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12 July 2019

Mother Tongue Translation versus Lingua Franca: Some Thoughts on a Missiological Mainstay – A Response

In order to help readers better interact with the article “Mother Tongue Translation versus Lingua Franca: Some Thoughts on a Missiological Mainstay,” we are including a conversation between a few experienced missionaries about some of the points made. We hope that other readers will continue this conversation with their friends or coworkers.

Walter McConnell

Grace Moron

Neel Roberts

Andrew Goodman

Walter McConnell is the editor of the Mission Round Table and the head of OMF’s Mission Research.

Grace Moron has been with OMF Philippines since 2001 working among the Manobo Tribe in Mindanao. She completed her MA in Intercultural Studies at Singapore Bible College where she is currently writing her DMin dissertation. Grace is the Philippine Home Council of OMF Executive Director Designate.

Neel Roberts graduated from Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary in 1986. He works in the Mekong Region where he is currently involved in training emerging leaders from various ethnic backgrounds in cross-cultural service.

Andrew Goodman has served amongst the Shan people since 1998. The Shan are a mainly Buddhist group in Myanmar, Thailand, and SW China. Andrew was part of a small team that worked to get the Shan Bible onto the Digital Bible Library so that it can be distributed on YouVersion and other apps.

A Response to “Mother Tongue Translation versus Lingua Franca: Some Thoughts on a Missiological Mainstay”

Mission Round Table Vol. 13 No. 2 (May-August 2018): 40-43.

WALTER: In his article, Wilson shows that, contrary to Sanneh’s assertion that having the Bible in their own tongue increases the personal sense of worth of African Christians and raises the value they give to their own culture, many Manobo Christians prefer to read and study majority-language Bible translations even when they preach in their own dialect. What have you found to be true of the people with whom you work? What most impacts their relationship to the Bible in their mother tongue?

GRACE: When I asked Manobo pastors and believers in our ministry area why they preferred Cebuano Bibles over the NT and portions of the OT that are translated into Manobo, they mentioned the lack of availability. It is hard for them to read the NT and cross-reference it to the OT because the OT translation is not complete. For this reason, they prefer using Cebuano Bibles as the OT and NT are printed as one book.

They expressed a desire to use the Manobo translation because most of the first generation Manobo Christians in our area who have become pastors and leaders of the church first heard the Bible preached in their mother tongue by missionaries. Since literacy was an issue during the early years, adult literacy in their mother tongue played a vital role in establishing their desire to use the Manobo translation of the Bible and drives their continued aspiration to have a complete and/or revised version of it.

Datu Macuramphil sharing God’s word with Manobo leaders (September 1994)

NEEL: I believe that the people’s educational level in the national language is a key factor in whether they will want to use a mother tongue translation. The prestige factor is also important. Where a strong sense of ethnic self identity prevails, the mother tongue translation may be one of the icons that display the Christians’ love for their language and culture.

ANDREW:  I agree with Neel in seeing that the level of education received in the national language seems to determine the preference with regards to use of the Shan language. Some preachers prepare sermons and lessons in Burmese, Thai, or Mandarin and then preach and teach in Shan with reference to the Shan Bible. Others favour using the Shan Bible but will refer to a national language translation if able. The influence of Shan people from Myanmar has led to the increased use of Shan materials in Thailand. If someone is seminary trained in the national language or English their ability to communicate to Shan people using Shan language seems more limited. I have witnessed Shan pastors in tears at their inability to convey scriptural truth in Shan language and I have witnessed Shan people in tears because those sharing the gospel to the Shan or teaching the Bible in Shan can’t do it in the Shan language. This is something that has been exacerbated in recent years as there has been an increasing openness towards the gospel amongst the Shan. Ten years ago, there were no Shan churches in Chiang Mai. There were some Shan believers on the fringes of some Thai Churches but they were peripheral and few Shan entered into the body life of the church. There are now at least six churches in Chiang Mai using Shan language in worship and the Shan Bible features to some extent in all of these churches.

WALTER: Is it necessarily true that people will understand the Bible better if it is translated into their mother tongue?

GRACE: I think it depends on how people are first exposed to it. I was exposed to God’s word when I was in the university and was given an English Bible for personal growth and reflection. When I later started to read the Cebuano Bible, I somehow struggled to understand it. Manobo believers who were first exposed to God’s word through the preaching and teaching of missionaries in their mother tongue desire to read it in their own language. This desire is preserved though it is hindered by the unavailability of Manobo Bibles whether as a complete translation or in a revised form.

NEEL: Not all translations are created equal. Some are more understandable than others. But being more understandable does not mean they will be more popular. The Lisu Bible united the Lisu people in several countries. That gave it prestige. At the same time, it should be noted that the Lisu Bible cannot be understood by animistic Lisu the first time they walk into a church. The prestige of the translation makes someone willing to learn what it means. But of course, this begs the question of whether one needs to understand a sacred text or not. Many believe that if the book is holy one gains merit or protection by hearing it or having it on one’s shelf, whether one understands it or not. It is enough if the pastor can explain the important parts to his congregation. As one multilingual Christian leader explained it, “The question is not whether or not I can understand the passage. What matters is whether or not it is God’s word.” If a mother tongue translation does not conform to the more prestigious texts in a national or global language then even if people understand it they will not necessarily believe it is to be trusted. Generally speaking, in the Mekong Region where people have a choice of translations they will choose the more formal as opposed to the more colloquial versions.

ANDREW: I believe that depends on the level of proficiency that people have. If they have a better level in their minority language then they will be able to understand the Bible better in that language.

WALTER: If Wilson is correct that “absolutizing the ‘translation principle’ is not a sustainable option for mission strategy,” can you suggest any criteria that might help Bible translators determine what languages they should focus on for translation? How can they best deal with regional variations and language changes brought in by interaction with “languages of wider communication”? 

GRACE: With the advanced technology that Bible translators are using, I believe that they still consider translating the Bible into different tongues is needed, not just the “languages of wider communication.” Even so, I agree with Wilson that “absolutizing the translation principle” is not sustainable. Perhaps we should say that rather than “absolutizing” the principle, Bible translators should contextualise it. Constant revision to keep up with language change and to make it relevant to the readers is, I believe, necessary.

NEEL: I believe Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) has developed some very good criteria regarding Bible translation. They do a lot of research to decide where a translation is needed and whether it should be primarily used in audio or written format. We depend on their studies, assist them where we have some local contacts with a particular ethnic group, and are grateful for the way they freely share the results of their research with us.

ANDREW: Again, I agree with Neel on this. SIL have tools to assess language vitality. (See https://www.sil.org/language-assessment/language-vitality.) It is my experience that we typically look at larger groups than SIL looks at.

WALTER: In personal correspondence, Wilson has written that the story of Pentecost in Acts 2 is frequently cited as indirectly affirming that the Bible should be translated into all languages. He then questions whether this and similar arguments really hold water biblically and theologically. How would you respond?

GRACE: Acts 2 is a significant event in Christian history, but it should not be the basis for translating the Bible into all languages. I think what is important is to know how we can best preach, share, and/or teach God’s word in a manner so that the biblical truth is presented clearly and is theologically sound. Whether they translate the Bible into different languages or share it orally using their own tongue, what matters is that God’s people make disciples in obedience to the Great Commission.

NEEL: Acts 2 is an example of orality. In many cases the gospel needs to be presented orally in the language that people understand. Bible storying in local languages is essential if every people group is to hear and respond to the gospel. The stories must be biblically accurate, but a full-blown, multi-decade Bible translation process is not always called for. In one case, a movement to Christ occurred that was in large part the fruit of a radio ministry. But now the thousands of believers want a translation in their own language and they are taking the initiative to make it happen.

ANDREW: I believe that the story of Pentecost does tell us something about God’s desire that people should hear the gospel in their heart language. Even so, it is a stretch to say that it says anything about the written word. It has been my observation, however, that having the full Bible available to the Shan people has been used by God to change the spiritual climate among a group who were previously known as the most resistant people group that OMF worked with in North Thailand. There are a number of reasons for this change, including prayer, vision, and radio. But I do not think that it is a coincidence that prior to 2002, when the new Shan Bible was published, we could only count a handful of people coming to Christ each year. In subsequent years and along with an increased availability of the Bible, we have seen an increased receptivity to the gospel with between 100 and 200 people coming to Christ each year.

WALTER: What changes have you seen in Bible translation? Which have been the most significant? What trends do you see for the future?

GRACE: Technology helps a lot in translating the Bible. However, just recently, a particular group came to Mindanao and started translating the Bible into different languages and dialects—even languages and dialects that already have a translation. This group believes that anyone—even high school students and non-native speakers—can translate and they do not feel the need for theological training. OMF missionaries, Translators Association of the Philippines, and SIL missionaries were all alarmed by this approach. The possible trend that I am seeing for the future is the increase of Christians using diglot Bibles, especially in multi-lingual communities where people can switch languages in seconds.

NEEL:   I have been in tribal churches where almost everyone, including the preacher, uses a smartphone or a tablet during the sermon. They can switch from the tribal language to a national one instantly. Certain minority languages will gain dominance as their community leaders effectively use modern media to promote their language and culture. From the first draft of the first verse, the translators must engage the people they claim to serve. If translators are merely seeking to preserve a language they are barking up the wrong tree. They must be in league with those who are seeking to develop and expand the language and not simply seek to preserve it. If such people do not exist among that ethnic group then the language will soon die, and in such cases the missionary translator should let the dead bury the dead and move on to more useful pursuits.

ANDREW: In a multilingual context and with people commonly comparing Scriptures in a minority language with those in a national language, it is important that verses can be correlated. If the translation is too free, it leads to confusion. If the text is too literal, the translation becomes unintelligible.

With the recognition of the importance of orality there is a trend to see the written translation (especially with languages where there are low literacy rates) as being a resource for the development of oral tools, with little expectation that the Bible will actually be read. This has been suggested in regard to the recently published Northern Thai Bible.

The advent of powerful software such as Paratext (UBS/SIL) feeding into the DBL (Digital Bible Library)—the source of Youversion or Bible.com—means that revisions of existing Bibles can be made much more easily than before. Apps that can be created relatively easily with tools like Scripture Application Builder are making God’s word accessible and affordable. (See https://software.sil.org/scriptureappbuilder/.)