Bible Translation in a World of Apps


You know how something pops into your head and you don’t quite know what to do with it? That’s this post, and so, while I’m spectacularly unqualified to talk about Bible translation and technology, I’m going to anyway, because I wanted to put this out there.

See, by now I guess we’ve all seen little children sitting in front of a magazine or television, running their fingers across them in an attempt to manipulate the images, like they would on a smartphone. To them, a couple of generations of digital natives, content is visual and interactive. That’s a world away from people like me, who are only just coming to terms with ebooks, which are still mainly replicating the look of a book – blocks of text, turning pages, using bookmarks – on a different technology.

(Only this week I learned there was a word for that – skeuomorphic.)

This is a whole new way of interacting with culture, one that kids are already immersed in, but that I, as a 36 year old, come to as something of a tourist. And while the church has spent a couple of thousand years translating the Bible, I wonder if an emerging challenge is taking that work and applying it to new languages made up of pictures and sounds and technologies rather than black and white words in English or French or Hebrew.

I don’t know how I feel about that. I like words. I’m by no means a KJV-only type, but there’s a grouchy old man living somewhere in my brain that complains about a lack of poetry in some passages in The Message. Goodness knows what I’ll be like when the Bible’s predominantly an app, not a book.

But wait – isn’t it already an app that we’ve turned into a book?

Yes, okay, that’s overstating the case, but would we get additional insights into the Psalms if we saw them as songs, not just lyric sheets? Would Numbers be easier to digest if an informatics expert got hold of it? What if all those descriptions of what the Temple needed to look like were visual 3D tours of what the art and architecture actually looked like? Could Google Earth help us as we followed Paul’s missionary journeys via satnav? What if printed Bibles (which are going to be around for a long while yet) have everyone access to a world of information through things like QR codes as well as maps and an index?

If people are increasing keeping their lives on smart devices – even in places you wouldn’t expect the technology to be so prevalent – doesn’t it give impetus to translating the Bible into a form that works for an increasingly networked population who access content and culture in new and innovative ways?

(Not that I’m suggesting for a second that we get rid of the actual words – I’m not a heretic, I hope – but maybe we need as dramatic an innovation as the 13th century idea of using chapter and verse numbers.)

I don’t know. It seems something that’s full of both opportunity and danger – basically Christianity faces similar issues to the music and publishing industries in terms of how best to communicate content when technological change has pulled the rug from under everyone. I have faith though, having said all this, that someone’s probably already working on this challenge. I’ll be interested in seeing where it goes.




(This post was inspired by The Big Bible Project, which is interested, among other things, in the intersection between faith and technology.)


2 thoughts on “Bible Translation in a World of Apps

  1. The technologies hold huge potential. Ghana has a population of 24 million and 15.6 million mobile phones. One quarter of all phone sales are smart phones. Even other phones can play the Jesus film in any of over 30 Ghanaian languages and people transmit them to other phones using bluetooth. They spread like wildfire. I am not sure that this changes translation as much as it will revolutionize distribution.

    • That’s exactly one of the factors that inspired the post – the idea that even in places you wouldn’t expect it, smartphone penetration is changing how we do things. Distribution is certainly a part of that, and it’ll be interesting to see how people make use of the opportunities presented by new technologies.

      Thanks for the comment!

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