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


Theological education, even when using indigenous languages, can be uninspiring to African people if its implicit underlying pre-suppositions remain European. Use of European-languages as educational media minimises the likelihood of deep connection with African ways of life, but often has the pragmatic plus of being accompanied by outside funds. A preference for use of outside languages in formal contexts in Africa arises in part from African people’s desire to protect their own tongues and ways of life from outside ‘attack’. These and other observations that point to a disconnect in translation between African and European languages speak powerfully to Bible translation concerns. They suggest that translation should be facilitated locally, and not be processed through Western pre-suppositional screens. They point to a need for Bible translators to spearhead a wider movement in which Christian mission from the West engages local contexts and languages, especially in theological education. The wider missionary body could benefit greatly from a more extensive dissemination of linguistic expertise that is currently captive to Bible translation communities. Dissemination of such will encourage more people to advocate for the use of indigenous language Bibles, and in turn begin to facilitate an escape from the linguistic naivety represented by the hegemony of European languages in theological education in Africa.


Many Westerners implicitly assume that they are able to effectively engage with African issues, or at least are effectively able to connect to the engagement of African issues, using English.[1] In Anglophone Africa especially, I estimate that 99.999% of engagement between African people and Western people occurs in Western languages. Few seem to adequately consider the full ramifications of this extremely one-sided arrangement. Even some Westerners who are familiar with African languages do their serious inter-cultural engagement using English.

My engaging in discussion of African theology using African languages in indigenous contexts revealed a surprising issue: discussion easily becomes thoroughly uninspiring. The reason for its being for me at times so uninspiring seems frequently to reflect my inability at connecting with the worldview concerned. Even while using an African language, my own thinking remains deeply rooted in my own British way of life. Hence I easily approach issues from a ‘wrong’ angle; one that fails to engage at depth with where my African colleagues are coming from. I have been forced to conclude that understanding that arises from an unfamiliar pre-suppositional base can result in a fundamental disconnect. Realising that this was so for myself forced me to ask; could it be that African people are similarly uninspired by Western scholarship? In other words, is African people’s interest in the globalised English language educational system primarily pragmatic (it brings in the dollars) when actually there is a radical disconnect between it and who and what they are?

The possibility of such radical cultural-linguistic disconnect has serious implications for Bible translation. Should the ‘disconnected’ be the ones guiding bible translation? How can one, in the light of such disconnect, encourage Bible use and theological education in indigenous languages? Does a Western missionary’s following arise from the dollars that they carry? Are the Bible translations into African languages that are guided by Westerners implicitly ‘Western’? Is SIL, by concentrating linguistic expertise into Bible translation, denying the wider missiological world a vital set of insights? These are some of the questions that I address in this article.

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Category: In Depth, Winter 2016

About the Author: Jim Harries, PhD (University of Birmingham), 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), The Godless Delusion: Europe and Africa (Wipf & Stock, 2017), and a novel African Heartbeat: And A Vulnerable Fool (2018). Facebook: Vulnerable Mission. Twitter: @A4VM.

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