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Why you should translate …with caution July 28, 2018

Posted by P, J, or J in Uncategorized.

“Where do Christians get the idea that it is not only permissible, but even a good idea to translate?”

There are lots of words in this document. I apologize if it is not in your first (or favorite) language.

Justification4translationIn a 2012 post from Desiring God, Tyler Kennedy explains:

Why Every Christian Should Care About Gospel Resources in Languages Beyond Their Own


I recommend looking at the full article but here are a few quotes along with my own endorsement and a couple of words of caution.

English is the most dominant global language ever. So why are we at Desiring God doing so much work to translate our resources into other tongues? Why not just spend the same amount of time, money, and effort teaching people to read our English resources rather than doing the hard (and sometimes messy) work of translation?

“Why don’t you just teach them English?” has been a common question addressed by many.

There is a certain amount of of imperialism and superiority that goes with that. English is a dominant language because we forcibly dominated a lot of places that would have preferred we hadn’t.

That having been said, lots of people do now speak English and if its your first language you (hopefully) don’t think of it as being imposed by the people of England. We even differentiate between British English, American English and many of the other Englishes now spoken around the world.

Where do Christians get the idea that it is not only permissible, but even a good idea to translate?

Profound answers to these questions have been set forth by Andrew Walls, a man once dubbed by Christianity Today as perhaps “the most important person you don’t know.” In 1996 he published The Missionary Movement in Christian History in which he argues that translation work is both permissibleand necessary to the Christian faith. He gives two main reasons for making this claim:

  1. translation is a central component of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and
  2. translation is God’s means for sustaining and maturing his people.

Lamin Sanneh, in his article “Christian Missions and the Western Guilt Complex,” acknowledges the distinct power of human language. In speaking about the history of translation in Western missions, he states, “The importance of vernacular translation was that it brought the missionary into contact with the most intimate and intricate aspects of culture.”

SIL International affirms this reality in their Linguistic Creed: “As the most uniquely human characteristic a person has, a person’s language is associated with his self-image. Interest in and appreciation of a person’s language is tantamount to interest in and appreciation of the person himself.”

But many in SIL are also aware that many or even most people on the planet speak more than one language (quite a few that only speak one speak English) and that particularly in multicultural urban environments, some people might not always have just one ‘heart language’.

Meanwhile more from Sanneh

In many traditional societies, religious language has tended to be confined to a small elite of professionals. In extreme cases, this language is shrouded under the forbidding sanctions of secret societies and shrines, access to which is through induced trances or a magical formula. The Christian approach to translatability strikes at the heart of such gnostic tendencies, first by contending that the greatest and most profound religious truths are compatible with everyday language, and second, by targeting ordinary men and women as worthy bearers of the religious message.

Amen. But good Christian theology also isn’t confined to a small elite of (English speaking) professionals. Thought in the English speaking world has and continues to be shaped by works translated from other languages.

As people strive to translate their materials into other peoples languages lets hope that it goes both ways with ideas generated in less dominant languages translated into the more dominant ones.

Modern day translation of the Christian message continues Jesus’ work of coming to the common. People are saved, and their faith is nurtured, when they encounter Jesus in the language they know best.

For a recent example of this, see the BBC’s magazine article and corresponding video, “Jamaica’s patois Bible: The word of God in creole.”

Do watch that video and be encouraged that the BBC has services in multiple languages that don’t just translate stories from English but generate fresh material from journalists writing in the language they know best to the people they know best.

There is a lot more great stuff in the article and in the materials from Walls and Sanneh that Kennedy quotes.

But what do you do with these ideas? How do you apply them?

As individuals, families, churches, denominations, missions boards, etc., we should care about and prioritize translation work, especially Bible translation.

Having spent 20 years working with Wycliffe Bible Translators I’d say a healthy amen to that!

Kennedy then say…

In addition to the Bible, we should value and translate John Piper’s (and others’) content, because of how it helps people read and understand Scripture for themselves.

…and here is where I’m a little more cautious. John Piper has written a number of things that I have found personally helpful, but he has also more recently expressed views I (and others) are not so sure on. Even where I agree with him that might sometimes be my cultural and theological bias agreeing with some of his.

Many of the sermons and resources that resonate with us are not just because they are in our language but because they connect with (and often correct) our own experience of life. In some ways life in Minneapolis is similar to life in many other parts of the world, and in other ways it isn’t. (eg not sure when Piper or other DG staff last addressed ancestor worship, sacrificing to idols, child sacrifice or  witchcraft ).
The Bible deals with a lot of themes that don’t get preached everywhere, and preaching, while often seeking to be true to scripture usually comes with a level of denominational and cultural bias.

Bible translators work hard to avoid denomination bias.

Bible translation is scripture not commentary.

Commentary is commentary. Often incredibly helpful but not always presenting opposing views in an unbiased way.

For some of you this application means that you should take an incarnational dive into one of the unreached languages of the world, learn to speak it, develop a writing system for it, teach other speakers how to read it, create a dictionary, and translate the Bible into it.

A bit more partnership. The ideal aim isn’t that you translate but that you help people from the community translate.

For others it means that you should take the fluency God has already given you in another language and get down and do the tough, loving work of translating gospel material into it

Again this may put the emphasis on “learn another language” and translate into it. Often professional translators would say you are better translating from another language into your own.

eg If English is your second language you may be better equipped for the final stage of translation from English into your first language than someone who speaks your language ‘quite well for an outsider’

Perhaps the best translations involve partnership and discussion between people from both languages and cultures.

One final quote from Andrew Walls…

The present situation of Christianity is like that I’ve described with the first frontier, the Greek world was crossed, only this time it’s not the Mediterranean world or the Western world at all that’s the scene of the interaction. The crucial activity is now the Christian interaction with the ancient cultures of Africa, Asia, the Americas, the Pacific. The quality of the Christianity of those areas and thus the quality of 21st Century Christianity as a whole will depend on the quality of that interaction.
Walls (2002) Demographics, Power and the Gospel








1. John Hamilton - July 28, 2018

Hi Peter!
Just read your post in a Saturday morning hoovering break. Didn’t read the whole article but what you have quoted raises suspicions of denominational imperialism.
“So why are we at Desiring God doing so much work to translate our resources into other tongues? ”
What’s their priority? Translated Scripture or their resources?
The hoover aka Dyson is calling…


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