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Michael and Mahdi* are Kenyan translators who have been working on translating the very first books of the Bible into the Leafa* language. It is a difficult project. The Leafa communities are quite closed to outsiders and to the gospel. The land is hot and the translation office is a lorry container with windows and a door added into the sides. Travel to Leafa villages is arduous – impossible during the rainy season – and on occasion the team have needed bodyguards.

The translation holds problems too. Michael and Mahdi are doing a thorough check of their draft of Luke. It involves careful scrutiny of every aspect: every spelling, every verb for tenses and agreement, all the word orders, all the idioms. It’s throwing up all sorts of difficulties.

‘One day, as we were checking Luke 9:48,’ says Michael, ‘we hit a big problem. In English the verse says:

Then he said to them, “Anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me also welcomes my Father who sent me. Whoever is the least among you is the greatest.” (NLT)

‘This is what we have written in Leafa:

Wanafundidhi kiyer, “Halibe maangꞌe wîîlchi tan / kan sidhe kaꞌadhe, an i'aadh. Hali an iꞌaadhe hali itesidhe aadh. Halichi lokodahadhini halusu awinye komomo kohorea.”

The English translations say ‘child’, which could be either a boy or a girl – it doesn’t specify gender. Neither does the Kiswahili (the national language in Kenya) term ‘mtoto huyu’, or the original Greek ‘παιδίον’.

‘Not so in Leafa!’ Michael continues, ‘In Leafa, the only time we don’t specify gender is if a child is still in the mother’s womb. As soon as a child is born, you have to use a word that says ‘boy’ or ‘girl’. If it is a boy-child and you want to say ‘child’, you say ‘wîîlchi kan’. And if it is a girl-child, you would say ‘wîîlchi tan’. As we translate the passage, we have to pick one or the other. But which child did Jesus bring to his side? Was it ‘kan’ or ‘tan’?’

This girl told the Leafa team, ‘I want to go to university and be the first Leafa* medical doctor!’

In Leafa society, women and girls are regarded as lowly. Women are usually counted with the children and have almost no rights or say in family matters. Wife beating is very common, and little boys have more ‘value’ than little girls. It is common for part of a dowry to be paid when a girl-child is between seven and ten as a ‘booking fee’ for marriage, and girls are given for marriage by their parents as young as 13.

‘If we translate Jesus’ word as ‘kan’ (boy-child),’ Michael says, ‘we might aid the prejudice against women and girls. The men and boys would feel proud, but the women and girls would feel that Jesus, just like their men, doesn’t regard them highly. If we used ‘tan’ (girl-child), the men might feel challenged to reconsider their stand on the value of women and girls. If the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords regarded a girl-child so highly, who are they to look down on women?’

This story originally appeared in Words for Life magazine in 2013. Today, the Leafa translation of Luke 9:48 reads:

Wanafundidhi kiyer, «Halibe maang'e wîîshchi tan sidhe kaꞌadhe, an iꞌaadh. Hali an iꞌaadhe hali itesidhe aadh. Halichi lokodahdhini halusu awinye komomo kohorea.»

Unsurprisingly, they have chosen ‘girl-child’.

You might notice some changes in the spelling of certain words in the Leafa verse. To find out about some of the reasons that can happen, why not explore this article about alphabet design? Or to discover more ways God uses Bible translation to change communities as well as individuals, click the link below.

*Name changed for security reasons.