Human dignity seems an appropriate topic for Human Rights Day. Certainly, no person without human dignity would say that all their rights are being respected. It is in this perspective that we present this extract of the article, “Bible Translation and Human Dignity” by Professor Lamin Sanneh which appeared in Anvil Journal, Vol. 27, No. 3.

In the article, Professor Sanneh maintains that translation of Scripture into the mother tongue has revolutionary impact. Furthermore, that revolutionary impact affirms human dignity. His findings are demonstrated from history, specifically the events and attitudes surrounding the first translations into English, and also from more recent mission experiences.

Sanneh traces the theological rationale for translation of the Bible enhancing human dignity. He illustrates that with examples. Some relate to enhanced dignity in individuals, as in the following passage.

When a local Christian held in his hands a copy of the gospels for the first time, he declared: ‘Here is a document which proves that we also are human beings – the first and only book in our language.’ He was echoed by the testimony of another Christian in Angola who celebrated holding the Gospels in his hands for the first time, declaring jubilantly, ‘Now we see that our friends in the foreign country regard us as people worth while.’ At an assembly of local Christians when a Wesleyan missionary produced the complete Bible, an elder declared, ‘I know that in my body I am a very little man, but to-day as I see the whole Bible in my language I feel as big as a mountain.’

Others show how clear communication in the mother tongue enhanced the self-confidence of a people  and empowered organizational change:

When, for example, the conference of Foreign Mission Boards of the United States sent a notice in 1895 to the missionaries working among the Zulu with the request to encourage the idea of a self-supporting church, the notice was disregarded. But when the circular was translated into Zulu, the words for self-support (ukuzondla) and self-government (ukuziphatha) completely changed the dynamics on the ground. Reading the Zulu circular, the leaders promptly concluded ‘that the missionaries were withholding from them the rights of Congregational Churches’, that is the right to choose independent, self-propagating congregations. Such was the potency of translation that the Zulu Congregationalist Church was formed in 1896 as a consequence, and it changed the climate of religious practice.

Nawuri Chief at GILLBT Jubilee celebration

GILLBT’s experience matches that of Sanneh. Translation in the mother tongue enhances human dignity, and in doing so it disposes people to cooperation and progress. Evaluations of GILLBT’s literacy and translation programs have repeatedly noted increases in human dignity, often leading to willingness to undertake new initiatives. Researcher Rev. Dr. Solomon Sule-Saa, for example, found that Bible translation in northern Ghana resulted in an increased sense of person-hood. When a Nawuri chief took the newly-printed Nawuri New Testament in his hands and held it high at the GILLBT 50th anniversary celebration in Accra, he spoke with great emotion:

We have now been counted among the people of God!

Although he did not use the words, he was clearly indicating that this translation gave dignity to his people. Sanneh writes:

Bible translation is a religious act, obviously, but it is also something else: a social and cultural event of enormous significance.

But Sanneh notes that:

Even among Christians there is a widely held view that some languages are unworthy of the status of being the language of religion… This view, however, stands in open contradiction to the premise of Bible translation … as the expression of Christianity itself as a translated religion from its origin.

Indeed, Sanneh’s findings call into question the attitudes of some who consider our mother tongues irrelevant or even antithetical to progress. Perhaps we have forgotten something. Sanneh reminds us that at one time English was considered a language not worthy of the status of being the language of religion by those who preferred the world language of the time, Latin. In spite of their opposition the:

King James Bible became a model of how Bible translation bears directly on the dignity of those without voice and on the margins of power and privilege.

Lamin Sanneh is D Willis James Professor of Missions and World Christianity at Yale University Divinity School, New Haven, Connecticut, USA