The word of God – in every language on Earth

Bible Society's hi-tech mission brings Gospel to remote tribes

"What we do here is build starships," says Jon Riding, enthusiasm lighting up his face as he tinkers with an errant laptop. "Building a steamboat, anyone can do that. Here we create things that have never been built before."

You would be forgiven for thinking that Mr Riding is a Nasa technician, determined to travel to a galaxy far, far away. His mission – and it is literally a mission – is very different. But it does involve breaking down technological boundaries to help people reach the heavens.

For much of the past two decades, he and his team of mathematicians, computer programmers and linguists have been creating one of the most advanced translation programs in the world. It is a fiendishly complex task, mainly because the languages his software must decipher include the most obscure and least studied dialects spoken in some of the world's most remote places. But in the eyes of his employers, no tongue should be without the Word of God.

Mr Riding works at the Bible Society, which has its UK headquarters on a nondescript industrial estate on the outskirts of Swindon. The Society has excelled in spreading the Good Book to some of the most far-flung corners of the world since 1804.

Its missionaries began by distributing Welsh translations of the Bible, before moving further afield to spread Christianity as the British Empire expanded.

The society's most recent project is the Gospel of Luke translated into Jamaican patois, which was released online this week. In this version of the Gospel the archangel Gabriel greets Mary with the words: "Mieri, mi av nyuuz. We a go mek yu wel api."

Traditionalists, such as the Catholic convert and former Tory MP Ann Widdecombe, have greeted the translation with derision. But the Rev Courtney Stewart, general secretary of the Bible Society of the West Indies, says such views are patronising and smack of colonialism. "To suggest that certain languages are not worthy of the word of God is arrogant and ignorant," he says. "Patois is the language in which we dream. The Scriptures are not meant to be obscure and inaccessible, that's why they have been translated from Greek and Hebrew. Who are we to determine which languages are worthy of the Bible? They all are."

Over the past 200 years, the Scriptures have become available in all the major languages. But there remains a remarkably high number of dialects which still have no access to key Christian texts, particularly in Africa and South-east Asia where much of the new translation work is being done.

"If you travelled from London to Vladivostok in Russia you would come across around 220 languages," explains Mr Riding. "In sub-Saharan Africa there are around 2,000 languages spoken." In Cameroon there are 291 languages, according to, one of the most authoritative databases of global dialects. Globally the Bible Society estimates that there are 4,400 languages still waiting for a translation of even one book of the Bible. And while more than a billion of the world's citizens cannot read, only 3 per cent have access to audio versions.

It is enough to keep the Bible Society's translators busy for centuries. But Mr Riding and his team of computer programmers hope to make their job a great deal easier.

After decades of research, they have created a remarkable piece of software known as Paratext, which they hope will dramatically improve the way translators operate in the field.

"Please don't write that Bibles will now be translated much more quickly," he says, all too aware that some of the Society's more traditional linguists – many of whom have numerous PhDs under their belts – remain deeply suspicious of technology improving their laborious work. "Computers don't speed up Bible translation. They just help Bible translators work more efficiently and consistently."

Currently, translating a Bible into a new tongue can take anywhere between 10 and 20 years. To remain true to its original meaning, translations can only be done using the Hebrew and Greek texts in which the Gospels and Old Testaments were originally written down. Biblical translators, therefore, have to be fluent both in ancient and modern languages. Once a Bible or book is translated, it goes through a series of re-translations back into the Greek and Hebrew, an incredibly laborious process which takes years to complete. The new translation software will vastly improve the speed and efficiency of that "back-translation" process, achieving around 85 per cent accuracy within seconds, rather than months.

Mr Riding believes Europeans, who rarely speak more than one or two languages, have little concept of the difference that having access to religious texts in your mother tongue makes. "We're talking about the language that was first uttered to you as a baby by your mother," he says. "There's something profoundly fundamental about that."

Listen to an extract of the Patois Bible

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all