"The Role of Translation in Mission"
THE ROLE OF TRANSLATIONS IN MISSION
All that we know about Almighty God comes from revelation. We worship God but so also do Jews and Muslims. However, we have specific knowledge concerning the God we worship that is not possessed by the Jews and Muslims (or which is rejected by them), namely that the Godhead is a Trinity of three co-equal Persons. This knowledge comes to us through revelation. So also does everything else we believe as Orthodox Christians. From an incalculably early date, revelation has been written. Our chief source of revelation, the Bible, is a written document. Moreover, it is Orthodox dogma that the definitive rulings of the Seven Ecumenical Councils are also revelation. These rulings are all in writing. God's chosen medium for communicating with His people is writing.
The reason for this is apparent enough: the spoken word is ephemeral. Most of us assimilate very little of what is said to us and that little soon fades from our memories. Only what is written is fixed and remains available to be consulted and studied in the future.
Since the Christian evangelion is based on written documents, it is obviously impossible to evangelize without having those documents — or the more important of them — available in the language of the people we desire to reach and win for Christ and His Church. The most important Christian documents, obviously, are those which comprise the Bible and especially the New Testament. These documents are at the heart of Holy Tradition. Without the New Testament there can be no Divine Liturgy and where there is no Liturgy, there can be no Church. It goes without saying that if there is to be any missionary activity, translation work is an essential aspect of it. This work has been going on since the inception of the Church; as an ongoing work, it is of course continuing today.
Nothing is more friendly, familiar and comfortable to a man than his native language. At the same time, no greater compliment can be paid to a man than being able to communicate with him in his own Language. The awareness that a missionary has obviously gone to great pains to acquire a language is, in itself, a powerful testimony to his earnestness in reaching out to those he seeks to evangelize. If evangelized. The process of making the Word of God accessible began early in the Christian era but until modern times the process was slow, one might even say painfully slow. By about AD 100, the New Testament (or most of it, since the NT canon as we have it was not at that time fully acknowledged) had been translated into five languages. Another century was to pass before the total reached seven, though smaller portions became available during this time. Surprisingly, it was not until c.200 that a full Latin translation of the New Testament was available. Fifty years later a Syrian Bible was produced. Between the second and third centuries the New Testament had been translated into Coptic, a language of Africa. Before another century had passed, the Scriptures had been translated into four more languages, including one spoken by people of color, Ethiopic. The year 300 marked the ninth generation after Christ and the world population was already 10.4 percent Christian, with the Scriptures then being available in 10 languages. In 303 came the persecution under Diocletian. This was the tenth, the last and probably the worst of the great persecutions instigated by Roman emperors. Before the storm ended, some half million Christians had suffered martyrdom. It is significant that in this persecution, as with all earlier ones, the imperial officials were diligent in searching out and destroying copies of the Christian Scriptures.
For Europe, the long period from 500 to 1000 was the Dark Age. Muhammad was born in 570. Some time before 616 he began publicly to proclaim that he was a prophet of God. By 630 he had become the theocratic dictator of the Arab people. Two years later he was dead. Shortly before his death, Muhammad was planning to undertake wars of conquest. This does not concern me here. Suffice it to say that the rise of Islam and the wars of conquest conducted by the Muslim armies were catastrophic for Christendom, with whole Christian cultures being destroyed.
During the Dark Age there were, happily, lights here and there. It was during this time that the greatest and most significant translation achievement in missionary history was carried out by the brothers Cyril and Methodius. These two remarkable men, sons of a Thessalonian Greek, were appointed by the Byzantine emperor in 861 as missionaries to the Slavonic peoples. For this position they were well equipped. While being scholarly Greeks they had been born and bred in Thessalonica, which at that time had a large Slavonic population. Having acquired Slavonic as boys, Cyril and Methodius went out to their mission field already fluent in the language of the people among whom they were to minister. Moreover, each brother possessed his own invaluable skills. Cyril was a scholar, a philosopher and a linguist; Methodius was an organizer.
Even before the formal appointment, Cyril had devised an alphabet for the Slavonic tongue (the proto?language of all the later Slavic dialects). The Slavs had previously had some basic literacy but they had been accustomed to writing their language using Greek and Latin letters and without proper rules. Cyril gave them a carefully devised alphabet of 38 letters, which was partly inspired by letters of the Greek alphabet. Having done this Cyril, collaborating with his brother, translated the New Testament, the Psalms and other parts of the Old Testament as well as the Divine Liturgy into Slavonic.
Cyril died while on a visit to Rome in 869. Methodius survived until 885. These two great men abundantly deserve their title "Apostles to the Slavs." When Vladimir, Prince of Kiev, was converted in 988 and made Orthodox Christianity the State religion of his realm, thanks to the labors of Cyril and Methodius, the Bible and Liturgy were already available. The Russians took to their new faith with unfeigned eagerness and by 1015 Russia had been comprehensively (and Permanently) converted to the Orthodox faith.
The careers of these two remarkable missionary saints of Orthodoxy demonstrates the need for one particular type of basic pioneering work; primitive peoples are usually illiterate (and the ancient Slavs were primitive. One of the first tasks of the missionary pioneer is to reduce to writing the language of the target group.
The further progress of Bible translation may be briefly summarized:
1200 The Bible available in 22 languages
1376 English translation by Wycliffe.
1500 Printed scriptures available in 12 languages
In 1450 came an event of the highest importance: Johan Gutenberg invented printing from movable type. Just prior to this date, some portion or other of the Bible had been translated into 33 languages. Before the invention of printing the only available method of producing books was by writing them out by hand. The new technology was soon churning out thousands of books, many being Bibles.
The scientific investigation of languages from a missionary standpoint is not only modern but also comparatively recent. The father of this science was an American, William Cameron Townsend (1896-1982). American missionary, missionary statesman and translator. A seemingly fortuitous aspect of his childhood was to have a profound effect on the future missionary — his father was almost completely deaf and depended heavily on written messages to communicate with his family. This impressed Townsend from an early age on the importance of the written word. His parents were staunch Christians and Townsend had a conversion experience when he was 12.
At the age of 21, Townsend went as a missionary to Guatemala. From an early stage in his ministry he was involved in the selling of Bibles. One day he offered a Bible for sale to an Indian. The Bible was in Spanish, the official language of Guatemala. The prospective customer had only a very limited knowledge of Spanish: his language was called Cakchiquel. "If your God is so great," he asked Townsend, why can't He speak my language?" Troubled and challenged by the question, the missionary there and then resolved that the Cakchiquel People would have the Word of God in their own language.
Putting aside his Spanish Bible, Townsend and his wife went to live among the Cakohiquel Indians. Their vernacular was not easily acquired. Like many "primitive" languages it was complex and highly evolved. Moreover it had never been reduced to writing. Undaunted by these difficulties, Townsend persevered with his task. After 12 years of arduous labour he was, able to present to the President of Guatemala a copy of the first book ever published in the Cakchiquel language: the New Testament.
From this beginning, Townsend devoted the rest of his life to making the New Testament available to ethnic groups who did not possess it. In the 1930s he founded Wycliffe Bible Translators and an affiliated organization, the Summer Institute of Linguistics. WBT/SIL has now grown into the largest missionary organization in the world. WBT missionaries (usually married couples) settle among primitive people groups, learn the language, reduce it to writing, prepare a grammar and translate the New Testament into the target language. It goes without saving that this is all a long and laborious procedure, taking an average of twelve years from beginning to end, the "end" being the availability of the New Testament.
The WBT Ethnologue is the most important source of information on the world's languages and Bible translation statue. According to this authoritative work there is a total of 6528 languages spoken in the world. The following are further revealing facts from the Ethnologue: less than a third of the world's languages have any of the Scriptures, but the other two thirds are spoken by only 6 percent of the world's population; only 4.2 percent of the world's languages have the whole Bible, but the languages spoken by this 4.2 percent constitute 76 percent of the world's population; over 38 percent of the world's languages need careful linguistic research to determine the need and appropriateness of translating the New Testament into them; there are more than 900 languages for which translation teams are required for the Production of New Testaments.
The work of Bible translation is going continuously forward and I have not been able to ascertain what the exact statistics are today, but this much is sure: in whole or part, the Scriptures have been translated into approximately 1900 languages. It is an amazing achievement. The credit does not belong exclusively to Protestant workers; Orthodox missionaries during the nineteenth century did sterling work in translating both the Word of God, the Liturgy and other Church offices into numerous and obscure languages of Siberia and the Russian Far East.
If it is asked. "What is the primary responsibility of the Bible translator?" the answer, theoretically, should be straightforward enough: to produce a correct, accurate and readable translation. Unfortunately the role of the translator is not quite that simple. For a book that is not religious or philosophical there is no particular problem; one translates it as it is. However, translating the Bible with slavish literalism can defeat the whole purpose of translating it at all: a translation must be comprehensible and readable as well as accurate. For nearly four centuries the Authorized or "King James" Version of the Bible has been one of the greatest literary treasures of the English-speaking peoples. Based to a great extent on t he max4nificent translation of that man of genius William Tin dale, the Authorized Version continues to hold its place despite the plethora of new translations that have appeared during the past 50 years.
In their translation, King James's men achieved the goal of an accurate translation. Their version was, as one admirer put it, "so abhorrent of paraphrase." Is it necessarily wrong to be "abhorrent of paraphrase"? In following their path of rigid literalism, they produced certain renderings which make the modern reader, depending on his temperament, shudder or guffaw. There is, for example, the hilarious translation of 2 Ki 19:35 (LXX 4 Ki):
“And it came to pass that night, that the angel of the Lord went out, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians 185,000 and when they arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses.”
Word-for-word, that is a correct translation of the Hebrew original, but the English is, of course, ludicrous.
At the other extreme is a version called "the Living Bible" which is widely read in certain evangelical circles. The Living Bible, according to one admirer, makes the Scriptures as easy to read as a newspaper. It is not, in fact, a translation at all, but an unabashed paraphrase. While it has undoubtedly achieved its aim of making the Bible "readable", this has been at the cost of a considerable degree of accuracy. No serious student of the Word of God would give the Living Bible a second glance.
For translators, the necessary compromise between unbending literalism and an "easy" paraphrase is that of dynamic equivalence. Undue literalism is positively harmful when the meaning of a passage is distorted. No language is identical to another and any translation involves pitfalls. The genius of the Greek language is its subtlety. A world of chiaroscuro can be (and often is) concealed within a Greek word or phrase. These nuances and delicate shades of meaning can never be precisely reproduced. The best the translator can do is to ask himself: "What, exactly, is the sacred writer saying in Greek?" and then reproduce the same thought in the language into which the Scriptures are being translated. It is this that is meant by dynamic equivalence. Translators sometimes find it unavoidable to add to their texts words that are not present in the original as the only means of making something clear. Where this happens in the King James Version and its modern successor, the New King James Version, the added words are put in italics.
It should never be forgotten that the Divine Liturgy is itself an instrument of evangelism. When I became Bishop of Riruta and Dean of the Patriarchal Seminary in Nairobi in 1992 1 was at once impressed with the absolute urgency and necessity of ensuring that the Divine Liturgy be available in at least each of the major languages of Kenya (nearly 60 languages are spoken in the country). This goal has been achieved and when the Orthodox faithful in Kenya (numbering well over half a million) throng their churches, Sunday by Sunday, they sing the Divine Liturgy in Nandi, Kikuyu, Luo, Luya and other vernacular languages. I spent days and nights with students translating and discovering that in most cases we had to devise alphabets and learn the syntax and accidence. This gave me a new sense of the seriousness of the task and a very real sense of excitement that as a result of these studies, so many more black people would have God's Word and the Divine Liturgy in their own languages available to them. I remember vividly one student who jumped up and cried out, "There is no translation of the Bible in the language for my own tribe." The translation work was a kind of mystagogy and meditation. The students were overjoyed when they realised that they would be able to celebrate the sublime spiritual treasures and provide spiritual food to their own people in their own dialects. Finally, the students translated the four gospels into their own dialects, then, verse-by-verse, the whole Bible as well as the more important services of our Church.
Since the priests are Kenyans, it can be claimed that Orthodoxy has become deeply and securely rooted on the soil of East Africa and has, in fact, become a national church of the Kenyan people. Moreover, a wide variety of Church offices are now available in 16 languages of East and Central Africa.
When I arrived in Harare in February 1998 to take up my new post as Archbishop of Zimbabwe, I resolved that one of my first tasks would be to ensure that the Divine Liturgy was translated into Shona, the language spoken by four-fifths of the black population. This has now been done, together with a number of other Orthodox services; translations are in the process of being published. The remaining task, we leave in the hands of God.
THE ROLE OF EDUCATION
In addition to making the Scriptures accessible, the other important role of translation in mission is educational. A culture of illiteracy cannot be other than a culture of ignorance. Only when missionaries have acquired a language, reduced it to writing and translated at least some of the Scriptures into it can other educational work be undertaken. In the area of Europe which owed allegiance to the Latin Church there was an appalling dark age, characterized by dense and terrible ignorance. The measure of this darkness was the almost incredible fact that no book was written in Europe for nine centuries. Between Augustine's City of God in the early fifth century and the appearance of Dante's trilogy at the beginning of the fourteenth, there was practically no literary output at all. Illiteracy is a blight that brings darkness. Christianity is, par excellence, an instrument of civilization; its first and greatest gift to primitive cultures is literacy and the Word of God.
When the Gospel is translated into a fresh language, the people who receive it come into a new world and enjoy a larger freedom. The newly-translated Gospel will almost certainly be the first book ever printed in that language or dialect. In other words, it is the beginning of a literature; and the beginning of a literature for any people is no small event.
I am tempted to illustrate the dramatic effect of literature by relating a minor episode of history. On April 28, 1789 a mutiny broke out on board HMS Bounty, a British naval vessel that at the time was conveying breadfruit trees from Tahiti in the South Pacific to the West Indies. The captain of the "Bounty", Lieutenant Bligh, and members of the crew who remained loyal to him were set adrift in the ship's launch and eventually reached safety. The mutineers returned to Tahiti but in 1790 a party comprising nine of the English mutineers, six Polynesian men and twelve Polynesian women landed on Pitcairn Island, which at that time was uninhabited. After landing, they burnt the ship.
This tiny and isolated community soon began to quarrel violently among themselves. In the words of one account, "treachery and debauchery filled the first years of the annals of the beautiful island." Children were born but the men fought and murdered each other until by 1800 only one was left alive, a man named Alexander Smith. On this remote and inaccessible island there was only one piece of literature', the ship's Bible of HMS Bounty, and Alexander Smith began to read it. Within a short time he was converted and totally transformed. As a token of his transformation be adopted a new name, John Adams, which was the name of a strong Christian man he had known in had known in his earlier life.
As the only Christian and the only adult man on the island, Adams rose to his responsibilities. He began to preach and teach until every woman and child on the island had also been converted. When a US naval vessel rediscovered Pitcairn Island in 1808, the American officers found a model community of quiet gentle Christian men and women. There had been an amazing work of transformation achieved under the Holy Spirit by simple Bible reading.
This does not exhaust the story of the effect of literature on the people of Pitcairn Island. Adams served as the islanders' minister until his death in 1829 when an Anglican priest succeeded him. The people then became adherents of the Church of England. In 1877 literature of the Seventh Day Adventist cult reached the island from the United States. Within ten years the religious orientation of the islanders completely changed; from being Anglicans they became Adventists, and remain so to the present day. This new work of transformation (in this case, one distinctly for the worst) was again achieved almost entirely by literature.
From a Christian standpoint there has been no more amazing phenomenon during the past century than the enormous growth of the cults, and particularly the Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormonism. In each of France, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain, the Jehovah's Witnesses are far larger than any Protestant denomination, and are also growing much faster than the Protestants. The expansion of the Mormon cult has been no less remarkable. It has been conservatively computed that if Mormonism continuous to grow at its present rate, within a century it will take its place as one of the world's major religious systems. In the Pacific, Polynesia is rapidly becoming Mormon, especially Tonga and the two Samoas which are now more than 20% Mormon.
The astonishing growth of these two cults has to a great extent been promoted by literature. Many people equate the Jehovah's Witnesses with the name of one of their publications.
It would be possible to relate many similar stories illustrating the enormous power of literature, both in its own right and as an auxiliary to other means of propagating the Gospel of our Lord. Of all literature, the written Word of God is foremost. Between the pages of the Bible are enshrined the oracles of divine revelation, our sole source of information concerning the life of our Lord and the economy of the Redemption. In short, the Bible is the Charter of Freedom for every Christian soul.
This article is titled, "The Role of Translations in Mission". On reflection I feel it is not entirely appropriate; "translations" do not merely have a "role". Without "translations" there is, and can be, no Mission.