“This book should go into my community as soon as possible.”

“Paul had these big theological ideas. And they are difficult, very difficult to translate.”

Saul Lwilla smiles broadly but shakes his head at the same time, as he speaks. Saul is a translator for the Kinga language of southwest Tanzania. It is both a joy and a challenge to host this unique workshop: fifteen translators representing seven Tanzanian languages are meeting together for two weeks in one room. They are simultaneously drafting seven translations of the book of Romans.

“This book, it should go as soon as possible into my community,” says Damas Mwashitete, whose mother tongue is Nyiha. “Because really my people do not understand well about grace. But when they read Romans carefully in Nyiha, the language they know well — their own language — they will understand the place of grace in the Christian life.”

So the seven teams shuffle all the desks in their big hall, lining them up like a classroom. Usually each translation team sits in their own huddle, three or four desks per language. But for two weeks they become one team, using Swahili (Tanzania’s national language) to address jointly the translation issues which the book of Romans poses for each of their individual languages. Two projectors make it easy to compare texts between versions and languages.

“We must compare,” says Yoram Chapaulinge, of the Sangu language team. “To get the real meaning and export that meaning to our community, I must compare. If I say ‘my old nature I must bury,’ what does that mean?

“We are not to be satisfied with only one or two versions,” Chapa continues. “Also, it is good to see what our fellow translators have done, for instance the Kinga or Vwanji language. We Sangu, our language is very close to theirs.”

Translators do ‘see’ other translations, but mostly they ‘hear’ from their colleagues. Discussions fill the usually quiet translation hall with sound and energy. Points are often hotly contested while hands shoot into the air or wave impatiently.

Jacob Karels is very pleased. “They learned a lot just from the interaction,” he says, “seeing how other teams translated and what translation principles they followed.” Jacob is a Translation Consultant who helped lead a previous Romans workshop held in Mbeya two years ago. This time, however, the workshop is entirely led by Tanzanians who participated in that last one.

Among those leaders is Nahum Mhalila of the Vwanji language. Nahum knows the value (and risk) of using commentaries. “Many things Paul said are very complicated,” he says. “You have to read many books to help you get meaning. But you do not trust some expert. No! You have to think!”

After two weeks of hard thinking, seven African languages have new or revised drafts of Paul’s big theological ideas. But “words on paper” is not the real goal. Each team is far more interested in the impact of Paul’s words in their own lives and in their communities.

Damas looks forward to when “Nyiha Christians will stop depending on their works to earn favor before God.”

For Chapa and his Sangu people, Paul’s difficult theology came to this: “We bury our human nature and then we must be a new thing, as Jesus was raised…

“It is a miracle for us. To become a new one!”

This story was originally written for SIL Tanzania by:

Steve Pence (Translation Teams Administrator, Mbeya Region)

SIL International is a global partner among academic and professional organisations which offer language development services. SIL works alongside speakers of more than 1,700 languages in over 100 countries. Active in Tanzania since 1989, the organization makes its services available to all without regard to religious belief, political ideology, gender, race or ethnolinguistic background.