MUSOMA, Tanzania - Almost 2 million Africans will read the story of the birth of Jesus in their own language for the first time. It's all part of an ambitious project to translate the Bible into nine African languages.
"In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth," booms the voice of a man reading the Gospel of Luke aloud.
Two Chapters - 100 Verses
"She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger." (Luke 2:7)
"In the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord." (Luke 2:11)
This Christmas season, in the town of Musoma, Tanzania, Luke's biography of Jesus comes alive.
"You know, it's so significant that I, myself, have a hard time getting my own head around it," said Danny Foster, a Canadian linguist.
Foster and a team of 18 Tanzanians, are translating the first-ever verses of Scripture from Luke's Gospel.
"The story of the birth of Jesus Christ, for the first time in their languages, that's significant," Foster said.
In a modest office in Musoma, men and women working for Wycliffe, the world's largest Bible translation organization, are busy translating the Christmas story into nine African languages.
"I believe that everybody has the right to read God's Word in their own language, it's a message from His heart to man's heart," Foster said.
But to give God's Word in a language that people can understand is a daunting challenge. First, the team had to create the alphabets that they are using to write Luke 1 and 2, because they were working on languages that have not been written down before.
"So, getting all the linguistic research done, checking the alphabet, just the amount of time spent alone on the alphabet and some of the basic grammar just so that we can actually write in these languages," Foster explained.
Musoma is the capital of an area known as the Mara Region, in northwest Tanzania. It is home to about 1.4 million people. Some nine similar languages are spoken in the area.
"Nine languages, in some ways, is nine times harder. But it is also nine times easier, because we are able to leverage certain similarities between these languages and so a lot of the work we do doesn't have to get reduplicated nine times," Foster said.
English and Swahili are Tanzania's official languages. However, there are also 124 other minority languages spoken throughout the country. Julious Lukafuba speaks one of those minority languages.
He says most of those who speak the smaller languages find English and Swahili difficult to understand, especially when it comes to reading the Bible.
"It is almost like reading another language, people can't understand it," Lukafuba said.
That's why Lukafuba and several others representing the nine different language groups, have been working non-stop for the last 13 months
"This is about transforming communities and people's lives. My people will for the first time read God's Word in their own language and I'm praying that their lives will be touched by the story of Christ's birth," said Pastor Albinus Waynse, one of Wycliffe's translators.
Software Helps with Translation
To accelerate the translation process, teams rely on software that uses related languages to adapt words and phrases to produce an initial rough draft translation.
Next, come the village tests. Are the translations readable? Teams fan out across the region and hold community checks with villagers.
"And so far the responses have been very positive," Waynse said. "Reading the Scriptures in their languages for the first time, many people wanted to keep copies of the rough draft. But we said that's not possible for now."
Once the community checks and revisions are complete, then it's up to men like George Payton to check the quality of the translation. In addition to checking for scriptural accuracy, Payton ensures that the translations are culturally acceptable.
"And we try to do it using words and vocabulary that is acceptable so that people will honor and respect the Word of God.while at the same time balancing that with the Biblical culture and the Biblical language," he said.
Wycliffe's Other Goals
And it is not just about Bible translation. Wycliffe also promotes literacy and healthcare projects among the people with whom the translators are working.
"When you raise the level of education within a region, that's going to have an impact on every other kind of development work that's going on," Foster said.
While this Christmas project has been a huge blessing to the various linguistic groups in northern Tanzania, another consequence has been the unity displayed among the various denominations. In fact, some 28 denominations have come together as a result of this project.
"This is historic for this region, the translation of the Word of God has brought us together," said Bishop Daniel Ouma, who heads the Mara Anglican Church. "Now we feel as one team, working together and that's what Jesus wanted, a united church, moving forward with the Gospel."
Translators are now in the final stretch. Their work will head to the printers this month and the distribution of the Scriptures will follow shortly.
In the meantime, work has already begun on translating the rest of the New Testament.
"In the past, it was taking 15 to 20 years to translate the New Testament. We are aiming to do a thousand to 1,500 verses per year. So we could see a New Testament completed in seven or eight years," Foster said.
* Originally aired on December 8, 2009