How The Original Languages Can Benefit The African Church

At Bible college I’ve often heard an analogy designed to help us appreciate the study of the Bible’s original languages: Hebrew and Ancient Greek. Reading the Bible in the original languages is likened to watching television in high definition. Simultaneously, reading a translation is likened to watching in black and white. One still gets the story in black and white. But there’s so much nuance that we miss. This is only ever seen in high definition. Like all analogies, we should be careful how far we push this one. So I appreciate that this analogy doesn’t discard the value of translated versions.

It’s very important in our promotion of the original languages not to make people think that they cannot trust their translated versions. However, I have personally experienced the joy and value of reading the Bible in the original languages. This is something I wish for many more to experience for themselves.

Learning how to “Be Still”

I’ve had many instances where I have been thankful for having been taught the original languages. One of those was when I wanted to memorise Psalm 46 in my own language. My hardcopy of the isiXhosa Bible is a reprint of the 1975 version. Thus it wasn’t long before I realised I didn’t know half of the vocabulary in the psalm. So I accessed the 1996 version. This was better. But even here I encountered words that required me to ask my family for their meaning. The problem was, I got different answers. Worse still, for some of the words my family weren’t even sure of the meaning. They could only translate the word when I read it in context. So, I decided to translate the psalm for myself from Hebrew to isiXhosa. This was a great joy.

There are nuances in Hebrew that were more easily translatable into isiXhosa than English.

Reflecting on the above experience, a couple of things came to mind. The first was the excitement of realising that there are nuances in Hebrew that were more easily translatable into isiXhosa than English. An example of this is Psalm 46:10. For it’s much easier to emphasise the “I” of “Be still and know that I am God,” using isiXhosa. One can translate it as ndinguThixo (1975 version). Or one can translate it ndim uThixo (1996 version), strongly emphasising the first person pronoun, “I”. I thought this was pretty cool. But it also highlighted the importance for translating from the original languages rather than from other translations.

In Psalm 46, many forces threaten peace and security. They are powerful and, in light of their reality, it’s easy to see what the believer needs to remember. Those very real and frightening threats are not God. Yahweh alone is God. He is the reason to “be still”. For Yahweh will have the final say. His purposes will prevail.

Recognising the Limitations of our Own Languages

I reflected on a second matter while translating Psalm 46. Growing up I was encouraged to develop my English vocabulary more than I was encouraged to develop the vocabulary of my mother tongue. For isiXhosa, it was deemed sufficient that I could hold a conversation, read and write. But for English, I was constantly challenged to keep expanding my vocabulary. English was considered the language of opportunity. Thus I invested much more effort into English than on my mother tongue.

And before I could conclude that this must be a generational thing—something that people my age would generally relate to—I recalled a time when I realised that even my parents had trouble understanding some of the vocabulary in their isiXhosa Bibles. We had started a Bible study as a family where we were going through the Lord’s prayer. In the very first study my mother asked me what abahanahanisi means (Matthew 6:5). English versions typically translate this as “hypocrites”. Thankfully I was able to access my Greek lexicon so that I was not explaining to her from a translation, but rather could see what the meaning range is in Greek. Thus my knowledge of the original languages paid off, benefitting my mother.

False teaching is another important reason to pursue the study of the original languages.

Before that incident I would have thought that such isiXhosa vocabulary would have been accessible to my parents as they are of an older generation. For their isiXhosa vocabulary is much more developed than my own. But I’ve realised that this is not necessarily the case, which was saddening. For if my parents had read that verse in English, their English vocabulary is too limited for them to know what “hypocrite” means. Either way, they would have still needed someone to explain it further to them.

This is problematic for me because one wonders how many more words there are that my parents don’t understand in their Bibles? And for them to be so dependent on another to explain the Bible to them not only means that the joy of reading on their own is diminished, but it also leaves them more vulnerable to the false teachings that are on a continuous rise across our continent. I think that this is another important reason to pursue the study of the original languages.

Imagine a Future Full of Indigenous Translations

As many more Africans take on, and keep growing in, the study of the original languages, we will find much joy as we experience the depth of meaning that is sometimes lost in translation. Not only that, but as more Africans study the original languages that will mean that more people will be equipped and called to the important ministry of Bible translation. And, Lord allowing, we might get to a point where we are as spoilt for choice in translations in our mother-tongues as we are for English translations! God’s word would be more easily and readily accessible to people in their home languages across the African continent.