Ronald J. Sim:
Bible Translation in Africa


No one can fairly doubt the unique place William Tyndale holds in Renaissance humanities. Standing as a man of the Renaissance, engaged in a task that called down the curtain on the Middle Ages, employing the New Testament Greek text Erasmus had only recently published, and pioneering the translation of the Christian scriptures almost contemporaneously with Martin Luther, Tyndale is an innovator of the first water.

And yet Tyndale was in fact returning, all unwittingly, to an earlier version. For the first centuries of the church the translation of its scriptures was a natural accompaniment of its own expansion. Syriac, Latin, Sahidic, Bohairic Fayyumic, Armenian, Georgian, Gothic, Ethiopic, Slavonic, Sogdian ... the list is short or long according to individual judgements, but impressive in anyone's book. From Greek the Christian writings went into one language after another, creating alphabets on the way, and usually a new vernacular literature as a spin-off.

Translation followed rather than preceded expansion, as slowly but steadily the church did what it saw as its work. Well, the Greek-speaking church. The Latin church of western Europe exhibited little of the stomach for translation displayed by its eastern, orthodox wing. Punic of north Africa, it left undone. Apart from Latin, no Romance language was translated in the north, no German language, the western church rather stood against the eastern domestication of Gothic for liturgical employ; in the west no Celtic language, although prior to the holy Roman Empire, not the work of Caedmon and Bede.

It has never been spelled out why the Greek and Latin communities should have turned out so differently, but turn out differently they did. And it is well discussed how this neglect hardened into antiscripturism which sought to restrict and then prohibit vernacular translation.

What Tyndale achieved was a return to the earlier pattern. In this, where John Wycliffe was truly pioneer, Tyndale was a master. Knowing no Greek, Wycliffe worked from the Vulgate, producing a secondary translation. The outcome was also moderate in its achievements. It was a first, and for that reason its greatness can be acknowledged, but its English was overshadowed by the Latin source. But Tyndale mastered Greek, and went on to study Hebrew, as foundation for his efforts. And the fact that so much of his phrasing has endured the test of time, entering into the KJV tradition of the English-speaking world, speaking still with remarkable force across five hundred years with a simplicity of style that is for the most part untrammelled by interference from Greek, tell its own story. The emphasis on vernacular scripture that he and other Reformation figures had placed became a paradigm of post-Reformation activity that fed into the missions movement of the late 18th through 20th century.

Translation Degree Programmes (TDP) is a recent initiative whose goal is to establish training within Africa for the still-continuing task of Bible-translation. The continent is home to roughly one third of the world's languages (some two out of six thousand of which slightly more than one hundred have a full Bible, and slightly under two hundred have the New Testament. (A further two hundred and eightly approximately are currently in progress.) According to David Barrett, missions statistician, no other continental area has seen such unprecedented concentration of translation effort during the era of modern missions. Expatriate missionaries have played a central role in most of these translations, deriving their vision from the post-Reformation emphasis on the role of scripture in the individual life. These missionaries of the 19th and early 20th century usually had some form of theological training, but learned their African language ‘from scratch’, without any linguistic training. Indeed, until the 20th century there was little linguistic training to be had, even in their home countries, and Africa's modern pioneer translators were frequently linguistic pioneers as well.

The Bible Societies grew in this era also, as the major publishers of this missionary output, and from mid-20th century were joined by the young organization Wycliffe Bible Translators (WBT). The latter efforts continued the missionary tradition, achieving a fairly rapid expansion from its initial work in Mexico in the 1930s and 1940s. WBT gives focussed attention to the linguistic complexity of translation into non-Indo-european languages. Today, a number of other smaller organizations also operate worldwide, most of which are national agencies for the task of literacy and translation work into minority languages in various countries of the Two Thirds world, with several independent western publishing agencies at work in addition to the United Bible Societies (UBS).

Many of these earlier translations already referred to have been or are being revised by African Christians who are first language speakers. Also, a substantial number of first time translations have African participation at the centre. This is a significant shift, since the native speaker can bring to translation a felicity of expression and nuance in a way that no outsider could ever do. Training of these translators has been somewhat ad hoc. Some had theological training, and efforts were made by UBS and members of WBT to provide an introduction to elementary linguistic techniques for working in a previously unwritten, unresearched language, and an seminar approach to ‘hands on’ translation experience. Occasionally it proved possible to take a small number of translators to England or the United States for more formal training in either theological or linguistic disciplines. On the whole, however, few African translators had the advantage of much formal training for their task.

In the late 1980s, among members of WBT at work in Africa, there was serious discussion as to how the training bottleneck might be tackled, as a result of which, I was asked to establish some form of training within existing theological institutions, with Nairobi selected as the most likely starting point.

Out of a number of possible colleges, two responded with specific interest and discussion moved to the question of curriculum, and a blueprint for full degree level work soon emerged. Teaching commenced in September 1990, with two students following a newly approved curriculum. This curriculum drew on the training offered by WBT to its own recruits, the experience of UBS and WBT translators in the field, and the recently founded degrees in translation studies available within the European Community for its own needs.

From this was forged an innovative study programme with focus on biblical languages, biblical studies, missiology, descriptive linguistics, and translation. A four-year BA is offered by Pan Africa Christian College, and a two-year MA by Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology, and TDP is the administrative service which provides the go-between for the Colleges and WBT. Although some basic courses in linguistics have been available in several missionary training centres of the western world in recent years, to our knowledge, these two programmes in Nairobi are the first to offer a tailor-made curriculum which integrates the various contributory disciplines into a single package.

As of now there are six Masters graduates and one with a BA degree, and six of the seven are re-engaged in translation in their home countries of Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana and Kenya. The programme currently has almost thirty students enrolled, and expects to graduate five or six each year, from this point on.

The greater part of Africa's population is served by the translation work of the recent past, although a substantial effort is still needed to revise the older (and usually rather wooden) missionary translations. In a continent of great ethnic and linguistic diversity, the greatest continuing lack of Christian scriptures lies with a substantial number of peoples for whom translation has lagged seriously behind the church's expansion, or whose small size has resulted in their undue neglect in national and ecclesiastical agendas. By definition these are the groups where education and literacy are lower and the level of bilingualism militates against the satisfactory use of existing translations in another major language of the region. The graduates of these two programmes in Nairobi will be involved in one of those tasks: either revising an older translation, making a first-time translation for their own people, or working cross-culturally with one of these hidden peoples.



Valid XHTML 1.0!