25 Aug 2023

There are several articles related to translation products in the Roundup this week, evidence of strides forward in the technology. Translation tech is important as our world has become increasingly interconnected and globalized. Even as national barriers have risen, translation tech is empowering effective communication between individual people. It’s enabling the exchange of ideas, knowledge, commerce, and Facebook posts.

One of the earliest and best known tools is Google Translate, which has evolved over the years into a remarkable tool capable of accurate and nuanced results. It’s almost magical how I can visit a page all in one particular language, press a button, and have that page instantly translated into English. It’s certainly opened vast worlds of information to me.

Advances in AI and Large Language Models are introducing yet another revolution. They are starting to power real-time chat translations, instant translation of phrases and sentences, and making translation more accessible and dynamic in our interconnected world.

Translation technology is important to the church. One of the important elements of the spread of the Gospel has been the translation of Scripture into local languages. Once done exclusively by individuals, the translation process has over the years adopted more and more technology tools, until today a translation of Scripture from one well-known language to another can be easily crowdsourced.

The key here is ‘from one well-known language to another.’ Consider the new SeamlessM4T translator that Meta (Facebook) released, which can provide ‘multimodal’ translations—between speech and text, or vice versa—with a large number of ‘input’ languages and a smaller but growing number of ‘output’ languages. It’s literally available on GitHub. I had to dig a little to find the languages covered by SeamlessM4T, but finally found them on page 14-15 of this document, helpfully already coded with an SIL code. There are 102 languages on the list, including many ‘less reached’ languages as well as many largely Christian ones. For example, Bengali, Central Kurdish, Mandarin, Gujarati, Hindi, Igbo, Javanese, Kannada, Kazakh, Halh Mongolian and Khmer are all on the list.

Many of these languages are the more widely-spoken, having 10s of millions of speakers. It is true that the pool of translatable languages is getting consistently wider, and there are strong market forces that are wanting to expand even further. The more people who can be communicated with, the more products can be sold.

Translation can serve two Gospel purposes. One is to get Gospel resources—like Bibles, and discipleship material, and the like—into a language. This is a once-and-done sort of task: a translator can spend his life on a translation of the Bible, but then that translation is available for generations to come. A second purpose is real-time, relational communication: people talking to one another, discipling one another, answering questions, encouraging, etc.

For both of these purposes, current translation tech is probably ‘just on the edge’ of usefulness where unreached peoples are concerned. Many of the languages on Facebook’s list, for example, already have Scripture translations, because there are large numbers of Christians in those languages. But as the list of languages expands somewhat, they start to push into languages that have fewer resources, and then translation tools could be quite helpful. Joshua Project tells me the largest language in the world without a Scripture translation is Chinese, Jinyu (47 million). I would expect that large a language would soon be on the radar of translation tools.

All the same, while what’s being done in translation is pretty amazing these days, and it will certainly go a long way to connecting Christians in different parts of the world (and even connecting Christians with non-Christians), there are limits. While translation technology has undoubtedly brought us remarkable capabilities, it cannot entirely replace the profound impact of genuinely learning a language.

When engaging in evangelism and discipleship, the journey of mastering a language goes beyond mere words. It requires embracing the cultural nuances, grasping the subtleties of expressions, and understanding the context in which faith is lived. Immersing oneself in a new language helps you build bridges of understanding and connection—bridges that aren’t build if you just rely on an automated translation. Learning a language doesn’t just enable effective communication of spiritual truth—it also opens doors to authentic relationships, where the sincerity of effort resonates deeply and fosters a genuine connection between hearts and minds. “The best relationships,” notes the Economist article, “do not require an intermediary.”

Translation software is getting better, and is really quite useful in many situations. But there will still, and likely always be, a need to ‘learn a language.’ This is an act of incarnation that mirrors what Jesus did. The Holy Spirit could have descended on the whole world to announce Jesus’ redemptive work. But instead, Jesus said, “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you” (John 20:21). Learning, like little children, to speak the language and understand the meaning of what is being said is part of that task.