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The Bible’s Words in Our Neighborhood Dialects

By Elia Shehata

The good news concerning the redemption of Jesus Christ was first shared orally and after a while, under the Holy Spirit’s leadership, was written down in the Greek language. When the Gospels were written down, the Greek was already a translation from an Aramaic oral message containing the words of Jesus and the words of the original oral proclamation. The Greek used was specifically Koɪne Greek – the vernacular language of the time – so that the message of the gospel would reach the man on street in his spoken language a way that was understandable, simple, and clear.

The same has happened in translations of the Bible. The goal of Bible translation is to translate the scripture from one language to another in a simple, clear way to help fulfill the commandment of our Lord Jesus Christ to disciple all nations. The translation of the Bible to different languages has always been one of the important responsibilities of the church so that every human being may experience the grace of God and the salvation of Jesus Christ.

Christianity has no sacred or heavenly language; this is one of the differences that distinguishes Christianity from the Islamic religion in our context. In Islam, Arabic is the language of prayer and, moreover, according to some interpreters it is also the language of Paradise. There isn’t a translation of the Quran. Rather, there is translation of the meanings of the Quran. According to Muslim theologians, the Arabic text of the Quran itself is sacred.

Our Lord Jesus Christ is the eternal incarnate Word of God, and since we encounter Jesus Christ in the Bible it is of great importance that every human being has access to the Bible, so that he can encounter and keep encountering Jesus Christ. The goal of translation, according to Christian thought, is to deliver the good news in a clear way to every person, everywhere, and in all languages to bear witness to the richness of God’s love and his redemption for the whole world in Christ.

After its original writing in the language of the street, and as a continuation of God’s companionship with humans, whether in paradise at the very beginning of creation (Gen 3:8) or on Israel’s streets in Jesus’ incarnation (John 1:14), the Bible was translated into several colloquial languages during the first three centuries of Christianity. It was translated into Syriac and called “Peshitta,” meaning “simple,” and it was translated into Latin and called the “Vulgate,” meaning “popular.” Ongoing translation was not adjusted to keep up with changes in the language of the common people in the Middle Ages, when the Latin translation continued to dominate. Perhaps this was in the interest of matching the elevated level of Christian theology. Unfortunately, the Bible’s words became a prisoner of the language of the elite, which built an impenetrable barrier for the public to read and understand the Bible.

One of the advantages of the Renaissance in the 14th century was the rise of the vernacular voice, which represented the public voice in contrast to the classical Latin which had come to represent the elite voice that had dominated issues of life and religion for fourteen centuries. One of the most important spoken language revolutions in this period was when the Italian poet Dante managed to formulate, from the vernacular Italian language, one of the most eloquent literary masterpieces: The Divine Comedy.

The vernacular revolution in Europe affected the church’s coming Reformation, especially in striving to translate the Bible into spoken languages to enable the public to read and understand the truth of the Gospel to achieve divine companionship. This motivated John Wycliffe to translate the Bible from classical Latin to the vernacular English language. Martin Luther took this a big step further when he translated the Hebrew and Greek of the Bible into common German accessible to everybody. If the Reformation movements throughout history centered on the revelation of the Bible and attempted to make it accessible to everyone in their spoken language, how much more do our churches today need to continue practicing the church’s reformation through taking initiative or supporting initiatives to translate the Bible to people’s vernacular languages?

In our Arab world today, we’re suffering from a bilingualism problem: in other words, people speak with one language in their daily life (colloquial), but we write in another language which we learn from school (classical Arabic). This bilingualism problem, according to Lewis Awad, has paralyzed emotional expression and the use of imagination. If the definition of the colloquial dialect is, according to Dante, that which infants acquire from those around them when they first begin to distinguish sounds; or, to put it more succinctly, “I declare that vernacular language is that which we learn without any formal instruction, by imitating our nurses,” then it is better for it to be used in translating the Bible because the colloquial dialect remans the closest language to our hearts.

Today, in my Egyptian context, there are some high-quality works which translate the Bible into colloquial Egyptian dialect, written and/or audio. Recently, John Daniel[1] has translated Paul’s letters into Egyptian colloquial dialect, in an ongoing project attempting to translate all the New Testament’s books into vernacular. It’s worth noting that this work, which ideally would have been carried out by committee, was done as a one-person effort. This translation is distinguished by many characteristics: 1- The quality of the wording, as it focused on word choice in order to deliver the meaning smoothly. 2- Adopting the standard text (the critical text, not the received text), because it relied on the oldest Greek manuscripts to translate the closest text to the original. This is a very significant feature in such translation because it requires a specialist in ancient Greek and the ability to access the latest related research papers. 3- Rich footnotes.[2]

As for the audio translation, which uses special effects in its recording to aid the listeners’ ears, and which is intended especially for oral society (there are many people in our Arab world who cannot read), it delights listeners with the simplicity and familiarity of words and meanings, without the often-cumbersome complexity of Arabic morphology and syntax. Moreover, the Egyptian actor Majed Al-Kadwani presented a masterpiece when he performed an audio translation in the Egyptian Saidi dialect of many books of the Bible. Click here for a link[3] to the book of Proverbs, as an example of his splendid performance, and of the translation.

Throughout this article, I have attempted to argue for the importance of ongoing production and support of Bible translations in colloquial Arabic, maintaining that translations are very much needed in people’s language of the heart. I encourage church leaders to look back to the Reformation period to be inspired and to continue practicing the Reformation movement. We can do this and take a giant forward toward making disciples by promoting institutions, specialists, and translators to produce more Bible translations in the dialects of our neighborhoods.


Elia Shehata is the certificate in Ministry lead at ABTS. He received his MDiv degree in 2015 and is now studying for the MTh at ABTS. He is particularly interested in discipleship ministry and in contextualizing the Christian message.


[1] John Daniel, teacher of ancient Greek, translation, and the New Testament for more than fifteen years at the Presbyterian Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo (ETSC).

[2]  من أهم النصوص التي توضح غني الحواشي هو ترجمته وتعليقه على نص (1كو6: 12): ” هتقولي “كله ماشي”، هقولك “بس مش كل حاجة هتجيبلك الخير”، هترجع تقولي “بقولك كله ماشي” هقولك برضه “بس أنا مفيش حاجة تتحكم فيّ” حيث جاء في الحواشي هذه الملحوظة الهامة: ” فكرة ما يجوز مقابل ما ينفع كانت شائعة في هذا الوقت فنجد الفيلسوف الرواقي إبيكتيتوس في مقاله الرابع (Epictetus (Discourse 4.4.1 وكذلك المؤرخ بلوتارخوس في كتابه “أقوال أهل سبارطة” Plutarch, Mor 236BC: Apoph. Lac 65 يستخدما فكرة مشابهة لفكرة بولس وايضًا في يشوع ابن سيراخ 37: 28.”
جون دانيال، رسايل بولس: قراءة عامية توضيحية: الجزء الأول، روما – رسالتا كورنثوس، 144، 145.


1 Comment

  1. Mike Kuhn says:

    I appreciate what you are saying Elia. The colloquialization of Bible translations is very much in the spirit of the Reformation, but also, and as you point out, in the spirit of the first collections of the canon by the early Christians. The reality that so many receive information through oral sources in their heart language is a powerful argument for translating the Bible into the various Arabic (and Persian, Pashtun, Hindi, Turkish etc.) dialects. The great commission of Jesus compels us to make his words understandable to everyone.

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