King's College London
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'To make a good one better': translating the Bible

Bible stories in Nama

Illustrations of stories from Genesis, depicting Cain and Abel (left) and the Flood (right)Book of Bible stories in the Nama or Khoekhoe languageShown here is a charmingly illustrated book of Bible stories in the Nama or Khoekhoe language. One of the so-called click languages, Nama is spoken in Namibia, Botswana and parts of South Africa.

Based on Zweimal zweiundfünfzig Biblische Geschichten by Christian Gottlob Barth (17991862), these stories were edited by Johann Georg Krönlein (182692), a German missionary working for the Rhenish Missionary Society in southern Africa. The Rhenish Missionary Society maintained close links with its British counterparts; this little volume was published at the expense of the Religious Tract Society in London and Krönlein’s translation of the New Testament into Nama, printed in an edition of 5,000 copies in the same year, was published at the expense of the British and Foreign Bible Society.

The achievement of the Christian missionaries in translating the Bible into the languages of sub-Saharan Africa cannot be overstated. Often working alone and in difficult conditions, they laboured for years to master languages that had never been written down and to express the teachings of the Bible accurately and fully in those languages.

One of their most frequent difficulties, particularly when translating the New Testament, was in finding adequate terms to express abstract nouns. In many cases the Bible was the first book to be printed in a particular language and its appearance not only led naturally to a sharp rise in literacy but ensured that its teachings became part of the shared knowledge of the speakers of that language, regardless of the actual rate of conversion to Christianity, laying the foundations – theological, cultural,linguistic – for future nation-building.

On display are pages containing two stories from Genesis: Cain and Abel and the Flood.

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