How do you go about translating the Bible for people who prefer to listen rather than read?

A new translation of the Bible starting in Senegal is using ground-breaking translation methods so more people will be able to hear about Jesus.

‘Participants worked on draft oral translations during a workshop we held in February,’ says Jamie, who is part of the team currently being put together for the Contemporary Wolof translation. ‘At the closing ceremony the participants decided they would recite their translations. It was really powerful for the Wolof speakers present to hear the word of God in their language like that. And we thought, “If that’s what’s possible after two weeks, then what can we do with Scripture properly translated this way?”’

‘Everyone was more likely to use Wolof’

The need for a Contemporary Wolof translation became clear through a survey exploring how language use is changing in modern Senegal. It showed that Christians were more likely to use French when talking about their faith, but Muslims, who make up 95% of the Senegalese population, preferred to use Wolof when talking about their religion. But everyone was more likely to use Contemporary Wolof when speaking to their friends and neighbours.

A Senegalese woman

‘It’s a problem when the language you use to talk to your friends and neighbours is different from the one you talk about your faith in,’ Jamie notes. ‘The results really opened people’s eyes to see this need.’

This is what has inspired the Evangelical Federation, an umbrella organisation of evangelical churches across Senegal, to begin this Contemporary Wolof translation – to meet the needs of Christians who speak Contemporary Wolof, and also to enable churches to reach out more effectively to Contemporary Wolof speakers.

‘It is more natural to listen’

The translation will be oral in both process and outcome. This is the first time a translation will be done orally in Senegal.

Jamie explains how it will work: ‘First we will go through the passage so the translators understand it and internalise the passage, so they can tell it in a way that is natural in Contemporary Wolof. Then we will listen to it, check it, and adjust it. We do that over and over until we have an accurate and natural draft. It goes through all the same checking processes that a written translation goes through.’

The final aim is to have a Scripture app that people can download and listen to – the voices on the app will be the voices of the translators. Because Senegal is such a deeply oral culture, this is the best way to enable people to engage with the Bible.

‘The way things are passed on in Senegal is through oral storytelling,’ Jamie observes. ‘It is just more natural to listen than to read.’

The church also recognises the importance of having a written version, so the text will be included in the app and also be published as a book.

The Son of Man

For the first 100 verses they translate, the team wants to do something they could share right away with people. So they are planning to translate a collection of the stories and teaching where Jesus talks about himself being the ‘Son of Man’. The hope is that these verses will get people thinking more about who Jesus is – and get them excited about hearing more of the translation as it progresses.

‘Our vision for the translation,’ Jamie concludes, ‘is that people can understand clearly who Jesus is and his message.’

 

Contemporary and Regional Wolof

  • Contemporary Wolof is spoken by an estimated 16 million people – most urban people in Senegal
  • Regional Wolof is spoken in many villages
  • Regional Wolof speakers can understand Contemporary Wolof
  • But Contemporary Wolof speakers can’t understand Regional Wolof
  • There is a Regional Wolof New Testament translation
  • But no Contemporary Wolof translation – yet!
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