This post is part of our special coverage Languages and the Internet.
This week Christians (apart from those following the Julian calendar) will celebrate the birth of Jesus. Christianity appears in many forms around the world and has around 2.2 billion adherents. In this post we take a look at the blogs of the people trying to make sure Christian scripture can be understood in as many languages as possible – Bible translators.
According to the figures provided by one major Bible translation partnership, there are about 350 million people who do not have any of the Bible available in their own language, and there are currently more than 1,900 active translation projects. An “Audio Bible ministry” has recorded the New Testament in 500 languages – such as Chamacoco in Paraguay, Pangasinan in the Philippines, Bodo in India, and Kupsabiny in Uganda. In the Peruvian Amazon, a group of tribal churches is working on translating the Bible into native languages. In Ethiopia a local church is involved in Bible translation projects within the country, and in sending missionaries to Asia and to other parts of Africa.
Answering a need
Last year David Roberts, who blogs as Cornish Man in Africa was happy to learn that a project he helped to set up had just published Genesis in Lama, a language spoken in Togo, Benin and Ghana. He quoted a man who was delighted by the book:
“I couldn’t make it to the dedication of the book of Genesis last Saturday, but I spent the whole of the following day reading the copy that my neighbour had bought. Later in the week, I cycled over from my village to Kanté, a round trip of about twelve miles, just so that I could buy my own copy. I’m so impressed with it. French is difficult for me, but it is so clear in Lama. Even if I die today, I can say that I was able to read the first translated book of the Old Testament in Lama. I’m grateful to God for that.”
David Ringer quotes Novethan Shanui, a pastor in Bambalang village in Cameroon, where a language called Chirambo is spoken:
“The people will know and will believe that Christianity is their thing when they see it in their language. In the past — and I think still now — many think that Christianity is the white man’s religion. And I think part of it is that they don’t have it in their language. And I think that, truly, if it was also their thing, why is it not in their own language? Why did God not also speak in their language? So, I think that having the Bible in their language will make them feel that Christianity also is their thing.”
However, translating the Bible is not a simple task. David Frank wrote recently at the Better Bibles Blog about his experience overseeing a translation project in an African country (whose name he doesn’t mention):
I recently returned from Africa, where I was working with a translation of the Gospel of Luke into a language that has had no previous Bible translation and a culture that has had very little contact with Christianity. I was not responsible for producing the translation into this language, but I was responsible for evaluating the translation. This was a very isolated language group, geographically and culturally. […] As to be expected, there were some translation challenges when it came to certain terms for flora and fauna and geography. Though there are sheep and cows, this group has no donkeys or camels, and no words for them. […] This brings us to the verse in Luke that reads, in this language, “It is more easy for a hippo to pass in the hole of a needle than a rich person to accept that God can be king over him.” This is the English backtranslation of Luke 18:25. Interesting! Is this legitimate, or, for the sake of accuracy, do you have to insist that a word for “camel” be borrowed into the language to translate this verse? I have a hard time saying that the translation is not accurate and legitimate. I kind of like it, really. Now, obviously, if you were looking for a match for the Greek word κάμηλος, this target language word backtranslated as “hippo” wouldn’t seem to be a good match. But if you widen your perspective a bit, and don’t just look at words but rather at meanings in context, then in this particular context, a target language word for “hippo” is arguably a good translation of Greek κάμηλος.
In Jeremiah 48:17 we have the exclamation:
“How broken is the mighty scepter, how broken the glorious staff!” (New International Version)
“How the mighty scepter is broken, the glorious staff!” (New Revised Standard Version)
[…] Of course, the translation of “sceptre” in Kasem is not straightforward, but a chief has a ceremonial walking stick which is a symbol of office. This comes close to the “glorious staff” of the second line, which is parallel in meaning to “sceptre”. Added to which, the “sceptre” and the “staff” are themselves symbols of power and rule, and some English versions express this meaning, rather than the symbolism:
“Its powerful rule has been broken; its glory and might are no more.” (Good News Bible)
In Kasem, in order to maintain the two-line parallelism of the Hebrew poetry and also to fill out the symbolism with its significance we currently have:
“See (how) the chieftaincy walking stick is now broken! Moab no longer has power!”
In the following video, we see translators of the Bible into Babanki (spoken in Cameroon) using software called Adapt It:
A learning process
At Kouya Chronicle, Eddie Arthur (Director of Wycliffe Bible Translators UK) thinks about what a translator gains:
It is a fundamental truth noted by many authors that the process of taking the Gospel across cultures inevitably changes the person who carries the message. This is especially true of translators. The struggle to express the truth God’s revelation within the bounds of a new language and culture inevitably opens up the translator to new insights and understandings about the nature and character of God. […] One example of this might be my experiences trying to understand the nature of the atonement in Kouya culture [of Côte d'Ivoire]. The Kouya see salvation as primarily a deliverance from spiritual powers; a transfer of allegiance from the kingdom of darkness to God’s Kingdom. Their understanding of the atonement does not deny penal-substitution, but it adds a depth and breadth of understanding that is absent from much Western commentary.
Is translation destructive?
In another post, Eddie Arthur raises the question of the effect of Christian mission work on local culture, responding to this article about the Bible being translated into Mali's Dogon language. Critics argue that indigenous cultures and languages are being changed by the introduction of Christianity – while many involved in Bible translation would argue that they are assisting the preservation of local cultures by making communities literate. Eddie asks, “So does Bible translation change culture or preserve it?”
There are three things that need to be taken into account when we think about the Gospel and Culture. Firstly, the Gospel does not belong to any culture. You can be a British Christian and stay British or a Dogon Christian and stay Dogon. […] Secondly, the Gospel will change the cultures it comes into contact with. No culture is perfect and the Gospel will confront those aspects of culture which don’t line up with what God wants; be that the rampant materialism of Western Society or Dogon blood sacrifices. […] Thirdly, culture is not a static thing, anyway. All cultures are changing all of the time. There is a false idea that some cultures are pristine and unchanged and Christians get nervous about accusations of changing culture. But even the most isolated cultures evolve over time and exposure to very different cultures makes them change more quickly.
All this being said, it is true that Bible translation and literacy work can be a wonderful tool for helping to preserve aspects of culture.
More than translation
Some Bible translators are trying to encourage cultural development. David Ker writes:
What is “Vernacular Literature Development”? This is about developing “literature” in “vernacular,” that is local languages. This is in contrast to translation of materials from other cultures, including Bible translation. Bible translation is a good thing. No doubt about it. But I'm interested in the writers, editors and educators who make a thriving vernacular possible.
Who is the translation for?
One question all translators must consider is who their audience is. Are Bible translators translating texts for existing churches, or for people as yet unfamiliar with Christian scripture? The United Bible Societies have focused on translating for church groups, while the Wycliffe Bible Translators have a missionary focus. Eddie Arthur considers the issue:
The Christian faith knows nothing of monolithic conformity – it started in a joyous explosion of variety and difference and continues to diversify as it spreads across the planet. One piece of fallout from this explosion of variety is that people (whether in churches, or unreached people groups) are able to understand the Gospel clearly because it is expressed in their own language. […] Where resources are limited, all translation organisations have to make choices about which communities they are best able to serve. However, whether we work with established Churches or unreached people groups, Bible translation is about joining with God in his great mission to call a diverse multi-lingual, multi-cultural people to serve and worship him in this world and the next. We do Bible translation because that’s the sort of God we serve.
This post is part of our special coverage Languages and the Internet.