Congolese translators struggle to contextualize the Bible into their language and culture

Congolese translators struggle to contextualize the Bible into their language and culture

Contextualization is a big word to say that the Gospel is presented in the local language and cultural forms. It can also be understood as making the Gospel message and the church relevant to society or to a culture. In this conception, forms of worship, music, and church programs are changed to make them fit contemporary society or a different culture. Eventually, this may extend to modifying what the church teaches where older teachings are considered out of touch with, or even reprehensible to, society at large. The goal of this kind of contextualization is to draw in more people – to be more relevant.

Some assume, wrongly, that this is what everyone means by contextualization. But there is another kind of contextualization. The church planter, speaker and researcher, Ed Stetzer, says it well:

I have said it many times, but it always seems to bear repeating– contextualization is not watering down the message. In fact, it is exactly the opposite. To contextualize the gospel means removing cultural and linguistic impediments to the gospel presentation so that only the offense of the cross remains. It is not removing the offensive parts of the gospel; it is using the appropriate means in each culture to clarify exactly who Jesus was, what He did, why He did it, and the implications that flow from it.

I subscribe to this kind of contextualization.

An Africa translator revises a draft translation

An Africa translator revises a draft translation

A while back, I heard a preacher criticize Campus Crusade for changing their name including dropping the word “crusade”. This preacher saw that as an act driven by fear of offending a certain group. But the word “crusade” does not appear in the Bible. For me its primary meaning is a large evangelistic meeting. But for much of the world it brings a message of forcing people to change their faith through military action – something quite against Jesus’ message.

I have seen other cases where fear of watering down the message was applied in such a way that it distorted the real message. I know that the message of Jesus can be controversial. That does not bother me. What bothers me is presenting something that is controversial and alienates people, but which is NOT the message of Jesus. It seems to me that the word “crusade” can do exactly that.

I am sad to say that some people seem more concerned that they make a clear stand against certain people or groups than that they accurately represent Jesus. Standing against a certain group makes a message look strong and uncompromising, but it almost inevitably distorts it all the same. Our approach to translating the Bible focuses on accuracy – “removing cultural and linguistic impediments” so that only the original meaning remains. Pleasing any particular group is not our concern, nor is standing against any group.

I am proud of the good news! It is God’s powerful way of saving all people who have faith (Romans 1:16)

I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some (I Cor 9:22)


2010 official World Cup poster by FIFA. Found on a kiosk selling prepaid cell phone airtime in Kintembu, Ghana

2010 official World Cup poster by FIFA. Found on a kiosk selling prepaid cell phone airtime in Kintembu, Ghana

During the 2006 World Cup (a huge, world-wide soccer championship), I traveled into Congo with a few colleagues to do some training. We were traveling back out of the country in a small airplane. We had to stop in Kigali to refuel. After landing, we left the pilot with the plane and went into the terminal to use the toilets. A soccer game was in progress on the TV at the gate. We stood there watching the game and keeping an eye out for the fuel truck. Quite a long time passed. I walked out to the plane to see what was happening. The pilot was still waiting for the fuel truck. He had radioed the fuel service several times and was each time assured that they were on their way. I walked back into the terminal and resumed watching the game with one eye on the plane. Over an hour after we arrived, the game ended. Within 2 minutes I saw the fuel truck arrive and start fueling the plane.

Gas station in Ghana

Ghana gas station

Saturday June 12, 2010, while driving from Accra to Tamale in Ghana, we turned on the radio to listen to the Nigeria – Argentina game, part of the World Cup. Somewhere in the first half we pulled into a gas station. The station was open but there was not an attendant to be found. (In Ghana, attendants pump gas – no self-service.) We gave up and continued driving until half time and got fuel then.

The moral of the story? Refuel before a World Cup game. Africans take the World Cup seriously, especially if an African team is playing.

What kind of holy?

Holy Bible

Page of John Wycliffe's translation

Page of John Wycliffe’s translation

What do we mean when we say that the Bible is “holy”? I hope that we mean that it is God’s word and that we therefore take it seriously. But some people mean something else – that the language itself is holy. In an essay on translating the Bible, C. S. Lewis reminds us that:

Dozens of sincerely pious people in the sixteenth century shuddered at the idea of turning the time-honoured Latin of the Vulgate into our common and (as they thought) ‘barbarous’ English. A sacred truth seemed to them to have lost its sanctity when it was stripped of the polysyllabic Latin, long heard at Mass and at Hours, and put into ‘language such as men do use’—language steeped in all the commonplace associations of the nursery, the inn, the stable, and the street

Jamaican New TestamentBut we do not need to go back five centuries to find this opinion. Today it is flourishing in many places including Jamaica. There, the translation of the Bible into Jamaican is causing quite a stir. Those opposing it are saying pretty much the same things that were said by those pious people in the sixteenth century.

But, in order for the truth to break through, a specific kind of false “holiness” needs to be lost. Lewis goes on to say that losing that kind of holiness is no loss at all.

The only kind of sanctity that Scripture can lose (or, at least, New Testament scripture) by being modernized is an accidental kind which it never had for its writers or its earliest readers. The New Testament in the original Greek is not a work of literary art: it is not written in a solemn, ecclesiastical language…

Does this shock us? It ought not to, except as the Incarnation itself ought to shock us. The same divine humility which decreed that God should become a baby at a peasant-woman’s breast, and later an arrested field-preacher in the hands of the Roman police, decreed also that He should be preached in a prosaic and unliterary language. If you can stomach the one, you can stomach the other.

Tyndale Bible

Some oppose translation of the Bible into minority languages, or consider it to be a waste of time, for a similar reason – that the languages are too lowly. In other words, they are not holy enough. That point of view misunderstands the nature of the Bible — and the nature of minority languages. In addition, it runs counter an observation of the Apostle Paul – that God likes to work through what the world considers weak and plain and common.

I am in Bible translation to see God work amazing things in people and languages that others consider insignificant and, yes, even unholy. God’s Word is holy in the way God made it holy, not with the artificial “holiness” people sometimes try to add.

What the world thinks is worthless, useless, and nothing at all is what God has used to destroy what the world considers important  (I Cor 1:28 CEV)

If you liked this, you might also like Great Style, Patois, or Counted.


Medicine, it’s a simple word, right? Well, not quite.

I first realized that it might have a broader meaning when a single colleague of mine told of an experience she had while traveling by public transportation in Mali. At a bus station, she was approached by a woman selling things who told her “I have medicine for your children”. My colleague replied that she did not have children. “Oh”, the woman said, “I have medicine for that too.” My colleague replied that she was not married. “No problem”, came the response, “I have medicine for that too!”

Medicine for one’s children fits our definition of medicine just fine. But medicine to find a husband? You probably won’t find that at your local pharmacy. If you found a place that would sell you such a thing, they would not call it “medicine”, but rather a “charm”, “amulette” or a dating service – anything but “medicine”.

Shop - New Life Herbal Clinic_00When we moved to Kenya, the Swahili word meaning medicine – dawa – also had a very wide range of meanings. It could mean over-the-counter or prescription medicines, or it could mean various amulets and charms sold by practitioners of traditional healing. It could also mean the herbal remedies sold by practitioners like the one in the picture. The Swahili word is also applied to the mixed drinks sold at a bar.

In Ghana, the word “medicine” in Ghanaian English has a similarly wide range of meaning, because the words in Ghanaian language closest to the meaning of “medicine” have a wide range of meanings. Consider the following cases:

I smelled something like a dead animal in an office I visited. So I asked about it. “Rats were coming in, so we put out medicine”, I was told. The man went on to explain that they were looking for the dead rat killed by the rat poison (“medicine”) they had put out. Another time, Dayle was noticing that we had ants in the kitchen. A Ghanaian who was there asked “Where is the medicine?”, meaning the ant poison.

I confirmed with some Ghanaian friends that the word for “medicine” in their languages covers what one buys in a pharmacy, various poisons for household or farm use, as well as traditional talismans, amulets and charms, and that some Ghanaians use the English word “medicine” with the same range of meanings.

Linguists call this the “semantic range” of a word. The semantic range of the English word “corner” is covered by at least three French words: “angle”, “coin”, and “corner” (the last borrowed from English for soccer). We don’t notice the semantic range of a word when we speak our own language. It just seems natural to us. But when we start dealing with other languages, especially those from cultures quite different from our own, semantic range gets more noticeable, at least if you know what to look for and want to communicate clearly.

Here’s little illustration of how the word in other language which mean “medicine” also has meanings not covered by the word “medicine” in English.

Range of meanings

Semantic range is one of the things a Bible translator must study, especially for key theological words such as “repent”. For such words, it is important to understand both the semantic range of the original word and the semantic range of words or phrases in the target language that might be used to translate it.

Lest you think that African languages are strange, look up the noun “run” in an English dictionary and consider its quite extraordinary semantic range.

Translation and democracy II

In a recent blog, I wrote about the book Wide as the Waters, by Benson Bobrick. The subtitle of the book “The story of the English Bible and the revolution it inspired”, captures my conclusion. Translating the Bible into the language of the common man can change political systems, free people from oppression and give people a new way of looking at the world. It does much more than help them in their spiritual lives.

In that blog, I promised to:

“relate how the translation of the Bible into the languages of Ghana has lead to similar developments – making the translation of the Bible into the vernacular a form of political and social empowerment, in addition to its obvious effects on faith.”

Rev. Dr. Solomon Sule-Saa

Rev. Dr. Solomon Sule-Saa

I start with the research of Dr. Solomon Sule-Saa. He studied the effects of the translation of the Bible into the Konkomba and Dagomba languages of northern Ghana. Before the translation, both peoples rejected Christianity, seeing it as a faith of outsiders. Numerous attempts to evangelize them failed. But once the Bible was translated, many Konkomba and Dagomba put their trust in Christ. But Dr. Sule-Saa’s research also discovered that the translation broke down relationships of servitude, brought peace to tribal disputes, and give people a sense of identity. Like Bobrick documented for the translation of the Bible into English, the translation of the Bible in northern Ghana started a series of societal and political changes. Of them, Dr. Sule-Saa told me that they create “more positive transformation than all government programs combined and for much less money.”

Evaluation - GILLBT LiteracyTo facilitate the use of the translated Scriptures, adult literacy programs were run in northern Ghana in the same languages which received a translation of the Bible. An evaluation of  the impact of those programs found that:

  • People had more initiative
  • The children of those who attended literacy classes all attended school
  • People developed a sense of self-worth

The evaluation reported that:

Many participants to the focus group discussions gave testimonies of how that self confidence had transformed their lives both at home and in public to enable them undertake activities that they would otherwise have not.

I suspect that the phrase “and in public” means that those who attended literacy classes were more likely to try to make changes in their communities to make them more righteous. Of course, those in the literacy program also read their Bibles. We have many testimonies of faith in Christ and a deeper walk with him as a result. But what interests me here is the literacy program, in the vernacular languages, resulted in societal changes, not just narrowly “religious” and personal changes. This too matches Bobrick’s observations about the impact of the translation of the Bible into English.

Allow me to chide my brothers and sisters in faith who see mission only as personal, spiritual salvation – who seem to be interested solely in how many people put their faith in Christ. God’s action in history shows that it also brings wider changes in society and in politics. God, it seems, has given us his Word not just for personal consolation and faith, but to change this world in ways that match the coming of his Kingdom. I’m in Bible translation because I want marginalized people to have a personal experience of God’s grace and then live in transformed societies that give them opportunity, recognize their value, and make their lives more peaceful, meaningful and productive.