Original Research - Special Collection: Bible 200

Translating psalms for Africa today: Involving the community and transmitting through performance

June F. Dickie
In die Skriflig/In Luce Verbi | Vol 55, No 3 | a2726 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/ids.v55i3.2726 | © 2021 June F. Dickie | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 09 February 2021 | Published: 26 May 2021

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June F. Dickie, Department of Biblical Studies, Faculty of Theology, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa

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Psalms, being poems, need to be translated as poems using the poetic features of the receptor language. Official translators are not always poetically sensitive, but many community members are highly skilled word-artists, keen to participate in the translation process. Further, poems are always performed before an audience, and thus translated psalms need to include performance features as part of the translation. These two aspects of translating psalms offer advantageous possibilities for those translating biblical poetry. The notion of community involvement challenges the idea of ‘authority resting with the trained translators or consultant’, but the Skopos Theory reminds us that there can be many translations of a psalm, serving different purposes. This article describes the results of an empirical study including Zulu youth (interested in poetry and music) in the translation of some praise psalms. The idea of interpreting and communicating psalms as oral performances was also tested by presenting the translations as performances before an audience. Four Zulu youth groups participated in the study, each spending five days learning the principles of translation, poetic devices (in Hebrew and isiZulu), features of local music and oral communication style. They studied, translated and presented through oral performance three praise psalms before an audience of adults and peers. The isiZulu translations were evaluated primarily using Wendland’s criteria for a literary-rhetorical translation (viz. artistry, aurality and acceptability), but attention was also given to the traditional criteria of faithfulness to the Hebrew, naturalness and clarity. Many of the translations showed creativity balanced with accuracy and gave insights into the exegesis of the psalms. They also used traditional rhythm and features of local poetry and music, and engaged the audience using aspects of performance art. The study highlighted the opportunity available to a translator of psalms to engage local oral artists to participate in the process, either in a parallel project which can feed into the official project, or as a valuable means of Scripture Engagement. Being able to experience the translation process and present psalms in a way meaningful to the local culture has many advantages which need to be explored.

Contribution: Engaging the local community in a significant way is key to the success of a translation project. Beyond simply being ‘reviewers’, this methodology offers opportunity for greater involvement in the translation of poetry. Further, using oral performance to present psalms actively, engages the community, resulting in far higher acceptability, memorability and perceived relevance.


Bible translation; Psalms; community involvement; performance; empirical studies; Africa; Zulu.


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