Spreading which word? Philological, theological and socio-political considerations behind the nineteenth century Bible translation into Yorùbá

The nineteenth century saw not only a spread of Christianity throughout West Africa, but also the translation of Christian texts into local African languages. In present-day Nigeria, a small group of Anglican African and European missionaries responsible for translating the Scriptures into Yorùbá documented their progress and considerations in journals and letters.

In this paper I reconstruct the considerations behind the translations and the often unexpected linguistic, religious, and political repercussions of missionary work. I show that the missionaries, by committing Yorùbá to writing, developing the Christian vocabulary, and by linguistically reinterpreting elements of native theology and cosmology, reconceptualising the native population’s world, effectively wielded linguistic power over their target audience. By the examples of the Yorùbá translations of key Christian terms (‘prayer’, ‘God’, ‘Holy Spirit’), I illustrate that frequently political and religio-cultural considerations governed linguistic choices while involuntary concessions to Muslim and native culture had to be made nevertheless. At the same time, as translation always entails the transfer of the message into the target language’s cultural sphere, the act of translation meant relinquishing control over the message to Yorùbá Christians, thus partly handing over the missionaries’ interpretational authority. The reinterpretation of the deity Èṣú as the devil backfired on the missionaries because it allowed converts to retain elements of their old beliefs in their lives. Thus, I argue that Yorùbá Christians were not mere passive recipients but also active and empowered creators of the message delivered to them.

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