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In Other Words : O.C.'s Wycliffe Bible Translators Approaches Its Global Work With a Missionary Zeal


A vision of translating the Bible took hold of salesman William Cameron Townsend of Santa Ana in 1917. He had just arrived in Guatemala, and the Mayan groups he had hoped to reach had little use for his wares: Spanish-language Bibles.

His epiphany is said to have come with a question posed by a potential customer: "If your God is so great, why doesn't he speak our language?"

When Townsend, an amateur at linguistics, set out to put the Cakchiquel language of Guatemala into writing, he set himself an enormously difficult task--from learning the complex language to adapting it to the Roman alphabet.

Fourteen years later, at the First Presbyterian Church in Santa Ana, Townsend dedicated the first New Testament written in Cakchiquel. Today, 13 years after Townsend's death, his vision of making the Bible accessible in a multitude of languages continues. This summer, the organization he founded dedicated its 400th New Testament translation--this one in the Barai language of Papua New Guinea. From its U.S. headquarters in Huntington Beach, Wycliffe Bible Translators has more than 5,000 translators and support personnel at work in 51 countries around the world. It is by far the largest linguistic enterprise in existence, secular or religious, with total project funding topping $100 million a year. The mass of data accumulated by Wycliffe translators has become a vital resource for university linguists everywhere.

Officially founded by Townsend in 1934, the organization takes its name from 14th-Century theologian John Wycliffe. Wycliffe encouraged his followers to translate the Bible into English for the first time, an act that challenged the authority of the Roman Catholic Church and served as inspiration to other reformers.

Today, the organization that bears his name has completed New Testament translations in languages ranging from Apalia (in Brazil) to Zia (in Papua New Guinea), and is at work on more than 1,000 other tongues. The work remains laborious, but the tools today include laptop computers.

Few missionary groups set themselves tasks as specific as does Wycliffe.

"Wycliffe made it their business to work with the groups that have been neglected" by other Bible-translating groups, according to Bob Coote of the Overseas Ministry Study Center in New Haven, Conn. "That is something that has made them very distinct."

Along with such successes, however, has come a measure of sometimes heated controversy, beginning in Townsend's day and continuing to the present. Anthropologists and rights groups have said the group imposes its values on people with valid belief systems of their own, while a book published this year accuses Townsend of working in collusion with oil companies and U.S. government interests in South America.


Wycliffe administers most of its far-flung operations from an unassuming office block on Beach Boulevard in Huntington Beach. Despite its many projects in remote spots around the world, Wycliffe's local profile is decidedly low.

"Nobody has the foggiest notion of what we do here," joked Arthur Lightbody, a Wycliffe spokesman.

Officially, Wycliffe is a fund-raising and support organization, while the Summer Institute of Linguistics is the name under which field projects are conducted. All institute members are also Wycliffe members, however.

In Huntington Beach, a staff of more than 200 works to ensure that money and other resources reach translators and others in the field. Here, there are video and radio production facilities, a newsletter-publishing staff, accountants tabulating checks that flow in daily from donors, and administrators mapping out new strategies to achieve an old goal.

"What we want to do is get the Bible in every language," Lightbody said. "What Uncle Cam"--as Townsend is called here even by those who never knew him--"talked about is what we still want to do."

In a small auditorium, a tour stop for supporters and potential supporters who visit the offices, a short video explains the organization and its mission. "Be sure the Word gets in their hands," a narrator pleads. Says another Wycliffe member in the video: "They're going to spend eternity somewhere. We're here to give them the choice between heaven and hell."

Down the hall, in a prominent spot at the top of the main staircase, hangs a portrait of Townsend, the man who started it all.

In 1934, Townsend offered the first course in what would become the Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Whereas other Bible-translating organizations focused on the larger language groups, Townsend's goal was to have the New Testament available in every language, no matter how few speakers it had.

"Two thousand languages to go" became his oft-repeated rallying cry.


Wycliffe linguists now count more than 6,000 languages in the world, and estimate that there are 700 million people without Christian Scripture in their language.

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