Getting to the Gold

Bible translators are on a quest, much like early chemists from the time of Christ to the 17th century. Those alchemists searched for the “philosopher’s stone,” a substance that would instantly change common metals into silver or gold.

Today translators are intent on creating a gold of another kind: God’s golden Word written down for all peoples of the earth. Sometimes translators feel like those ancient alchemists, with beakers and vials in hand, full of linguistic “chemicals.” They mix and slosh words, grammatical particles, tones and idioms. They experiment, they fail, they try again. Some of the languages they work with even use symbols similar to ancient exotic alchemy signs! They commit to getting the gold of God’s Word translated in all its purity and glittering splendor.

While alchemists stayed home seeking shortcuts to chemical discoveries and riches, the quest for easy gold drove other “diggers” to the ends of the earth. Witness the voyages of Columbus, Magellan, and da Gama. Not many years ago in my own country, more than one gold rush persuaded thousands to uproot and move.

The excitement of such possibilities recently invaded my own family. Our son and his friend left on an adventure quest. Barely 20 years old, these two young men traveled from their home in North Carolina to Alaska, living in a Volvo station wagon. Like others before them, they dreamed of landing a job that would bring instant wealth. We may smile, but let’s confess—we’ve all considered, even for a few minutes, some get-rich scheme. The gray-haired among us know the truth—such success is as rare as finding a gold nugget on the sidewalk.

Some adventurers exhibit what Hsi-Tang said, “Although gold dust is precious, when it gets in your eyes, it obstructs your vision.” But for translators, the preciousness of God’s Word only serves to sharpen their vision, increase their faith and turn them into adventurers, willing to be tested in their desire for all peoples to have access to the Bible’s rich texts.

It is significant that God measures their faith by this rare and valuable substance called gold (1 Peter 1:7).

[Trials] have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.

Gold’s rarity naturally drives up its value, thus producing an economic standard by which all other values are measured. Just as there are few honest shortcuts to obtaining gold, proving our faith takes time and demands persistence and commitment. Job of ancient times said it well: “But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold” (Job 23:10).

No Bible translators I know have the power of Midas, the king with the golden touch. And no magic formula produces an instant and pain-free translation. Many translators travel to the ends of the earth and find a new home. Most spend years trying to perfect their mastery of the language. Some grammatical mysteries never get solved. Certain essential key terms such as faith and hope hide out for years. Even now with the advent of computers, science has not delivered them from the hard work needed to reach those nuggets of truth. They dig hard and long for the rich expressions needed to convey the message. No shortcuts exist to translating the Word of God, the Word that sets the standard by which all other truth is measured.

John Greenleaf Whittier in his poem The Over-Heart speaks of people in need of a Savior. One day, Whittier says, they will touch the garment of Jesus, the “heavenly Alchemist,” and find healing and salvation. Indeed, He is the only one who can transform lives into spiritual gold.

Translators too know that only the Heavenly Alchemist can direct their quest, lead them to the right solutions, and transform common language into the stunning gold of His Word.