The Poisonwood Bible reveals the broad theme of being lost in translation. Being lost in translation arises from the guilt and arrogance that each of the characters exhibits during their time in the Congo. From the moment that the Price family arrives in the Congo, they begin to grapple with communication, not only linguistically, but also culturally. Arrogance can make communicating across languages and cultural boundaries strenuous. On a large scale, Kingsolver explores and expands on the overzealous indictment of western colonialism and postcolonialism, an expose of cultural arrogance.
Nathan serves as the personal embodiment of this western hubris.
Showing his unwavering mission avidity to overturn ancient traditions of the Congo and replace them with his own religious beliefs. Much like when they first arrive and Nathan refuses to appreciate the welcome feast because he was offended by the bare-breasted women. He also rejects Mama Tataba’s advice on gardening until his approach to gardening fails, and he only uses Anatole as a translator when he realizes that his own words are not convincing anyone.
The difficulties are not solely cultural but are linguistic. Even with speaking the same language, things can get “lost in translation”. In Nathan’s oral biblical phrasing, Jesus is either precious or poisonwood. Many examples are given throughout of words that have multiple meanings and cause much confusion. In the last chapter, Ruth May narrates, explaining that “I am muntu Africa, muntu one child and a million all lost on the same day.”
The most intriguing and important word in this phrase is the word muntu, which makes no special difference between living people, dead people, children not yet born, and gods.
After Ruth May makes this statement she continues to say, “yes, you are all accomplices to the fall, and yes, we are gone forever. Gone to a ruin so strange it must be called by another name. Call it muntu: all that is here.” She brings the meaning of this word to the light of their own life, and how they all experienced this word in the life that they behind in the Congo. With arrogance comes guilt. Guilt is the central theme of the Poisonwood Bible novel. In the beginning chapter, Orleanna says, “I know how people are, with their habit of mind. Most will sail through from cradle to grave with a conscience clean as snow.” (Kingsolver 9). On one level or another, each character feels guilt for personal deeds and experiences. Nathan’s mission avidity is driven by guilt. He believes that he should not have been the one to survive the war.
Leah holds herself guilty over Adah having a sort of paralysis. Orleanna feels guilty for leaving Adah behind in the ant attack. One thing that all the girls feel guilty about is the loss of Ruth May. Guilt can also be associated with knowledge and innocence. For example, within the Bible, Adam and Eve only become guilty after they ate from the Tree of Knowledge. Relating this to the idea that guilt is associated with knowledge, and that younger children don’t know any better.
On the other hand, in Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver dismantles that argument and applies it more so to the adult Americans and Europeans. In the novel, those that are thoughtful, Orleanna, Leah, and Adah feel immense guilt about how the Africans suffer for the mistakes that white people make. Whereas, the less thoughtful, Nathan and Rachel, do not feel this guilt. Farther into the book, it is seen that Ruth May becomes the sacrifice for their knowledge. This guilt begins to integrate with their guilt over the destruction of Africa. From the moment that the Price family arrives in the Congo, they begin to grapple with communication. Grappling not only linguistically, but also culturally. This is caused in part by the guilt and arrogance that each of the characters exhibits during their time in the Congo. The Poisonwood Bible then reveals these weaknesses as being ‘lost in translation.