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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 Ethnologue.com, 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