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

Pertinent Examples

I want at this stage to point to examples of issues arising above that are pertinent to our discussion. I speak tentatively, even  after 25 years of close identification with African people (having been born and raised in the UK). I seem to be outside of the boundaries of conventional linguistics.

Foundational differences in underlying philosophical belief are clearly a part of our concern. The English tradition and hence language (as used in England) has become one in which a spiritual/physical dualism is largely presupposed. In Africa, monism is presupposed (for more detail on this see Harries 2013a). This difference affects the meaning and impact of all terms used in the languages concerned. Almost any word can be taken by way of example. Sheep – in the UK is a domestic animal used for the production of meat and wool. In parts of Africa it is an animal that is especially appropriate for slaughter for the cleansing of ritual uncleanness. A pen is in the UK a writing device. In Africa the pen’s association with literacy and at the same time foreign domination (to good and ill – as foreign domination has come in hand with much prosperity) is never far from view. Soil is to the West a physical medium with complex chemical properties and biological potentialities. In Africa, soil can bear the personality of its owner, so that someone taking soil from someone else’s home is easily suspected of intending to bewitch them.

To these generic differences in word impacts can be added numerous more specific differences between African languages and English that arise from a multitude of dissimilarities in people’s cultures and habituated language uses. A classic example is prayer. In Christian circles familiar to me in the UK, the ideal of prayer is that it is an emotion-free talking with God by an individual either alone, or with a group that participates passively. Bantu languages often use a version of omba or lomba which implicitly ties prayer to asking-for something. More generally terms that are translated into English as prayer incorporate worship, singing, preaching, ‘emotional’ experiences, prophecy, sometimes possession, demon-casting and so on. Another example would be holiness. Mojola (2003) makes a very good and very important point about African understandings of holiness as being that they are strongly connected to ritual cleansing from defilement by ancestral spirits – something little connected to Western notions of holiness as arising from proximity to God. Having said that for the West holiness arises from a proximity to God, this raises the question of what people understand by God. Depending in part at least on which term missionaries have chosen from African people’s indigenous vocabulary to translate the English word God; African people’s innate understanding of God can be vastly different from that of Europeans (Harries 2011).

The above two paragraphs just begin to illustrate how different worlds in Africa as against Europe fail to engage in the course of implicit or explicit translations between them. A sensible dialogue or even monologue in one language can, when translated, become nonsense in another. The reason Europeans are often unaware of this is because their languages, especially English, are so rarely translated into (Venuti 1998:10). Even when they are translated into, such as in the African writers’ series,[10] questions concerning the basis of the translations being made are rarely considered at great depth. Western people seem to read African-written books largely for entertainment. African people may be very aware of the difficulties involved in the translation going on around them, but they may fail to find an audience who will take their concerns very seriously. It is often hardly in their interests to make such difficulties known, as pretence at understanding is in today’s donor-dominated Africa usually much more profitable than would be confessions of ignorance or suggestions regarding linguistic incompatibilities.



I would like to discuss some of the practical implications that arise should the above hypotheses be correct. This is not to say that the above is the only evidence supporting either my thesis, or the need for the below adjustments advocated to enabling more effective intercultural communication.

Implication One. The Bible needs translating – but may be not into all languages.[11] Whereas European and African languages meeting is rather like Figure 5, the meeting of African languages may more closely resemble Figure 3 or even 2. The possibility of the local spread of God’s word and the Gospel from one African tribe to another has recently been a much neglected theme. Even the term ‘African missions’ quickly has us think of Africans talking in English and/or coming to the West, rather than their reaching their ethnic neighbours through indigenous languages. All too often in Africa it is Westerners who come from thousands of miles away to lead mission outreaches to people who border on already-Christianised communities. People of similar origin who have lived next to each other for centuries usually have a lot in common with each other; certainly more so than very distant tribes – such as the Anglo Saxon (Western Europe) as against the Bantu (many parts of Africa). That missionary advantage should be factored into our thinking and should be exploited.

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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), New Foundations for Appreciating Africa: Beyond Religious and Secular Deceptions (VKW, 2016), and a novel African Heartbeat: And A Vulnerable Fool (2018). Facebook: Vulnerable Mission. Twitter: @A4VM.

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