Sunday, August 25, 2013

Missionaries and Alphabets

Cree Syllabics
A year ago, this blog welcomed the inclusion of a panel on Religious Translation (Panel No. 19) in the next conference of the European Society for Translation Studies, to be held at Germersheim in Germany. (To find the post, enter wake-up in the Search box on the right. There's an interesting comment with it from a reader.) The reason for my enthusiasm was expressed thus in the programme of the panel itself:
Sacred text translation and Translation Studies share a common lineage in the work of Nida... and sacred text translation has historically fed into theories at the centre of Translation and Interpreting studies..., but most other activities included in Translation and Interpreting in Religious Settings (henceforth TIRS), find themselves on the periphery of the field. While Interpreting Studies has been expanding into the examination of interpreting in community settings since the 1980s, interpreting in religious settings has received little attention.
In other words, academia had been ignoring the importance of religious translation.

Well, time flies and the conference will actually be taking place at the end of this week and it includes a paper by a regular reader of this blog, Andrew Owen (see References). I'm in no way involved in it; nevertheless, long affinity encourages me to make a 'fringe' contribution – something that being master of my own blog makes possible at short notice.

Most religious translators (including interpreters) are non-professional Native or Expert Translators. The difficulty of understanding the texts and speeches rules out pure Natural Translators, but religious translators are familiar with the translations already made for their own sects and churches, including the Bible, and those educate them as Native Translators.

The primordial purpose of religious translation, its raison d'être, is to spread and reinforce a religion. But in so doing, it's also greatly helped the diffusion of cultures and of languages. The spread of Islam, for example, promoted the use of Arabic for literary, philosophical and medical texts as well as for the Qur'an, and many of the Islamic texts were themselves translations from Greek, Persian, etc., part of a translation chain.
My contribution is intended to point to a less obvious but scarcely less important effect: the invention and spread of alphabets and other writing systems.

I first became conscious of it when visiting Bulgaria in the 1970s. I happened to be there on Saints Cyril and Methodius Day, a national holiday. These saints, who were brothers, were ninth-century missionaries and translators from Byzantium, "Apostles to the Slavs." They translated into languages that lacked a writing system, and so they had to invent one. They devised the so-called Glagolitic alphabet, the first alphabet used to transcribe Old Church Slavonic. Glagolitic was derived from Greek, but augmented by ligatures and consonants for sounds not found in Greek. During the following century, Glagolitic was developed in the then-powerful Bulgarian Empire into what we now know as the Cyrillic or 'Russian' alphabet. And that's how Cyrillic got its name.

In Canada we have our own history of missionaries and writing systems. A famous example is the Cree syllabary (writing in which each character represents a whole syllable).
Cree syllabics were developed by James Evans, a missionary in what is now Manitoba, during the 1830s for the Ojibwe language. Evans had originally adapted the Latin script to Ojibwe,... but after learning of the success of the Cherokee syllabary [in the United States], he experimented with invented scripts based on his familiarity with shorthand and Devanagari. When Evans later worked with the closely related Cree, and ran into trouble with the Latin alphabet, he turned to his Ojibwe project and in 1840 adapted it to the Cree language. The result contained just nine glyph shapes, each of which stood for a syllable with the vowels determined by the orientations of these shapes. With the 1841 publication of a syllabics hymnbook, the new script spread quickly. The Cree valued it because it could be learned in just a few hours, and was visually distinctive from the Latin script of the colonial languages. Virtually all Cree became literate in the new syllabary within a few years. Evans taught by writing on birchbark with soot, and he became known as "the man who made birchbark talk."
All this was brought back to mind by an article that appeared last year in Translatio. (Translatio is the junior partner of Babel and has the same indefatigable editor-in-chief, René Haeseryn.) It's by S. O. Kolawole and Salawu Adewuno of Ado Ekiti University in Nigeria (see References).
The first language of instruction in Hausaland was Arabic. But the Hausa language was established [as its competitor] by Christian missionaries after working hard to fix the Hausa orthography, vocabulary and grammar using the Roman alphabet. These scholarly works prompted translation activities in the northern parts of Nigeria, thereby opening the Hausa-Fulani peoples to a Western conception of life. The Bible, the Qur'an and several other religious books were translated.
The difference in this case was that no new alphabet was invented. Instead an often used alternative route was taken: the adaptation of the Latin aka Roman alphabet to a quite alien language. Either way, the result is that a language is given its writing system by missionaries.

No writing system, no written texts. No written texts, no written translation. In a way, religious faith apart, these writing systems were the missionaries' most fundamental bequest.

  • Jonathan Downie, and Jill Karlik. Panel 19: Translating and interpreting in religious settings. Programme of the 7th EST Congress, Germersheim, 2013. The full programme with abstracts is here
  • Andrew Owen. Interpreting the public reading of Scripture. Paper to the 7th EST Congress, Germersheim, 2013. The abstract is here, on page 50. 
  • Saints Cyril and Methodius. Wikipedia. Click here.
  • Cyrillic script. Wikipedia. Click here.
  • Cree syllabics. Wikipedia. Click here.
  • S. O. Kulawole and Salawu Adewuno. Translation activities in Hausaland: a historical perspective. Translatio 31(2012);3.127-140.
Source: Norway House Indian Residential School — The Children Remembered.


  1. Hello Brian

    Thank you for this post. The EST Conference was a great success for me, meeting other like-minded folk, who imparted their wealth of experience.

    My presentation was about what I have dubbed ‘Audio Translation (or Interpreting)’. It is a discrete method that sits between Interpreting (from a verbal source) and Sight Interpreting (from text). It sits between because the text is not read by the interpreter, but rather the text (in my example) is Scripture and is read aloud by a third party, a church minister. Another example may be an oath read in a court of law by a court official.

    Salient points:
    1 The interpreter (working in say, Spanish) can pick up her Spanish bible and read into her microphone, but the sign language interpreter has no bible to reach for.
    2 The interpreter has no control over speed of delivery, diction or inflection.
    3 The interpreter needs to maintain eye contact with the TL group (deaf people) so cannot read the text in the SL at the same time.

    Some say that Sight Interpreting is a hybrid. If so, Audio Interpreting is a further step away (tertiary?), both in method and difficulty, but perhaps the most crucial factor to consider is that this difficult task is routinely done by non-professional native interpreters.

    If anyone has a better label for this method, or a recognised one, please let me know.

    Andy Owen

  2. when we need translators it should be professional cause its not easy that you would keep on repeating and looking for another translator..

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