Jul 06

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Bible Translation in Western Africa

A Continuation of our Survey of the World – Religion


Continuing with our survey of Mali and western Africa, we examine the fascinating process of Bible translation in this region.  The exposure of unreached people groups in this area has been slow and difficult due to a number of factors:  natural disasters, social uprisings, a proliferation of different dialects with no written vocabularies, and a 90% Muslim population that, while being more tolerant than other Muslim populations throughtout the world is still not interested in Christianity.  However, the JESUS film has had an effect in this region, and, in the last decade, remarkable progress has been made in translating the Bible into certain local languages.

In 2005, the Gourma Bible was completed and dedicated, giving nearly half a million people speaking that language access to God’s Word.  According to the Serving In Missions organization, 3600 copies of the Gourma Bible were purchased the first week of its availability.  More recently (2010), the Bible was translated into the Dogon language, a completely oral language with no written vocabulary.  The Dogon challenge highlights a difficulty in Bible translation that goes beyond a lack of resources:   translating a book normally written in Hebrew, Greek, etc. into a completely different language where certain words and terms are not so easily translated.  In an online article entitled “Can You Get There From Here?  Problems in Bible Translation”, Roger L. Omanson further illustrates the challenge:

These translation problems arise because of difficulties in the original text (Hebrew. Aramaic or Greek) , not in the receptor language (the language into which the translation is being made). 

Another problematic aspect of translation concerns terms of kinship. Many languages of West Africa do not have as all-encompassing word for “brother.” Instead, they have one word foi “younger brother” and a different one for “older brother.” Some languages indicate whether it is a brother of the same mother or a brother of a different mother (polygamy is reflected in the lexicon of the language) What does one do, then, with James and John in Mark 1:19? Probably they had the same mother, but which one is older? Since James is mentioned first, most translators assume that he is older, but the Greek text simply does not say. The Greek word adeiphus is not precise or specific here in the way that West African languages are.

Among most Mande languages of West Africa, some nouns — mostly kinship terms — can occur only in a possessive phrase. “Father,” for example, can occur only in phrases such as “my father,” “his father,” “Kwame’s Father,” etc. Such kinship terms do not occur in the abstract as they may in Greek or Hebrew. This raises an interesting problem in translating the prologue of John. Most scholars acknowledge that there is a marked difference between John and the Synoptic Gospels in that “your Father” occurs in John only at 20:17, at the point when Jesus now makes his Father the Father of his “brothers.” Are the references to “the Father” in 1:14 and 1:18 written from the perspective in which God is “Father” to Jesus only or from the perspective that the readers share in Jesus’ relationship to the Father (“our” Father) ? English translators can leave the word “Father” in the abstract in these verses; many African translators cannot, and therefore choose to translate “the Father” as “our Father” in 1:14 and 1:18.

Despite the challenges, the work is very rewarding.  Wycliffe Bible translators hope to have the Lord’s Word available in every known language by 2025.


“Help From Above”, a Bible aide, translated into Gourma.

The Beginning of Matthew, in Dogon.

The Book of John, in Dogon.

Permanent link to this article: http://conversaving.com/2012/07/06/bible-translation-in-western-africa/

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