Disability in Bible Translation Mission

By |Published On: April 24, 2021|Categories: Disability in Mission, Hope & Inspiration|

How Fast can you go?

“Stop behaving like a bull at a gate!” This was my mother’s regular cry as I flashed by, always on the run. I remember running to the house, slamming into the wall to break my speed, flinging open the door and dashing inside. “What‘s the rush?” she would exclaim.

On choosing a career, my thoughts were, “What’s the quickest way to get rich and become prestigious? Dentistry!” I set deadlines to finish my work quickly, running through the traffic after class to catch the fast train home which left 8 minutes after classes ended! Was this part of my personality God could use?

During my second year of studies, I had an accident that radically changed the course of my life. I fell from a three-story building. A student prank gone wrong broke my back. I was paralyzed from the chest down. For an entire month, I was totally immobilized and had to lie still waiting for an operation. Rods were inserted in my back to stabilize the fracture between my sixth and seventh thoracic vertebrae.

Time to reflect

God used this accident profoundly in my life. I was 19. He wanted to get my attention! The month I spent in that hospital bed taught me to pray and to wait on God. Before this, I was so busy with my own agenda in life! Having fun. Playing sport. Squeezing in studying where I could. Rushing around! I had little thought for God or eternity, let alone for lost souls!

Like Jonah, I had run away from God and His call on my life. I repented of wanting Jesus just as my Saviour and asked Him to be LORD of my life. I determined to follow Him wherever He would lead me.

During my stay in the hospital, I read Joni Erickson’s book. This was a timely, challenging and life-changing book for me. I counted my blessings that my arms still worked! But nothing was more transformative, encouraging and motivating to me than spending time in God’s precious Word. Romans 8 soon became my most favorite chapter in the Bible.

Time management

By God’s grace, I was able to complete my dental degree in 1986 but I believed God was calling me to full-time Christian service. Soon after my accident, I prayed to God about my future, and he placed a Scripture reference in my mind, 2 Timothy 3.16 and 17.

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

During my dental studies, I had countless opportunities to share my faith with fellow students and dental patients – who were a captive audience! After graduating, I felt called to go for 3 years to a missionary training center, Africa School of Missions in South Africa, to study God’s Word and be equipped for ministry. It was here that my wife and I were introduced to Bible translation. We were told by one of our lecturers that within three years he would be able to train us to be able to translate the Bible for an unreached people group who had never had Scripture before. What! Could it really be possible?

So we did the 3-year Christian licentiate specializing in Bible translation and joined The Word for the World Bible Translators in 1991. With “quaking knees” and hands clasped in prayer, we went to Malawi. Though we knew hardly a soul on arrival, God quickly helped us recruit three translators and start training them. Within 10 years the Sena Bible had been translated. Does this sound like a long time to you? Actually, it was remarkably quick. From training a team of three translators through producing the first drafts, checking them for accuracy, testing them in the community, and then having them checked by a consultant in readiness for publishing, we saw God’s faithfulness and help. This was a record-breaking time for a full Bible translation. We had set ourselves the goal of doing 10% of the Bible each year and achieved this by God’s grace.

The cluster approach of Bible translation

There is a sense of urgency in the Bible translation world to finish the task of bringing God’s Word to everyone in their heart language by 2050. Bible agencies are looking for ways to speed up the process without sacrificing quality and accuracy.

The Word for the World Bible Translators (TWFTW) is part of this effort. I believe, not just in spite of my disability but actually due to it, coupled with my sense of urgency and good time management, we have made some cutting-edge advances in effectively speeding up Bible translation. TWFTW has always believed the best approach to translation is that it be done by a mother-tongue speaker of the language (not a foreigner who had to learn to speak the language). Training mother-tongue translators in the principles of Bible translation speeds up the process and improves the quality and acceptability of a translation.

After completing our work on the Sena Bible in Malawi, God called us to go to Tanzania and start a cluster project in the Morogoro area. TWFTW had developed a mobile Diploma in Bible Translation training program which could be delivered in any country. We did field research on the language needs in the Morogoro region and invited translators from 10 different languages to attend our training. Within 2 years of arriving in Tanzania, we had started ten full-scale Bible translation projects.

Due to my inability to travel extensively or stay in inaccessible guest houses, it seemed the best approach was to bring people to a central point for training. In our second year of training, we had 80 students present.

God also provided people who could travel to outlying areas whom I trained to set up the translation projects. Having indigenous people set up the projects instead of a western missionary really helped to create greater local buy-in from the local people and church leaders. My disability helped me to more effectively mobilize others who were able-bodied to do things that I would have wanted to do myself. These things included setting up the teams in offices in their local language areas, mobilizing team exegetes whom I was able to train to check the translators’ drafts in the field. They also trained reviewers and field testers among the local people for checking the naturalness and clarity of the translations.

Although training had been done by other Bible agencies for several translation teams, consultant checking had never been done in groups before. As the teams in the Morogoro region had started together, they were ready to have books published at the same time. Traditionally a Bible translation consultant would sit with one team and go through the translation of a book e.g. Mark’s Gospel verse-by-verse to check it for accuracy to the original text. To go through the same procedure for each language separately would take ten times longer. This need for greater efficiency enabled me to come up with the idea of trying out group consultant checking. An experienced consultant was asked to come and check the Gospel of Mark in six languages simultaneously as the teams came together in one location. It was an outstanding success. All six teams had exegetes to help them make the necessary improvements to their texts. The teams learned from each other, and this synergy caused greater quality and momentum to the cluster. Within ten years, using this group checking method, the New Testament was checked and published in all ten languages, another historical achievement in Bible translation – achieving speed and quality.

Worldwide expansion of consultant group checking

After 5 years, I left Tanzania with these 10 projects running well under indigenous leadership. A year later another 5 projects were started in Tanzania (2009) and by 2020 we now have 22 projects, all using the cluster approach and group consultant checking to increase speed and quality.

I wonder, if I was not disabled, would this have been achieved? I learned the secret of empowering others and trusting God to enable them to do the work.

I then began to travel, even up to ten times a year, to South Asia, Ethiopia, and Zambia to do consultant checking work, help set up cluster projects, and help train people in implementing the group checking method. In one cluster in India, we even checked up to 12 language groups simultaneously.

The cluster approach, together with the consultant group checking method pioneered in Morogoro and Tanzania, has been adopted by many of the major Bible translation organizations, helping to save time and money. It also facilitates mentoring of consultants in training (CITs). I have had the privilege of mentoring and approving more than twenty consultants, to date, as well as working with over 28 CITs currently.

Romans chapter 8 verse 28 says, “All things work together for good”. Even disability can be used by God. We are also reminded in 2 Corinthians chapter 12 verse 9 that “God’s power is made perfect in weakness.” God can use us no matter what our disability is. God makes the impossible, possible. All people need to hear the good news of Jesus in their heart language. Time is short! Let’s all be part of God’s wonderful work in this world.

Written By—Barry Funnell

Dr. Barry Funnell is the Director for Bible Translation Consultancy with The Word for the World Bible Translators and serves as an International Bible Translation consultant.

Edited by David C. Deuel & Nathan G. John

Disability in Mission

Disability in Mission: The Church’s Hidden Treasure outlines a radical change in approaches to missiology, missions, and praxis for the twenty-first-century global cultural context. It explores a pattern whereby God works powerfully in missions through disability and not in spite of it.

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