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The Linguistic Roots of Mission Translation Work

In 1930, William Cameron Townsend, his wife, and his parents met with Edward Sapir, the University of Chicago linguist, to discuss what alphabet to use for the Cakchiquel dictionary (the first ever) they were working on. Sapir’s discussions with Townsend (to try to get him to devise a scientific orthography and compile a dictionary) were central to Townsend’s later efforts. Writes historian William Svelmoe:

These were circles in which Townsend would never have moved under normal circumstances, but the very task of translation, as well as his own predilection toward being a “gentleman scientist,” drew Townsend into academic circles. The interest which such associations aroused in him laid a foundation for the eventual academic and linguistic focus of the Summer Institute of Linguistics.

This, of course, is precious historical stuff, if you know anything about the criticisms that secular academic linguists have of SIL work nowadays, which is that it’s tainted with religion. It seems that Sapir, great great godfather of the discipline (and especially of the anthropological fieldwork tradition), had little problem with working with a Bible translation project.