Lost in Translation – Speaking in Differing Tongues

by the Rt Revd David Walker, Bishop of Manchester


The Anglican Diocese of Namibia has been twinned with that of Manchester for over 20 years. As part of that link, I accepted an invitation to join them for their triennial Synod, taking place in the historic mission centre of Odibo this week. I preached at their Ascension Day Chrism Mass, presided at an early morning Eucharist, and generally tried to listen hard, observe carefully, and lend a hand. The central theme around our devotions and bible studies has been that of forgiveness, healing and reconciliation.

It’s not just a theoretical matter, almost all of the Synod delegates have lived through the war of liberation that freed the country from the apartheid regime imposed on it by South Africa during the period when it was treated as a province of the latter. Odibo mission itself was closed down for almost two decades in order to prevent its hospital and other facilities being used by combatants. I have heard stories of families taking shelter under their beds, whilst shots rang out across the campus.

The theme of reconciliation has taken us well beyond the traumatic events of the late twentieth century. The diocese is one of many around the world where the process of election of a bishop has led to secession by some supporters of an unsuccessful candidate. I have been struck by how well the current bishop is leading the work to heal those divisions. There is a determination among members of Synod, notable at the morning bible studies on the theme of the Prodigal Son, to build a diocese that is well and fairly administered and which embraces the broad range of churchmanship that is one of the Anglican Communion’s most precious qualities.

However, for me the most interest area of reconciliation has hardly been spoken of; instead it has been lived out in the way we have conducted our business and worship.

It’s all a matter of language.

Despite the fact that the history of the modern state of Namibia includes strong Germanic and Afrikaans interests, the predominant language of official business and of much education is English. Clergy and lay people however, have varying degrees of comfort in working in what is not, for most of them, their mother tongue. Across much of Namibia, especially the northern areas where Anglicans are most strongly represented, the first language is Oshiwambo. A hard working team of translators has allowed everyone speaking at Synod to choose which of the two languages they wish to use, and then for their contribution to be immediately translated into the other. In similar vein our worship has passed seamlessly back and forward between the two.

Language remains one of the principle means through which culture is sustained and developed. Yet it is equally necessary for communication between cultures. One thing that being in a dual language context has taught me, is that clergy stand in a particularly demanding place with respect to it. Priests live at the point where the universal and local church meet. Their role, be it sacramental, preaching or in synods, is to minister across this boundary, and in both directions.

The ability to speak and hear in Oshiwambo is crucial. When the priest faces towards the local, she or he must be fluent in the culture of that locality. It is not enough to have been brought up in the culture, they need to be constantly steeped in it, so that the faith is fully incarnated in their ministry. When they face the wider Church, as in the Namibia Synod, they still need to be able to express themselves as far as possible within the local culture and language in which they are ministering.

Were Synod business to be conducted solely in English, it would fail to adequately engage with the lived reality of its parishes. Something would be, in the common phrase, lost in translation. Moreover, the subjugation of local linguistic cultures under the languages of major world power blocs (be it English, Russian, Chinese or some other dominant tongue) all too readily becomes the latest version of colonialism. And it’s not possible to spend more than a few days in Africa without coming up against the damage that the colonial period inflicted.

Yet the ability to engage in English is also important. The Church in Namibia needs to play its full part in the wider church, a context where its most common local language is absent. If clergy are to properly fulfill their role, they need to be able to read, write and speak in a language that joins them to the majority of the rest of the global Anglican Communion. English is the language in which much of the theology, along with the ethical, pastoral, devotional and other material, that they need to reflect on, is spoken and written. Having access to this corpus in all its richness helps them to be better educated and informed, and to develop and retain a strong sense of wider belonging than just their own place.

Priests with good English can more readily translate what they discover into the culture and context of their people. Priests with good English are better equipped to contribute to the wider councils of the church. During the last Lambeth Conference a number of bishops spoke to me about how they felt left behind in fast moving conversations held in a language with which they engaged with only very limited confidence. Such situations lay us open to another dimension of the colonial legacy.

So I come away from Namibia hugely refreshed and encouraged by my week there. Here is a church that takes reconciliation and healing seriously. Not least, it is working hard to manage its linguistic complexities.

It makes me appreciate even more the ministry of those of my Manchester clergy who work with congregations whose worship language is not English. And it helps me reflect on the complex nature of a world shaped by the influence of the major colonial powers.








This entry was posted in Bishop of Manchester, Social Justice. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Lost in Translation – Speaking in Differing Tongues

  1. mrjohntasker says:

    Reblogged this on being partners and commented:
    Being a multicultural church in Namibia – interesting reflections on the need and the challenge by Bishop David Walker.

Any thoughts?