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The Word Heard 'Round the World

November 19, 1995|RICK VANDERKNYFF | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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?"

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

Fourteen years later, at 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. Supported by donations, 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.

Founded by Townsend in 1934, the organization takes its name from 14th-Century theologian John Wycliffe, who had 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.

"Wycliffe made it their business to work with the groups that have been neglected" by other Bible-translating groups, said 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, which began in Townsend's day and continues to the present. Anthropologists and rights groups have said the group imposes its values on peoples 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.

"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. There are video and radio production facilities here, 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.

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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.

Most of the translators sent into the field (many are husband-and-wife teams) have advanced degrees. Norm Purvis, a literacy worker in the Philippines who now works in administration in Huntington Beach, said Wycliffe is not so much a missionary organization as a "scientific organization made up of Christians."

The work they produce is used by universities across the country; a handful of schools, in fact, have direct ties to the Summer Institute of Linguistics, notably the University of Texas at Arlington and several theological institutions, including Biola University in La Mirada and Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.

Translators in the field are equipped with laptop computers, powered by solar-charged car batteries. Later this year, Wycliffe will unveil a new, highly sophisticated CD-ROM-based computer translation program--the culmination of a five-year effort--that has raised interest throughout the linguistic community.

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