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When Is A Bible Translation Not A Bible Translation?

Controversy Surrounding Wycliffe Associates’ MAST Program Raises Tough Questions for Bible Translation Community

Editor’s Note:  Wycliffe Associates (WA) is a separate organization from Wycliffe Bible Translators (WBT).  This article is one of a series of articles MinistryWatch has done on Wycliffe Associates and Bible translation.  You can read the other articles here.

Wycliffe Associates says its MAST Bible translation process can produce a New Testament translation in a matter of weeks.  Wycliffe Associates says MAST (Mobilized Assistance Supporting Translation) compresses a task that has traditionally taken years or even decades.  

If true, MAST is a revolutionary translation system that lives up to its “miraculous” billing.  But if not true, as some claim, it may represent one of the greatest financial frauds in recent history.  In 2019 alone, Wycliffe Associates took in $60-million in donations, much of it on the strength of claims it makes to donors about MAST.

So what’s different about MAST?  MAST includes local church leaders and native speakers in the translation process.  But so do other Bible translation organizations.  Other Bible translation organizations utilize technology, even artificial intelligence software.  It is hard to make the case that MAST has a technological advantage.  

But no other Bible translation organization makes the claimsmade by Wycliffe Associates.  

Still, Wycliffe Associates has refused to back down from assertions that it has discovered a new process for Bible translation.  

It maintained the claims even when a Maclellan Foundation-funded study found the claims overstated.

It maintained the claims even after the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability began investigating them.  (Wycliffe Associates resigned from the ECFA, effectively ending the investigation.)

In fact, as the scrutiny has increased, Wycliffe Associates President Bruce Smith has become more entrenched in his position, calling MAST a “miracle.”

A part of the controversy hangs on the definition of what a true translation is.

Not All Translations Created Equal

The vast majority of translations being done in the world are not done from the original biblical languages, but from so-called “gateway languages,” or an existing translation of the Bible.  “Gateway languages” can be closely related, or very different, and that can make a huge difference in the time it takes to produce a translation.  Also, said Scott Moreau, professor of Intercultural Studies at Wheaton College, “The quality of a new translation depends heavily on the quality of the gateway language translation.”

So when Wycliffe Associates claims it has translated more than 300 New Testaments using MAST, as it has repeatedly in public relations and fundraising communications, what does that mean?  

Wycliffe Associates has refused requests by MinistryWatch for a list of Bible translations, a list that would allow donors to evaluate its claims.  In fact, Wycliffe Associates has refused multiple requests for interviews and additional information from MinistryWatch.

Fortunately, though, others are willing to speak.  The opennessof other Bible translators allows us a look inside an important part of missions work that many evangelical Christians don’t understand.

Comparing Wycliffe Associates with Wycliffe Bible Translators

A common misconception in the evangelical world is that Wycliffe Associates is the same organization, or related to, Wycliffe Bible Translators.  They are completely separate organizations and use significantly different translation methodologies.

Ron Whisler is a linguist/translator with Wycliffe Bible Translators in Indonesia.  He offered a short description of the way WBT works.  First, he said, “Translator candidates take our introductory course of linguistics and Bible translation.”  

Even this very first step is a departure from the process followed by Wycliffe Associates.  Wycliffe Associates President claimedin an article for Mission Frontiers that its MAST process works with teams that “had neither training nor translation experience.”

Whisler continues to describe the WBT process.  During the introductory phase, translators draft and edit Biblical passages.  Once drafts are created and edited,” Whisler said, “then they learn and practice the principles of field testing scripture.”

Field testing involves taking a portion of scripture into the fieldand allowing people to read it for clarity and intelligibility.  As Ron Whisler describes it: “We want people to read through a portion of scripture they have not seen before, and we give them open ended questions to allow them to express what they are understanding from the text.”  Whisler emphasizes a key principle of field testing: “The translator must go to a field test to learn and not to teach.” 

Whisler says that field testing could take up to one-third of the time translators spend on a translation project.  So leaving that step out, or just telling people how to do a field test and not actually doing it, would naturally – and dramatically reduce the time spent on a translation project.  

But, Whisler said, field testing is the difference between sayingyou have a translation and actually producing a high-quality translation that people will use.  He called this part of the process time-consuming and “flat out difficult.”

Whisler says that “after the field testing is over, the draft is edited once again by the team.  Then all the scripture is checked by a Bible translation consultant.

Again, these are all steps that appear to be left out of Wycliffe Associates’ MAST process. 

But is it possible that they are unnecessary steps?  Might these additional steps, which have been done by reputable Bible translation organizations for decades, if not longer, simply be relics of a time when technology and other modern advantages didn’t exist?

Whisler says no.   He says the difference in the final product is huge.”  Further, Whisler says, even the people with whom Wycliffe Associates has worked with in Indonesia know that, too.  “I have known of some of the WA work in our area, but after the initial one week workshop, nothing has been done after that.  Some might still be in progress, but none that I know have met the goals.”  Further, Whisler said, “Translating the Word of God cannot be done in a respectable and honoring way in two months.  Translation is an art.  It takes training, practice, and time.“

Frustrated and Discouraged

Even those within Wycliffe Associates – or formerly within — share Whisler’s concerns.  Arlene Grinstead is an example.

Arlene Grinstead lost her husband in 2010.  That loss was – in many ways – a life-changing event.  She had retired after a successful career as a paralegal, but her husband’s death gave her a greater sense of how short life is, and she said she wanted to put her administrative and legal skills to work for a cause that had eternal impact.  

She began work at Wycliffe Associates as a volunteer, but she quickly made herself valuable to the organization.  She worked directly with the leadership team that reported to Brent Ropp, Vice President of Operations at Wycliffe Associates.  One of her jobs was to record minutes at executive meetings.  “I was there, and I heard it all,” she said.

She said executives at Wycliffe Associates tried to tell Bruce Smith that the claims he was making about MAST were not true.  But, she says, Smith did not listen.  Grinstead said his behavior caused a number of Wycliffe Associates employees and contractors to leave, many of them joining other Bible translation organizations, but some of them so disillusioned that they left ministry altogether.  According to Grinstead: “A lot of us left all at once and were very upset.  They tried to silence all of us.  It was depressing.”

Meghann Purimitla was likewise discouraged by the representations Wycliffe Associates was making about the MAST workshop.  She and her husband were working for Wycliffe Associates in Nepal when the 2014 Bahing workshop took place.  That workshop was the one Bruce Smith called an “unexpected miracle” and which was the pilot program for the new MAST methodology.

Purimitla said, “While that workshop produced a draft of the translation, it could not have produced a completed translation that had been tested for accuracy.  I don’t think WA intentionally lied about this, but to say they produced a translation in a matter of weeks is misleading to anyone not closely connected to the work of translation and its complexities.”

She added: “I felt very uncomfortable with the deceptive language used by WA leadership and their marketing team when talking about the results.  In addition, WA leadership was quite dismissive to other translation partners and their concerns about the quality of work produced by this workshop.  I found it disturbing.”  

Other former employees of Wycliffe Associates are afraid to have their names used because they continue to work in the Bible translation world and fear retribution or diminished employment prospects.  One former employee was actively involved in leading MAST events for Wycliffe Associates.  He said, “Based on my experience leading 25 MAST events over a two-year period, I did not believe most of the language groups we served had the necessary resources to complete a translation project that WA had jump-started.”

Going It Alone

Ron Whisler said, “When Wycliffe Associates came to Indonesia, both in Jakarta and Tomohon, various new methods were talked about along with the programs/technology to help support this work.”

It would have been customary for an American organization working in Bible translation in Indonesia to reach out to the local Bible translation organization, Wycliffe Indonesia, known locally as Kartidaya.  Wycliffe Associates apparently did not.

According to Whisler, “Some people found out about some of WA’s projects, one in western Indonesia and another in Sulawesi, and Kartidaya was asked about these projects.”  

Whisler said that when Kartidaya’s leadership finally figured out what Wycliffe Associates was doing in Indonesia, “The leader of Kartidaya surprised us by saying, ‘Colonialism is alive and well within the world of missions!’”

According to Whisler, leaders of Kartidaya complained that “people from the US just go right past us Indonesians who have been trained as Bible translation advisors and consultants. They come in and do their own programs with a few people, never speaking to the Indonesian Bible translation community, and after their week-long programs are over, they go back to the US – without even speaking to us. This leaves both Indonesian language communities and also the Indonesian Bible translation community confused.”

The decision by Wycliffe Associates to operate apart from Kartidaya was not surprising.  Kartidaya and more than 100 other Bible translation organization are members of the Wycliffe Global Alliance (WGA), which works to coordinate efforts to prevent exactly what was happening in Indonesia:  Organizations duplicating each other’s efforts.

But Wycliffe Associates withdrew from the Wycliffe Global Alliance in 2016.  When it withdrew, WA claimed it was taking a stand based on fidelity to the literal translation to the Bible, specifically regarding which words to use to name God and Jesus. This language is particularly important for translations being used in the Muslim world, and it came to be known as the “divine familial language” controversy. Eventually, most Bible translation and mission organizations agreed on a framework for dealing with the controversy.  These organizations included the members of the WGA (which included The Seed Company and Wycliffe Bible Translators), plus other significant missionsorganizations, including the World Evangelical Alliance and the National Association of Evangelicals.  

But the framework developed didn’t work for Wycliffe Associates.  Bruce Smith tried to paint the controversy as one in which Wycliffe Associates stood for Biblical integrity, and others were compromising.  Christianity Today reported Smith saying, “For [us], literal translation of Father and Son of God is not negotiable.”

But the leader of another Bible translation organization told me, “This was a red herring.  Wycliffe Associates’ relationship with the WGA had already gone sideways.  The MAST process, and the claims Wycliffe Associates made about MAST, caused some of the tension.  Also contributing were changes the WGA made to its membership requirements that required a mediation process that “Bruce was unwilling to be a part of.”

This tension came to a head when some of the translation world’s most respected leaders finally decided to publish a statement in Christianity Today in late 2015.  The statement did not mention MAST by name, but Christianity Today made it clear in an editor’s note that the statement was a direct response to its article on Mobilized Assistance Supporting Translation (MAST) in its June issue.”  The statement said, in part, “We have an incredible sense of urgency to ensure that all people can access the gospel message, but we take very seriously our spiritual responsibility to ensure that each new translation accurately relays the Scripture’s full meaning and spirit of the gospel.”

It went on to say that speed was important, but not all-important.  “The only thing worse than keeping someone waiting for the Bible in his or her heart language, is a new translation that jeopardizes the clear communication of this same gospel message,” the statement said.

The statement was signed by the CEOs of Wycliffe USA, The Seed Company, Biblica (The International Bible Society), SIL International, the United Bible Societies, and The American Bible Society.

Many read this statement as a direct rebuke to Wycliffe Associates and MAST.  Whether it was intended to be so or not, less than four months later, Wycliffe Associates had left the Wycliffe Global Alliance.

“We regret that [Wycliffe Associates] has decided to withdraw from affiliation with [us],” the WGA said in a statement.  “We thank WA for their important contributions to the global Bible translation movement and pray for them as they continue to serve. Translation that faithfully communicates the meaning of Scripture has always been and continues to be a foundational principle for all of [our] more than 100 organizations.”

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.