Work in Gĩkũyũ language owes its origin from Dr. Karl Peter who was the first European to transverse Gĩkũyũ Country in 1883. Von Hohnel who travelled with Count Teleki in 1887 also noted down half a dozen words and phrases in Gĩkũyũ.
Whichever way one looks at it, it is Rev. A. W. McGregor, the first Church Mission Society missionary in Gĩkũyũ Country, who started systematic work on the language at Kabete in 1900. McGregor’s Gĩkũyũ translation of John (as already mentioned) was published by the British and Foreign Bible Society and served for several years as the only available Gospel in the mission field. His English-Gĩkũyũ vocabulary was published in 1904 by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (S.P.C.K).
Other translation works within the protestant missions in Kenya included Hildegarde Hinde’s Vocabularies of the Kamba and Gĩkũyũ Languages, which was published in 1904 by Cambridge University Press. Dr. John E. Henderson’s Easy Gikuyu Lessons was published by The Times in Nairobi. Other translation work in Gĩkũyũ included the Roman Catholic venture, which proceeded on separate lines.
The Roman Catholic initial publication was a handbook of Gĩkũyũ by the Rev. Father Hemery published in 1902 by the Catholic Mission in Nairobi. The Italian Fathers at Nyeri also developed a printing press, which published a newspaper that used a different Gĩkũyũ script, without diacritical marks. One of the important works that came out of this printing press was Father C. Cagnolo’s Agĩkũyũ: Their Customs, Traditions and Folklore, which was published in 1933 by the Agĩkũyũ in the Mission Printing School of Nyeri.
However, when all was said and done, it was Rev. Arthur Ruffell Barlow’s contribution that was the most significant of all. Rev. Barlow, a Church of Scotland Mission layman, was the most important figure in the historical process of translating the Gĩkũyũ Bible. “Bwana Barlow,” as he was fondly remembered by his peers and African Christians, “possessed of no academic qualifications” but had a “good school education, [along] with intellectual and other gifts.” He was said to have picked up the Gĩkũyũ language unaided.
Barlow’s work began in earnest in 1903, when he was a seventeen-year-old lad. He first came into contact with Gĩkũyũ through a farming venture to sell potatoes to Transvaal, South Africa under the workmanship of his uncle Rev. Dr. Ruffell Scott, a CSM missionary residing in Gĩkũyũ country. Barlow’s first edition of Mark’s Gospel in Gĩkũyũ was published by the National Bible Society of Scotland in 1909.
In 1945, Barlow took over the compilation of a Gĩkũyũ dictionary, which had by now reached the letter M. He approached Longmans Publishers for a publication contract, only to postpone the plan in favour of his more engaging translation work on the New Testament. Bwana Barlow, together with his Anglican counterpart Rev. Canon Harry Leakey, completed the bulk of this translation.
Canon Leakey served as a missionary of the Church Mission Society in Kabete for thirty-eight years, retiring from active service in 1933. He arrived at CMS Kabete station in 1902, three years after its establishment in 1899. Leakey joined Barlow to form a partnership in the translation of the Gĩkũyũ Bible and other literature. He spent most of the seven years following his retirement in Limuru engaged in translation work. By the end of February 1941, Leakey had done the lion’s share of translation of the Old Testament in Gĩkũyũ. For his part, Barlow is credited with the Gĩkũyũ New Testament.
The first Gĩkũyũ New Testament was published by an inter-mission team of translators on March 14, 1926. The first copy was laid on the Communion table during the ordination service of the first five African ministers of the Church of Scotland Mission. By 1935, the supply of Gĩkũyũ New Testaments had run out, and a reprint was in order.
By end of 1945 Mr. Scott Dickson, one of the missionaries in Kenya, estimated that the need for the translated Bible in Gĩkũyũ country called for more than 100,000 more copies. This offered the opportunity for correction, alteration, and revision, resulting in the issuance of a second edition of the Gĩkũyũ New Testament in 1936.
Barlow and Canon Leakey were assigned the revision, with Barlow undertaking the final reading of all the proofs. The second edition had to go through yet another revision, starting with “retranslation” of the Epistle to the Romans. The “final” revision was completed in 1944.
The Old Testament Gĩkũyũ translation work did not go as quickly or smoothly as the New Testament had. The bulwark of this project was taken up by Canon Leakey, who translated the books of Exodus, Numbers, and Joshua through Ruth. Leakey also extensively revised Barlow’s translation of the Books of Job and Proverbs, as well as Psalms, already in its final draft.
On his part, Barlow, together with his “African co-operator,” Charles Mũhoro Kareri, completed the translation of the Psalms into Gĩkũyũ in 1934. Although the final work of the translation of the Psalms was credited to Barlow, it is Mũhoro Kareri who single-handedly translated the Psalms, which he later revised with Barlow’s help.
Barlow, with the collaboration of Rev. Leonard J. Beecher, completed the translation of the Books of Proverbs, Song of Songs, and Lamentations. He also revised Ecclesiastes. Rev. R. G. M. Calderwood (CSM) translated the Books of Jonah and Amos while Beecher worked on the Prophets. Calderwood also wrote a Gĩkũyũ Commentary on Mark’s Gospel, which was expected to be used by African Bible students. The first translation of the Gĩkũyũ Old Testament was completed and published in 1956.