American Bible Society was founded in Manhattan, New York, in 1816 with the “sole object” of encouraging wider circulation of the Bible throughout the world. It was a project whose obstacles soon became clear, as John Jay, the founding father and first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court who served as the society’s second president, put it in 1822. “The languages of the heathen nations in general being different from the Christian nations, neither their Bibles could be read, nor their missionaries be understood by the former,” he said. “To obviate and lessen these difficulties, numerous individuals have been induced to learn those languages; and the Bible has already been translated into many of them.”
Translating the Bible into every language has long been seen by many Christians as a divine command: In what is known as the “Great Commission,” Jesus ordered his disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations.” It’s hard to make disciples if you don’t speak the nation’s language. As the 14th-century theologian John Wycliffe, who ruffled feathers by translating the book into common English, put it, “It helpeth Christian men to study the Gospel in that tongue in which they know best Christ’s sentence.” Today, many translation organizations refer to the state of not having access to a Bible in one’s own language as “Bible poverty.”
At 202 years old, the ABS, which has an annual budget of about $100 million and revenues of more than $369 million in 2015, is now one of the largest religion-related nonprofits in America (No. 2 in the Religion Sector in the Slate 90). And it seems to be on the verge of doing something that few nonprofits manage to do: achieving the lofty goal it set out at its inception. There will always be more whales to save and mouths to feed, but the ABS truly seems to be winning the war on Bible poverty. (Here’s the ABS 2017 Stewardship Report.)
By 2026, the organization estimates, all living languages will have access to key Bible passages, such as the Christmas story. In 2033, every living language on Earth will have a complete translation of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. That accords with the estimate of a linguist who used a mathematic model last year to predict that the end of the modern era of Bible translation will arrive sometime between 2026 and 2031. And the ABS can take more than its fair share of credit.
In the 19th century, the Good Book was translated into about 500 languages; in the 20th century, an additional 1,000 languages were completed. But the pace of translation has accelerated dramatically since the turn of the 21st century, thanks to the twin megaforces of globalization and technology. Twenty years ago, a new translation of the New Testament typically took 12–20 years to produce. A decade ago, it was about eight years. Now, some languages can receive their own New Testament in as little as three years.
Translations come much faster in part because the ABS has helped to disrupt the costly traditional translation model. In the 20th century, Christian organizations typically sent their own translators all over the world, where they settled (often with their families) and spent years learning new languages and painstakingly translating the Bible. But today, the preferred model is a less culturally imperialistic one: finding bilingual locals already fluent in the target language and working with them to produce a new Bible. “That’s the way of the future,” said Geof Morin, the organization’s senior vice president of ministry mobilization. “More localized, with better technology.”
That technology comes in part from the ABS’s collaboration in a remarkable digital library of Bible translations that launched in 2010. The project collects all translations of Scripture in one place, rather than under the roofs of various translation organizations. It currently includes 1,281 languages and 1,770 different texts, according to the Seed Company, a fundraising organization that helped launch the project. Today, the library has input from organizations that represent about 90 percent of global translation work, and operates under an umbrella network called illumiNations. That kind of cooperation has also proven attractive to major donors. (In 2017, the ABS received $41 million in donations.)
For a huge organization that has spent most of its life span investing in foreign translation, the looming prospect of “mission accomplished” may present a challenge. And the ABS also seems close to declaring mission accomplished on another of its early goals. In 1829, the ABS declared that it would provide a Bible to every family in the United States. Bible distribution remained a core element of the organization’s mission throughout the 20th century. But today, the average American home contains more than four Bibles, and the text is easy to access for free online.
The way the ABS looks at it, however, the Lord’s work is never truly done. There are about 7,000 languages in use today, and according to the ABS, about 1,700 still do not have a single verse of the Bible translated. Many of the 165 million people who speak those 1,700 languages often speak a second language in professional and public settings, which means there are few people on Earth who cannot read the Bible in any language. A Guatemalan villager may speak the Mayan language of Aguacateco at home, but he also likely speaks Spanish at the marketplace.
That’s why translation organizations like the ABS now emphasize the importance of reading the Bible in one’s “heart language.” “It’s the language you pray with your children at night, and you want to read a Bible story in the same language,” Morin said. “It’s that deep sense of personal connection that’s sewn into us linguistically, the language we used to connect to people we most love. We want to connect with God in that same language.”
The organization provides broader translation services as well, funding 237 translation projects, such as the Hunsrik dialect in Brazil and Txitxopi in Mozambique. These make up about 65 percent of the ABS’s international budget and 30 percent of its overall budget. (Its other projects include Bible distribution overseas, teaching resources for churches, and a future “discovery center” on Philadelphia’s Independence Mall that will focus on the Bible’s influence on American life.)
Like many successful older Manhattanites, the ABS has monetized its early investment in real estate and moved south. In 2015, the ABS struck a deal with mammon—in the form of developer AvalonBay—and sold its headquarters in NYC at 62nd St. and Broadway for $300 million. It has since relocated its headquarters to cheaper digs on Philadelphia’s Independence Mall.
But rather than retiring, the ABS is—to use a 21st-century term—pivoting. The Old Testament may have first been laid down in writing a few thousand years ago. But the way it is expressed in human language continually changes. “In some ways, translation is never done,” Morin said, pointing out that by the time the work is finished, many translations will exist only in out-of-date language akin to the King James Version. And the organization now also stresses Bible literacy rather than strictly distribution in its U.S.-based efforts. That may prove a worthy model for its overseas work too. After all, it’s one thing to be able to read a Bible. It’s an entirely different thing to understand it.