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Bible Translation as Mission

by Elliott Wright

The Algeria Bible translation team: Hocine, Kader, Erna, and Nadia.
The Algeria Bible translation team: Hocine, Kader, Erna, and Nadia.
Image by: Mission Contexts and Relationships
Open Bible with anchor cross resting on a page - Scripture is the first and foremost source for theological reflection within The United Methodist Church.  The anchor cross is given to every missionary.
Scripture is the first and foremost source for theological reflection within The United Methodist Church. The anchor cross is given to every missionary.
Image by: Mike DuBose/UMNS
Source: New World Outlook

New York, NY, April 29, 2011--The 400th anniversary of the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible is a dramatic reminder of a central theme in the Protestant mission movement: the drive to translate Scripture into the everyday languages people use.

In 2011, the Bible or parts of Scripture are available in 2,527 of the world's estimated 6,500 languages, including entire Bibles in 469 languages and the New Testament in 1,231, according to the United Bible Societies, a federation of 145 national groups that do much of the translation today and are part of mission history.

The anniversary of a famous translation also points to the fact that translation itself has theological and cultural implications and can raise challenges. The original Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Greek of the New Testament do not always flow smoothly into other languages.

Just a few years ago, United Methodist translators in Ouadhia, Algeria, faced the challenge of interpretation as they brought the Bible into Kabyle, the language of an indigenous mountain people. There was no Kabyle term for "faithfulness," which they decided to render "keeps his word." "Man of God" in Kabyle would have meant "husband of God" so was translated as "servant of God."

The KJV was neither the first English Bible nor primarily conceived as a missionary tool; rather, it served as common Scriptural ground for conflicting theological perspectives, an elusive goal. But it would become the first English Bible easily available to the laity. It was the Bible that British and American missionaries, including Methodists, took into the entire world, often providing the text translated into other languages in mission contexts.

A Personal Bible

King James I of England ordered an "authorized version" in 1604 at the request of those who wanted a translation that could be used by clergy and the increasingly literate laity. The work was done by 47 scholars working from original languages but leaning heavily on earlier English versions. It was initially published in a large folio edition formally presented to the king on May 2, 1611. More personal-sized editions followed, although it took several decades for the Authorized Version to gain the great popularity it would enjoy.

By the 20th century, the KJV itself would be difficult for many English-speaking people to understand. It was supplemented or in some quarters replaced by more modern-sounding translations. Yet it is still extensively used.

A move to put the Bible into the "vernacular" (everyday language) began fairly early in the Christian church. In the fourth century, both testaments were translated into Latin--the Vulgate, which would become the Bible of the Roman Catholic Church and the common Bible of those relatively few people who could read. The church generally resisted translations into the various regional and national languages put into written form over the years, but in the late 14th and 15th centuries vernacular Bibles appeared in German, Italian, Spanish, Czech, English, and other languages--sometimes with violent repercussions.

The Printing Press and Reformation

Two factors combined to accelerate translation. One was the moveable type printing press, invented by Johannes Guttenberg around 1440. The other was the Protestant Reformation, which put strong emphasis on the "priesthood of all believers," including the right to read and interpret Scripture. Reformer Martin Luther himself made popular translations into German beginning in the 1520s.

The late 18th and early 19th centuries saw great expansion of what scholar William A. Smalley calls "translation as mission." British, German, and American missionaries took with them the awareness that vernacular Bibles were essential in their work. Missionaries themselves often did translations, working from the original Biblical languages or from English or German texts. Methodist missionaries were responsible for translations of the full Bible into Fiji and other languages of the South Pacific. Native-born Methodists were instrumental in some translations, such as the Rev. Gaddiel Robert Acquaah, who brought the Bible into the Fante language of Ghana.

Bible Societies

The work of the translators was facilitated and the printing often done by Bible societies, non-denominational entities with a mission of spreading Holy Scripture. The Fante Bible was published by the British and Foreign Missionary Society, which was organized in 1804. Oldest of these societies is the Canstein Bible Society, set up in Halle, Germany, in 1710 to provide Scripture to the poor. The American Bible Society was organized in 1816. After the Second Vatican Council lifted restrictions on vernacular Bibles in the mid-1960s, Roman Catholics would become actively involved in Bible societies.

William Carey, a Baptist missionary in India, was at the center of one of the most extensive mission translation projects. He translated the Bible into both Bengali and Sanskrit in the early 1800s, tasks that necessitated his making grammars for both languages.

Once available in an everyday language, the Bible was often used as a text in teaching people to read. This was the case in England and the United States where early public schools used the King James Version as the common "reader," a practice that in the US would later lead to stormy political battles.

Language Challenges

In his book, Translation as Mission: Bible Translation in the Modern Missionary Movement, Professor Smalley sees the period of informal translation replaced in the 1940s by a more professional approach, although it still involved the Bible societies. Such work always begins with the original languages and is highly sensitive to cultural aspects of moving word images from one language to another. Translation involves interpretation and can face pitfalls. Mission-initiated translations do still occur, as in the example of the group of United Methodists in Ouadhia, Algeria.

In mission contexts, culture may play major roles in Bible translation/interpretation. A few years ago, a team from the General Board of Global Ministries ran into a dilemma while working on Sunday school lessons for the emerging Methodist community in Cambodia. The text was John 6, where Jesus refers to himself as the "bread of life." This was a big problem. "Bread" in the local language evoked memories of the French colonial past when only the privileged ate bread. The educators used the phrase, "I am the food of life."

The work of translating the Bible into new languages continues, with 10 more added in 2010, the United Bible Societies reports. It is often slow work. The 47 King James Version translators worked for seven years. The group of volunteers in Ouadhia, Algeria, spent some 20 years on their Kabyle translation. Said one Algerian translator: "The wealth of the contents of the Bible needs careful work."


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Date posted: May 04, 2011