Back in May I was privileged to spend a few days with the Nyiha language community in Mbozi District of Tanzania’s Mbeya Region. The Nyiha were the first community that I was involved in surveying in August and September 2004, and since then they have worked with experts from around the world to translate the books of Ruth, Jonah, Mark, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus and Revelation into their language.
The purpose of my recent visit was to see what impact these translated Scriptures are having among the community, and to see what lessons could be learned from the Nyiha that could be applied to translation projects in other communities throughout Tanzania.
I was able to discuss some very interesting issues with people concerning the role of local language Scriptures in a multilingual setting, where many people speak Swahili and other local languages, in addition to Nyiha. While there are a significant number of people, particularly in rural areas, who have only a basic knowledge of Swahili, I was particularly interested to know how people who are highly bilingual in Swahili and Nyiha perceived the Nyiha Scriptures, in comparison to the Swahili Bible that has been available for many years.
Here are some translated quotes from Nyiha speakers:
- “The Nyiha language carries more weight than Swahili… When people hear the Nyiha words they are heavy. If someone wants to talk about things that are taboo (e.g. body parts, or adultery), he will do so in Swahili because then it will seem less shocking. Nyiha is much heavier.”
- “The local language has “insistence”, it speaks with authority compared to Swahili”.
- “Hearing the Bible in Nyiha has explained things better to me. I have realised that it is about things that happened here on earth. When I read about Bethlehem in Swahili it sounds like it’s in heaven. When I read in Nyiha it seems more real – it’s not just stories.”
- “When I hear the Bible in Nyiha it makes me much happier. I’m happy to know how my ancestors talked about God – it helps me to feel closer to my ancestors.”
- “Swahili is the language of cunning / deception – it feels like someone is trying to deceive you. If someone speaks Nyiha you know they are trustworthy. Swahili is used for politics, it feels like a language of deception. In Nyiha you know you can’t be deceived easily.”
- [The grandfather tells his grandson to go away] “I just told my grandson to go away, but I did it in Swahili so he knew that it was just a joke. It would have been offensive to him if I had told him in Nyiha!”
- “The Nyiha Bible books have brought unity among Christians. In the literacy classes people didn’t mention their denominations – Nyiha books have brought unity, which is a very good thing.”
The Nyiha that I met would very much value your prayers as they continue with the long and difficult job of translating the Bible into their language. And I would appreciate your prayers as I slowly collate this research into a report, which will hopefully be of use to other communities in Tanzania and beyond, as well as fulfilling the dissertation requirement of my MA in Bible and Mission!