Power dynamics in language

While we were checking the book of Colossians, the translators and I were working on a passage in chapter 3: “…you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.”

This is a wonderful passage that shows how all people are made new in Christ, how all people are made in the image of God. However, when we were looking at the different versions translated this passage, we found something disturbing in a Setswana translation.

In this translation, the Setswana Bible had translated the word “barbarian” as lekgalagadi, referring to the Bakgalagari people who live in that region. They were calling the people barbarians and outsiders. Worst of all, the use of the prefix le– is used for non-human objects in Setswana. So this translation is saying that they don’t even see the Bakgalagari as people, but as something less than human.

When I spoke to the translators about this, they laughed and said that they are used to this kind of attitude from Setswana speakers. That they are often looked down upon because of their tribe and language. That people use lekgalagadi as an insult or admonition to children that are misbehaving.

It broke my heart to hear this. That people made in the image of God would be looked down on just just for their language. That they would be mistreated in this way, to have their name turned into a slur just because it is “different” than those in power. And this isn’t ancient history; this translation is from 1970.

This is why we translate the Bible. So that people like the Bakgalagari can read Scripture and not see their own name used as a slur, but rather that they would see themselves as a part of the people of God that Colossians speaks of. We want all people to know that Christ is all and that Christ is in all, no matter what language they speak!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s