30 Bible translation projects suspended in Nigeria amid pandemic, terrorism

A Nigerian worshiper reads through his Bible after other parish members have left April 12, 2005, in Kano, Nigeria. Kano is part of Nigeria's primarily Muslim north, but devoted Catholic minority participates in frequent Masses in local cathedrals.
A Nigerian worshiper reads through his Bible after other parish members have left April 12, 2005, in Kano, Nigeria. Kano is part of Nigeria's primarily Muslim north, but devoted Catholic minority participates in frequent Masses in local cathedrals. | Getty Images/Chris Hondros

Nigerian Bible translators are seeking help after having to suspend translation projects in 30 languages due to the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing terrorist violence throughout the country. 

Wycliffe Associates, an Orlando-based nonprofit that works with national Bible translators across the globe on over 700 translation projects, announced that the global pandemic, terrorism and economic collapse in Nigeria have “brought Bible translation to a halt in the most populous nation on the African continent.”

The organization, which was founded in 1967 and partners with the local churches to direct and guard translation work in their communities, partners with an organization called Nigerian Bible Translation Trust. The trust works on several Old and New Testament translation projects in a country where there are over 200 million people and over 500 languages. 

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However, in 2020, translators have not been able to gather in central locations as they would normally to check each other's translation work.

Along with the pandemic, Nigeria has been marred by increasing trends of violence carried out in recent years by various actors — including Islamic terrorist groups, radical herdsmen and bandits. It’s estimated that thousands are reportedly killed by systemic acts of violence each year, including many Christians. 

“With the pandemic, the issues of terrorist attacks and thievery, and the amount of starvation that is going on in the country, makes people desperate. There is a fear that drives that,” Wycliffe Associates Vice President of Translation Services Tabitha Price told The Christian Post.

“Travel is becoming more difficult. There is a lack of infrastructure already. And then to be concerned about the corruption and violence and terrorism that they are going to face when they try to travel, those challenges have really kept translators from being able to get together.”

Price said that translators working on the same projects often do not live in the same village. 

“And the only way they can work together and check each other’s work and continue with the project is to come together in a central location,” she said. “With the pandemic and travel restrictions, besides all the dangers that have intensified, they really haven’t been able to do that.

“It’s varying degrees of the pandemic and violent militant and terrorist groups and kidnappings that have happened. Of course, situations like that are always exacerbated by something like this pandemic so those who are violently opposed to Christianity will take every opportunity to express it.”

Wycliffe has been working with the Nigerian Bible Translation Trust to train translators and provide them with resources. But restrictions on travel have made it difficult to be able to start on projects they planned to begin in 2020. 

In the spring, Wycliffe Associates tentatively scheduled a two-week training conference for Nigerian Bible translators for September. But that was scheduled before the organization knew how COVID-19 was going to impact travel in the fall and has since been canceled.

“We knew that we needed to do training and we made plans to schedule it in the fall,” she said. “It was for them to get everything they needed to go work with these other languages that are waiting and training them in the methodology and the whole process. We had to cancel that training event not only because we couldn’t travel but also because of the travel restrictions all across Africa.”

She said the translation partners are “not prepared” to start the new projects they were planning to work on as they themselves have struggled with hunger and finances. 

“They haven’t been able to work to save themselves. They don’t have the resources then to take the time and be able to work on the translation,” Price explained. “Wycliffe Associates has an emergency fundraising campaign going and we have had generous donors send finances for us to be able to help situations. We were able to send Nigerian Bible Translation Trust money to not only provide for their immediate needs but also to reach out and help some of the translators in the community.”

For many of the 30 projects that have been halted, Price said that some of the languages haven’t had translations started yet but were “in the queue,” meaning some of the training had been done and are in the process of preparing to begin translation. 

“We say it is halted because we had a plan to move forward with them this year and then with COVID and other emergencies going on in that country and emergencies worldwide. We’re not actually expecting — barring a miracle of God — that we will be able to serve that region the way we expected to before with training. But having said that, we are always looking for ways to continue to grow partnerships. We have team members there in Nigeria that are at the ready when things begin to open back up.”

The organization has discussed the possibility of online training and talked about sending someone over from another country that has opened back up to help them. 

“We are strategizing,” Price said. “It’s always hard for me to say it's halted with no expectation of progress. No, we are still working on something but it is just not what we have planned.”

Despite the halting of the newer projects, Wycliffe spoke with leaders of the Nigerian Bible Translation Trust in July and funded a safe gathering of translators who are already working on some projects so they can focus on completing ones that have already started. 

“They had groups that were already trained and could work on translation come together and work,” she said. “We are thankful that God is providing for that kind of thing.” 

Wycliffe Associates views Nigeria as a “key region” for translation efforts in Africa. 

“There are seminaries and deep roots of Christianity in Nigeria,” she explained. “We started partnership programs with a seminary there and plan to continue growing that so that they can train their own national leaders to support the needs of their own country and expand to other regions of Africa. It’s not necessarily true anymore with the insurgent groups and the corruption in the government, but Nigeria used to be really a politically stabilizing force in central Africa.”

Price said that Nigeria is really a “picture of what is happening in other areas of the world where day laborers can’t work and are starving.”

“People are persecuting the Christians who are starving and trying to do the translation. We have seen those same translators when they get funds from us to buy rice for their translation team, share it with their whole village and their persecutors. It’s an opportunity for the Gospel to really take root.”

Elsewhere in the world, Price said a similar type of situation is taking place for translation efforts in Indonesia in the Pacific. 

“Indonesia was so locked down that they couldn’t even travel back and forth between villages,” she explained. “They have to slow down in what they have been able to do. I wouldn’t say that the translation work has halted but maybe it’s been put on pause.”

She also said that Wycliffe Associates had to cancel two training events it had planned for South America as well. 

“It’s also been a challenge for some of the projects that we had planned for South America for training people to get started. Without that training, they can’t really start.” 

Price called for Christians in the U.S. to pray for translators to be able to keep working and for their health as well as physical needs. She also seeks prayer for translators to find ways to “leverage the lockdown” to be able to share the Gospel with their neighbors. 

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

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