Hidden in Their Hearts
Through a new oral Bible translation, you’re helping Guatemala’s indigenous communities become hearers and doers of the Word.
March 20, 2022Print this article
A young man named Eliseo stands on a sloping hillside in Guatemala.
He smiles as adults and children, eager to hear his words, gather around him. From memory, he begins to tell the ancient story of Cain and Abel. In his voice, the emotions of the story run like threads. When Cain murders Abel, Eliseo hits his fist against his palm. At the end of the story, he lifts his open hands toward heaven.
To you and me, Eliseo’s presentation might look like a dramatic stage performance. But for the indigenous people of Guatemala, this communal experience is what it looks like to “read” the Bible for the very first time in their oral language of Ixil de Cotzal.
Miraculous though it may sound, humble Guatemalan farmers like Eliseo have become Bible translators—even though they can’t read a word of Hebrew, Greek, or even Spanish. While the final product is just as accurate as the Bible on your bedside table, God’s spoken Word is reaching waiting people in record time thanks to a groundbreaking oral translation project that you funded. Now, a culture that has waited generations for the Bible is hearing and responding to God’s Word faster than anyone dreamed possible!
The Ixil de Cotzal, Mam Todos Santos, and Sipakapense speakers that you blessed with oral Scripture belong to Guatemala’s indigenous community, which includes over 6 million people speaking 25 distinct languages. Most people live in rural, mountainous areas and work as farmers, harvesting corn, coffee, and fruit like peaches, plums, and apples. Their homes are humble, constructed from sheet metal and adobe.
Indigenous Christians couldn’t understand the Bible.
Unlike the majority Spanish-speaking culture in Guatemala, these indigenous cultures are largely oral. They rely on spoken rather than written communication. Vocal inflection, facial expressions, and gestures all work together with the human voice to communicate meaning. Stories—including Bible stories—are memorized and passed on through word of mouth. In fact, many of these language groups don’t even have an alphabet!
But while an incredible 95 percent of Ixil de Cotzal, Mam Todos Santos, and Sipakapense speakers are Christians, they have never had a Bible that each person could understand. (Let that sink in for a minute!) For generations, local church and ministry leaders have watched their communities navigate family breakdowns, domestic violence, and financial concerns without the wisdom or comfort of Scripture.
“We know that if they could understand the Bible’s message, this would change,” one leader shared. “We know the Bible transforms, and we want to have it in our language.”
Some translation groups have tried to reach oral cultures with written formats of God’s Word. But physical Bibles weren’t making an impact in non-reading communities. So translators got creative and started reading the written versions of God’s Word on the radio like an audiobook. But when you rely on face-to-face narration and expression to understand a story, even audio Bibles don’t quite engage the heart with the full experience of Scripture.
Your support enabled us to finally break down these barriers to God’s Word by developing a new method of Bible translation with roots as old as the Bible itself.
You helped us develop a new method of Bible translation.
“Oral Bible translation has always accelerated access to the Word of God,” says Dr. Dan Fitzgerald, who serves with American Bible Society to equip and train Bible translators. “For the first 400 years of church history, very few people had access to the written Word as we have it today. But the church didn’t die—it grew. And today, people don’t need to wait years for the Bible to be written and learn how to read. They can experience for themselves the value of hearing the Word of God in their own language.”
Oral translation opens the door for true understanding.
Here’s how oral Bible translation works.
A small group of leaders from the community, including Eliseo, gathers for a series of oral Bible translation workshops. During these intensive sessions, translators listen to an Old Testament passage in Spanish and discuss the story together. They talk about characters, plot, context, and key concepts. Led by experienced Bible Society staff, this time of discussion is critical for ensuring that each translator understands the Scripture before they translate it into their native tongues.
“They become invested in each story,” Fitzgerald says. “They get mad at the bad guys. They are happy for the good guys. They ask questions. They discuss and they argue with each other. Together, they gain a rich understanding of Scripture!”
Once they clearly understand the story, each language group works together to translate the passage from Spanish into their heart language, using a digital recorder instead of paper and pens or a word processor. The final audio recording undergoes the same rigorous review process as written translations to ensure that the translation is accurate and credible. Translators and pastors will now reference these authoritative recordings of Scripture before they tell the Bible stories, word-for-word, to eager listeners in their home communities.
A handful of Bible stories from the Old Testament—chosen by community leaders who best understand the spiritual needs of their people—have now been completed, and they’re already making a big difference. For people who have only ever heard the Bible in a second language, the experience of listening to oral translations brings them to a whole new level of engagement with God’s Word.
Long-awaited Scripture is transforming lives in oral communities.
One man named Nicolas says that his understanding of the Bible has completely changed since you provided God’s Word in a language and format that speaks not just to his ears, but to his heart.
“We understand the stories more in the Ixil de Cotzal language because it nurtures us with expression,” he says. “We are able to understand the Bible better.” Now, instead of struggling to grasp Scripture in Spanish, Nicolas and his family spend many evenings sitting around the dinner table, discussing the Bible stories they hear. “The Bible is an incomparable book for me because it is the book that leads to eternal life,” he says, adding that his family is now equipped to seek the Kingdom of God.
Through your support, the living Word of God is spreading through Ixil de Cotzal, Mam Todos Santos, and Sipakapense communities—in a language each person can understand! Tomorrow, as you open your Bible in the quiet hours of the morning, your brothers and sisters in Guatemala will be able to experience some of the very same stories through oral translation. Long after they hear Scripture spoken, they will be able to remember and recite God’s Word in the moments when they need faith, hope, and courage.
Thank you for helping your brothers and sisters in Guatemala hide God’s Word in their hearts!
Finally, they can hide God’s Word in their hearts!
Eliseo the storyteller is rarely at a loss for words, but the experience of watching his people truly understand the biblical message he speaks brings him unspeakable joy.
“The narrations have been of great impact for many and are helping them grow,” he says. “There are no words to express the impact.”
Thanks to the support of our faithful financial partners, American Bible Society has been engaging people with the life-changing message of God’s Word for more than 200 years.
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