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Language Disconnect: The Implications of Bible Translation upon Gospel Work in Africa

One obvious implication of the above can be expressed by a hypothesis such as this: “interesting and stimulating engagement using foreign thought forms in a foreign language is very difficult” or “interesting and stimulating engagement using foreign thought forms in a foreign language is thoroughly non-stimulating”. If I am correct in the above, this implies that it could also to be very uninteresting or non-stimulating for African people to engage Western (e.g. native English) thought forms using English.

An alternative hypothesis could be that the problem arises because of the particular nature of the two language/thought-form combinations above. Then we could suggest for example that “Westerners find engagement of African issues using African languages very non-stimulating”. If this hypothesis is true it need not follow from it that the reverse applies (that African people find Western thinking in Western languages to be non-stimulating). That is to say – though it may be difficult for Westerners to appreciate African discourse, Western discourse may be very interesting and stimulating for Africans.

So then – is Western discourse stimulating for African people or not? One could certainly find evidence for and against this. The fact that Western educational systems have been so broadly and apparently enthusiastically adopted in Africa suggests that African people find them inspiring. On the other hand one might wonder – if western educational systems are so inspiring, then why are African people so reluctant to appropriate them into their own languages, preferring instead to keep them distinct, separate and isolated?[3] Similarly; why then is the educational system in Africa so widely dependent on foreign subsidy? Could it be that African people’s interest in Western things is entirely, or almost entirely, materially motivated?[4] Is engagement in Western education, for example, more of a fulfilling of necessary mysterious rituals oriented to the bringing of material prosperity than it is to an understanding, appreciating and valuing of what is going on at depth? Maranz helpfully points out in terms of friendship – that African people are unlikely to enter into friendship that does not have ‘ulterior’ motives. “A disinterested friendship is something without sense” says Maranz (2001:65). If friendships with Westerners are in Africa only entered into with practical ambitions of material gain in mind, could the same not apply to engagement with Western educational systems?

Whether or not Western thinking is interesting to African people is in a way of little importance. In another sense it is of great importance. If indeed it is of little innate interest and primarily followed for the sake of material advantage, then that implies that it is not otherwise owned or innately valued. This implies that maintenance of the African educational system is likely to remain the responsibility of Western donors, and that African academia will be a ‘blind’ follower of its Western parent. There will be limited educational innovation from Africa. Education will remain rooted in the West. This further implies an ongoing rootedness of indigenous African thinking in ancient cultural traditions dictated by ancestors rather than in an appreciation of Western modernity (Balcomb 1996, Comaroff and Comaroff 2004). “Good things” come from being White and imitating what whites do, rather than from certain modern processes (Hansen 1978:76). Such a rootedness of thinking in ancient customs can be striking to Westerners. In actual fact, again and again an appearance of being modern and Western on the part of Africans is shown to be shallow in encounters with Western people.[5]

There seems to be enough evidence to justify a further hypothesis. That “introducing someone else’s scholarship in someone else’s language into one’s own tradition hook line and sinker is uninteresting to the recipient”. In the meeting of Western and African ways this is expressed differently by the different sides. Westerners lack of interest in African ways is proverbial. Even with the political-correct speech these days engaged, very few Westerners are very seriously interested in imitating African ‘superstitions’. African interest in Western thinking seems invariably to be pragmatic. That this is the case even in the church is demonstrated by the prominence of the prosperity Gospel (Some 2008:4).

It seems that; African people are reluctant to modernise their languages (Balcomb 1996). I had to consider the above sentence for a while. Usually the question of language of use in Africa is considered more Euro-centrically: The Europeans who find their languages in widespread use in Africa assume that this arises because African people consider European languages to be superior to their own. They further assume that European (and now in some ways global) economic hegemony is pushing ‘superior’ Western languages around the globe, at the cost of local tongues. Almost from one end to the other and from top to bottom of the African sub-continent[6] one finds modern African states functioning using European languages (exceptions may include Tanzania and Ethiopia). A reason often given for this is that African languages are either too many for each to be modernised, or too primitive to adapt to modern ways of life. Any desire of African people to keep modern life away from and distinct from their own traditions is less often perceived as a motivating factor, because African people are taken as passive receivers of ‘superior’ Western products. Perhaps many African people see primarily disadvantages in linking their own languages with something that they know can only run as long as it remains outside dependent.[7] Such possibilities are in the West given little consideration.

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Category: In Depth, Winter 2016

About the Author: Jim Harries, PhD (University of Birmingham), is is professor of religion with Global University and adjunct faculty with William Carey International University. He works closely with a wide variety of churches in western Kenya in informal theological education. These include many African founded churches, Pentecostal churches, and the Coptic Orthodox church. Jim uses indigenous languages, and local resources in his ministry. He chairs the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission and is the author of Vulnerable Mission: Insights into Christian Mission to Africa from a Position of Vulnerability (William Carey Library, 2011), Three Days in the Life of an African Christian Villager (New Generation Publishing, 2011), Theory to Practice in Vulnerable Mission: An Academic Appraisal (Wipf and Stock, 2012), Communication in Mission and Development: Relating to the Church in Africa (Wipf and Stock, 2013), Secularism and Africa: In the Light of the Intercultural Christ (Wipf and Stock, 2015), and New Foundations for Appreciating Africa: Beyond Religious and Secular Deceptions (VKW, 2016). Facebook: Vulnerable Mission. Twitter: @A4VM.

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