Mother-Tongue Translations and Contextualization in Latin America

By Bivin, William E. | International Bulletin of Missionary Research, April 2010 | Go to article overview

Mother-Tongue Translations and Contextualization in Latin America


Bivin, William E., International Bulletin of Missionary Research


Over the last seventy years Bible translation agencies have engaged in translating the New Testament into the hundreds of indigenous languages of Latin America. That immense task is now nearing completion. Yet translation is only part of the task; a potentially larger challenge awaits, namely, encouraging the growing churches in these language groups to accept and use the Scripture translations that have been so painstakingly accomplished. Development of a contextualized Christianity appropriate to the myriad of cultures in Central and South America--essential if vibrant and mature indigenous churches are to grow within those cultures--is crucially tied to acceptance and use of Scripture translations in the people's mother tongues. Despite this fact, the majority-culture Spanish-speaking churches and denominations in the region operate, through the practices and assumptions engrained in their mission work among the minority language groups, in a way that clearly hinders the development of theologically contextualized indigenous churches. (1)

By way of illustration, in one Latin American country where I have worked extensively as a Bible translation consultant, four major Spanish-speaking Protestant denominations that are led by nationals (that is, members of the politically, socially, and economically dominant group of European ancestry, as opposed to indigenes or expatriates) and the Roman Catholic Church work in a minority language group of 250,000 speakers. Together the Spanish-speaking groups oversee more than three hundred indigenous churches. They carry out their mission work entirely in Spanish. Before and during the translation project I spent hundreds of hours meeting with the leadership of these groups to build relationships and to invite their participation in the translation project, seeking to encourage them to promote use of the resultant translation. The translation was completed five years ago, yet only a handful of pastors in these denominations are using it. When the New Testament, with permission from denominational leaders, was distributed to the pastors of one of the denominations, an indigenous pastor excitedly announced to the others that this was just what they needed, for now they would be better able to communicate the Gospel within their churches. He was quickly silenced by the denomination's missionary, who reminded him that they were not free to do whatever they wanted but were under her authority.

By contrast, another denomination in this language group--one led completely by indigenous people--does use the new translation extensively. While the denomination's leaders recognize the importance of Spanish, they are committed to promoting use of their mother tongue in the church. It was their vision that led to undertaking the translation project, and today 60 to 70 percent of the denomination's pastors use the mother-tongue translation in their daily lives and in the life of the church.

Why the difference? The question is worth asking, because the growing hegemony of Spanish-speaking churches over indigenous churches is producing an identity crisis on the part of many indigenous believers in Latin America. Naive assertion of entitlement to dominate culturally and spiritually on the part of national or Latino leaders seriously affects the willingness of indigenous language speakers to accept and use mother-tongue Scriptures, something that is crucial for the development of a contextualized faith. (2) If mission agencies and national churches in Latin America continue to ignore this truth, how will Jesus find a home among the indigenous churches? There is a very real risk that the mother-tongue Scriptures will be set aside for existing Spanish translations. Then, as Daniel Shaw and Charles Van Engen comment, lacking "local logic and reason generated from the receptors' worldview, theology will make no sense to them, and the people will correctly question their need to pay any attention.

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