The Impact of Vernacular Translations

Synopsis:

The Scriptures in the vernacular enable people to understand spiritual truths about God and his will for them. Through access to the sacred text, individuals and the Christian community can take responsibility for their growth and nurture.

Because the Bible has been translated into languages of the global South and East, translators in these contexts have been equipped to challenge interpretations of Christianity from Western missionaries. These days, conservative themes in Christianity, particularly regarding attitudes to the sacred Scriptures, are more likely to be found in the Church of the global South and East than that of the West.

The methodology of Bible translation has changed dramatically over the past 200 years. Pioneer missionaries took the gospel to isolated people groups. Although they had no training in linguistics, anthropology, or translation, they developed writing systems, compiled dictionaries, and published literature in the local languages.

By the end of the 20th century, Bible translation had become specialized, requiring many years of training in linguistics, sociolinguistics, anthropology, literacy and translation. Most translators were still from the West, because in the global South and East speakers of local languages usually lacked formal education in theology, including biblical languages. By the beginning of the 21st century, native speakers had greater access to theological training. Some became biblical and translation scholars, and some have set up their own Bible translation organizations.

Identifying who controls a Bible translation project, and therefore makes theological decisions associated with translation, presents a significant challenge. At one point in history this was the foreign missionary’s domain. Increasingly, it is the indigenous translators’ responsibility, operating under the authority of their local churches in the global South and East, where the remaining Bible translation needs are found.

Full Article: Article 7 – The Impact of Vernacular Translations

How the Bible has affected decolonization

The Scriptures in the vernacular enable people to understand spiritual truths about God and his will for them. Through access to the sacred text, individuals and the Christian community can take responsibility for their growth and nurture. They are “no longer bound by what others say, they can develop their own theology and apply it to daily living” (Moreau 2000:125).

Because the Bible has been translated into languages of the global South and East, it has equipped the translators in these contexts to challenge interpretations of Christianity brought to them from Western missionaries. Initially missionary translators produced “vernacular alphabets, grammars, dictionaries and vocabularies of the language, supplementing these with compilations of proverbs, idioms, axioms, ethnographic materials and accounts of local religions, customary practice and law, history and political institutions” (Sanneh 1993:140).

This exhaustive service for the vernacular, according to Sanneh, “triggered unimaginable consequences in wider society, resulting almost everywhere in arousing deep loyalties towards the indigenous cause” (1993:140). This often stimulated nationalism as people from these previously non-literate cultures continued to encounter Western people. This was fuelled no doubt by how many missionaries during the colonial era “set out with the noble intention of ‘civilizing’ the people they went to serve by teaching them Western culture and languages” (Hill 2006:84) because the local vernacular was “perceived to imprison people in their ‘barbaric’ past” (Hill 2006:84).

When colonialism ended the door was opened for the expansion of the Christian faith to people and places that had not yet heard or embraced the gospel.

When colonialism ended the door was opened for the expansion of the Christian faith to people and places that had not yet heard or embraced the gospel. Sanneh reflects on what happened in Africa:

With vernacular translation went cultural renewal, and that encouraged Africans to view Christianity with favourable light. [Furthermore] Africans stepped forward to lead expansion without the disadvantage of foreign compromise. Young people, especially women, were given a role in the church…. Christian expansion was virtually limited to those societies whose people had preserved the indigenous name for God…. Africans best responded to Christianity where the indigenous religions were the strongest, not weakest, suggesting a degree of indigenous compatibility with the gospel, and an implicit conflict with colonial powers. (Sanneh 2003:18)

The development of mother tongues as the means of receiving the gospel also caused a structural shift in world Christianity. Theology was decolonized resulting in World Christianity being “weaned of the political habits of Christendom” (Sanneh 2003:24). Is this not similar to how the Holy Spirit in Acts 2 acted with those who gathered in Jerusalem and could understand the gospel in their own language? The Bible in the vernacular means “salvation is no longer an offering from an alien culture but an offering from within the culture” (Noll 2004:310).

How the Bible is read in the global South and East

Differences between the Church in the West and that of the global South and East means a preference by wealthier Western countries to favour “a liberal interpretation of Scripture” (Jenkins 2006a:67) while those located in poorer parts of the South and East maintain “a more conservative Christianity and traditional view of Scripture” (Jenkins 2006a:68).

Conservative themes in Christianity, particularly regarding attitudes to the sacred Scriptures, are more likely to be found amongst African, Asian and Pacific Islands Christians. Jenkins observes that this includes a

greater respect for the authority of Scripture, especially in matters of morality; a willingness to accept the Bible as an inspired text and a tendency to literalism; a special interest in supernatural elements of Scripture, such as miracles, visions, and healings; a belief in the continuing power of prophecy; and a veneration for the Old Testament, which is treated as equally authoritative as the New. (2006a:68)

The Bible is read in a radically different manner in the global South and East….

The Bible is also read in a radically different manner in the global South and East because it “speaks to everyday real-world issues of poverty and debt, famine and urban crisis, racial and gender oppression, and state brutality and persecution” (Jenkins 2006a:68). Their context is that of traditional as well as world religions, and they are affected by social injustice, violence and corruption.

In this way the ‘Southern’ Bible as Jenkins calls it, “carries a freshness and authenticity that adds vastly to its credibility as an authoritative source and as a guide for daily living” (2006a:68). Such cultures more easily identify with the Bible as being just for them. In some African contexts, Christians have been enthusiastic about “the obvious cultural parallels that exist between their own societies and those of the Hebrew Bible, especially in the world of the patriarchs” (Jenkins 2006a:68).

Christians in the West face the challenge of secularism, consumerism and the relativism of postmodernity.

On the other hand, Christians in the West face the challenge of secularism, consumerism and the relativism of postmodernity. It follows that theologians in such climates must address faith in a time of doubt. Their challenge is great since people in a secular context view the Bible as being written for a society which no longer exists and exhibits moral laws that do not seem relevant to the postmodern world.

Changes in how translations are done

The methodology of Bible translation has changed dramatically over the past 200 years.The pioneer missionaries took the gospel to an isolated people group. They learned the local language in order to simply communicate and Bible translation was only one of their many responsibilities. Although they had no training in linguistics, anthropology, or translation, they were the first to develop writing systems, compile dictionaries, and publish literature in the language. While native speakers played important roles, it was the “missionaries [who] normally instigated and directed the translation” (Smalley 1991:31). There were some exceptions, such as Samuel Ajayi Crowther, who translated the Bible into his own Yoruba language of Nigeria.

By the end of the 20th century changes were under way. Preparing for Bible translation became specialized, requiring many years of training in linguistics, sociolinguistics, anthropology, literacy and translation. Specialist organizations such as the Bible Societies, SIL International, Wycliffe Bible Translators and others were set up to focus on Bible translation and provide the resources that translators needed. Computer software that imported a translation from a related language to use as a first draft was developed, and non-Roman scripts were developed to allow publishing in these scripts.

Most of the translators were still from the West because in the global South and East native speakers usually lacked formal education in theology, including biblical languages. As a result there were situations where “missionary control of the translation process usually lasted longer and was more pervasive than necessary” (Smalley 1991:32).

Control of a Bible translation project has been shifting from being in the hands of the foreign missionary to being under the control or supervision of the local churches in partnership with the Bible translation agency.

By the beginning of the 21st century education levels had continued to rise in the global South and East, meaning that more and more native speakers were able to get theological training. Some became biblical and translation scholars. Smalley suggests that the symbolic date for this transfer from West to global South and East started in 1970 – the “era of non-missionary translation” (1991:32).

Some translators from the global South and East have set up their own Bible translation organizations. They may work as translators in their own language or cross-culturally in related or completely different languages. The translations might incorporate extra-textual helps because the audience needs some background information. A specialist translation consultant checks their work. The translated Scriptures may be in printed form, or appear on iPods, iPads, DVDs, mobile phone platforms, or be memorised and told in person (Hill 2006:82-83).

Control of a Bible translation project has been shifting from being in the hands of the foreign missionary to being under the control or supervision of the local churches in partnership with the Bible translation agency. The foreigner may still have a role, but it is usually as an advisor, mentor or advocate.

A theology of language and culture

Bosch observes how Western science, philosophy and theology have been “designed to serve the interests of the West, more particularly to legitimize ‘the world that… now exists’” (1991:424). The rest of the world views this Western agenda suspiciously. After all, how can the West offer solutions to the rest of the world when it operates from this mindset? This is true in particular if Western Christianity has viewed its theology as being ‘from above’ in terms of its interaction with Scripture, Christian tradition and philosophy.

On the other hand, theology ‘from below’ also relies on Scripture and tradition but incorporates the social sciences and takes a particular focus on the “poor or culturally marginalized” (Bosch 1991:423). This kind of theologizing claims to be contextual because it focuses on human needs. It gains credibility because it strives to make Scripture meet those needs.

Theology ‘from below’ may be more helpful in defining a theology of language and culture….

Theology ‘from below’ may be more helpful in defining a theology of language and culture because it relates to people groups who speak languages that are in a minority in their political or geographic context. Such a theology helps to clarify God’s intentions in the areas of communication, language, and accessibility to his word. Such a theological position is based on the incarnation – how the word became flesh and dwelt among all humankind. Incorporated in this theology is the premise that God wants to communicate with people in a manner that each person can understand in a personal way.

This position rightly affirms that “no language is better than another to communicate with God” (Hill 2006:86). In order for the gospel to take root in a person’s worldview and lead to personal and community transformation, it is best done in the mother tongue because “the gospel transforms and redeems cultures” (Hill 2006:86).

Finding a unifying relationship between ‘theology from above’ and ‘theology from below’ is important in Bible translation. The contribution of the former focuses on God and his purpose, plans and ways of helping people know his will. The later applies the Scriptures in ways that appropriately meets the unique needs of the marginalized people groups.

Conclusion

A significant challenge for Bible translation organizations is the shift of the centre of gravity of the Church, including who controls a Bible translation project and therefore makes theological decisions associated with translation. At one point in history this was the foreign missionary, but increasingly it is the indigenous translators operating under the authority of their local churches and these churches are in the global South and East because that is where the remaining Bible translation needs are found.

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