Wycliffe and SIL
The Bible in Every Language
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be unable to read an important piece of literary work in your own language? Even if you are not among those who consider the Bible to be the inspired Word of God, try and visualize not being able to read or understand some other text that you do consider important.
This was the question that led to the founding of Wycliffe Bible Translators, along with another organization dedicated to linguistic work with minority languages, which is today called SIL International. On this page I will describe the work of these two respective organizations, plus our technical partners at JAARS. To find out more of what my role is in this work, please see the accompanying page on Billiard's Work.
Early last century, a man named William Cameron Townsend was serving in Guatemala with the Cakchiquel Indians. As part of his work he provided scriptures for them—in Spanish. One day, a young Cakchiquel man asked him, “If your God is so great, why doesn't He speak in my language?”
Challenged by this observation, Townsend went on in 1934 to start “Camp Wycliffe”, named after the first man to translate the Bible into the English language. The purpose of Camp Wycliffe was to train Christian workers in linguistics, in order to help them learn languages like Cakchiquel and translate the Bible into those languages. By 1942, Townsend's work had grown into a pair of organizations, Wycliffe Bible Translators and the Summer Institute of Linguistics, known today as SIL International.
A third entity, JAARS, Inc., also exists. Unlike Wycliffe or SIL, JAARS does not have branches or related entities in other countries. Rather, JAARS workers provide technical services and training in areas such as aviation, maintenance, computer support, audio-visual, etc.
Wycliffe Bible Translators is an organization dedicated to recruiting, sending and supporting people to work in Bible translation. In its role, Wycliffe interacts with churches and other Christian organizations, presenting the needs both for people and resources. Since its inception, Wycliffe has grown to a total membership of over five thousand worldwide. Wycliffe acts as an employer, handling all of its members financial services. Wycliffe also provides member care, taking care of individual needs.
Originally, Wycliffe was founded and based in the United States, and was a single, monolithic organization. However, around the end of the last century the decision was made to split into individual Wycliffe Organizations based in individual sending countries. The reasoning was simple; a local organization made up of and run by members from the country in which it is located is better able to understand recruiting methods and member needs than one based in a foreign country. In addition, there are many places in the world where Americans and American entities are not welcome; Bible translators not affiliated with the United States are often welcome in countries where Americans would be barred.
In recent years, however, a new vision began to emerge, as Wycliffe Organizations and other entities dedicated to the same goal began to see the need for closer partnership. The result was Wycliffe Global Alliance, which sort of acts as a “confederation” of organizations either working in or supporting Bible translation around the world. For more about Wycliffe Global Alliance, see the section below.
People interested in serving in Bible translation should contact the Wycliffe Organization (WO) within their own country.
As was stated above, more than a decade after breaking up Wycliffe Bible Translators into individual Wycliffe Organizations around the world, members of those organizations, along with partner organizations with similar goals, began to see the need for global cooperation. The result was Wycliffe Global Alliance. Unlike Wycliffe Bible Translators International of old, Wycliffe GA is not an overarching authority. Rather, it is an organization whose purpose is to “connect” member organizations who share the same purpose—the translation of God's Word into every language where there is need—in order to help them share resources and better accomplish their purpose. Wycliffe GA also works to connect needs in Bible translation with local churches, and to encourage participation worldwide.
Wycliffe Global Alliance is headquartered in Singapore, and has a 10-member Board of Directors and a 12-member Global Leadership Team. The Global Leadership Team does not meet at headquarters, but uses modern Internet technology to form a virtual council with members spread across several continents. Currently, there are more than 45 member organizations and more than 60 partner organizations.
Wycliffe USA is the WO responsible for working in the United States. Canada is not included; they have their own WO. Wycliffe USA's headquarters are in Orlando, FL, having moved there from Huntington Beach, CA, in the '90s. Formerly, there were 6 regional offices to provide services for members and interested parties in various parts of the country, but with the increasing power of the Internet, these regional offices have been closed and everything is done on-line these days.
Wycliffe USA provides the services mentioned above to American members, and works in the American Christian community to share about needs and opportunities in Bible translation.
Vision 2025 is not an organization. Rather, it is a statement of purpose that is today embraced by Wycliffe Global Alliance and the member WO's. In its simplest form, the Vision Statement reads as follows:
“We embrace the vision that by the year 2025 a Bible translation project will be in progress for every people group that needs it.”
This vision statement sets a specific goal with respect to the greater overall goal of having God's Word available in every language of the world that needs it. It sets a date to have all remaining translation projects at least started. The Wycliffe leadership recognizes that attaining this goal is humanly impossible. But we remember that “with God, all things are possible,” and believe that the vision came from Him and that He is the one who will make it happen.
After all, it is His Word, and He is the one who wants it made available and who has called His Church to participate in getting the job done.
The original name for SIL was “Summer Institute of Linguistics”, from the linguistics courses held during the summer months. Even after courses began to be held during all parts of the year, the name stuck, until it was finally removed several years ago, and the abbreviation became the official name. Today, SIL International continues to provide linguistic training both for those interested in Bible translation and those who wish to pursue linguistics for other purposes. Academic excellence is one of SIL's goals in the field of language-related research and training.
SIL International has its headquarters in Dallas, TX, at the International Linguistics Center. In addition, affiliated entities work in many parts of the world, where members study and analyze minority languages, develop orthographies (writing systems), publish academic material related to these languages, provide literacy education for groups who desire it, assist ethnic groups in preserving their own legends and other valuable material, and translate and provide written material of ethical and cultural value for these peoples. SIL members also work with the world's linguistic community to provide texts, software tools, fonts, and more.
SIL began in 1934 with two students, and has grown until today it has a staff of over 5500 from over 60 countries. SIL members work with over 2590 different languages spoken by 1.7 billion people in nearly 100 countries. The organization's services are available to all, without regard to religious beliefs, political ideology or any other factor that defines groups of people.
Originally founded as “Jungle Aviation And Radio Services”, the original purpose of JAARS was transportation of and communication with SIL members in remote locations. As more and more technology became available, JAARS members worked to provide it to SIL and partner organizations. Today, JAARS provides a variety of technical services, along with training and innovation. Several JAARS members' ideas have been incorporated into general aviation. In the same way that SIL promotes academic excellence, JAARS promotes excellence in the technical field.
JAARS headquarters is located near Waxhaw, NC. Many SIL members working in technical areas in their respective field entities receive training at the JAARS center. This includes pilots, electronics technicians, computer support personnel, aviation mechanics and more. In this respect, JAARS functions as a type of “graduate school with a specific purpose”; in order to be accepted for JAARS training, a prospective member must first have basic training and experience in his/her field, and pass a technical evaluation.
Various technical conferences are held annually or semi-annually at the JAARS center. These are opportunities for members from various parts of the world to meet and exchange ideas, as well as receive refresher training in their field of expertise.
JAARS also coordinates email and other electronic communication for both Wycliffe and SIL.
SIL Brazil, registered in Brazil as SIL Brasil, or Associação Internacional de Linguística, is a recognized non-profit entity associated with SIL International. We are no longer a separate branch, but are now a part of SIL Americas Area. Our official purpose is to study and analyze indigenous languages and to provide published material of value to the indigenous communities. We operate strictly within the limits of Brazilian law, respecting the rights of the indigenous peoples, and only go where we are invited.
Here you can read more About Brazil.
The majority of the members of SIL Brazil are from the United States. But we also have members from Canada, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Argentina, Korea and of course Brazil. Most Brazilian members are actually a part of ALEM, which is our chief partner. You can read more about ALEM in a separate section below.
In addition to the functions described above in the section on SIL International, we also work in partnership with local educators to promote bilingual education—indigenous students begin by studying in their own language, and with a base in literacy are more easily able to learn Portuguese when older. Our workers also provide medical aid when needed, and often teach basic first aid techniques to help deal with common health problems found in tropical environments. SIL planes have saved numerous lives by bringing individuals out for treatment for illnesses and issues such as snakebite. The idea is to care for the needs of the people, and not merely say, “Go in peace; be warmed and fed.”
You can read more at our website at www.silbrazil.org. On our site you can find many linguistic articles in both English and Portuguese, keyboard layouts for writing indigenous languages, and educational material. You can also read more details about our history and purpose.
SIL began work in Brazil in 1958, the year after I was born. The first headquarters was in Rio de Janeiro, the national capital at the time. (The capital moved to Brasília two years later, in 1960.) The organization was first invited to work with indigenous languages by the Muséu Nacional, or National Museum. Over the years, the work expanded. More members came to the field and began work with more language groups. A center was constructed in the city of Manaus, in the northern part of the country. Later on, centers were built in Cuiabá, Belém and Porto Velho, and an office complex in Brasília replaced the original headquarters in Rio de Janeiro.
Opposition came largely through secular anthropological organizations, which viewed any work by groups with evangelical roots as being detrimental to the indigenous cultures. Even though the work of SIL focused upon linguistics, and members made no attempt to directly proselytize the indigenous people (our position is that the Word of God speaks for itself; indigenous people who come to know Christ do so through exposure to the scriptures that they help translate, and through the examples set by the lives of our workers), we were nevertheless included as targets by the opposition. At times, this limited our ability to work in indigenous areas. At one time, faced with possible expulsion from the country, our leaders worked with national partners to found ALEM, a purely Brazilian organization dedicated to the same goals. See the section below about ALEM.
Fortunately, there are also those in positions of authority who recognize that our work actually helps the indigenous communities to maintain their cultures, and in some cases, even their very existence. As a result, we have been able to continue to work in Brazil. Nevertheless, the paradigm has been shifting during the past couple of decades. SIL Brazil membership has been decreasing, and more and more of the work is being done by Brazilian organizations such as ALEM, and today, even indigenous organizations.
The center in Manaus was closed years before I arrived in Brazil. During the '90s, we ended up also closing the center in Belém and the office in Brasília, and moving our headquarters to our center in Cuiabá. This was the beginning of the move toward different ways of doing things. The situation has changed considerably in recent decades; we have finished the work in areas where we could work in the traditional manner, and the remaining people groups have different living situations. Around 2006 we sold off three-quarters of the center in Porto Velho. And in 2008 we closed our center in Cuiabá and moved our headquarters to an office in Anápolis. We no longer maintain special quarters for indigenous visitors; as the world changes, they no longer feel uncomfortable in urban environments. We have become more decentralized, with a skeleton staff to manage administrative tasks, and linguist/translators scattered around the country.
And as I mentioned, more and more new translation projects are being undertaken by ALEM and other national organizations. The time has come to “pass the ball”. In all probability, SIL Brazil will never step completely out of the picture, but the focus is moving onto the national and indigenous people themselves. Looking at the big picture, this is something that is happening around the world, and reflects the changing times. If we are going to fulfill our purpose, we must not lose sight of the real goal, but must adapt our methods to accomplish those goals in the best manner possible.
Over the years, SIL Brazil has maintained facilities in several cities throughout the country. Some have closed, and others have changed and new ones opened. The following sub-pages give information on some of these cities, as well as the SIL facilities that existed or still exist there.
ALEM stands for Associação Linguística Evangélica Missionária, and is a Brazilian organization dedicated to the same goals as Wycliffe. ALEM actually functions as a Wycliffe Organization within Brazil (it is a participating organization of Wycliffe Global Alliance), recruiting within churches and Christian universities and organizations. Originally, ALEM members worked exclusively among Brazil's indigenous people, but over the years their vision has expanded, and today they send members to a number of other countries around the world.
ALEM was founded in 1982 largely because of opposition to foreign involvement with indigenous peoples. And as a national organization, familiar with the language and culture, ALEM members can often avoid many of the mistakes made by expatriates. Because of sharing similar goals, ALEM works in close partnership with SIL Brazil, to the benefit of both organizations.
A description of the ALEM headquarters can be found near the bottom of the page About Brasília.
You can also read more about ALEM at their own website: www.missaoalem.org.br. (Site is in Portuguese.)
ALEM offers a yearly course in linguistics and missiology called CLM (Curso de Linguística e Missiológia). Material includes basic linguistics classes such as Phonetics, Phonology and Grammar, plus Cultural Anthropology, Language Acquisition, Field Methods and more. The course is divided into three modules, with a fourth module called the Field Module, where students spend a period of time living on a jungle island and learning survival techniques and practical applications of material from the other three modules.
There are two basic tracks: Linguistic Analysis and Translation, and Education. Students can choose to specialize in one or the other.
The course is not free, given that there are overhead costs that ALEM has to meet in order to teach it. The cost is based upon the national minimum wage. The fees cover room, board and handout material; the teachers are all members of ALEM or SIL Brazil and as such they participate as volunteers, as with the rest of their work with the organizations.
The primary purpose of CLM is to train new workers for ALEM. However, some other Brazilian organizations (and a few from outside of Brazil as well) send their members and candidate members to take this course, because of its excellent reputation.
Copyright © 2005-2023 William R. Penning. All rights reserved.