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Vulnerable mission 1: lost in translation?

‘Missionaries from the West like to hit the ground running to solve as many of other people’s problems as possible in the increasingly short term they have available for service…’ Uh oh.

In this series we’ll explore the book Theory to Practice in Vulnerable Mission by Jim Harries. Vulnerable mission is a way of talking about working within the language and resources of another people.

A few months ago we wanted to remove our grass fence, our fensi ya majani.

Majani can be translated as grass. But majani is not the same as grassMajani can also also be translated as leaves. Okay then, is majani the same as foliage? Not really. Frond-like plant matter? Nope. Majani is majani, not anything else. There is some overlap with some English words, and some translations are better than others, but what we’ve got here are two different language systems.

How would you explain your love of tennis to someone who loves soccer (football) — someone, imagine, whose life is soccer, who knows nothing but soccer? In tennis a player has two chances to serve. What does that mean in soccer? There’s no serve in soccer. There’s not really an equivalent, either. The serve is the beginning of play, so perhaps you could liken the serve to the kick-off — but in soccer, play can also begin with a throw-in or a free kick. Already we’re in a bit of a mess. At some point you’ll just have to pick a translation and go with it, and maybe it’ll do the job, but it’ll never be just right — anything you say will come across differently to the soccer fan. Soccer and tennis are two different games with different terms that reflect different rules and different goals. Maybe it’s just not possible to explain tennis with reference to soccer. Maybe the soccer fan will only understand tennis by playing it.

Tradutore, traditore. Translator: traitor.

harries-vulnerable-missionIn chapter 1 of Theory to Practice in Vulnerable Mission, Jim Harries draws on his linguistics background to uncover misunderstandings about language and show how fraught it is to attempt translation.

Harries notes that words carry associations, while meanings lie with people. Just as fingers typing on a keyboard might create words but do not themselves carry words, so words evoke meanings for people but do not themselves carry meaning.

This means that translated words will have a certain ‘impact’ on people, evoking a certain range of meanings, but — as you saw with the illustrations above — there is no exact overlap of meaning with the original. Translation is not only a subjective activity, explains Harries, but an inexact one. There is simply no way to get a 100%, 1:1 correspondence between majani and an English translation, because they belong to two separate systems — like soccer and tennis. And if that’s true of the most mundane words, think of how problematic it gets when we move into phrases, into concepts, into theologies…

Language is always contextual. There being no non-contextual way of speaking means that the impact of words will always change as the context in which they are received alters. What makes good sense in Western contexts may no longer do so in African contexts. (page 19)

Let me relate this to one example of problematic Western missionary efforts: the Gospel Coalition’s ‘theological famine relief’ project, which involves exporting its books to other countries.

  • People in a non-English background will understand an English text differently to English-background people. Therefore English copies of John Piper books cannot have the impact in Tanzania they might be expected to have in North America.
  • Translated text will lose connotations from its original context, as well as taking on new connotations in its new context. Therefore Swahili copies of John Piper books cannot have the impact in Tanzania they might be expected to have in North America.
  • The John Piper books could be rewritten in a form of English that might be more meaningful in Tanzania — but in doing so, could become less-than-correct in North America.
  • So the question becomes: assuming that John Piper books are an excellent resource for North America, why would we give something less than excellent to Tanzania?

Questions for discussion: What do you think it takes for someone to work in an overseas context? If you have learned another language, what has your experience taught you? Have you seen any examples of good, lasting intercultural communication?

Categories: Written by Arthur

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Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

2 replies

  1. I think the answer to “why would we give something less than excellent to Tanzania?” is captured in the title of the project – “theological famine relief”. That is – the use of famine indicates the pressing and urgent need to do something quickly – rather than stand idly by in the hope of something better later (when its too late). Relief indicates it is an acknowledged temporary bridging-the-gap measure.
    At its best – the imperfect resources provided by the West will lead to Tanzania developing their own excellent resources but without which no Tanzanian resources would ever develop.
    I will be interested to see if you address our commitment to translation – despite its imperfections – that meaning and right understanding can cross languages – that the bible remains the word of God whether in Hebrew, Greek, English or Swahili.

    1. Tony, I think part of the point here is that this sort of project doesn’t do the work we want it to and also may inhibit something better later. To continue the imperfect analogy of famine relief, it’s well-intentioned food which is not all that nourishing in the short term and may have negative after-effects.

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