Meet Johannes Gottlieb Christaller, The Man Who Translated The Bible Into TWI


Originally written in Hebrew,  the Holy Bible over the past centuries has been translated into a lot of languages to help in understanding the word of God.

With the  English translated version being the most used Bible version in the world, the Holy book has also been translated into  Ghana's Twi language as Christians in the West African country read and understand the Bible using their and this translation can be attributed to Johannes Gottlieb Christtaller just like some translated versions can be attributed to King James.

According to history,  Christaller, Johannes Gottlieb  (November 19, 1827-December 16, 1895) was a German missionary and philologist with the Basel Mission who made Twi the most important African literary language in what is now Ghana.With the help of two African colleagues,, he translated the Bible into Twi.

He was born in the small town of Winnenden, near Stuttgart, in Germany in 1827. His father was a tailor of modest means who was interested in books and bought over 2,000 of them for his library.

As a boy Christaller spent most of his time after school reading his father’s books and developing the philological and linguistic skills which were to make his, one of the leading linguists of the century. He decided at an early age to become a missionary, and entered the Basel Mission Training School in Basel,, Switzerland, after leaving school. He took the four-year course for missionaries, and because of his linguistic,skills - he knew Greek, Latin, Hebrew, German and English - was sent to the Gold Coast (Now Ghana) in 1853 by the Basel Mission Home Board solely to work on the Twi language.

Before leaving Basel, he had already helped to edit a Twi grammar. Christaller was to remain on the Gold Coast from 1853 to 1868, except when ill health obliged him to spend the years from 1858 to 1862 back in Basel. 
He was stationed first in Akuropon, Akuapem, 32 miles (51 km) north of Accra, where he worked from 1853-58; then at Aburi, 20 miles (32 km) north of Accra, from 1862-65; then at Kyebi in Akyem Abuakwa, 50 miles (80km) north of Accra, from 1865-67; and again at Akuropon from 1867-68.

In confronting the task before him, Christaller faced a number of problems. For example, Twi was variously called Odschi, Oji, and Tshi, as well as Twi. Another Basel missionary, H. N. Riis, who had arrived on the Gold Coast in 1845, had already done some work on the language, and Christaller had his books - Elemente des Akwapim Dialects de Odschi Sprache (1853), and Grammatical Outline and Vocabulary of the Oji Language with Special Reference to the Akuapem Dialect, Together with a Collection of Proverbs by the Natives (1854) - to guide him.

The key decision taken by Christaller was the choice of a common dialect to serve as a “book language” for Twi- speaking peoples. 

Years later, in his Grammar of the Asante and Fante Language Called Tschi (1875), Christaller commented on the need for choosing one of the Gold Coast dialects for this purpose in the following terms: “The Akan and Fante dialects do not differ so much as ancient Greek dialects or as the different English and German dialects; neither are they spoken by as many individuals. And when more than forty millions of Germans enjoy a common book-language, half a million Fantes may more easily be brought to a common medium of communication by writing.”

The choice of the Akuapem dialect of Twi as a literary medium was made on the following grounds. The headquarters of the Basel Mission was in Akuropon, the capital of the Akuapem state, and the Twi spoken there had been reduced to writing by 1853. 

Even though Christaller himself had worked in the neighboring state of Akyem Abuakwa, and had learned to speak the Akyem dialect, which is the nearest to the Asante dialect, he nevertheless felt that the Akuapem dialect was the best suited to literary work.

Again, writing in 1875, Christaller, observed “It (Akuapem) is an Akan dialect influenced by Fante, steering in the middle course between other Akan dialects and Fante in sounds, forms and expressions; it admits peculiarities of both branches as far as they do no contradict each other, and is, therefore, best capable of being enriched from both sides.”

Christaller’s colleague, David Asante who spoke both the Akuapem and Akyem dialects, in 1874 gave it as his judgement that the choice was a correct one,  commenting that: “Akuapem easily admits of enrichment and admixture from Akyem and even Fante; and Fante also admits and receives such foreign elements; but if the same should be done in the Akyem dialect, it would not sound well.”

Christaller had learned Twi rapidly, and within a year of his arrival had produced Old Testament Bible stories in Twi. Between 1859 and 1866 he had produced Twi translations of the following, comprising in aggregate of the New Testament: Acts of the Apostles (1859), the Four Gospels (1864), and the following Epistles: - Letter to the Romans, Peter I and II, James and Jude, JohnI, II and III, Revelations (1861); Corinthians I and II, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians I and II (1862); Timothy I and II, Titus, Philemon, and Hebrews (1863).

Most of these works were done in Basel, between 1858-62. Christaller also prepared the Twi New Testament for the press in Basel.

He married a fellow missionary named Emilie (her surname is not given) who was a devoted wife, and whose death at Kyebi in Akyem Abuakwa on August 13, 1866, affected him deeply. He later described her last days in a moving latter to the committee of the Basel Mission, written from Akuropon. She was buried in Jyebi, after which Christaller moved to Akuropon the following year, leaving the country for good in 1868.

In Akuropon, Christaller, with David Asante and Theophilus Opoku  had worked hard on a Twi translation of the whole Bible, which was published in Basel in 1871. The second edition of the Twi Bible was to be published by the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1897-1900.

Apart from his translations, Christaller is best known for two monumental works.
The first is A Grammar of the Asante and Fante Language Called Tshi (Twi, Chee) Based on the Akuapem Dialect with Reference to Other (Akan and Fante) Dialects (1875). This scholarly work is still the best Twi grammar, even though the orthography has changed over the years.

The author employed his knowledge of philology, phonetics, and linguistics to solve problems of grammar, and showed a wide knowledge of African languages. He had collected the material on the Gold Coast, and after his return to Basel also constantly sought the advice of David Asante and other African scholars.

The second work is his Dictionary of the Asante and Fante language Called Twi(1881), also written in Basel. It is the standard Twi dictionary, and was revised in 1933. By the mid-1970s it had not yet been superseded, even though Twi orthography had changed considerably.

The publication of Christaller’s 1881 dictionary had been preceded by the publication in 1874 of his* English-Tshi - Akra Dictionary . In 1879 Christaller published *A Collection of 3,600 Tshi Proverbs , to which constant reference was made in his dictionary.

It is significant that the British authorities of the day on the Gold Coast did not realize how much work had been done in Twi. 

Christaller pointed out in his Grammar (1875), for example, that if the British had known of the existence of written Twi, Sir Garnet Wolsely’s letter to the Asantehene proposing lasting peace, intercepted by Amankwa Tia could have been sent in Twi, and the British invasion of Asante in the Sagrenti war of 1873-74 might have been averted.

During his retirement in Basel, Christaller became editor of a journal entitled The Christian Messenger . The aim of the journal was to encourage African scholars to write in Twi and Ga (This publication is not to be confused with The Christian Messenger and Examiner , founded in Cape Coast in 1859. by Revs. T. B. Freeman and H. Wharton, and which also urged the use of African languages and the translation of classic and foreign literatures into African tongues.) The first issue was dated March 1, 1883. Though the journal dealt mainly with Christian activities on the Gold Coast, it gave scholars and contributors an opportunity to describe the country as it then was, and bore testimony as to how extensively some of them had travelled. The Rev. H. L. Rottman, in a letter to the editor from Christiansborg dated October 13, 1882, stated that the primary aim of the journal was to encourage people who were not proficient in English to write in Twi or Ga. Christaller himself points to the poor standard of English of the German missionaries, and urges then to submit their articles to good English scholars before submitting them to the editor, since he could not claim an excellent knowledge of English.

The Christian Messenger (still being published in the mid-1970s by the Presbyterian Church) is a source book for the social and military historian which has been insufficiently used.

Christaller won fame as a scholar both at home and in several countries in Europe. In 1876 and 1882 he was awarded the Volney Prize by the Insitut de France. He died in Stuttgart in 1893.

Saying,  "My work is coming to an end and my Sabbath is coming. The marked hands and legs [of Christ] have done all of that for me, " the Reverend Johannes Gottlieb Christaller died as he was preparing to undergo a medical surgery.

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