible translation, including Bible engagement and distribution, and this week it is opening a museum in Philadelphia that will help tell the story of how faith, and the Bible, played a key role in the nation’s founding.  The American Bible Society works with and often funds other translation organizations.  It has annual revenue approaching $100-million, and it has an endowment and other assets that top $700-million.  Bottom line:  There is no shortage of money in the Bible translation industry.

But where is that money going?  We can be sure that the vast majority of it is almost surely not going to Bible translation itself.  If it was, we would have many more Bible translations than we do.   How do we know that?  That’s what the Bible translation organizations themselves say.

For example, Wycliffe Associates (not the same as Wycliffe Bible Translators) have claimed to translate the New Testament in a matter of weeks for less than $100,000.  It is important to note that many of these claims have been discredited. (You can read our fact-checking of some of those claims here and here.)

I should acknowledge that even within the Bible translation industry, Wycliffe Associates is considered an outlier.  It has withdrawn from the Wycliffe Global Alliance, and last year resigned from the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability while under review for possible violation of the ECFA’s financial standards.

But more mainstream groups also make claims that do not withstand close scrutiny.  An alliance of Bible translation organizations called illumiNations claims has been raising money with the promise that its member organizations (which include Wycliffe Bible Translators and the American Bible Society) can translate the Bible for about $35 per verse.  The Bible has about 31,000 verses, so that totals about $1 million to translate the entire Bible.

Most other organizations in the Bible translation industry simply refuse to give numbers that can be checked.  They announce when projects begin, but only rarely when they end, or how long they took, or how much they cost.

The simple math is this:  $500 million – even if you account for some revenue double-counting, and set aside money for administrative and fundraising costs — should pay for hundreds of Bible translations per year.  Funding at this rate over the course of a decade should have produced thousands of Bible translations.

So…did it?  The bleak answer:  Not even close.  In fact, the actual results deviate from this reasonable expectation by a factor of 10 or more.

In fact, Wycliffe Bible Translators just sent out a press release announcing the completion of the 700th Bible translation.  The 700th translation this decade?  This century?  No, the 700th Bible translation of all time!

The press release included a chart indicating that the pace of Bible translation has increased in the past half-century.  In 1980, Wycliffe Bible Translators said, there were about 300 translations of the Bible in the world.  By 2000, we had about 400.  So about 100 translations were created during that 20-year period.  Now we have 700 – an increase of 300 more translations created during the most recent 20-year period.  That is an increase in the pace of translation.  Instead of getting about five new Bible translations per year, we’re getting 15.  Given the abysmal starting point, this is significant improvement.  But it is one-tenth the number of translations we might reasonably be expecting from the Bible translation industry.

Again, a bit of simple math:  The Bible translation industry is not producing a Bible translation for $100,000 or less, as Wycliffe Associates claims.  It is not producing a Bible translation for $1-million as illumiNations claims.  The actual cost of a Bible translation – the amount of money donated divided by the number of Bible translations completed – is close to $30 million per translation.

Questionable Marketing

If you read the marketing materials from the Bible translation industry, these numbers likely come as a shock, because these marketing materials make claims, or promises, or express goals that are not even remotely aligned with reality.  The actual results fall far short of the claims made by Wycliffe Associates, whose marketing claims have been under scrutiny by MinistryWatch, and – as we noted above — the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability.  They also fall far short of the claims the largest and most reputable of the Bible translation organizations have been making for years.

For example, a decade ago, in its 2011 annual report, Wycliffe Bible Translators said this about its Last Languages Campaign, a campaign to finish the task of Bible translation: “In 1999, Wycliffe committed to the mission of seeing a Bible translation program in every language still needing one by the year 2025.  You might imagine this challenge needs enormous resources.”

Keep in mind that in 2011, less than 700 Bible translations had ever been completed, which meant that more than 6,000 remained.  The rate of translation of new Bibles in 2011 was about 10 per year, meaning it would take 600 years to translate a Bible for the remaining languages in the world.  It is reasonable to ask if calling such a capital campaign a “Last Languages Campaign” was not somewhere between disingenuous and a complete disregard for reality.

Nonetheless, WBT’s donors responded.  In 2011, the organization’s annual revenue was about $120 million.  Today, it is about $220 million.  In short, Wycliffe Bible Translators has taken in just under $2 billion in the past decade.  Using the illumiNations metric mentioned above — $35 per verse — $2 billion should have translated the complete Bible into about 1,800 new languages.  The bottom line:  the donors came through.  They provided the “enormous resources” that WBT said it would need.

So, did Wycliffe Bible Translators fulfill its promise?  The distressing answer is, once again:  Not even close.    Wycliffe Bible Translators’ 2020 Annual Report said it published 88 “scriptures” during the year.  It also adds this: “Scriptures published…consists of full Bibles, New Testaments, and Scripture portions.”  How many full Bibles?  We can’t get anyone to say, but probably less than 20.

The annual report also included this statement: “These scriptures were published with the involvement of multiple Bible translation agencies.”

The careful reader of the marketing material for the Last Languages Campaign will discover two techniques common to the industry, techniques which deflect accountability.

First, they are careful to talk about starting programs and translations, but rarely about finishing them.  The Last Languages Project said it was “committed to the mission of seeing a Bible translation program.”  That artful language does not promise completion of a translation.  In fact, it only promises commitment.

Secondly, I have already mentioned many U.S. Bible translation organizations do not actually translate Bibles.  They are fundraising and project management organizations.  They pass grants back and forth between themselves.  Sometimes a half-dozen or more Bible translation organizations will claim credit for the Bible translation work done by a small, local translation team.

The Seed Company is one example.  It raises money and gives grants to organizations that are actually doing the translations.  Recipients of its grants include Wycliffe Bible Translators.  But, in fact, the Seed Company is a subsidiary of Wycliffe Bible Translators.  WBT’s president, John Chesnut, sits on The Seed Company’s board.  The Seed Company does not file a separate Form 990.  The Seed Company’s financials roll up into Wycliffe USA’s financials.  So it is difficult or impossible to see how much it raises and grants to Bible translation work.

illumiNations, which we mentioned earlier, is another example.  illumiNations was founded by wealthy Christian families who were frustrated by some of the very problems I have identified here.  But illumiNations has “partnered” with The Seed Company, Wycliffe Bible Translators, The American Bible Society, and others in the legacy Bible translation industry.  illumiNations is new.  It is well-funded, well-intentioned, and has a thoughtful strategy.  But the cultural norms of the legacy Bible translation have emptied deep pockets in the past.   As the old saying goes: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

We already see a troubling sign, as I have written previously, that illumiNations is in danger of being sucked into the same vortex as its predecessors.  illumiNations has now started fundraising efforts of its own, recently paying to sponsor a for-profit women’s conference, the IF:Gathering, led by Jennie Allen.  The women attending the conference, persuaded by the $35-per-verse promise, donated $1.5 million to illumiNations.  But, again, illumiNations itself doesn’t translate the Bible.  It provides grants to those who do or, in some cases, provide grants to those who make grants to those who do.  Not only that, neither illumiNations nor Jennie Allen would respond to repeated requests from MinistryWatch asking how much illumiNations paid for its sponsorship.

This lack of transparency, and these convoluted corporate and funding structures, have been a key reason donors haven’t gotten the results they’ve been promised.  This lack of transparency and accountability allow the key players in the industry to quietly ignore past promises and make new ones.  Remember Wycliffe Bible Translators’ Last Language Campaign, mentioned earlier?  It said in 2011 it would begin a translation in “every language still needing one” by 2025.  In 2021, illumiNations (now a partner of Wycliffe Bible Translators) says it will make “God’s word accessible to all people by 2033.”

Simple math suggests that fulfilling these promises – with current organizations, processes, and structures — remains implausible.

A New Day

Bible translation is an integral part of the Great Commission story evangelicals tell themselves.  Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible into German is one of the key events in church history.  (By the way, he translated the entire New Testament in less than a year.)  Historian Paul Johnson described the work of Bible translators and the printers who often worked with them with this pithy summary: “The smell of printer’s ink was the incense of the Reformation.”

More recently, we have the stories of the great 18th and 19th century missionaries, who left the comforts of home with their coffins serving as a trunk for the journey.  Some of the Bible translation organizations still operating today began in the 1940s and 50s under such legendary leaders as Cam Townsend, who founded Wycliffe Bible Translators, SIL, and JAARS.  The martyrdom of Jim Eliot, Nate Saint, and their co-laborers in South America in 1956 provided a new chapter to the missionary-translator narrative.  These recent chapters motivated a new generation of “donors and do-ers.”

But this 1940s and 50s model of missionary activity — which includes a heavy reliance on individual missionaries raising support, with little organizational accountability – has been made obsolete by technology, rapidly changing needs, and the now calcified bureaucracy of the largest Bible translation organizations.

That’s not to say that there are not many heroic, sacrificial missionaries in the Bible translation industry.  There are.  But many off-the-record conversations I have had with them and a new generation of leaders in the Bible translation industry, and their donors, indicate that the current engine has broken down.  They say privately they are concerned about what some of them call the poor stewardship of “kingdom resources.”

But most of them are afraid to speak.  They know that the problems MinistryWatch has identified in more than a dozen stories on this topic – articles we have written in hopes of motivating reform — represent an existential threat to the entire industry.

Many have told me that they hope an intergenerational “changing of the guard” in leadership will solve the problem.  I remain less hopeful.  Leadership matters, and new leadership will help.  But the problems in the Bible translation industry go deeper than a few personnel changes.  The fundraising model, Bible translation processes that fail to deliver promised results, the disingenuous and sometimes deceptive marketing messages, even the very cultures of these organizations have become impediments to The Great Commission.  Once again:  culture eats strategy for breakfast.

When technology disrupted the analog music industry, it wasn’t the existing record labels and music stores who rose to the challenge.  It took a company outside the industry to solve the problem: Apple, with iTunes.  When the bookselling industry became bloated and inefficient, existing book retailers didn’t solve that problem.  Amazon did.  NASA got America into space more than a half-century ago.  Today, private, entrepreneurial companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic are doing things NASA wasn’t able to figure out how to do with its existing funding models and culture.

In Greek mythology, King Augeas assigned Hercules to clean his stable, a stable that held 3,000 oxen that had not been cleaned in 30 years.  Hercules quickly saw that no amount of shoveling out the stables would do the job.  So, he turned his efforts to re-routing two nearby rivers.  The rush of water flushed the stables clean.

It could be that the Bible translation industry has become the Augean Stable of evangelicalism in the 21st century.  It is not clear that anything less than a thorough flushing will do.

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Warren Cole Smith

Warren previously served as Vice President of WORLD News Group, publisher of WORLD Magazine, and Vice President of The Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He has more than 30 years of experience as a writer, editor, marketing professional, and entrepreneur. Before launching a career in Christian journalism 25 years ago, Smith spent more than seven years as the Marketing Director at PricewaterhouseCoopers.