The importance of having the Bible in one’s mother tongue

I grew up with my grandmother in a small village called Begoro in the Eastern Region of Ghana. Grandma wasn’t formally educated and never spoke English, but she spoke and read Twi (my mother tongue) very fluently. Coming from a lineage of kingmakers, Grandma had the privilege of learning to read and write Twi at night school organized by the Basel Mission of the Presbyterian Church. She had a Twi Bible (Akuapem), which she religiously read to me at dawn and at bedtime. She cherished that Bible until she passed a few years ago. Sadly, I never took up the reading of the Twi Bible throughout my education. I regret that deeply. All I read was the English version of the King James Bible. Fast-forward to 2017, and now working in Scripture Translations at the Canadian Bible Society (CBS), I have come to realize the importance of having the Bible in one’s mother tongue. Today, anytime I hear the Bible read in my heart language, it ushers me into a realm that’s so difficult to explain in plain language.

An Inuit translator receives her copy of the Bible in her language.
Edith Nageak with her Commemorative Edition of the Inupiaq New Testament. Her team is working on getting the whole Bible translated in their language.

The heart language or mother tongue is simply a language a person learns to speak from infancy, and thinks in and dreams in while growing up. I was privileged, this past January, to witness an emotional scene at the Inuit Bible Translation Conference organized by CBS in Toronto. The conference brought together for the first time Inuit Bible translators from across the Arctic, from Alaska to Greenland. They came to learn and share their experiences in translating the Bible into their heart language. I heard an emotional phrase from one of the participants who narrated the comments of an excited recipient of the Inuktitut Bible; he said, “God speaks my language”. It’s an awesome thing to hear the Word of God being read in one’s mother tongue. It not only personalizes the relationship one has with God, but symbolizes the Christian principle of God loving us all irrespective of our race, cultural background and social class. It makes Jesus real in a language that can be understood, felt and shared by a community. It also gives people the opportunity to learn how to read the Word in their own native language.

Translators on their laptops
George Pabi assists Inuit translators at the first Inuit Bible Translation Conference in Toronto.

Like most indigenous cultures that are oral, having the Bible in one’s mother tongue helps preserve the language and culture. In my recent travels, I met a group of passionate Bible translators who, after a community review of one of the Old Testament books, have been inundated with inquiries about when their work will be completed. What touched my heart was a testimony shared of an old lady who constantly asks when the work would be completed. She’s eagerly waiting to read and hear the Word of God in her mother tongue. On the last day of our training session, the translators took time to share their struggles and frustrations. They included issues like finding terms to describe things that don’t exist in their culture but are in the Bible, dealing with words that have multiple meanings and trying to find an acceptable word that their community would identify with, understanding the cultural context in which the Scriptures were written so that they can accurately translate it to the understanding of their people, etc.

Their challenge provides an opportunity for CBS to deliver training and translation consulting to guide them to overcome some of the common problems inherent in Bible translation. A few of these include helping them to understand the key role they play in the whole translation process, assisting them to critically explain or interpret text, understanding the intended meaning of the ancient language in which the Bible was written, providing a structured and organized plan for the completion of their translations, and raising the necessary funds to manage the project until its successful completion.

We live in exciting times in Canada as our nation begins to right the decades of wrongs done to our indigenous peoples on whom most of our work is focused. The times afford us the opportunity to engage with communities who are looking forward to revitalizing their language, preserving their linguistic history and culture and getting the Bible in their own language. I look forward to playing a part in this pivotal process.

Author Photo: 

George Pabi

About the Author: 

George Pabi is the Typesetting and Computer Assisted Publishing (CAP) Coordinator at the Canadian Bible Society. He has a diverse background in Graphic Design, Printing, Publishing, Magazine Production and Marketing and has been involved in the graphic arts industry for close to 30 years. Since joining CBS, George has been involved as lead technical coordinator of all CBS typesetting projects, training and supporting new users of the Paratext software, working as the Digital Bible Library administrator for CBS, and representing the organization as senior CAP officer at United Bible Societies international CAP events. He and his family live in Brampton, ON.