It is extremely difficult to estimate the level of illiteracy in the world. UNESCO asserts that around half the world is illiterate. But their method of determining this has certain weaknesses (which are hard to avoid because of the political, logistic, and linguistic complexities involved). I’ve read that the number may be as high as 70%. Even the USA’s illiteracy rate seems to be increasing, based on my own unscientific study. My cell phone bill now comes as a “video bill”, and video and other image media are pervading our culture in other ways as well. Due to the significant levels of illiteracy, it is imperative that Bible societies take that into account as we try to get God’s Word into people’s hands so that it might get into their hearts.
Agencies like Faith Comes By Hearing have already been well-informed about this situation and have been working hard to overcome it. They are even trying innovative ways to overcome the barrier of illiteracy in the translation process itself. They have developed an oral process in which the translators listen to an audio version of the source text and then produce their own translation by recording it orally. In the end only audio Scriptures exist in that language. Quite innovative, but I’m not comfortable with going that route, because I strongly believe in the importance of the written text. God has given us a book, and He intends for it to be distributed by means of a book!
However, clearly many will live and die without ever learning how to read. We must help them! FCBH has throughout their history been producing audio Scriptures, and we at BI hope to use them even more to help us get our translations into audio form. FCBH typically sends a recording team to the country of the translation and works with the people to produce audio Scriptures. They have recently developed a means of “virtual recording,” by which all the work can take place through the internet. The speakers of the language record themselves on their computer and upload it to the FCBH site for review. FCBH personnel review it and work with the speakers to eventually produce audio Scriptures. Fascinating!
This emphasis on oral means as a way to reach illiterate people has opened the door for innovative thinking, much of which is quite good, but some of which are concerning. The Bible society world has been reevaluating how our task should be done and have even rethought how the original texts were given. Usually there is a strong emphasis on functional equivalent translations. There may also be a desire to go beyond the divinely ordained task of the translator–to preserve the biblical text in the target language. Thus, we can applaud some of the developments on this issue, but we should also be wary of some of the ideas. But in general, we can praise the Lord for moving in powerful ways to get God’s Word into more and more hands–or should I say, into their ears!
On a personal note, I look forward to going to Bethel Baptist Church in Schaumburg, IL, next weekend to spend time with their Singles Sunday School class, a class that has adopted me as one of their missionaries.