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.

A New Key

Dr. Solomon Sule-Saa presenting a summary of his research to September conference

Dr. Solomon Sule-Saa presenting a summary of his research to September conference

I have written before about Solomon Sule-Saa, a Ghanaian who has done extensive research on the impact of translating the Bible into the Konkomba and Bimoba languages of northern Ghana. In a summary of his research presented to a conference in September, he said of the Konkomba and Bimoba peoples:

“The Bible now provides the key to understand the world”

I have heard my share of sermons on Romans 12:2

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind”

But I do not think that I have heard a better description of one way to put that verse into practice – that the Bible should be the key through which I interpret the whole world.

Translating the Bible into new languages is often billed as effective evangelism, and it is. But it is much more than that. Beyond bringing people to Christ, these translations are transforming individuals and communities through renewing people’s minds.

Dr. Sule-Saa's doctoral thesis which explored the impact of the translation of the Bible in two languages of northern Ghana

Dr. Sule-Saa’s doctoral thesis which explored the impact of the translation of the Bible in two languages of northern Ghana

During an ethnic conflict which was so serious the Ghana army had to intervene, the Bimoba lost confidence in the neutrality and good will of the Ghana government. They saw no way forward but to continue fight for their rights. In a war council, several leaders quoted from the translated Bible, arguing that that Jesus way is the way of reconciliation. So, abandoning their own wisdom they agreed to engage in peace talks moderated by the government they no longer trusted. It worked. They got what they were seeking through negotiation. Now that is faith – following the teachings of the Bible when your life and your livelihoods are at stake. This story shows that the Bible in these languages is doing more than influencing the decisions of individuals. It is also affecting the decisions made by the chiefs for the whole group. Now that is being transformed.

If you liked this, you might also like Tome, Patois, or Feeling the Gospel in our bones.

Bimoba traditional dance

Bimoba traditional dance