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

The possibility of language disconnect implies major advantages in favour of the sharing of Christian truths between neighbouring peoples. Why then are Bible translation and theological education almost universally Western-guided? Can linguistic expertise currently invested in Bible translation be effectively used in assisting the world of theological education; that really must be but rarely is engaged using African languages and thought-forms? If there is such a major understanding disconnect then are missionaries being followed for their dollars? This article suggests that Bible translation being carried out in Western contexts may be contributing to theological disconnect in African Christianity. It advocates for a much closer marriage between Bible translation linguistic expertise, and the rest of the mission endeavour, for the sake of major mutual advantage and the furtherance of the kingdom of God.




[1] Elmer is an example of a scholar who claims to be able to do this: “The principles in this book apply  … to all who want to serve others … Because these thoughts are drawn from the Scripture, from cross-cultural research and the experience of people from numerous countries the intended audience is not only Westerners but those who wish to serve God and his people regardless of their home country” (nd:12-13).

[2] I understand that this kind of research, that is based on an analysis of one’s own subjective responses to particular contexts and inter-human engagements, comes under the category of phenomenological research ( Although I here report my research on a very subjective basis and rooted only in the contexts of engagement mentioned in Table 1, I have informally been able to engage in various triangulations that have on my own valuation provided further justification for the outcomes that I go on to propose.

[3] The nature of the isolation I am referring to here is various. Because the exemplary mode of English language education in much of sub-Saharan Africa is what goes on in the USA or UK, there is an important way in which the ideal educational system for Africa is that which is unadulterated by African thinking. The more Western the appearance of an educational programme, in other words, the better.

[4] For discussion on this see Harries (2013a).

[5] See this article for an explanation of how in Africa, and elsewhere, ‘real’ issues can be concealed while apparent issues are not the key ones (Harries In Press).

[6] i.e. sub Saharan Africa.

[7] Housebuilding would seem to parallel this issue in Kenya, and elsewhere in Africa. Relatively few urban African people actually settle permanently in the urban areas. Many see long-term security in their rural homes, so treat the urban as a place to live for a period for the sake of material gain, rather than as a true ‘home’.

[8] A mixture of English, Swahili and other languages spoken especially by Nairobi youth.

[9] There has been a great deal of debate about this amongst linguists. Some have suggested that the language of Black Americans should be considered a separate language from English.


[11] This statement of course begs the definition of what is a language? Few seem to consider the need to translate the bible into Yorkshire, Cornish, or Brummy. Germany managed to become very Christian without bibles in Platt Deutsch or Bavarian.

[12] I appreciate that this sentence is Eurocentric. My anticipated audience for this paper is primarily Westerners / Europeans.

[13] I believe that it may not be necessary to so engage every mother tongue language. The language of theological discussion needs to be an African language. Other African languages can subsequently benefit from the outcome of what has been done in that African language.

[14] As already commented – mission interests are often more oriented in practice to breadth than to depth in what they do.

[15] Although, aiming at translation that transfers meaning has its own problems. I cannot go into these in depth here. I have referred to them in some of my other writings. See Harries (2009).



Balcomb, Anthony O. 1996. Modernity and the African experience. Bulletin for Contextual Theology in South Africa and Africa 3/2: 12-20. (accessed 29th April 2004).

Comaroff, Jean and Comaroff, John L., 2004, ‘Notes on Afro-modernity and the Neo World Order: an afterword.’ 329-347 In: Weiss, Brad, (ed.) 2004, Producing African Futures: Ritual and Reproduction in a Neoliberal Age. London.Boston: Brill.

Elmer, Duane, 2006, Cross-Cultural Servanthood: Serving the World in Christlike Humility. Downers Grove, IL.: Intervarsity Press.

Harries, Jim. 2009, ‘Pragmatic Linguistics Applied to Bible Translation, Projects and Inter-cultural Relationships: an African focus.’ 75-95 In: Cultural Encounters: a Journal for the Theology of Culture, Volume 5/1, Winter 2009.

Harries, Jim. 2010. ‘The Prospects for Mother Tongue Theological Education in Western Kenya.’ AJET African Journal for Evangelical Theology. 2010, 29/1, 3-16.

Harries, Jim, 2011. ”The Name of God in Africa’ and related contemporary theological, development and linguistic concerns.’ 1-22 In: Harries, Jim, 2011. Vulnerable Mission: Insights into Christian Mission to Africa from a Position of Vulnerability. Pasadena: William Carey Library.

Harries, Jim. 2013a. Communication in Mission and Development: Relating to the Church in Africa. Oregon: Wipf and Stock.

Harries, Jim. 2013b. ‘The Immorality of the Promotion of Non-Indigenous Languages in Africa.’ Global Missiology Vol 2, No 10 (2013): Language, Culture and Mission.

Harries, Jim, (In Press.) ‘Jigger Fleas, Spirits, Inter-cultural Theology and the Development of Africa.’  Global Missiology.

Hughes, Dewi and Bennett, Matthew. 1998. God of the Poor: A Biblical Vision of God’s Present Rule. Cumbria: Paternoster Publications.

Mojola, Aloo Osotsi, 2003, ‘Holiness and Purity in the Book of Leviticus – a problem in the Luyia dialects.’ A paper presented at AICMAR – AST, Butere, Kenya on August 12-15, 2003.

Some, Kipchumba and Muirui, Billy, 2008. ‘How Unscrupulous Preachers are using Prosperity Gospel to Enrich Themselves’. 4. Saturday Nation, October 11th 2008.

Venuti, Lawrence, 1998, The Scandals of Translation: Towards an Ethics of Difference.  London: Routledge.

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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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