[Foundation-l] Fwd: NYTimes.com: African Languages Grow as a Wikipedia Pr...

Robert Scott Horning robert_horning at netzero.net
Mon Aug 28 16:02:10 UTC 2006

Ray Saintonge wrote:

>Many of these languages were pre-literate until waves of Christian 
>missionaries went in and translated the Bible for them.  Talk about 
>paternalistic!  That was not limited to Africa; it also prevailed over 
>the first nations languages of the Americas.  

This is a little over the top in this observation.  Ever since the Bible 
was translated into Latin, there has been a consistant attitude of 
trying to teach the concepts of Christian thought in the native language 
of the people who were recieving the message.  In fact, none other than 
the words of Jesus himself, to "preach the gospel to every nation, 
kindred, tounge, and people" gives quite the justification to translate 
these words into as many languages as possible.

While I will openly admit that this was not as widespread of a practice 
during most of the 1st Christian millenium, it certainly was a part of 
the Reformation and Protistant movement in terms of translating tracts 
and literature into as many languages as possible.  When 19th Century 
(and even substantial 20th Century) missionary work came across cultures 
who had no written language of any kind, it became quite difficult to 
have these new cultures to have the opportunity to read the Holy Word. 
 An interesting development occured when in some areas Christian worship 
services occured in an European language but everyday life occured in 
another.  From a missionary point of view, these people who were 
professing to be converts to Chritianity were in fact living one life 
during the week and something completely different on Sunday.  In an 
attempt to "democratize" the access to the teachings of Jesus, the Bible 
simply had to be translated into these languages that otherwise had no 
written form.

This is hardly paternalistic, but rather the very purpose and being of 
the missionary work, and a desire to fulfill the direct command of 
Christ himself.  If the language didn't have a written form, it became 
necessary to perform this missionary effort to create the written form 
in the first place.  Jointly with this effort was also an attempt to 
preserve the history and cultures of these people with this newly 
created written language.

In fact, I would dare say that this same missionary zeal that pushed 
these Christian missionaries into translating the Bible into as many 
languages as possible is largely continued through the efforts of 
Wikimedia projects and in particular Wikipedia.  I know that it isn't 
necessarily a Christian POV that is being translated for Wikipedia, but 
you absolutely must acknowledge the roots of similar efforts coming from 
these Christians rather than demeaning and belittling honest positive 
conributions of well meaning people.  That you may or may not agree with 
Christian thought is irrelevant in this situation, and if it wasn't for 
the substantial efforts to create a written form of many of these 
languages, there simply wouldn't be a written form at all.

Since you bring up native American peoples, I would like to point out 
that the Cherokee nation in particular has had their language now for 
close to 200 years, was originally written to translate the Bible and 
admittedly to "Christianize" the Cherokee people.  Still, this written 
form as acted as a cultural shield and has helped preserve the language 
in spite of enormous pressures to abandon the language.  Indeed as with 
many other written language efforts, this has acted as a unifying force 
to draw the Cherokee people together.  Unlike many of the other 
languages that I guess you are refering to here, Cherokee as a language 
has also developed independent of religious literature with rich 
traditions of secular literature.

I would agree that a paternalistic attitude of condescension toward 
calling these effort (perhaps even viewed by some of the 19th Century 
missionary efforts you are refering to) of "helping primitive native 
peoples", but there were reasons to translate the Bible into these 

BTW, for current efforts to translate the Bible into additional 
languages (and some efforts are being done even now), it costs in the 
neighborhood of roughly $2 million USD for each edition of the Bible. 
 The groups that do these efforts (see 
http://www.ubs-translations.org/cms/index.php?about ) try to be very 
senstive to native cultures when these translations are done.  Frankly, 
these individuals who go into a society and even attempt to create a 
syllabary for a language that otherwise has none are doing incredible 
and often thankless work.  Rather than being critical of these efforts, 
they are indeed preserving these languages even if it is in POV 
religious context.  These individuals are on the bleeding edge of 
linguistics studies, to be honest.

Robert Scott Horning

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