Ronald J Sim:
Changing Paradigms in Bible translation

This article is reprinted with permission from Perspectives on Leadership Training, published by the Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology, Kenya, 1994. It is reproduced without endnotes, and with a reduced bibliography.

In Africa today, approximately 100 languages have an adequate Bible, and less than 200 others have an adequate New Testament (Grimes 1989). Of these, a surprisingly high proportion represent translation work which was begun between 1820 and 1920. This represents a small fraction of Africa's languages, and ignores for the moment a silent drama being enacted behind the scenes, about which, read on...

Taken together, the bare statistics reveal little of the massive investment of human vision, energy, and toil that was undoubtedly involved. That investment was indeed stupendous. I have no wish to strike an over-laudatory note in praise of the missionary or mission of years past, nor of the present day, but there is room for a due acknowledgement of the efforts made, and the achievements realized. Long, arduous years of painstaking effort preceded every Bible and New Testament completed.

In 1826 Robert Moffatt took himself off into the bush, leaving his family at Kuruman (in the modern state of South Africa) for an extended period to improve his knowledge of Tlapi-Tswana. Several years later, in 1830, he undertook a protracted and arduous journey to the then Cape colony where he taught himself to hand-set the Gospel of Luke on a disused Government press. Soon after he set up his own press in Kuruman, whence he proceeded to struggle with the drying rate of ink in the dry climate, in his efforts to publish each portion as it was completed. The New Testament, the first to be completed by an outsider in an African language, was published in 1839.

Usually, it was work done in the dark of the evening, after the busyness of the day was past. In most cases, the work probably resembled the gossamer fabric of a dream, in which progress was slow and small in comparison with the burgeoning growth of medical and educational efforts in the surrounding community.

But the commitment of the men (and their women partners) whose achievement these translations were, remains clear. Theirs was a vision of an established African church whose members could pick up the Christian Scriptures in their own language, and read it, preach it, teach it ... a church whose spiritual life was strong and vibrant, whose people were literate, whose worship and witness was their own. Their vision was a developing reality founded on the availability of a Book, translated into the languages men and women used in the home.

The Church's Traditional Paradigm for translation

Church historians have paid scant attention to the part played by Bible translation: little more than passing mention is given to it in most historical accounts of the growth of the church, whether in Africa or elsewhere. But even a casual acquaintance with the records (see especially United Bible Society 1987) suggests that church-planting and evangelism for the one hundred years between about 1820 and 1920 followed a bilateral model, namely, that as the Christian message entered a community, the early years of preaching and teaching (oral activity) were accompanied by a parallel attention to Bible translation (written activity).

It may be contended that early missionary activity was generally holistic, in which the oral proclamation of the gospel was accompanied by social, medical and educational thrusts also. Moffatt's slogan (he would have termed it his ‘watchword’) of ‘Bible and Plough’ reveals a vision which combined social and spiritual witness; to this day development remains an arm of the church's ministry. Accepting an early holism of vision and practice, my contention here is that from the beginning Scripture translation was an integral part of the programme, and that it was fundamental to the missionary spread of the Christian faith. This is perhaps nowhere better exemplified than among the Baganda, where the early Christians were apparently known as ‘The Readers’, such was the emphasis on Scripture fostered by Alex Mackay in the 1880s. That there was a unique, if not outstanding effort in Africa to provide translations of Scripture in the vernacular languages is forcibly argued by Barrett (1968:191)

For the first time in history a mass movement... has been accompanied by ... the whole vast range of vernacular scriptures... Never before in the history of missions has such a stupendous effort been made to provide Scriptures in the vernacular as has been done in Africa.

This might be termed the traditional paradigm of the church's international expansion. It ought not to be restricted to the post-Reformation period of mission, for attention to vernacular Scripture is evident in the patristic period and in Reformation Europe. Finally, note that until the period of modern mission, translation was a church, not para-church activity. It became mission-bound in the voluntary society’ (Walls 1988), and has never really been a church ministry since then; perhaps because the church has failed to reincorporate it into her programme.

Within the confines of space afforded here, there is no opportunity to offer adequate support to this thesis of bilaterality, but Chergwin (1954) and Watkins (1978) offer some.

One of the most remarkable aspects of this vision and its realization in one community after another, is that it was attempted before the modern science of linguistics had any contribution to offer the translators. Alphabets were created for hitherto unwritten languages before there were any techniques that could be applied to assist the alphabet-makers. Indeed, in most cases, in the century to which we refer, there was not even the rudiments of phonetics to sharpen the ear of the investigator. For example, Waddell's (1868) brief paragraph with notes on an orthography for Efik are readily interpretable by a linguist today, and apart from writing only five instead of seven vowels, his account stands. The early portions in Efik were indeed published with only five vowels, but by the time the New Testament was published in 1862, this had been corrected to seven. Commenting on Waddell's senior colleague, Hugh Goldie, a recent doctoral dissertation notes that, compared with Waddell, Goldie was

a much more sophisticated linguist, and somehow accomplished the (to me inconceivable) feat of analyzing the grammatical structure of the language with considerable success in spite Of not understanding the tonal system or (apparently) even being able to hear the tone consciously with any degree of consistency. I presume that Goldie could imitate and reproduce Efik tone without being aware of what (precisely) he was doing; otherwise I cannot imagine how he was capable of communicating in the language, as he almost surely was. [Cook (1985:4)]

If Cook is right, then it would seem that Goldie could indeed handle Efik tone in oral communication, even if he shows no evidence of having grappled with its import lingusitically, and makes no consistent attempt to mark it in the translation. The nearest Goldie gets is in an occasional mention of what he terms ‘Prosody’, though whether he intends tonal features or poetic rhythm is not clear. That Goldie and Waddell heard something is clear from a remark concerning ‘accented vowels’ in Waddell (1868:674). The great majority of languages in sub-Saharan Africa are tonal in nature, and it must remain an enduring disappointment that so little attempt was made to mark cases. On the other hand, the sheer complexity of tonal systems, often with perturbations which defy explanations based on ‘surface grammar’, have only proved amenable to linguistically-motivated explanation in the last twenty-five years. These rather technical explanations generally depend upon a level of linguistic description which ‘underlies’ the surface pronunciation, and posits such theoretical constructs as tonal downstep and floating tones. If Goldie and Waddell had been able in the 1850S to make any advances in the marking of tone it would have been truly miraculous!

In the same cause, serious attempts began to be made to unravel the intricacies of languages all round the continent, and these also preceded the rise of even the modest attempts to describe non-European languages made in North America by men like Franz Boas (1858-1942), Leonard Bloomfield (1887-1949) and Edward Sapir (1884-1939) in the early decades of the 20th century.

Cultural differences, between the ancient biblical societies and the contemporary African societies where the work was developing, made the translators' task a constant search for innovatory solutions, a constant wrestling for a balance between faithfulness and communicativeness. Turning again to Efik, the Lord's prayer, translated in the 1850s bears eloquent witness to this, in one particular situation. It is quoted here in a back-translation into English:

Our Father who lives on high, make your name great beyond all other names. Come King of the world. Make all people on earth do what you like, as the people on high do Give us food which we shall eat today.
Stand off (forgive) for the bad things which we do, even as we forgive to those who do us evil. Let us not hear temptation. Save us quite from the evil spirit Satan, because everything on high and on earth belongs to you. You also encircle (rule) all the world for ever and ever. Amen. (Waddell (1868:677))

There is no feeling of a literal, wooden attempt at ‘King James’ Efik evident here.

Too often such work is belittled by the modern counterparts of such pioneers — the young, confident, linguistically somewhat sophisticated, denim-clad denizens of the late 20th century missionary force. It is true, some early translation work has stood the test of time poorly; some was rather quickly superseded; some solutions tried would raise more than an eyebrow from today's translation consultants! The remarkable thing is that so much was achieved by an intuitive groping after an elusive ideal. And it was on the basis of such very human efforts that God dared to found his New Community in sub-Saharan Africa.

The Church's Recent Paradigm

As the decades passed, the new, indigenous Christian communities began to make their presence felt. It is estimated that by 1900, one-tenth of the population of Africa acknowledged allegiance to the new faith. Nor was that population confined to those ethno-linguistic groups where expatriate missionaries had settled and worked; increasingly as the 20th century got under way, it was African Christians themselves who took up Christ's commission ‘to go...’ Africa was as linguistically diverse then as now — see figures below — and her people carried the oral gospel into language after language. It is a contention here that their very success contributed to the (probably partly sub-conscious) abandonment of the earlier bilateral model: the church expanded faster than missionaries could translate. The welter of languages must have seemed endless and the possibility or hope of translating for every community receded; enthusiastic African evangelists took the translation which had been made available in their own language and used it as their preaching and teaching tool in neighbouring communities also.

It is suggested here that this was a major and significant reason. But it would be folly to hold to a reductionist line on this. Very clearly there were other reasons. As the nineteenth century approached its close, at least two other factors brought about a change in emphasis in some, though not all, missionary circles on the African continent. The growing influence of Enlightenment thinking in the European church resulted in new foci of attention. First, there was an optimistic expectation of approaching millennial blessing on earth, as the gospel flowered worldwide. This stream of thought drew much from the prevailing intellectual climate of the Enlightenment. Second, there was a concomitant close identification of Western culture, broadly conceived as ‘Christian’ and ‘civilized’, with Christian mission; hence the growing identification of colonialism with certain mission efforts. These were two key influences in reducing Bible dependence and Bible confidence within the missionary force.

At the same time, missionaries themselves, in whose hands the translation enterprise rested at that time, sought a solution to the bogie of proliferation of translations via the philosophy of what came to be known as the Union Bible. This took the goal, laudable in itself, of covering as many ‘dialects’ as possible in a single translation. It was not always well-conceived linguistically, however, and led to an over-optimistic picture of what needed to be done.

It is not that translation stopped, nor even that it slowed down. However, it does seem that the growth of the church in early 20th century Africa outstripped the efforts o missionary-translators, and eventually, it seems, affected the capacity to expand into new communities.

At any rate, since the 1920s, it seems safe to conclude that many missions, man missionaries, and many African Christian communities accepted the emerging status quo namely, that the church in an ethno-linguistic community of a multi-ethnic nation should not expect to have any translated part of the Word of God in its own language. Needless say, the community in which the church was established earlier may have received mother tongue translation. It seems to have been a common (but ethnocentric) assumption th the community reached later would also get accustomed to using it too. And this is spite of the apparent link between the provision of vernacular scripture and the subsequent rise of independent churches (Barrett 1968). It would also seem that the crucial role scriptures played in reforming the churches' life went unrecognized by the reformed themselves.

This assumption gives rise to what B F Grimes (1986) calls the ‘broker model’, which an educated group have direct access to Scripture in a language in which they, individuals, are adequately bilingual, and then become ‘brokers’ of the message to other in the community. A broker model, as in all brokerage, favours the emergence of an elitist prestige group, with all its attendant dangers. It also tends to operate to the disadvantage of the receptor community at large, in that spiritual growth becomes effectively tied t second-language skills. In this situation, it is probable that the second community often does not even realize that it could aspire to possessing a translation in its first language!

The psychological barrier of not realizing the possibility of having mother-tongue scriptures, plus the further psychological barrier, that neither community developed an clear notion of the investment of toil and financial resources required, still present obstacles to the Africanization of translation today. The change of pattern noted is fundamental enough to be conceived of as a paradigm shift away from the post-Reformation bilateral model.

Apart from the linguistic diversity of the African milieu, and its consequence, namely, that meeting the need of translation grew to be for ever out of reach, two other factors often appealed to as a justification for limiting the translation task.

First is the spread of so-called trade languages or lingua francas across major sectors of the population. Examples include the spread of KiSwahili in eastern Africa, from the coast as far as eastern Zaire, Lingala and Bangala, also in Zaire, and many others. Second is the growth of an educated population which is comfortable with and conversant in one of the major colonial languages: English, French or Portuguese. In both cases, the argument is the same: that the spread of these languages will continue, through growing mobility of population and greater access to education, and the major task of providing translation is vitiated by that.

It would seem that in the late colonial period the consensus of opinion concerning the changing role of languages of wider communication versus the languages of ethnic minorities was much too optimistic. Missions were, of course, influenced by the prevailing attitudes of the period and of the emerging independent African states. There is evidence to suggest that language policy in missions changed under these influences, in that more than one mission changed its focus away from local ethnic languages to the national and official languages of the polity.

In the following sections I will offer evidence to suggest that the resulting lack of attention to Bible translation by both missions and the African church is ill-motivated, injudicious an premature. I will also draw attention to emerging patterns of translation activity, and finally I will look at the implications of these patterns for the future.

Africa Today: Major Socio-economic Indicators
This section will consider various major socioeconomic indicators and attempt an evaluation of their impact on the continuing recognition of translation and literary needs.

First, everywhere, population is burgeoning. Since 1900, the population of Africa has grown from an estimated 100 million, to 450 millions in 1990. At current rates of growth, this figure will double again by 2010 AD.

In most countries, urbanization is taking place at significant rates; as a percentage of total national population in 1984, the urban population ranges from 3% in Burundi to 45% in CAR. Urbanization during the period 1973-84 averaged approximately 10% per annum, with Lesotho reaching 20% during the same period (World Bank Policy Study 1988). And yet, because of population growth rates, rural population is still expanding, and most ethno-linguistic groups are also increasing in size. Nor does it seem that urbanization is bringing a reduction in linguistic diversity: minority languages seem to maintain their validity, although the domains in which they function are subject to some restriction. Indeed Lieberson (1980) maintains that it is segregation, or dispersal of speakers of different ethnic languages which is the significant factor, rather than urbanization itself. There is certainly no evidence here to support the expectation that minority African languages are on the way out in any significant numbers.

Second, in most African nations, educational first expanded greatly following independence, and have then gone into stagnation. Indeed, in spite of concentrated attention on education in post-independence years, it has been suggested that Africa has experience a fall in the proportion of its people who are literate, numerate, adequately fed, and healthy (World Bank Report 1989). This stagnation in primary and secondary sector education has affected both enrolment and quality, which in general are seen to be in decline. It would require astonishing confidence to assume that the emergence of a thoroughly bilingual and literate continental population is just around the corner. The implication again, is that numbers of people-groups will continue to require translated Scriptures the Christian gospel is to be effectively communicated to them.

Third, various economic indicators point to Africa being the Poorest continent at this time in human history. Of the 41 poorest countries on the planet, 28, or 68% of them, are in Africa. Thirteen African countries are reckoned to be poorer in per capita terms today than when they gained their independence. The reasons identified are many. Population growth strains the infrastructure, and places pressure on the environment. The problems this causes for agriculture are increasingly acknowledged: fragile agricultural land is being over-worked, while deforestation, erosion and desertification are creating growing concern. Even in trade, Africa has lost a major share in world markets. Many have called in question the basic tenets of North-world economic systems, and even today, when free-market economics enjoy such vogue, it can be asked, in the Bishop Of Monmouth's words, whether the market is a ‘stern but essentially benign adjudicator’ or simply ‘the mask[s] of old fashioned greed and moral tone-deafness’ (Guardian Weekly, Oct 4 1992). Faults in African political structures are also identified. National political structures throughout the continent are also in a time of change. The politico-economic prognosis is not sufficiently clear to predict the welfare of rural communities in which the benefit of Christian Scriptures an literacy in the mother-tongue of minority groups is unnecessary.

In summary, rather than such socioeconomic trends reducing the need for Biblical translation in most nations such a need is likely to remain for the foreseeable future.

People are both the ends and means of development. Although improved health, nutrition and education are ends in themselves, healthy and educated human beings are also the primary means for achieving development asserts World Bank Report 1989, and continues, The future development strategy calls for a new commitment to developing Africa's human resources.

Broad-based development, embracing fertility, nutrition, water, health care, and education are being called for. The interdependence of these is recognized, in which, for example improvement in the latter areas has a desirable effect in lowering fertility level Rather than strong mother-tongue usage being detrimental to the growth of the nations identity, it can be argued that it is fundamental to minority group development.

Fourth, although African traditional religion is still strong in many areas, in recent in years it has increasingly become a substratum to the three major competing ideologies of Islam, Christianity and secular materialism.

Islam continues to expand aggressively, as does Christianity, and it is recognized that these three ideologies together are likely to come into increasing conflict as the ‘Common grazing’ provided by traditional religions diminishes.

Contact with the post-Christian North-World, and its acknowledged materialism, hedonism and religious agnosticism, spread as it is through Western educational systems, has been one factor in the appearance of similar tendencies within Africa. This is likely to fuel a growing nominalism within African Christendom. On the other hand, there is a move in North-World thought towards a pantheistic mysticism in which New Age movements incorporate central features of Hindu world view. This is increasingly influential in conservationist and ecological circles, and has a growing influence on both North and South world political expression. How this new recognition of the ‘sacredness of Nature’ will be reflected in a resurgence of traditional religion, in Africa and elsewhere, remains to be seen.

What can be the future of Christianity in this emerging scenario? What can be done to strengthen the church where it exists, and plant it where it does not? Will evangelism alone be enough? Will discipleship programmes by themselves ensure success? Even where Christianity is dominant, the danger of syncretism from a substratum of African traditional religion continues to be a genuine concern to African Christian leadership.

There is much to suggest that both Islam and traditional religion find ritual sufficient, and tend to minimalize rational content. The Christian faith, while far from rejecting an experiential side or a ritual aspect, integrates these within a meaningful, contentful teaching. It is an intelligible Scripture that informs the ritual and fosters a vital experiential faith. Both Islam and Christianity give a great deal of reverence to a book. The difference in perspective, however, is also great. For Islam, the Qur'an has until recently been regarded as untranslatable, and hence strongly language- and culture-bound. This is still largely the case, as Lamin Sanneh (1989 and 1992) also asserts, in spite of its recent translation into sixty-five languages (Waldman 1992:162), although the trend demonstrates a potentially powerful swing in attitude. As I try to show in this essay, it is a long-standing and pervasive part of Christian tradition, in both doctrine and practice, that the Bible is translated and becomes an open revelation for the church.

According to Barrett (1968), the single most important factor in the renewal of the African church, has been the provision of vernacular scriptures. The religious picture also, then, suggests that mother-tongue Scriptures will have a vital role in the African church of the future.

Fifth, consider the language and translation picture. Africa is home to 1,900 ethno-linguistic groups, one third of the world's total. These break down into the following categories (Grimes 1989):
Languages which have: an adequate Bible 95
  an adequate New Testament 179
Languages in which translation is in progress 287
Languages in which definite need is established 317
  translation need is undetermined 975

It is not easy to assess what percentage of Africa's population is covered by these Bibles. When the number of adequate New Testaments is included, the figure certainly includes almost all the larger groups, so that a substantial majority of her people do ha access to the Word of God in their own language.

However, available figures do not permit the separation of mother-tongue from second language speakers of any published translation, far less the separation of the number of more adequately bilingual people from the less than adequately bilingual. This is unfortunate since the information would clarify the picture enormously. Some recent empirical research has sought to establish the distribution and level of bilingualism in individual rural communities by both self-reporting and testing methods. In general this research notes lower and less widespread fluency in major lingua francas than has generally been assumed by government and non-government agencies.

Quite naturally, this is turning out to be particularly true of those groups which have not been a conscious focus of national development in recent decades. The many people groups whose spiritual needs are not going to be adequately met by existing Bible and New Testaments are the so-called ‘hidden peoples’, who are ‘hidden’ by the various reasons offered in the previous section. In a number of cases a community resisted evangelization in the 19th or early 20th century, and remains unreached to this day. A serious analysis of the reasons for this earlier non-receptivity once again lies out-with the scope of an essay such as this, but it may be significant that in a number of such communities there was no attempt to provide vernacular Scripture. Although conjectural here, it is at least plausible to suggest that the lack seriously affected the contextualization of the message; this would then form the converse of Barrett's correlation of renewal with provision of vernacular Scripture, referred to above.

The drama referred to in the opening sentences can now be revealed. Translation which is currently in progress is equal to (and may exceed) the cumulative total of all previous translation achievements on the continent during the history of the church. No Trans-Africa Inter-Mission Conference planned this. No Pan-Africa Church Colloquium considered it. Without conscious human deliberations, the translation of the Word of God has mushroomed!

Finally, note that the category listed as ‘definite need established’ can be considered to arise from two basic sources. There are people groups who in recent years have expressed a desire for translation into their own language, perhaps for a variety of reasons. It is also possible to examine in some detail the sociological and linguistic variables which are active in a community, and to determine the extent to which the evangelistic and discipleship needs of the group are, or are not, adequately met by an existing translation. The category in the above table consists of ethno-linguistic communities of both sorts. The category predicts that, at the minimum, present efforts will require to be doubled. This takes no account of the large number of groups still hidden in the ‘need undetermined’ category at the end of the table. While not all of them need to be the focus of translation projects, it is to be expected that a significant number will.

In summary, work which is in progress right now is equal to all work done on the continent in the past. Further, it is almost certain that less than half of the translation work required has already begun! We can admire the efforts of the past; we should recognize the labours of the present. But there remains a major challenge for the future. More lies ahead than has yet been accomplished.

An Emerging New Paradigm
During the second half of this century, particularly since the spread of independence during the 1960s, and increasingly as time has passed, the balance of effort has shifted in translation activity. Whereas in earlier work, the missionary was in the position of leadership and control, more recently a new paradigm has asserted itself. In projects undertaken by United Bible Societies in major languages, local church leadership has been able to provide educated African Christians as a responsible part of the whole team. Sometimes theologically trained, these men have rightly brought about a swing of responsibility towards the local church. Increasingly the leadership and progress of the translation programme has been in their hands.

In the work of Summer Institute of Linguistics also, this changing balance has become evident. Often focusing as it does on the smaller, often educationally more deprived linguistic minorities, SIL's work might be expected to show evidence of this change later in time, and to a lesser extent. These expectations are broadly correct, but now, it seems, the momentum is gathering. An increasing number of SIL projects include a major contribution from educated mother-tongue speakers of the language concerned, and such men and women are playing an increasingly competent, increasingly decisive role, with the expatriate as a partner.

A second factor is evident in the emergence of this trend. In recent years, the various national Bible Societies within UBS have become stronger, and also a number of independent national Bible translation and literacy organizations or ‘NBTLOs’ have been established during the 1970s and 1980s in several countries. They are headed-up by Christians of the country concerned, and, when expatriates are also locally involved, increasingly they are seconded to these NBTLOs for work. Also, under the stimulus of the NBTLOS, an increasing number of translation programmes either commence under the leadership of local translators, or move to that position during the course of work.

This trend is no isolated development. It is happening just as the involvement of African Christians in missionary enterprise begins to get off the ground, and is assuredly part that wider movement. Pate (1991), in speaking to the issue of Two-Thirds World missionaries, reckons that 5,689 non-Western missionaries were at work in Africa 1980, and that this has jumped to 19,097 by 1990. In his estimation, over 50% of the missionary force in Africa will be from the Two-Thirds World by the end of the decade’ In that figure are many African men and women serving in missionary roles in various parts of the continent.

The change in the way translation is currently being handled, then, is one that rides the groundswell of shifting mission dynamics in the Two-Thirds World. It promises indeed to be a new paradigm. It offers the best hope that translation can catch up at last with the expansion of the church in the continent. It offers the best preparation for continued church growth in the context of Islam and secularism. More even than that, it offers the best hope that translation can be completed on the continent.

Although in the modern world Bible translation is recognized to be a complex, specialist task which requires high educational resources, the current shift does bring it closer age to being a church rather than a parachurch ministry.

Africa Tomorrow: Training, Responsibility and Resources
If African Christians in large numbers are to become involved in Bible translation and if their deployment to see the whole translation task completed is to become a reality, several implications must be drawn out and addressed.

First, there is the obvious need of training. It is surely uncontroversial that the need for Christian training of all kinds must expand, for whatever ministry. It is certainly safe to say that training for translators must increase dramatically. Bible translation is not a task which is satisfactorally handled by basic training in the skills it requires. Within Africa, 1993, the necessary cross-disciplinary training required for the Bible translation ministry is currently only available in Nairobi, at Pan Africa Christian College, and at NEGST. The former offers a BA programme, and the latter a graduate programme. In both, there is the opportunity to combine biblical studies, biblical languages, cross-cultural studies an the basic linguistics and translation foundation on which competent, successful work can be established. For a translator is not merely a theologian: he is also a linguist with developed cross-cultural sensitivities, and a communicator.

Second, there is the question of resources. Whether for right or wrong, in the the Western missionary who provided not only the vision and the theological but the financial resources. An increasing number of African men and women practical experience of translating the Word of God into their own language. experience has come a growing vision for those still without Scriptures. The opportunities for achieving academic expertise are available too. What remains is for the church in Africa to harness these growing resources, and channel them into new translations and new literacy developments. To do so will require both vision, and a tremendous financial investment. It will require leadership to embrace the continuing need of further translation, and the long-term nature of the task. It will require the wider Christian community in the continent to see its own part in the stewardship of resources God has given. Rather than propose a flow of financial support from outside, I am personally convinced that the commitment of resources will follow a growing vision. This, of course, is not a new idea in missiological thinking, except in its specific application to the ministry of translation.

Nor is it a recent idea in practice. Some five hundred copies of the first edition of the New Testament in Efik, published in 1862, have the distinction that the book of Genesis is bound in with them. The result is curious, but the reason for it is both memorable and humbling. The cost of binding-in Genesis was met by African slaves in Jamaica. Some of them had been converted as they worked on the sugar plantations and their concern for the place of their roots led them to raise funds which allowed the National Bible Society of Scotland to supply Genesis in this way.

The past two hundred years exhibit two paradigms within which the church's translation tasks were accomplished. The earlier, which I have referred to as a bilateral model, sought to provide a written translation alongside the oral proclamation of the Christian faith to a community. This was replaced some time in the early part of the 20th century by a unilateral model, in which, I have suggested, church growth significantly outstripped the expansion of translation activity, so that it became ‘normal’ for an emerging Christian community to lack its own Scripture and to depend, through its educated few, on Scripture from an external language. In both models, it was usually the expatriate missionary who headed up the effort.

Today, in the 1990s, there appears to be a third paradigm emerging, in which the African Christian community itself is beginning to engage in the further expansion of translation ministry. Whether this will follow a more holistic model or not, the significant feature is the involvement of the local church in translation for sectors of its own ethnically and linguistically diverse community. This probably offers the church the only hope that Bible translation has of catching up with church growth.

In its provision of the revelation of God which he gave his people, Bible translation arguably holds the most effective bulwark against nominalism, or competing ideologies, by maximizing the meaning of the Good News message over against a merely formal, ritual grasp. The spread of post-Christianity throughout the western world makes it clear that scripture in the language of the people is not a sufficient condition by itself, but I propose here that it is an essential one.


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Grimes, B F, 1989 The Ethnologue, 11th edition, Dallas, SIL.

Lieberson, S J, 1980 ‘Procedures for Improving Sociolinguistic Surveys of Language Maintenance and Language Shift’, Intl. J. Soc. Lang. 25.

Pate, L D, 1991 ‘The Changing Balance in Global Mission’ Intl. Bull. Miss. Research 15.2.

Sanneh L, 1989 Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture, New York, Orbis.

Waddell, H M, 1868 Thirty-nine Years in the West Indies and Central Africa: a review of missionary work and adventure 1829-1858, London, Nelson.

Waldman M R, Yai O B, & Sanneh L, 1992, ‘Translatability: a discussion’ Journal of Religion in Africa, XXII, 2.

Walls, A F, 1988, ‘Missionary Societies and the Fortunate Subversion of the Church’, Evangelical Quarterly LX, 2.

Watkins, M, 1978 Literacy, Bible Reading, and Church Growth, Pasadena, William Carey Library.

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