A tradition passed down from the missionary era is the Scottish Bible Society’s practice of presenting staff appointed to overseas posts with a Bible in the language of the area to which they are going. The tradition was slightly modified in my case this year as the required Bible was not available in Scotland so arrangements were made for me to receive it from the Bible Society of Malawi.
Tuesday this week saw me walking across town in Blantyre to the Bible Society offices and a happy reunion with General Secretary Clapperton Mayuni. Hailing from the north of Malawi he was delighted that I had opted for a Chitumbuka Bible. This is the predominant language in his home area and the Bible Society recently completed a modern translation, comparable to the Good News Bible in English. They have done the same with Chilomwe, spoken in Malawi’s southern districts.
Besides the vital importance for faith of having the Bible in your mother-tongue, the monumental achievement of such Bible translations has great cultural significance. Such is the force of global culture today that minority languages could easily be squeezed out. Malawi’s cultural and linguistic riches, among many others, are in jeopardy. The Bible translations play their part in striking back – celebrating, sustaining and renewing cultural heritage that we need for the future.
Bible translation is significant in itself but it is also an emblem of the confidence embedded in Christianity that it is a faith that translates. It is an incarnational faith always ready to enter a new world of thought. When culture and language change, they provoke the Christian imagination to discover how the faith translates into the new context. The patient work of Bible translation is at the heart of this but it goes much wider and invites all of us on a journey of discovery.
As I clutched my Mazgu Gha Chiuta Mu Kang’anamuliro Kaphya (Chitumbuka Bible) on Tuesday I was grateful that an old tradition still lives on and represents something of such urgent contemporary relevance.