He Speaks My Language

by Helen van der Walt

Did you know that of the roughly 2,209 languages across Africa, half have no known Scripture? Of these, about 525 languages, covering 14 million people, are without a full Bible and are asking for one!

At Wycliffe South Africa (WSA) we are working with around 20 languages across southern African countries, covering over 1 million people, as they translate God’s Word into their own language. Our vision is ‘to see the Word of God transforming lives in every language community to spread the knowledge of God’s glory through community engaged Bible Translation’.1 I work in Scripture Engagement, which looks at transformation and community engagement.

God’s Word is applicable to every situation and for every person, and the truth of the Bible can be expressed in any language and every culture. Scripture Engagement thinks about integrating this truth into every area of life in a helpful and locally expressed way; it creates a link between the Bible and our lives. The joy of my work is walking alongside communities as they discover how God has made them, how He has blessed individuals and their communities, and how they can use the way God has made them to worship Him, walk with Him and share Him with others.

To do this we run workshops with communities and Scripture Engagement facilitators. We look at God’s Word and explore ways of engaging with God, covering a wide variety of topics and creative ideas. We also explore the local culture, assess what some possible barriers of Scripture Engagement might be, and how the Bible could meet community needs. Essentially, the workshops equip and inspire local Christians to integrate the newly translated Bible passages into every area of life in a way that is helpful, relevant and locally owned.

A significant part of this work is to share an important truth. Many language groups have been oppressed or diminished and many don’t think God speaks their language – that they aren’t worthy. One response from the Baphuthi people of Lesotho was, ‘God can really speak Siphuthi?’ I get to tell them that God made and blesses every language and culture and that He does indeed speak their language!

Translators have recently completed their first phase of the Siphuthi translation, covering many passages from Genesis, Exodus, 1 Samuel, Mark and Luke. We were able to go to a village called Dili-dili, up in the mountains of Lesotho, where church members gathered to receive audio devices containing the newly translated Scriptures. Sixteen devices were handed out, each to different churches! On the second day groups went into the community to put everything into practice, all using the newly translated audio Scriptures, and they saw a positive impact on the community. It was amazing to see them realise how much freedom they have in God and to be motivated to engage their communities and churches with the Bible.

Wycliffe Links

My most recent project has been to spearhead an initiative called Wycliffe Links. Our vision is, ‘To see God transforming lives through the creative development of different elements of Bible translation, to build local capacity and partnerships, and to mobilise for mission.’2 God has filled His church with many skills and talents, which, when working in unity, equip it to develop and advance the work of Bible translation so that all people can hear and know the message of the Bible. This process has many elements to it.

God made and blesses every language and culture and…He does indeed speak their language!

Language Communities

First, we think about the language groups and communities that are doing Bible translation. We want to make it possible for language communities to completely own and use their translation effectively. This involves building local capacity through translation services and community support, such as training in translation principles or dealing with trauma or developing agricultural work. We offer translation teams a variety of support and training, including an IT service centre that collaborates with organisations around the world as they use technology to translate, record, check and publish the Bible translations. This also involves Scripture engagement elements, such as partnering with the Sandbox Bible, who create stop-motion videos to tell Bible stories in creative and engaging ways. We have created a video for the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, using wooden figures based on the Makhuwa people of Mozambique, the houses they live in, the animals they live with and more. We are now working on the story of Adam and Eve.

Etienne was called by God to start translating the Bible into Kaaps or Afrikaaps, a language that developed by the 1500s in settler colonial South Africa. The language took shape during encounters between indigenous Khoi and San, Southeast Asian, Dutch, Portuguese and English people.3 Although similar to Afrikaans, it is a completely separate language and culture in its own right. There has been a lot of oppression and shame surrounding speaking Kaaps, which still lingers today. However, God sees the Kaaps people! I have been able to connect Etienne with a consultant, typesetter, printers, publishers and the leadership of WSA and our translation services. This will all enable the translation of Mark’s Gospel to be certified as a true translation, for 50,000 copies to be distributed across the Cape and for continued translation of the rest of the New Testament to start in the new year.

The Local Church

We want to support the local church as it engages with God’s Word and shares it with the surrounding communities but we also want to equip and mobilise it for global mission. This involves offering things such as the Kairos course, which looks at mission in the Bible, in history, in strategy and global partnership – essentially a lot of training. We partner with the Trauma Healing Network, which offers healing workshops and resources to work through trauma of any kind using Scripture. We are also tapping into the realm of visual art and have been able to link artists with opportunities to create Bible images and illustrations for translations. We are looking at holding art exhibitions across Johannesburg where Christian artists can share art about God’s Word and Bible translation, which will raise awareness, encourage support, build partnerships and inspire people to use their art for God.


The final element is partnering the South African church with language groups doing Bible translation. This is possible through several initiatives, one being to Adopt a Language. This is where churches can commit to pray, love and serve a language group in whichever way God leads them.

This will also be possible through a new initiative: Trips to a Language Group. This could involve cultural experiences, building relationships with the translation team and their families, prayer-walking, doing community support such as painting a building or getting involved with Scripture Engagement. The aim would be a fruitful trip that benefits the visiting church, the translation team and the language community. This will go a long way in helping the South African church to connect and relate with language groups who do not yet have a Bible, and it will build links that help churches to better partner with these communities.

Psalms that Sing

Finally, I’m involved in a working group called Psalms that Sing.4 This started by acknowledging that there are different genres in the Bible with poetry taking up about a quarter or a third of the Old Testament. When we translate biblical poetry as if it were prose, we lose a lot of the original meaning and don’t do justice to the translation. God created art and poetry; it is a part of every language and culture in some form and it was included in the Bible for a reason. The Psalms that Sing working group is building a curriculum and workshop programme where poets and songwriters within African oral language groups can translate the Book of Psalms poetically. We are currently in the pilot phase. There are many discussions going on about the different stages necessary for good poetic translation and how best to represent the information in our Psalm guides for the translators and much more.

There are many questions to answer and much more work to do but we are making great progress. Pray for this work as it develops and increases scriptural engagement in every language. Pray for the people of Southern Africa, to hear the Word of God in their own heart language and respond to His call.

1 wycliffe.org.za/who-we-are
2 wycliffe.org.za/wycliffe-links
3 Reference from Wikipedia.
4 psalmsthatsing.org

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