WACO—Translation of Scripture grows naturally out of a central Christian theme — God making himself known by identifying with the commonplace, said Lamin Sanneh, professor of mission and world Christianity at Yale University.
“Translation into the common idiom is emblematic of the incarnation in which the Word became flesh,” Sanneh told a conference sponsored by Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion marking the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. “Christianity is embodied faith. It must have a face. … Christianity is a translated religion, and a translated religion is necessarily interpreted.”
Christianity’s view of its holy book, the Bible, stands in sharp contrast to the Islamic attitude toward the Quran, he explained.
Muslims believe the angel Gabriel directly gave Mohammad the pure word of God in Arabic, and it remains immutable. Muslims see value in the words of the Quran, even if they are not understood.
Christians, on the other hand, believe the Bible’s value rests in the message it communicates about God, and efforts to make it understandable to varied cultures and languages are encouraged.
“Once the Quran is translated, it is no longer the Quran,” said Sanneh, who grew up Muslim and attended Islamic schools in Gambia at an early age before becoming a Christian.
“For Christians, the word of God is not sealed in idiom.”
Pentecost signaled the expansion of Christianity beyond the boundaries of one language, race and culture, he noted.
“No language is forbidden, nor is any one language a prerequisite,” he said. Christian mission takes a utilitarian view of language—God provides multiple means of making the gospel known in ways comprehensible to different people in different places, he said.
Sanneh recalled be-ing “scandalized” the first time he heard a question asked by Christian missionaries: “What name do you call God?” For a Muslim, Allah is the one and only name of God, but Christians understand God makes himself known in the language of each of the world’s people, he learned.
“Christianity is both universal and particular,” he explained. “God speaks all the languages of the world.”
God’s revelation of himself in Jesus Christ transcends culture, but at the same time, it must be translated into the language and cultural expressions to each specific culture, Sanneh observed.
“Christianity has to be embraced by an indigenous source before it takes root,” he said. “Understanding is at the heart of the gospel.”
The King James Version of the Bible demonstrated “a power intrinsic to itself that transcended the circumstances of its translation,” he observed. As English-speaking Christian missionaries translated the Bible into other languages, they often used the King James Bible as their guide, and in spite of its flaws, that version proved itself remarkably well-suited to cross-cultural expression.
“The King James Bible brought out the strength and beauty of the simple and ordinary,” he said. Its earthy idioms translated well into societies that lived close to the land, and its lyrical quality appealed to nonliterate people with oral traditions.
“Oral culture is a formidable challenge to a religion of the book,” he noted. However, the beauty of the King James narratives—even when translated into other languages—demonstrated “the triumph of the warm voice over the cold pen.”