Bible Translation and the Dignity, and Beauty, of Languages

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Bible Translation and the Dignity, and Beauty, of Languages
By Aloo Osotsi Mojola 29 July 2020

Bible Translation as the Cutting Edge of Mission

Bible translation has always been at the cutting edge of mission.

Its pivotal and central role in Christian outreach is undeniable. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine missionary encounter with non-Christian cultures or subcultures without reference to the Bible in the languages or dialects of the receptor, the target cultures or audiences.

The need to have the Bible in the vernacular is not negotiable. Reference and use of the Bible in indigenous languages has played and continues to play a pivotal role in opening up dialogue with both local and popular cultures. Translation of the Bible into the speech and idioms of the heart, into the cadences and figures of the vernacular, provides an open door into other cultures and dialects.

Bible translation is arguably a leader in pioneering the formation of the theological lexicon in the local vernacular; indeed, in laying the foundations for the language of church, of liturgy, and of popular theology.

The need to have the Bible in the vernacular is not negotiable.

Professor Andrew Walls of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, in “The Translation principle in Christian History,” points out that “Christian faith rests on a divine act of translation – the word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). Any confidence we have in the translatability of the Bible rests on that prior act of translation. There is a history of translation of the Bible because there is a translation of the word into flesh.”

Seeing translation in these terms underlines the necessity of making Christian discourse and practice deeply rooted in the common culture, in the everyday practices of the ordinary person in her mundane daily existence.

Professor Walls writes: “The first divine act of translation into humanity . . . thus gives rise to a constant succession of new translations. Christian diversity is the necessary product of the incarnation. Translation is by its very nature driven by the twin imperatives of relevance and intelligibility.”

The Bible Ambivalently Received

The founding president of post-colonial Kenya, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, often reminded his people about the Mau Mau struggle – the guerilla war that contributed to the liberation of Kenya from the shackles of British colonialism. The Mau Mau guerilla war was essentially about land. Kenyatta, in retelling the story of our people, never failed to broach the land question. He would say: “When the white man came to our country, he had the Bible and we had the land. The white man said to us ‘let us pray.’ After the prayer, the white man had the land and we had the Bible.”

However, in South Africa it is said that this story was once retold in a meeting where Bishop Desmond Tutu, the former Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, happened to be present. Bishop Tutu is said to have retorted, “We had the better deal.”

This anecdote is helpful in suggesting that the Bible is not always perceived or received in a neutral way. The Bible generates a whole range of complex and often ambiguous attitudes.

Translation of the Bible into the speech and idioms of the heart, into the cadences and figures of the vernacular, provides an open door into other cultures and dialects.

For some, the Bible is perceived as an oppressive tool, a tool that has historically been used to alienate and to dehumanize. It has been viewed as an instrument of empire, of colonial and cultural domination, of conquest and subjugation. Or as Karl Marx put it in his memorable phrase, it is “the opium of the people.”

Not long ago the Bible was used by some to provide a basis for the discrimination and oppression of minorities and of non-Western peoples, including women, blacks, and others.

The Bible is obviously not neutral. Its entry into a culture sends mixed and contradictory messages:

  • Where some see loss, others see gain.
  • Where some see dispossession, others see empowerment.
  • Where some see conquest, others see freedom.
  • Where some see foreignization, cultural dispossession, and alienation, others see a call and challenge to reclaim our true humanity, a return to our divine image and values.

For the Christian church, the Bible is a transformative tool, indispensable to the life and work of the church. It is the church’s foundational and guiding document, central to the formulation of its creeds and to the formation of its faith and practice, to the fostering and nurturing of just and loving communities.

The Biblical Canon

The Bible cannot be understood in a vacuum. It means different things to different people.

What is the Bible?

For the religious Jew, the Bible clearly refers to the books of the Biblia Hebraica, what Christians call the Old Testament. At one time even this was contested among religious Jews themselves. The question of which books constitute the Judaic canon is central. The Palestinian or the Alexandrian Canon? The Hebrew or the Greek books?

The Bible is not neutral.

The Palestinian Canon in the Hebrew tongue won pride of place. The Alexandrian Canon in the Greek lingua franca represented by the Septuagint remains indispensable in understanding the history of this text.

For the Christian, the answer is not unequivocal. There is the Protestant canon, with its thirty-nine Old Testament books and twenty-seven New Testament books; its sixty-six books in total. There is the Catholic canon, which counts seven additional books – called the deuterocanonical books or the Apocrypha – as part of the Old Testament, making altogether forty-six Old Testament and twenty-seven New Testament books. In other words, seventy-three in total. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has eighty-one books in its canon – including such books as Enoch and Jubilees, among others.

Hebrew Manuscript

In the matter of translating the Bible, a choice has to be made with respect to this question of canon. This is a choice that United Bible Societies, the leading translation agency in the world, working in over two hundred countries and territories, encounters. The national Bible agencies engaged with the various local churches in this endeavor usually translate the Bible in the chosen canon of the participating churches.

Indispensable and Transformative

The Christian approach to the Bible is altogether different from the Islamic approach. For Muslims, their holy book is suis generis and untranslatable. The translated Quran lacks the power of the Quran in its original Arabic.

The case of the Christian Bible is altogether different. The vast majority of Christians meet the Bible in one or another of its numerous translations. There is, of course, the original text of the Bible, written in ancient languages that are no longer used – “dead languages” as these are sometimes referred to.

As most people know, the books of the Christian Old Testament or the Hebrew Bible were originally written in ancient Hebrew – except for parts of Ezra 4:8–6:18, 7:12–26, and Daniel 2:46–7:28, which were originally written in the related ancient tongue of Aramaic. The ancient second/third-century BC translation in Alexandria Egypt of the Hebrew Scriptures (Biblia Hebraica) commonly referred to as the Septuagint is written in ancient Greek – the imperial lingua franca in the era of pax Graeca.

The books of the New Testament are, on the other hand, written in the ancient Greek tongue commonly called Koiné Greek. This was the common language, the street language, the market language, the common person’s language. The Greek New Testament was meant to be translated from the outset. It was a product of a multi-cultural, multi-linguistic setting, and so was its audience.

For the Christian church, the Bible is a transformative tool, indispensable to the life and work of the church. It is the church’s foundational and guiding document, central to the formulation of its creeds and to the formation of its faith and practice, to the fostering and nurturing of just and loving communities.

The original autographs of this biblical text no longer exist. Extant copies of these have been unearthed or found stored in diverse and various locations of the ancient biblical world. Thanks to the painstaking, patient, and demanding labors of textual scholars, we have a rational basis for believing that current critical editions of the biblical writings are as close as we can get, given available evidence. Yet these critical editions of the ancient biblical text remain in the ancient languages rooted in the ancient Judaic, Graeco-Roman, Mediterranean world, with its diverse cultures, traditions, and religions.

The books that make up the Bible were written by a variety of individuals or groups of people over several hundred years and covering a wide range of contexts, periods, peoples, and cultural traditions, as well as linguistic and religious traditions. Moreover, these books get bogged down into thick and sometimes impenetrable layers of both traditional and modern interpretations spanning a wide range of periods – Jewish, Hellenistic, Roman, Western, and postmodern.

The resulting kaleidoscope of meanings and beliefs coexist in unexpected environments and in unrecognizable guises. The challenge posed in deciphering the complexity implied in such a corpus is truly immense. This is a veritable challenge to biblical exegete and translator alike.

The Story of Bible Translation

Bible translators see themselves as called upon to provide access to this ancient text.

Bible Translations

Indeed, without translation the biblical writings and their rich treasures would remain forever closed and inaccessible to the millions whose lives are touched by them. For the vast majority of people, the Bible that they know, that they read or hear, is a translated Bible. It is one written in a language that they speak and understand, a domesticated Bible that by means of a translator’s mediation has crossed boundaries of time and space, of language and culture, of ancient political, economic, historic, and religious environments and formations to arrive at those of our own time and place.

To what extent does the Bible in your language or another’s language resemble the original one? To what extent is it possible for any translator to recover the original meanings or the message of the ancient text in our modern translations and environments? Is it possible to read this ancient text other than from our own current contexts and in terms of our own interests, ideologies, and situations? To what extent, then, is translation a betrayal, a rewriting of the text?

For the vast majority of people, the Bible that they know, that they read or hear, is a translated Bible.

These and numerous other questions continue to bedevil the modern and postmodern translator.

The imperative to translate the Bible in terms of our language and time, in terms of our own culture and categories, is first recorded on a large scale with the African Alexandrian Greek translation. This signified a Hellenization of the faith – a re-writing of the text in Greek terms, in Greek categories, on the basis of the underlying Greek lifeworld and thought-world.

This was, in effect, a Greek incarnation in the era of pax Graeca.

The next big story was Jerome’s Latinization of the biblical text in the fourth and fifth century (AD 331–420) in the era of the pax Romana. Jerome essentially turned his back on the lingua franca of the former imperial order. His translation was said to be in a vulgar tongue, the language of the street, of the common citizen, hence the “vulgate” or the so-called “Latin vulgate.” Latin became the language of the church and liturgy – and remained so to recent times.

Those who challenged Jerome’s translation did so at their peril – among them the renowned John Wyclif (1330–1384) of Wycliff Bible Translators fame and William Tyndale, who attempted a classic and seminal translation in English. These paid the ultimate price – with their lives.

The proliferation of new translations during and after the Protestant reformation reflected a fragmentation and weakening of the Roman empire, the Roman church, and the dominant Latin tongue. New empires and tongues were emerging. Martin Luther’s influential translation in German (1534), or the even more influential Authorized King James Version in English (1611), were a product of this development.

Bible translation flourishes by means of making the language of the Bible deeply rooted in the common culture and in the everyday practices of ordinary people.

The colonization of non-Western cultures and peoples created opportunities for their evangelization and Christianization by the emerging Christian powers. This was the wave that launched the Bible society movement and the era of vernacular Bibles in the languages of the peoples of Africa and the southern continents.


This movement placed Bible translation at the cutting edge of mission, in its role of opening up dialogue with local indigenous cultures, employing local idioms and cadences. Bible translation thrives and flourishes and validates itself by means of making the language of the Bible deeply rooted in the common culture and in the everyday practices of ordinary people in their mundane daily existence.

Bible translation ought to be driven and motivated by “twin imperatives of relevance and intelligibility” (Andrew Walls).

The Bible in Africa

The work of translation in Africa and elsewhere has been surprisingly very successful. It has undeniably borne much fruit. It is thanks to the indefatigable labours of Bible translators that so many of Africa’s languages acquired their alphabets or orthographic systems.

To name just a few benefits that accompanied Bible translation, the following are generally acknowledged:

  • The invention of alphabets.
  • The creation of a literary and literate class (in many places the first readers were often Christian; in East Africa, for example, Christians were usually referred to as “asomi,” “wasomi,” or variants of the same, meaning “readers”).
  • The development of national languages.
  • The emergence of national literatures.
  • The consolidation and propagation of the Christian faith.
  • The rise of African independent, or initiated, churches, which are inspired by local and indigenous understanding of the faith and contest the understandings and emphases of missionaries.
  • The writing of dictionaries and grammars.
  • The transmission of cultural values.
  • The preservation of languages.
  • The revival of threatened or dying languages.
  • The facilitation of cross-cultural/intercultural communication.

It is the translation of the Bible into the ancient language of Geez in the fifth/sixth century AD that established the Ethiopic script and literacy, and preserved writing in Ethiopia from ancient times to this day. The old scrolls of the biblical text and its interpretation, found in the ancient Ethiopian monasteries in places such as Gondar, Lalibela, and Axum, are a testimony to this fact.

In more recent times, the example of Bishop Samuel Adjai Crowther of Abeokuta, Nigeria, who translated the Bible into his own Yoruba tongue in the mid-nineteenth century, shows the role of translation in laying the foundations for the growth of a language.

Prof Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian and African Nobel laureate, as well as other Yoruba scholars and speakers, is no doubt indebted to the contributions of Samuel Adjai Crowther. There is no gainsaying the monumental impact of Crowther’s translation on the Yoruba language and culture. It is comparable to that of Martin Luther’s German translation or to that of the King James Bible.

Similarly, the Swahili Bible in East Africa has played the key role of laying the foundations for a standard form of the language. Coinciding with the era of pax Brittanica, the Swahili language and dialects, as well as the two contending versions of the Swahili Bible, namely the Kiunguja and Kimvita, benefited enormously from the official British colonial policy of supporting the establishment and enforcement of a standard orthography and lexicon. Swahili was turned into a school language equipped with standard texts and a publishing house and was used in the educational arena, the civil service, and the mass media, both print and audio.

As a lingua franca for the entire East African region, currently spoken by around fifty to eighty million people, with more than ten complete Bibles in its language, and a history of five centuries of written poetry (in the Arabic script before the British colonial era), the Swahili language has greatly benefited from the gains that came with Bible translation.

It is no wonder that in Tanzania, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere made Swahili the official language of government communication and of parliamentary debates, so as to include everyone into the discussion. Swahili is also the medium of instruction in schools, the language of the church, of the press, radio, etc. The contribution of these developments to national pride, national identity, and national unity went beyond all expectations.

And it is to be noted that the development of the Swahili Bible contributed to this in no small way.

Among the Bahaya of Northwest Tanzania, the Ruhaya Bible which was dedicated and launched in November 2001 was what was needed to create a unified liturgical and theological terminology – whereas before the Ruhaya Bible each church or confessional group followed its own tradition with respect to its theological, biblical, and liturgical terminologies in the one common language.

In the Indian Ocean island nations of the Seychelles and Mauritius off the East African coast, Bible translation caught the imagination of church and society. Whereas in the Seychelles the then Marxist government provided the impetus for finally giving honour, respect, and recognition to the national tongue, in Mauritius the process was people driven. The government in these islands still gives primacy first to French and then to English. Both Seselwa Creole and Mauritian Creole have settled the problem of a writing system – of a suitable and acceptable orthography – and have at last in recent years completed the translation of the Bible itself in the local vernacular.

The Process of Translation

The task of translation calls for utmost sensitivity and care in the process of mediating between worlds.

Translation is not simply the process of rendering individual words or individual sentences from one language to another. It involves penetrating the underlying social and cultural world of the source language and culture, experiencing its lifeworld and feelings, its rhythms and emotions as well as its values, and finding appropriate and adequate ways of rendering or mapping those onto the target/source language and culture.

Immersing oneself into a text is as complex as immersing oneself into a culture and language.

It involves operating in multiple worlds – primarily the world of the source text and that of the receptor or target text – being thoroughly at home in both, commuting comfortably between them, and finding equivalences and similarities.

Translation is both an art and a science. The new academic field of translation studies which takes translation phenomena as its main object of study is multi-disciplinary/interdisciplinary because of the complexity and diversity of the issues. Thus, it draws insights from linguistics, literary studies, cultural studies, communication studies, and philosophy, from the social sciences as well as the humanities.

Man in church with raised hand

Immersing oneself into a text is as complex as immersing oneself into a culture and language. This requires utmost sensitivity, an eye and ear for detail, for similarity and difference, and a willingness to step into the depths of another culture, to move beyond the surface and beyond appearances to grasp the beauty and goodness within.

An Example from East Africa: God as Mother

I will take an example from the translation of the Iraqw Bible in Northern Tanzania sometime in the 1990s. The Iraqw language and people are to be found in the Mbulu area situated somewhere in the environs of the Ngorongoro Crater of Northern Tanzania, in the Serengeti eco-system not far from the famous snowcapped Mt Kilimanjaro. Here the case of translating the name of God in the Iraqw language proved not so easy to resolve.

As happens in every project, the challenge of translating the name of God in the vernacular is unavoidable. This challenge cannot simply be solved by importing a foreign name, whether known or even unknown in the local culture or language. The obvious and common strategy in most translations of the Bible is to employ the local name for God.

This option however poses the complex challenge that the local name for God may be associated with ideas and concepts about God that may not be in conformity with Christian ideas and concepts of the divine. Moreover, local concepts may turn out to be completely antithetical to Christian ideas.

Resolving this challenge is not so easy. In the case of the Iraqw of Tanzania, their ideas about God are surprisingly consonant with Christian ideas. For example, the Iraqw believe that God is the creator, that he is loving, that he protects, that he nurtures, that he provides, that he forgives, etc.

The Iraqw, however, understand God to be feminine. They call her Mama Looa. For the Iraqw, God is in fact the Great Mother of all, the Creator of all, the Protector of all, the Sustainer of all. She is like a human mother and more. Hence her name, Mama Looa.

The metaphor of mother is easy to explain. Mothers give birth, they nurture, they protect, they provide, they are loving, they are generous, they are compassionate, they are inclusive, etc. These characteristics are consonant with Christian ideas about God.

On the other hand, the Iraqw cannot associate masculinity with God. The evil principle which Christians associate with the devil is male. The Iraqw call him Neetlangw. Neetlangw is the opposite of Mother Looa. Neetlangw is believed to be cruel and unkind, violent and revengeful, selfish and egocentric, chaotic, warlike, restless and not a lover of peace, etc.

Reconciling these ideas and concepts within the Christian belief system and worldview is no doubt a challenge. When the book of Genesis was translated into the Iraqw language, it was natural and easy to adopt Mama Looa as the name of God, since that was the name everyone knew and employed in talking about the divine. In translating the book of Genesis, it was agreed at the beginning to use the local name.

The book of Genesis was thus translated early on in the life of this project. It was thereafter distributed to test for its acceptability among the Christians. So, for example, Genesis 1:1 in the Iraqw text read something like “In the beginning Mama Looa she created the heavens and the earth. . . .” The problem was that Mama Looa was feminine. The local Christians had been taught that the Christian God was male and not feminine!

Suppose you admitted that God the creator was male; the Iraqw might be led in thinking that a male God had the characteristic and qualities associated with Neetlangw, the evil principle. How do you avoid this challenge?

The Iraqw people have for generations known their God in these terms – female and loving. How to get them to start thinking differently is a huge paradigm shift. This is a continuing task.

How do you borrow a masculine God and impose him on a people for whom God is feminine?

The Iraqw Bible translators eventually borrowed the Swahili name for God, Mungu. Mungu in Swahili, like personal names in Bantu languages of which Swahili is one, is placed in the semantic class of persons. Gendered pronouns do not exist in Bantu languages. So Mungu is placed in the semantic class that contains humans. Bantu languages lack a gendered pronoun. But for the Iraqw language, which belongs to the Cushitic language family, instead of semantic classes there are three gendered pronouns – he, she, it, which stand for male, female, and neutral respectively.

The borrowed name of Mungu from Swahili was given a masculine pronoun in line with Christian teaching. This however did not solve the problem for the Iraqw. It led to the same problem and challenge: God in this space is feminine; Mungu is masculine and not feminine. So how do you borrow a masculine God and impose him on a people for whom God is feminine? How was a male God with a foreign name, Mungu, to be understood among the Iraqw? Is a male God going by the name of Mungu the same as Neetlangw?

Women sitting in a church

This is a continuing translational and theological problem and conversation among the Iraqw. It is not a problem and challenge for Iraqw language and culture only. The challenge extends to other African languages with similar concerns. Examples include the case of the ongoing Teso Bible translation project in Western Kenya. Among the Teso, the name for God is female but the translation team has chosen to masculinize it.

The translation of the name of God, as well as other key biblical terms relating to divine or spiritual beings, and unknown cultural, social, or religious concepts or entities, naturally pose serious challenges for the biblical translator. Such challenges are hardly talked about or even appreciated by users of the translated Bible everywhere.

The Matter of Dying or Vanishing Languages

It is appropriate to acknowledge and appreciate the efforts of national Bible Societies everywhere for their ongoing efforts to render entire Bibles and even sections thereof in languages of the heart that make people proud of their identities and cultures. Such translations almost always gain historical and literary significance – both for the present and for posterity. They provide an orthographical basis for subsequent literature and a stylistic model for writers in the vernacular, and no doubt contribute to the standardization of the language and to creating pride in its use.

This is especially so where a Bible in the vernacular is the very first written literary text in a language or dialect. Moreover, any language or dialect is usually believed to be the medium that bears the essence of a people’s identity. As noted above, the language or dialect of any people is crucial to their identity formation. Such an identity is rooted in their social, cultural, and religious history as well as their geography. This is usually coded in their idioms and metaphors, in their proverbs and folklore, in their folk music, and, indeed, in the total variety of a people’s folk ways. These are unavoidably grounded in language.

Bible translation has been at the centre of defending the dignity and beauty of languages, as well as providing a bridge between cultures and faith.

So when a language dies or vanishes, there is more at stake than language death or extinction.

As noted in the UNESCO report of the World Commission on Culture and Development, “Linguistic diversity is a precious asset of humanity, and the disappearance of any language means an impoverishment of the reservoir of knowledge and tools for intra-cultural communication.”1 Or as noted in the policy statement of the Linguistic Society of America in 1994, “The loss to humankind of genetic diversity in the linguistic world is . . . arguably greater than even the loss of genetic diversity in the biological world, given that the structure of human language represents a considerable testimony to human intellectual achievement.”2

No wonder vanished languages remind us of lost knowledge and lost heritage, and lost words mean lost worlds. How many languages, how many worlds, have vanished, gone extinct, or are in process of being lost currently?

Bible translation does more than serve the needs of Bible translation or of the church. It is at the forefront of the struggle to empower minority languages with written texts and orthographies for documenting their vitality and wealth, enabling speakers to regain pride and esteem in their own linguistic and cultural identity. Bible translation has been at the centre of defending the dignity and beauty of languages, as well as providing a bridge between cultures and faith.

God Speaks My Language: A History of Bible Translation in Africa by Aloo Osotsi Mojola

1. See Javier Perez de Cuellar, ed., Our Creative Diversity (UNESCO, 1978), 179.

2. Quoted in David Crystal, Language Death (Cambridge University Press, 2000), 34.