Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 9, no. 1 (Winter–Spring 2018)

playlist_add_check Review Article

Review of Lamin Sanneh’s Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture [1989]

Yancy W. Smith

Sanneh, Lamin. Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture. Rev. and exp. ed. American Society of Missiology Series. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2009. 324 pp.

Biographical Context for Translating the Message

Lamin Sanneh was born into a Muslim family in the Gambia in 1942. He was a descendant of an anti-jihadi member of a royal family, an imperial hero of the Mandinka tribe: Kelefa Sanneh, who was reputed in Manding kora songs to have given his life to opposing forcible conversion to Islam. Sanneh’s grandfather was the first Muslim in his family. Lamin Sanneh experienced, in many ways, a childhood typical of many African tribal peoples. The Gambia was transitioning from ancient tradition to Islam. During this time, the colonial influence from the Western world was increasing contact with the outside world. He experienced God as distant through the strong Islamic, fatalistic doctrine that everything that happens is God’s will. At the same time, folk magic practices were ways of altering divine faith by manipulating spirits. Such contradictory beliefs and practices lay uncomfortably in the same cultural context. Sanneh’s large extended family with his father, his father’s two co-wives, and multiple siblings instilled a deep value for connectedness in the local community, though his aspirations led him far beyond the horizons of his childhood. By age five he was enrolled in a local Qur’an school. He taught himself to read English at the local grocery store by looking at the pictures and letters on shelved products. He experienced emaciating hunger in the midst of famine. He underwent traditional circumcision as an adolescent. He also attended a Western-style elementary school and an Islamic secondary school. After Islamic school, Sanneh took a series of unfulfilling jobs until he landed a relatively secure place in government finance. His eventual passage into faith in Jesus Christ was not so much a triumph of Christian mission as an accidental, furtive extension of his search, as a Muslim, for some spiritual connection to an implacable, distant, and inscrutable God. In a dearth of fatherly affections, thoughts of God beset him in turns repelling and calling him to something he could not quite work out.

Through faith in Jesus Christ, this God came near to him. For his first year as a believer in 1960, no church (Protestant or Catholic) would have him—for fear of Muslim resentment or reprisals. In the meantime, Sanneh developed a voracious appetite for literature of any type he could find. The local British Protectorate library’s meagre collection of books served as his initial catechist, though none of the books were Christian in any overt sense. When a consignment of paperbacks arrived at a local supermarket among them were some writings of C. S. Lewis: the first overtly Christian literature he read. Sanneh writes:

I was entranced by his compellingly clear prose, the force of his reasoning, his scrupulous candor, his unsparing self-scrutiny, and his towering faith in the God who had beset me all those many years. Lewis was proof that God’s grace was unmerited and without bound, and that such a God demanded and deserved our free and unfettered consent. We were made for such company.1

Eventually in 1961, Sanneh was baptized as a Methodist. He left his government job to pursue an “A” level university preparatory course at the Gambia High School in Banjul. Thus, a path opened toward a proper British university education. Through the offer of a scholarship for college study in the US, Sanneh ended up at Union College in Schenectady, New York. While there, he eventually attended an Episcopal church. In 1968 he entered a marriage that failed after three months. After studying at the University of Birmingham in England and the Near East School of Theology in Beirut, he earned his PhD in Islamic History at the University of London. In 1973 Sanneh married his wife, a fellow graduate student in African languages. Sandra was a white, avid anti-apartheid native of South Africa. After accepting a post at the University of Ghana, they began their family with the birth of their son Kelefa. Political unrest led them to Aberdeen, Scotland, where he accepted a post at the University of Aberdeen in 1978. That year their daughter, Sia, was born. There he met Andrew Walls, a Methodist minister and colleague at the university. Walls encouraged him to share preaching in local parishes around Aberdeen. Walls also appointed Sanneh to teach courses in African Christianity. This assignment resulted in something like a second conversion in Sanneh’s life. Preparation for teaching this course puzzled Sanneh because there was a

nagging problem in the sources for which I was totally unprepared: the apparent facility with which Western missions downloaded the text of scripture into the vernacular idiom, adopting in the process the local concept of God. . . . It stumped me that, in spite of its relative disadvantage as an undocumented language without any literary works to its credit, the mother tongue should attract the interest and devotion of missionaries who made it the language of scripture—something Muslim agents would never dream of doing.2

While at Harvard’s Center for World Religions in 1981, Sanneh was encouraged to develop these more or less inchoate thoughts. He taught at Harvard till 1989. During those years the original notion of the missionary use of pagan names for God in Bible translation developed into the book Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture. Since 1989 Sanneh has taught at Yale University where he holds the D. Willis James Professorship of Missions and World Christianity, as well as professorships in History and Religion. While at Yale, Sanneh became a Roman Catholic. He is an editor-at-large at the Christian Century magazine and serves on the board of several other journals. He has authored over 200 articles in scholarly journals and more than a dozen books on Christianity and Islam as well as editing the series Oxford Studies in World Christianity.

A Summary of Translating the Message

The basic thesis of the book is that Christianity, from its beginning, found its identity in the need to translate its theological message from the native Aramaic and Hebrew of its founder, Jesus Christ. While this thesis may not seem noteworthy at first, its implications are weighty. Sanneh was able to view missions and the development of the faith from the standpoint of the vernaculars into which Christianity was translated. This perspective was ripe to be explored by someone who could see what was only obvious once the question was asked. Lamin Sanneh was that person. The contrast with Islam, which does not find its identity in translation, also becomes clear once the question is posed. Christians found their identity and theological genius in translation, thereby relativizing their Jewish roots. They effectively distanced themselves from, and finally rejected entirely, the native language of its founders in favor of the languages of its new adherents. In relativizing its Jewish roots, Christianity thus destigmatized Gentile culture so that both Jewish and Gentile elemental dynamics became intertwined in the development of Christianity. At the earliest stage, in the passage from Aramaic and Hebrew into Greek, the New Testament and the earliest Christian liturgical materials demonstrate this process in a way that is repeated in each successive cultural barrier crossing, until Christianity moved from East to West.

In Chapter 1, Sanneh treats the radical pluralism involved in the transmission of Christianity from a theological perspective. The writings of the apostle Paul demonstrate that earliest Christianity came to a clear position regarding the translatability of the gospel, and lay the foundation for recognizing the merit of the most diverse cultures in God’s universal purpose. The fact that Christians, through translation, embraced other cultures or languages as nondivine enterprises nevertheless left them open to continued influence from their Jewish heritage. Though Sanneh does not speak of this dynamic in terms of differentiation, that is precisely what was taking place: Gentile difference emerged while at the same time maintaining contact with original Jewish sources.3 Thus the successive expressions of Christianity were neither completely cut off from their roots, but neither were they explicitly an attempt to simply repeat the past cultural expression. Both newness and continuities ensued.

Chapter 2 shifts the argument to the next logical step. As Christianity broke free from its exclusive Judaic frame, it took a radical turn and adopted Hellenic culture to the point of complete assimilation. Christian thought now fused with Greek thought. Nevertheless, even as Christianity achieved an impressive synthesis with the world of Greek learning and culture through translatability, the very translatability that had allowed this transformation to take place also radically challenged it. As the synthesis of religion and Hellenic culture, particularly the Greek metaphysical outlook, hardened into a dogmatic cultural attitude and the Greek intellectual template became the rule for others, continued translation effected new cycles of theological, ecclesial, and liturgical development among Latins, Armenians, Copts, Goths, and Ethiopians. In this chapter the emphasis falls upon developments among the Slavs; however, from each cultural turn followed a version of the faith expressing the spirit of their national culture. Among Slavic peoples, the church took root in the vernacular soil stimulated by the translation enterprise. Eventually, the mission was curbed (“reformed,” in official jargon) to weaken its vernacular impact and bring local churches under firmer central control.

Chapter 3 describes the Anglicanization of the faith through translation into English in the case of the King James Version. This chapter, new in the second edition of Sanneh’s book, is especially helpful for English speakers to problematize what may be opaque to scrutiny, simply because it otherwise remains unconscious. English speakers too easily equate their own experience of Scripture and Christianity with the original meaning rather than clearly seeing how their experience is mediated and amalgamated with their own culture. “Nourished by the vernacular Scripture, a homegrown Christianity need not be heretical or chauvinistic to be credible, as Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer as the vernacular liturgy conclusively demonstrated” (120). The effect of vernacular translation in English on both language and culture was accordingly immense. The case of the KJV demonstrates that

the vernacular Bible flooded the thoughts and feelings of an ever-widening circle of uneducated country folk on the principle that, after all, God was their God, too, only more so, given the primacy of spoken language over textual erudition. Translation is not so that the initiated can traffic in the arcane and baffling, nor is it an occasion of linguistic perfection and literary virtuosity. Rather, translation is empowerment for the humble in heart to seek fellowship with their God. (120)

Chapter 4 confronts the contested issues of mission and Western colonialism. The most salient point Sanneh makes is that vernacular Bible translation outdistanced and outlasted the ephemeral forces of colonial rule. More importantly, vernacular Bible translation and all the structures that support it effectively empowered local peoples against their colonial overlords. Where they could, colonial powers attempted to restrain mother-tongue development taking mission policy hostage by imposing the exclusive use of European languages for education and social structures under their control. The struggle between colonial power and the religious impulse toward vernacularization is a constant theme of Christian mission in the colonial period. Roman Catholic missions in the early modern period defended indigenous languages and cultures against the exclusive requirement of Castilian Spanish, and the papacy recognized the vernacular in the liturgy and conduct of church discipline. In Mexico and Mesoamerica, missionaries accommodated local art forms in the church. In India and Japan, though policy did fluctuate, the policy settled for accommodation. The result was a high valuation of local converts in terms of their indigenous agency. In Japan, Catholic mission insisted on deep familiarity and respect for Japanese religious and cultural traditions as the basis for mission. In India individual Catholic missionary pioneers assimilated into the Hindu religious worldview in an attempt to secure genuine intercultural exchange. Assimilating missionaries recognized the value of mother tongues for the Christian life. Furthermore, globally, the nineteenth-century Protestant missionary movement made the translation of Scripture into the mother tongues the sine qua non of mission. Many popular religious movements rose in response to these missionary translation projects. This is especially true in Africa where colonial exploration paved the way for Christian mission to plant vernacular-speaking churches. Nevertheless, divergent logics of colonial rule and the dynamism of African churches were epitomized by the vernacular policy of Bible translation. Without regard to motivations, the fact remains that missionaries empowered mother-tongue speakers through their systematic documentation of vernaculars. In many cases, missionaries encouraged the founding of native political organizations and the people educated in mission schools emerged to lead the anti-colonial cause.

Chapter 5 is an historical exploration of vernacular Scripture translation by the Anglican Church Missionary Society (CMS) and its effects in the Niger Delta, focused primarily on the role of Bishop Dandeson Coates Crowther. The goal of the CMS was, ostensibly, “to produce a self-reliant, self-supporting African pastorate, one that would preside over autonomous Anglican churches in communion with Canterbury” (164). The missionary Henry Venn thus anticipated the “euthanasia” of the foreign mission alongside the establishment of the native church. The path to an independent church was blazed through a policy of vernacular translation in Yoruba and other languages. Crowther gathered and appointed African leadership for decades for the CMS churches, and his appointment as bishop in 1876 was seen at first as the mission’s crowning achievement. Soon, however, allegations of moral perfidy surfaced against some of his assistants. This led to the dismissal of Crowther in 1879 as bishop by a young English missionary sent for that purpose. Consequently, the African church was demoralized, while some of the English leadership were confirmed in their doubts that Africans could lead the African church. This led to varying responses. Crowther called for patience and attempted to mollify the African offense. Jameson Johnson, who later became a bishop, led a stiffening resistant response to the foreign mission. However, revival under the prophet Garrick Braide and the later Aladura revival of 1928–30 led to a dramatic transformation in the churches and the mission. At the heart of all this churning was the vernacular project of translation.

Chapter 6 on missionary translation is a theological and missiological assessment of the effects of vernacular translation from an African perspective. Missionaries, committed to vernacular translation as essential to Christian life, proceeded to translate the scriptural God in terms of vernacular concepts freighted with traditional meaning with no need to reinvent the concept of God. Armed with their own Bible, Africans discovered scriptural sanction for joining the Old and New Testaments to the old and new dispensations of their own tribal history and experience. The message that God’s work in the world was not done but continues in the new age gave invigorating power to their primal societies as they confronted new challenges. Thus, they threw themselves into projects of social change and renewal without the burden of having to deny their old traditions in order to claim the promise of Abraham. The challenge was to integrate old and new rather than completely overthrowing the old assurance as a condition for embracing new hope in Christ. The universal gospel in the local vernacular both weakened and strengthened various aspects of tribal identity and contributed to the creation of post-colonial nation states.

Chapter 7 is a reappraisal of the issue of missionary interference in other cultures. Since vernacular translation must commence with the need to recast the gospel in terms of familiarity, the missionaries must rely on field methods and experience. An intimate grasp of the vernacular local customs and usage is absolutely necessary. This approach makes the Christian Scriptures breathe the oxygen of local life and stimulates indigenous cultural renewal. The expert in this process is the local member of the tribal culture. The recipient culture thus becomes the arbiter of the appropriation of the message, not the missionaries. This results in anti-elitist popular impulses of ordinary usage and favors the open and public nature of religious faith along with the political effects of free and equal access to the things of God. Vernacular primacy thus tends to shift agency from missions to favor indigenous cultural integrity in conducting the ongoing mission of God. The focus on sola scriptura biblicism in extreme Protestantism, which was received from the spirit of the Reformation, further emphasizes dependence upon local resources (not so much on commentaries and exegetical literature from the West) to make sense of translation, shielding the indigenous cultures from Western intellectual domination.

Chapter 8 recapitulates the themes of the power of vernacular translation in Christian mission in contrast to the Islamic value of untranslatability. For Christians, God’s word must be translated for it to become God’s word for the other. This places a premium on pluralism and an emphasis on the equality of languages and cultures before God. The practical effect of this valuation of the vernacular was that Christian missions were responsible for about 90 percent of the grammars and lexica that document the output of descriptive linguistics in the world. On the other hand, Islam’s focus on untranslatability for the Qur’an has led to the promotion of Arabic and the relegation of the vernacular to a subaltern status. Both approaches have their pros and cons for the lives of vast numbers of people. Furthermore, Islam has a focus on territoriality, with its center in Mecca. Christianity, having lost its Jerusalem temple, has various centers and no center, no homeland. The result is serial growth or regression, with the most vibrant areas of lively Christian faith often found on the margins far from its various centers.


The breathtaking sweep of Sanneh’s thesis and its brilliant theological development reframed the debate about mission and colonialism. It implied that languages and cultures are, from a Christian perspective, equal before God. No culture is so advanced or superior that it may lay claim to exclusive access to God. No language is so marginal or remote that others may dismiss it as unworthy of hosting theological discourse. All have merit, and none are dispensable. Therefore, the sort of monotheism that Christianity received from Judaism views cultural exclusivism as idolatry. From this perspective, Bible translation transcends debates over literalism. The Bible cannot be literal in any language into which it is translated, but at the same time, its message affirms every language worthy as a vehicle of divine discourse.4

Relation to Contemporary Thought

Sanneh has received his share of criticism,5 if anything, for his very positive view of the possibilities of missionary translation into the vernaculars. As Andrew Walls rightly cautions, translation “is the art of the impossible.”6 It is easy to turn the argument for translatability on its head and assert “untranslatability.” It would be better to see the translatable and the untranslatable as aspects of any message in context. Crucial, important aspects are invariably gained and lost in the process of translation, yet translation goes on even if, at times, chastened. Furthermore, translatability does not guarantee equivalence in any objective measure, if such were possible, and the “equivalence” of the translated message is rather in the eyes of the community that receives the text in the place of an original. Equivalence is a social norm, attributed to the translation by the vernacular community. As Theo Hermans has said:

Equivalence, which I . . . interpret as meaning equality in value and status, is not a feature that can be extrapolated on the basis of textual comparison. Rather than being extracted from texts, equivalence is imposed on them through an external intervention in a particular institutional context. In other words, equivalence is proclaimed, not found. [However], the proclamation is effective only if the conditions are right. Moreover, a translation raised to equivalent status with its original will necessarily be recognised as a correct representation of it, indeed it is of necessity the only correct representation.7

As equivalent vernacular translations multiply, the inevitable differences that arise between “equivalent” translations provide fodder for pluralism in the unity of the faith.8 For his part, Sanneh is unconcerned about objective measures of equivalence; he is more concerned to ground the equivalence of cultures and languages in God’s equal love for all peoples.


Translating the Message is a powerful and useful book to read and re-read. It should be required for every prospective missionary struggling with notions of fidelity to the gospel and concomitant fears of syncretism. It will expose cultural supremacies for what they are: an affront to the gospel. At the same time, Sanneh’s book will leave the reader asking: “What is invariable and what is variable in translating the gospel across cultures?” This is a healthy question to ask, though answers may be few and illusory at times. The struggle and the search will point the way toward the definitive revelation of God’s life in Jesus Christ and give proper weight to the role of Scriptures and other extensions of the liturgical life of God’s people that bear witness to that revelation. All of these witnesses to God come to us mediated through the languages and cultures of others, and they take up the concepts and practices of any culture like oxygen and produce life where they may go.

Yancy Smith is Senior Director for Translation Services with Bible League International. He earned a BA and an MA in Biblical Languages and New Testament from Abilene Christian University and a PhD in Biblical Interpretation from Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University. He was a church planter in South America and West Texas for 20 years, and was an elder in the church at Antioch Fort Worth for 10 years.

1 Lamin O. Sanneh, Summoned from the Margin: Homecoming of an African (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans: 2012), 111.

2 Sanneh, Summoned, 282.

3 Here I borrow “differentiation” from a systems theoretical perspective. See the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family, “Eight Concepts,” https://thebowencenter.org/theory/eight-concepts.

4 Lamin O. Sanneh, Disciples of All Nations: Pillars of World Christianity, Oxford Studies in World Christianity (Oxford: Oxford, 2008), 25.

5 See, for example, Sangkeun Kim, Strange Names of God: The Missionary Translation of the Divine Name and the Chinese Responses to Matteo Ricci’s «Shangti» in Late Ming China, 1583–1644, Studies in Biblical Literature 70 (Peter Lang: New York, 2005), 9.

6 Andrew Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith (Orbis: Maryknoll, New York, 1996), 26.

7 Theo Hermans, A Conference of Tongues (Routledge: New York, 2007), 17–18; see also Gideon Toury, “The Nature and Role of Norms in Translation,” in Descriptive Translation Studies and Beyond (Amsterdam-Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1995), 61, and Theo Hermans, “Norms of Translation,” in The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics, ed. Carol A. Chapelle (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), http://researchschool.org/documents/Hermans_Norms%20of%20Trl.pdf.

8 See Yancy Smith, “The Mystery and Mirage of Equivalence: Bible Translation Theory and the Practice of Christian Mission,” Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 5, no. 1 (February 2014): http://missiodeijournal.com/issues/md-5-1/authors/md-5-1-smith.