When Translation Is the Difference Between Life and Death

Kimberly Dickson, MPH & MA in Theology

We were under pressure! We had agreed to participate in a UNICEF project that expanded our normal community health work in rural northern India from several dozen villages to several hundred.

We trained our team by modeling community development techniques, facilitating discussions where our teammates created their own interventions and methods of reaching the community. The newly hired young men joined these discussions with enthusiasm, ideas, and humor. The young women pulled their shawls closer around their faces and refused to say a word.

But these women’s input was crucial to our success! Most of our work would be with women’s groups. We cajoled, we lectured, and as the weeks for training disappeared, we begged for their participation. Finally, one young woman said, “Why are you so desperate for our input? We are just feeble-minded women.” The rest of the women nodded in agreement.

I was dumbfounded. I was used to village women saying nearly the same thing: “Why are you working with us, we are dumb water buffalo.” However, the women on our team were different. They were not illiterate. They had all completed secondary school, and some had additional training and experience. They were not Hindus or Muslims with their varying degrees of caste.[1] No, they were Christians. Didn’t they know they were made in God’s own image, that we wanted their involvement because we truly valued their contributions to the project?

Genesis 3 Translation

While we puzzled over this, I began a Bible study with four of these young women to look at how God saw women. So we started at the beginning, with creation (Genesis 1-2). They read their Hindi Bibles, I read my English Bible, and between the five of us with our varying degrees of language ability, we managed to get to the heart of the passages.

Genesis 1 and 2 were beautiful. They learned the meaning of the Hebrew word ezer used to describe the first woman in Genesis 2:18. Then we looked at Psalm 121, where God acts as an ezer—demonstrating ezer’s meaning as one who rescues those facing insurmountable odds. God intended women to be rescuers opposite of men.[2] We next studied Genesis 2:24, in which a man leaves his father and mother to cling to his wife. In India the bride’s family pays a dowry to the husband’s family. She then belongs to his family. In the Indian context, a man leaving his family to cleave to his wife was a radical biblical idea.[3]

 But it was with Genesis 3 that everything fell into place.

As I read aloud from my English Bible about the serpent’s words to the woman, they stopped me and had me read it again, astonished. They explained, “Our Hindi version says that the serpent spoke to the woman because she was feeble-minded—but you’re not reading that in English.” The four of them gathered around my Bible to read it for themselves.

Suddenly the struggles we were having with our community development team clicked! Our team of women had refused to engage because of their sincere faith. They did not want to risk our project’s success by adding their “feeble-minded” ideas.

There was more. Comparing my English Bible translation to their Hindi translation, they told me what they were seeing: my translation described Adam standing with Eve while the serpent tempted them both. In their Bibles, Adam was missing. That clinched it: both Adam and Eve were guilty. The Fall was not solely Eve’s fault because she was feeble-minded.

Everything Transformed

Now our women teammates came to our planning meetings with their heads held high and their shawls relaxed around their shoulders. They shared their brilliant ideas and learned to ride mopeds to reach remote villages. Their self-confidence and competence inspired the village girls in what women could do. They internalized the excellent training from our community organizer—how to disregard caste strictures and relate to people at their own level, to live in the villages if the opportunity arose, to trust that people can and will change, and how to facilitate groups so that each group determined how to solve its own problems.

Their work transformed. One of the women’s groups realized that the government had distributed funds for clean water, but the funds had been diverted by a local government official. These women—who no longer considered themselves “dumb like water buffalo”—decided to sit in his private yard until he was so embarrassed that he would use his own funds to pay for a deep well in the village. And it worked! They got their clean water. Waterborne disease declined, which meant that malnutrition and death also declined. Without malnutrition, the children could study well in school. In short, thanks to good Bible translation and study, four women learned of their God-given value and an entire village was transformed for generations.

Indian Bible Translations

Years later, while studying for my Masters of Theology, this experience drove me to study Bible translation in India. I discovered that most Indian translations depend on the English 1885 Revised Standard Version (RSV), rather than the original Hebrew and Greek.[4] The RSV was plagued with errors. One glaring omission was the Hebrew word immah “with her,” in relation to Adam standing with Eve in Genesis 3:6. A diverse translation team bringing different perspectives to the text usually identifies and corrects these types of errors, but the 1885 translation team was critiqued for its lack of diversity. As Bible translator and missionary Dr. Katharine Bushnell said of the team, “These men may have done the best they could,” but it was not “the best that could have been done.”[5]

William Carey started the modern Indian translation trend of relying on a secondary source document like the 1885 RSV. He worked with Hindu scholars to create a Sanskrit translation which he used as the basis for all other Indian language translations, rather than the original Greek and Hebrew source documents. Using local cultures and ideas to communicate spiritual truths is as ancient as our faith. However, as Indian Bible scholars like Pandita Ramabai have long noted, in the Indian context, this practice entrenched Hindu patriarchy where it did not belong.[6]

Dr. Boaz Johnson grew up in the slums of New Delhi where he saw the Bible’s Hindu influences perpetuate the same caste abuses that occur among Hindus. He contends that the Indian Bible’s use of Hindu deities for the name of God results in endorsing hierarchy and abuse.[7]

Furthermore, William Carey’s work has long been critiqued for “unwarranted additions of words not in the Greek text [added] for theological reasons.”[8] It does not take much imagination to deduce where my teammate’s Bibles’ additional ‘feeble-minded’ came from. This was a commonly held belief about women throughout most of history. During Carey’s era, even men who believed women should be involved in ministry thought that the serpent deceived the woman because of her “feeble mind.”[9]

What Could Have Been

Not only was their physical and educational health improving, so too was their spiritual health. Every six months our project asked the staff if they had seen any spiritual changes in the villages where they worked. The teammate who originally challenged why we were asking for their feeble-minded input responded, “Well, my groups have taken down their Hindu gods and now only pray to Jesus.” 

What would be the reality in India today if they had always had accurate Bible translations?

[1]Islam in India is unique in that it incorporates part of the Hindu caste system—something not inherent to the Muslim religion. However, it is more gentle than Hindu caste, with only five distinct castes rather than Hinduism’s approximately 3,000 castes and 25,000 subcastes. See Wikipedia’s Caste in India.

[2] The Hebrew term kinegdo in Genesis 2:18 follows the word ezer and means “in front of” like sitting opposite/in front of me.

[3] To better understand the countercultural power of Adam considering Eve kin in this passage, listen to Dr. Havilah Dharamraj, professor at S.A.I.C.S. in India, in “Women and Words: Translating the Old Testament Part One,” September 1, 2023, in Mutuality Matters, produced by CBE International, podcast, MP3 audio, https://mutualitymatters.podbean.com/e/women-words-translating-the-old-testament-part-one-with-dr-havilah-dharamraj/.

[4] T. Johnson Chakkuvarackal, “Important Issues in the Translation of the Bible in the Indian Context,” Bangalore Theological Forum, 34 no. 1 (June 2002), 163, 164 169,  https://www.religion-online.org/article/important-issues-in-the-translation-of-the-bible-in-the-indian-context/.

[5] Kristin Kobes Du Mez, A New Gospel for Women: Katharine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism, (Oxford Scholarship Online, 2015), 17.

[6] Arun Jones, “Ramabai, Pandita,” in Handbook of Women Biblical Interpreters, ed. Marion Ann Taylor (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing, 2012), 417. Ramabai re-translated the entire Bible into Marathi to deal with this problem. Dr. Anna Sui Hluan notes the same issue in Judson Adinoram’s Burmese translation that encoded the patriarchal Buddhist teachings into their Bibles. Anna Sui Huan, “Silence” in Translation: 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 in Myanmar and the Development of a Critical Contextual Hermeneutic, Cumbria, UK: Langham Academic, 2022), 49, 223.

[7] Boaz Johnson “Panita Ramabai India and the Pandemic, Plague, Plight of Women with Boaz Johnson (youtube.com).” 2021 CBE Conference London, 2021.

[8] John Carman, “Protestant Bible Translation in India: An Unrecognizable Dialogue?,” Journal of Hindu-Christian Studies, 4 no. 3 (January 1991),  https://doi.or/10.7825/2164-6279.1041.

[9] Priscilla Pope-Levison, “Five Women in Ministry Articles Transcribed from Tongues of Fire,” Wesley and Methodist Studies, 11 no. 1 (2019), 76-79. An example of this can be seen in the written work of Richard Reader Harris, editor of Tongues of Fire, whoespoused the prevalent belief “that it was Eve, not Adam, who fell prey initially to Satan’s temptation in the Garden of Eden” because Adam was not there. Then he attributes Eve’s easy deception to “the feminine mind.” Yet, in 1893 he wrote an article outlining why women should be preachers. Reader Harris, ‘Female Ministry,’ Tongues of Fire, 3/35 (November 1893), 7–8.

This article is submitted by CBE International. CBE International is a Missio Nexus member.  Member organizations can provide content to the Missio Nexus website. See how by clicking here.

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