'Lost' Bibles to be recovered in major digitisation project

(Photo: Unsplash/Aaron Burden)

An ambitious new digitisation project is set to make the Bible more accessible than ever for hundreds of minority language groups.

MissionAssist, Bible Society and Wycliffe Bible Translators are seeking an army of volunteer translators to help with the huge task of bringing these 'lost' Bibles into the digital realm.

The Bible Digitisation Project aims to translate minority language Bibles that have until now existed only in print form, either because they were created before the digital age or because older digital copies have been lost. 

It is believed that at least 204 complete Bibles, 545 New Testaments and over 1,000 Scripture portions published in the last 80 years are not available on digital platforms.

The digitised translations will help to preserve minority languages and ensure their survival, while also providing an opportunity to revise earlier translations and create Braille versions for blind people, the organisations said.

Once completed, the digital translations will be made freely available on major platforms like YouVersion where they can be enjoyed by people around the world who otherwise would never had access. 

The Rev Daryl Richardson, CEO of MissionAssist, which is leading the project, said: "A Bible cannot do much lying in a library storeroom covered by dust, but when people read or hear the Word of God for themselves then lives are changed.

"It is such a valuable work – with eternal consequences – when volunteers give some of their spare time in making the Scriptures accessible in the nations for whom they are intended."

A Bible in Luganda, part of Bible Society's collection in Cambridge.(Photo: Bible Society)

Wycliffe's Executive Director James Poole said: "In a world where almost one in five people don't have access to the Bible in their own language, but where smartphone and internet use is growing rapidly, this is a really strategic initiative.

"Having digital Scripture in both readable and audio form can be transformative for churches and communities, and Christians here in the UK can make a real difference to this."

One of the translations being digitised is in Kare, a language spoken by 97,000 people in the Central African Republic. An indigenous Kare speaker working with Wycliffe on a new revision said: "Since my birth I have never seen a text in Kare. But now we have read a text in our own language for the first time." 

The Kare edition demonstrates the enormous potential of the digitisation project.  Elizabeth Marti, director of Bible translation agency SIL, knew a translation in Kare had been completed in the 1940s but it was "lost to the years". 

By a stroke of luck, a copy of this translation that could be digitised was discovered in UK archives.

"What an unexpected blessing," Marti said.  "It can now be used as a reference for a revised, modern translation into the Kare language."

Paul Murrell, who is working with Wycliffe on the new Kare translation, said the availability of the New Testament in a digital format made it possible to "check how well people understand it and assess how well the existing translation meets their needs for Scripture access".

"The fact that this is digital will make it so much easier to use as a base for future work, whatever form that may take," he continued.

"This digitisation has the potential to save years of work down the line; I pray that it is put to good use in the coming months and years." 

A Bible Digitisation Project volunteer(Photo: Bible Society)

The volunteers will be trained by MissionAssist in the keyboarding skills required to transcribe Bible texts in a language they do not know.  The only other requirements are time and lots of concentration. 

"These people are not part of the translation process but by using their computer keyboards at home, after training from MissionAssist, they make books of the Bible available for people to read or hear in their own country," Rev Richardson explained.

"It is a privilege to be able to send the word of salvation from the comfort of our own homes around the world."

Christine Reynolds, from Balham, is digitising the Psalms in Micmac, an endangered language spoken by fewer than 7,000 people in Nova Scotia. 

Although the work is demanding, it is rewarding, she says. 

"I have to use keys I've never been near before. Some letters require four keystrokes," she said. 

She added: "It's very satisfying because you're enabling someone to get access to the Bible. You're also helping to save an endangered language – the world goes wild about endangered species, but we forget that our own languages and cultures are disappearing.

The Bible Digitisation Project will help ensure the survival of minority languages(Photo: Bible Society)

"You're not only meeting someone's spiritual needs, but keeping alive someone's heart language." 

Bible Society's Chief Executive Officer Paul Williams said: "Digitising translations of the Bible is hugely important. Bible Society has the largest collection of printed Scriptures in the world, and within our archives are texts in languages which have no Scriptures online.

"We want to make them available as widely as possible so more and more people can read the Bible in their heart language. We're delighted to be working with other Bible Societies and translation agencies to make this happen. Keyboarding volunteers have a vital role to play in making God's word accessible today."

To find out more about the Bible Digitisation project or about how you can help, contact Volunteer Enquiries: volunteers@missionassist.org.uk