In search of the 'real' Zulu Bible

15 January 2015 - 16:08 By Matthew Savides
subscribe Just R20 for the first month. Support independent journalism by subscribing to our digital news package.
Subscribe now

Father Lindani Madela spends more than 20 hours a week studying the original languages of the Bible to make sure he produces a "perfect" Zulu translation.

He is one of three scholars leading a project to translate the Bible into Zulu directly from the original biblical languages of Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek. The project is backed by President Jacob Zuma, whose foundation donated R500000 towards the work last week.

The first full Zulu Bible was translated by the Bible Society of South Africa in 1959. A revision was produced in 1997.

So what is wrong with the current Zulu Bible?

Not much, said Madela, 50, who studied the original biblical languages at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome between 2004 and 2008.

He said the project was motivated by the fact that the current version of the Zulu Bible was "a translation of a translation" based on an earlier Xhosa version.

The current translation did not contain any "glaring errors" but did have a "slight bend on the Xhosa".

"It's not the Zulu that people speak," he said.

"The Bible we are using is in Zulu but is interpreted from the first Xhosa Bible. We asked the Bible Society if we may use [its] Bible as a reference.

"The problem is that when you read the flow of words, it's not the language we use every day. It's different. The language is a bit difficult. We want the new Bible to move directly from Greek to Zulu and use other Bibles as references."

This is what they are hoping to achieve by the end of their project, which originated at St Joseph's Cathedral in Mariannhill, west of Durban, in 2006. Madela is the project co-ordinator and has been working on the translation since late 2009. He speaks eight languages, including German and Italian.

Bishop Mlungisi Dlungwane, 67, who sits on the translation's review panel, said it would take "not less than 10 years" to complete the work.

"It took us between six and eight years to do the New Testament, which is much shorter than the Old Testament," he said.

Dlungwane and Madela belong to the Catholic Church.

One of the most significant changes to the new version is the removal of the word "Jehovah", a form of the Hebrew name given to God.

"Very few versions of the Bible use this word to refer to God, but the Zulu Bible does. We will be using the Zulu phrase 'Inkosi Unkulunkulu', which translates into 'the Lord God', which is what most translations use," said Dlungwane. "Other than that, the changes are mainly about the language flow in Zulu. This [project] is not a criticism of the original translation."

Madela goes through the original texts sentence by sentence.

"Each day I spend about two hours working on the new version, and every Wednesday I spend the whole day just translating," he said.

Once he has typed up his translation, it is sent to a team of Catholic sisters who make sure he has used the correct Zulu phrasing to convey the meaning of the original language.

Many of the sisters are former Zulu teachers and have Biblical training. Once they have agreed, the translation is sent to the review panel, which consists of theologians, translators, cultural experts and at least one Zulu novelist.

This process has meant that since the project was started, only the New Testament and the first four books of the Old Testament have been translated.

But the project is not without controversy.

This week, the Bible Society disputed the claim that the current Zulu Bible was based on the Xhosa version.

"When this [1959] translation was undertaken, it was already the policy of the Bible Society of South Africa to use the primary source languages in its translation projects.

"In the case of the 1959 translation, Biblia Hebraica [Hebrew and Aramaic] was used for the Old Testament and Novum Testamentum Graece [Greek] for the New Testament," said spokeswoman Mims Turley.

The society said it was also working on a new translation of the Zulu Bible, saying this was being done because languages "are dynamic, living and changing entities".

The society hopes that it will be completed within five years.

subscribe Just R20 for the first month. Support independent journalism by subscribing to our digital news package.
Subscribe now