Prof John Mbiti on ‘Western Impregnation’ of Bible Translations

Prof John Mbiti on ‘Western Impregnation’ of Bible Translations

The Bible has been translated into nearly 1,000 African languages, mostly by Westerners and often from the Bible in European languages (not from Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek). What difference does it make to those reading these Bibles? While appreciative of the vast work done by Westerners in the area of Bible translation in Africa, the Revd Prof John Mbiti, a prominent African theologian, argues that it makes a great—and sometimes hugely problematic—difference.

Prof Mbiti
Prof Mbiti holding his NT translation.

Last week at St John’s College, Durham, Prof Mbiti reflected on his recent experience translating the New Testament from the Greek into his native Kiikamba. In short, he argued that the Bible translations into African languages done by Western missionaries/Bible Society workers results in something akin to a Bible with a foreign accent, not to mention a foreign perspective.

Prof Mbiti offered a few striking examples where he argued that a Western perspective came through the translation:

  • In the Lord’s prayer, most African translations use the phrase equivalent to ‘deliver us from evil’. But, according to Mbiti, this abstract or ethical sense of ‘evil’ is uncommon in traditional African thought, where evil is usually concretised.
  • In John 2:4, Jesus’ response to his mother—translated something like, ‘woman, why do you involve me’—implies embarrassing rudeness in African contexts.
  • In Revelation 19:15, the phrase, ‘he will rule them with a rod of iron’, could easily be translated from Greek, ‘he will shepherd them with a rod of iron’. And in fact, Mbiti says that the notion of ruling/crushing other nations is a particularly Western colonial concept, and does not do justice to the familiarity of shepherding in African cultures.
  • In Romans 11:28, the Greek word ἐχθρός is often translated ‘enemy’, implying that the Jews about whom Paul is speaking are ‘enemies’. Mbiti warns that this sounds like Western Anti-Semitism and argues the phrase should be rendered according to other senses of the word which, in the context of Rom 11, would better capture the apostle Paul’s argument.

Prof Mbiti would like to see more investment in translating the Bible from its ‘original’ languages into African languages, and he laments the fact that the expertise and cost required does not appeal to Bible Societies.

At CODEC Research Centre, our work includes the areas of biblical literacy and contextual Bible reading. Prof Mbiti reminds that we must pay close to attention to the contexts in which Bible reading (and translation) take place. 

2 Responses to Prof John Mbiti on ‘Western Impregnation’ of Bible Translations

  1. As someone who studied languages at university and always struggled with translation work, I can appreciate just how much of a difference this must make. I find it hard to understand how there is such a lack of translations from the original languages, because that makes it so much harder to convey the original meanings from a translation as it is, but to translate from a translation makes that even harder.

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