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Example: Missionaries as translators

Watch Dr Esther Liu describes how Christian missionaries and members of the community act as linguistic and cultural mediators.
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I’ve sat here in the building used by a Cardiff Chinese Christian church. Here translation occurs frequently between Cantonese, Mandarin and English. But this desire to give people linguistic access to the message of Christianity isn’t new. Ever since the Word became flesh, and Jesus commanded his disciples to go to all nations, Christianity has encouraged, even necessitated translation. Take French Protestant missionary Francois Coillard, for example. He, along with his wife Christina, went to Lesotho in 1857 as Christian missionaries. And then to a region in what we now call Zambia in the late 1880s. Francois Coillard, because he was in different contexts, working in different languages, he translated.
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He translated between colonial administrators, indigenous rulers, but more than that– as part of his missionary work he translated parts of the Bible. Surely a hard task considering that Christians believe that the Bible isn’t just another text or book, but that it’s the word of God, the message of Jesus Christ. There’s a sanctity to the text. And yet Christians believe that it was inspired by God, but written by multiple human authors so that ordinary people could read it for themselves. Even the very act of translation signifies a real desire for people to understand the message. Indeed, Coillard translated hymns from his childhood, too, so that the Sosotho people could hear the message that way, singing it.
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He writes that it is in this way, that carried on the wings of music, religious truths make their way among our Bosothos and are spread far afield. In Coillard’s translation method, the understanding of the people takes greater priority than the exact words or phrases in the original texts. He knows that, as he puts it, a text loses its fragrance in translation. But his main goal isn’t necessarily to carry over every single word from the source text. His relief comes when he is able to communicate the essential message of Christianity, writing, I nearly cried with emotion and thankfulness the first time that I was able to speak to these poor Zulus of a Savior god who loves them.
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And yet he knows that translation can go wrong. Heresy– when the Christian message is distorted and reduced– is condemned by Coillard. But it’s interesting to note that when he talks about one man in particular, he writes, many of his followers connect more with his personality than with his doctrines. For this missionary, a good translation is one in which the translator does not take center stage, but rather the text and its message. Coillard did not translate alone. He had indigenous Christians to help him, being experts in their own language and young converts to the Christian faith. They translated parts of the Bible with him and also interpreted preaching around the country, so that people could understand the message even more clearly.
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This Christian emphasis on translation continues today. Organizations such as the Wycliffe Bible translators see translation as a vital element of the Christian faith. So as we have seen, missionaries past and present are translators, linguistically translating the text of the Bible and culturally communicating the message of Jesus.

Those who travel across geographical borders, whether for commercial, cultural or religious purposes, either make use of translators and interpreters or take on those roles themselves, thus stretching the boundaries of our understanding of the figure of the professional translator and interpreter.

Through a study of 19th Century French Christian missionary François Coillard, Dr Esther Liu describes how, in the context of a Christian mission, both missionaries and members of the community act as linguistic and cultural mediators creating new forms of identity and belonging.

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Working with Translation: Theory and Practice

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