Bible Translation

Translation and Orality

John Piper has an interesting little article on the need for Bible translation in oral cultures. You can read a synopsis here, or listen to the audio file here.

… And the reason they need the Bible, of course—and why we shouldn’t praise orality excessively, as a substitute for literacy—is that, to the degree that they don’t become literate, they’re going to always be secondhanders.

And I think it’s paternalistic to make a person a permanent secondhander. Because if the stories are all in this book, and we’re teaching them that they can learn it from us orally, then they’re going to be constantly dependent upon us and not just the book.

It may take a generation or two to get the book translated and to produce literacy, but what an arrogant thing it would be—wouldn’t it?—to say that orality is just as good as literacy. We’ll give them the stories they need, and now they can, for the next 100 or 300 years, or until Jesus comes, do everything in their way, not your Western literacy way. I think that is incredibly paternalistic.

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4 replies on “Translation and Orality”

Wow! John Piper has just lost any last grain of respect he might have had from me. I’ve never heard such a black pot call a kettle black! How incredibly paternalistic this is to assume that our modern western culture of literacy is better than anything else and is to be imposed on everyone else whether they like it or not! Who says that people who “don’t become literate” are “going to always be secondhanders”? This is an assertion straight from modern western culture without even the slightest biblical support.

Of course if a people group wants a full written Bible translation in their language, they should get it. So no one is telling them they must wait. The paternalism is in imposing on them this western way of doing things, as Piper seems to want to do.

And why is this better than them memorising the text (they can probably memorise the entire NT if they want, not just a few stories), or having it all available in audio form on CD or MP3 player? Don’t talk about the cost – an MP3 player might well now be as cheap as a printed book.

I agree with the commenter above – if an oral people want the Bible in written format, then that is what should happen. But if they are more comfortable with oral methods of information transmission, then Bible translators and/or teachers need to take that into account and find the BEST way to get God’s Word into people’s hearts.

Using oral methods does not necessarily make people ‘permanent secondhanders.’

What about recording it onto MP3 players, as suggested above? That gives the listener/believer from an oral culture total control over what they listen to, and far better access to God’s Word than they would have by being given it in written format.

Many rural Paraguayans are able to read, but most of them would not choose to access information through written methods. Why should the teachers/missionaries insist on them using methods they find uncomfortable or difficult, rather than providing the Word of God in a format they can access easily? SIM in Paraguay has a project to provide 100,000 audio Bibles on MP3 players for families in rural areas:

I agree with most of what John Piper says in the full article, but it does always seem ironic to me when people say “doing x for people is paternalistic – we should do y for them instead”. I think there is place for recommending certain things to new Christian communities (including literacy in most, if not all cases), but we can’t use paternalism as an argument when our alternative is similarly prescriptive and doesn’t take into account the views of the community.

I think literacy can completely transform a community, often in very beneficial ways – both spiritually and in other practical areas of life. There is also a great biblical precedent for literacy – of scriptures being written down to preserve them, and even God himself writing the ten commandments on stone, and writing on the wall in the book of Daniel.

But I’m not sure I would go as far as saying that for every group literacy for the whole community is necessary for spiritual growth, without knowing any context of what the community itself felt about the matter – there are plenty of examples in the Bible of people who served God who didn’t know him through personally reading the scriptures.

Yes, John Piper makes a mistake in his paper, but I don’t think it is the one that Peter and Fiona have picked up on. Piper’s problem, if listen carefully, is that he seems to assume that Bible storying is the only form of oral Scriptures that exist. Bible storying, retelling stories from Scripture is a wonderful way of helping people to memorize Bible stories, but they are just that – stories from the Bible. By lumping all oral methods together under the same heading, John Piper has missed out on the idea of oral Bibles on MP3 players and such like, which Peter and Fiona quite rightly mention.

John Piper seems to be speaking from a limited understanding(which may not be the wisest thing to have done). But, I have to say that I am with him in as far as his understanding has gone. If all people have access to is a retelling of Bible stories they are ‘second-handers’. I believe that people deserve to have the access to the full Bible (oral, mobile phone, book form – I don’t really care)in a good, faithful translation. There is of course a missiological discussion to be had about how much of the Bible can be translated for each group ( Piper’s mistake was to confuse telling Bible stories with oral transmission of Scripture and translation with written transmission. I don’t want people to have stories from the Bible (oral or written) I want them to have the Bible (oral, written….)

That being said, I am with Mark on this one, too. There are demonstrable benefits to having a literate culture (which is not just a western phenomenon) and people should be encouraged and helped to develop one as much as this is possible.

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