Why the Old Testament – Ethnic Tensions

Three weeks ago, I introduced a series of blogs on the rationale for translating the Old Testament into the languages of Africa. As I stated in the introduction, there are a number of good reasons to translate the Old Testament. I am limiting myself to one proposition – that God has revealed himself in the Old Testament in ways that give his comfort, encouragement and instruction for many of the most burning issues facing African Christians, while the New Testament has little to say on those issues. Last week, I dealt with the issue of corrupt oppression. This week, my topic is ethnic tensions and rivalries.

Some people think that Africa is full of ethnic conflicts. (They are sometimes called “tribal conflicts”, but the word “tribal” is inexact and out-of-favor, so I will used “ethnic” in place of “tribal” and “peoples” or “ethnic groups” in place of “tribes”.) But most of Africa’s almost 2000 peoples live peacefully with each other year in and year out. This is not to say that there are not tensions and rivalries between them, but it does mean that they don’t escalate to conflicts. The rivalries between neighboring ethnic groups are not purely ethnic. Instead they are usually about resources such as land, jobs, water, cattle, political favor or even just respect.

Most Africans rub shoulders every day with people of different ethnic groups. Those relationships are cordial. They know that there is always potential for escalating ethnic rivalry into conflict through careless action or words. As in all places, there are sometimes a few hotheads who stir things up and some people ready to follow them.

After the division of the humanity into male and female, the next most noticeable division is into race and ethnicity. Yet few books on Christian theology make any mention of ethnicity or race. They may have a whole chapter on what the Bible teaches about human beings without hardly a mention of race or ethnicity. This is in spite of the fact that a word laden with ethnic connotations – Goy – is used throughout the Old Testament and another with similar connotations (εφνοσ ethnos) is used throughout the New, and in spite of the fact the Bible is full of ethnic conflict and rivalries, especially the Old Testament. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, the Old Testament tells the story of hundreds of years of ethnic conflict between the descendants of Abraham and the Philistines. That conflict ebbs and flows throughout the books of Samuel, I Kings, II Kings, I Chronicles and II Chronicles. Furthermore, the conflict with the Philistines is not the only ethnic conflict in the Old Testament.

Bunia Storm

A rain storm brewing in Bunia

In the 1990s, an ethnic war had engulfed the town of Bunia in northeastern Congo. The town would switch hands from one side to the other, causing those belonging to the other ethnic group to flee or risk facing acts of ethnic vengeance. Perhaps I need to say something about this ethnic war and most such conflicts. Those actively taking part in ethnic conflicts are usual only a small minority from each ethnic group. Rather, some members of each ethnic group formed a militia composed of people from that ethnic group. Those militias had varying degrees of support from the people in that ethnic group. Some gave active support while many remained passive, and others tried to stay neutral. Some even covertly helped people from the other ethnic group, and a few openly opposed the militias. The militias sometimes killed or harassed people from their own ethnic group who opposed them, aided the other side, or who tried to stay neutral. I know one pastor who was targeted for assassination by people from his own ethnic group (and his own church!) because he took a meal to a member of his church from the other ethnic group who was in prison. They perceived his action as aiding and abetting the enemy.

Worship at a church in Bunia

Worship at a church in Bunia

Bunia was also the place where a translation of the Old Testament into the language of one of the opposing ethnic groups was taking place. The New Testament had been published a few years earlier. One day, the son of one of the translators disappeared. When his body was found some days later, it was obvious that he had been tortured and mutilated before dying. The translator buried his son knowing that he had suffered greatly merely for belonging to his ethnic group. The translator is an expert in the Old Testament, having gained a doctorate in that topic at a university in the Netherlands. So he was well acquainted with the ethnic conflicts recorded in the Old Testament and what God says about them. The translator is also a member of a church with members from both of the warring ethnic groups. By God’s grace, he found a way to keep fellowship with believers from the other ethnic group who were members of his church.

Dr. Sule-Saa's doctoral thesis which explored the impact of the translation of the Bible in two languages of northern Ghana

Dr. Sule-Saa’s doctoral thesis which explored the impact of the translation of the Bible in two languages of northern Ghana

None of the ethnic groups involved in this war had the whole Bible in their language. I find that fact pertinent. The fact that ethnic rivalries are a part of life is an excellent reason to translate the Old Testament into more languages in Africa. It just might help Africans create a more harmonious continent.

As a matter of fact, a Ghanaian researcher, Dr. Solomon Sule-Saa, studied the impact of translations of the whole Bible into languages in northern Ghana where ethnic tensions regularly broke out into conflict. He found that the translations contributed greatly to peace and reduced tensions.

When one ethnic group gets military dominance over another, the underdog can feel that God has abandoned them. A mostly Christian ethnic group can feel that God has cursed when they are overtaken by another ethnic group with few Christians. But the Old Testament refutes the conclusion that God abandoned them or cursed them because in its stories Israel was many times under the military dominance of others. That situation may have been God’s correction, but it was never his abandonment or curse.

So why translate the Old Testament? Because it gives God’s counsel about ethnic tensions and conflicts to people who desperately need it, whereas the New Testament says little.

Why the Old Testament – Oppression

Trillion dollarTwo weeks ago, I introduced a series of blogs on the rationale for translating the Old Testament into the languages of Africa. As I stated in the introduction, there are a number of good reasons to translate the Old Testament. I am limiting myself to one proposition – that God has revealed himself in the Old Testament in ways that give his comfort, encouragement and instruction for many of the most burning issues facing African Christians, while the New Testament has little to say on those burning issues. Last week, I dealt with the issue of war and conflict. This week, my topic is oppression.

Oppression and corruption are closely related. For my purposes here, I define oppression as a system of corruption or favoritism which prevents people from living in freedom and/or keeps them in poverty. First, we will look at some facts about oppression in Africa, and then we will look very briefly at the way the Old Testament treats the issue.

Article in Ghana newspaper

Article in Ghana newspaper

A web of corrupt activity costs the poor one trillion dollars a year and results in 3.5 million deaths, according to researchers. Perhaps a story would help put those numbers in perspective. When Dayle and I worked in the Democratic Republic of Congo, we met a man teaching fisheries at a University. He told us that he made a field trip with his students to a local lake where there were traditional fishermen. While there, he discovered that some fishermen were fishing in the spawning beds of the lake – a practice that is both illegal and which will eventually result in reduced number of fish threatening their livelihoods. So he raised the issue with the chief in one of the fishing villages. The chief told him that he was concerned and so were all the fishermen from the area, but the men fishing in the spawning beds were not from the area. Attempts to get them to stop did not have any effect, on the contrary, it became clear that those men were protected. No one dared touch them. I told this story to another one of the lecturers at the university who was from that area. He confirmed the story. He said he believed that the men were connected all the way to very high offices in the capital, so that even the Governor of the Province could not stop them.

Here were people who had been fishermen for generations. They knew how to protect their livelihood and make sure its sustainability, but they faced high-level corruption that was ruining them. Not all officials are corrupt, but enough are that the corruption can strangle small businesses and ruin local people.

You might ask how corruption can kill people. Let’s take counterfeit drugs. Criminal manufacturers create knock-offs of drugs like antibiotics that look like the real thing, packaging and all. They contain just enough of the real ingredient that they can fool simple testing. But when people buy them, they are not cured and some die. People living in poverty might spend several weeks wages on drugs for a critically ill family member, not knowing that the drugs are imposters only to have their loved one die. Corruption in ports, customs offices and government medical services facilitates the flow of counterfeit drugs.

Here’s another example of how corruption kills. An audit of the funds sent to Sierra Leonne showed that a full 30% of funds earmarked for fighting Ebola were not accounted for. Funds which should have been spent stopping the spread of Ebola, went into the hands of civil servants, which undoubtedly lead to more deaths.

Every year, the Human Rights report for Congo states that the police and the military commit over 95% of all human rights abuses. In Nigeria, Boko-Haram is killing people, chasing them off their land and bringing farming and small businesses to a halt. Thousands have been killed and many more have had their livelihoods ruined. Responsible people who worked hard for their families and took care of themselves have been forced off their land and into poverty.

slavery-per-capita-map-wo-arrows_eIf you take maps of human trafficking (slavery) and corruption and lay them over a map of the places with many languages without the whole Bible, you will see significant correlations.

All the situations I describe here parallel those described in the Old Testament where religious and government leaders practiced corrupt oppression and ordinary people suffered for it.

The New Testament has some statements about corruption and oppression, but it is the Old Testament that deals with the issue in-depth. There is the poignant story of Naboth who was the victim of a plot by Queen Jezebel who killed him and gave his vineyard to King Ahab. (I Kings 21:1-16) I am sure that those Congolese fishermen would nod their heads with understanding if they were to read that story. The story of Naboth is not the only story of corrupt oppression in the Old Testament.

But the Old Testament has much more than stories of corrupt oppression. It addresses the  issue in practical ways:

Corruption makes fools
of sensible people,
and bribes can ruin you.
Ecclesiastes 7:7

More significantly, we find in the Old Testament long passages that deal with corrupt oppression, such as Isaiah 28:7-22, Isaiah 5:8-30, Psalm 73 and pretty much the entire book of Habakkuk. These longer passages deal with corruption and oppression from several angles: how God views such practices, the future God reserves for those doing the oppressing, God’s favor on those being oppressed, the future God reserves for the oppressed, the damage done to people and all of society by corrupt oppression and the emotional pain of seeing oppressors get economic gain from their oppression, among others.

Those suffering under oppression can sometimes assume that they did something to deserve it – they may think that God is punishing them for their sins. This plays into the hands of the oppressors. After all, oppressed people who believe that it is their fault will probably just take their punishment. They are not likely to take a stand for justice.

In the Old Testament, God’s people who live under oppression can know that God is on their side and that staying away from corruption and oppression will eventually be rewarded. Maybe that will give some of them the courage to stand against evil even though it is dangerous. Maybe some will start telling the Old Testament stories of corrupt oppression and spreading the Old Testament perspective on it, and maybe, just maybe, that will result in a more just society for them in the long-term. We have an example in the US civil rights movement which drew heavily from the Old Testament.

That’s an outstanding reason to translate the Old Testament into more languages in places where the levels of corruption and oppression are high.

Why the Old Testament – Part 1

Genesis 1 in the 1611 edition of the King James Bible

Genesis 1 in the 1611 edition of the King James Bible

A renewal of interest in translating the Bible into all languages started in 1800 with the creation of Bible Societies in many countries. In addition to the work of the Bible Societies, throughout the 1800s and 1900s missionaries translated the Bible into many languages for the first time. Wycliffe Bible Translators joined this movement in the 1930s with a focus on more remote and smaller languages. However, Wycliffe’s approach was to translate only the New Testament. In more recent years, they also translate some Old Testament books too. But Wycliffe has been involved in the translation of only a small number of whole Bibles. Wycliffe’s choice to give priority to the New Testament reflects the preference which Western Christians have for the New Testament.

Western Christians comprise most of Wycliffe’s staff and financial supporters. For many Western Christians the Old Testament (or at least large portions of it) seems irrelevant or not understandable. It seems to me that the face that the Old Testament is perceived as irrelevant accounts for much of the reason why Western missionary translators have tended to translate on the New Testament. Recently, there is renewed interest in translating the Old Testament. Those promoting more translation of the Old Testament in Africa often cite two reasons:

  • All Scripture is inspired by God, not just the New Testament
  • African cultures bear a lot of similarities to the Old Testament so African’s prefer it. One study of sermon texts in Nigeria found that over 80% came from the Old Testament.
Genesis 1 in the Lelemi language of Ghana

Genesis 1 in the Lelemi language of Ghana

One would think that the first argument – that all Scriptures is inspired, not just the New Testament – would be enough for translators and their financial supporters. But it has not been.

While the second reason – the cultural similarities between the Old Testament and African culture – is true, it doesn’t carry much weight, not even with me. I can like something without that being what I need.

I plan to write a series of blog posts giving other reasons why translation of the whole Old Testament, or at least significant parts of it, it crucial for the health of the church in Africa, and why it is absolutely necessary for African Christians to flourish in their faith.

I will not be treating the two reasons above because I will be assuming that they are valid, the first one especially. I will not be treating other reasons for translating the Old Testament, like:

  • It is mostly in the Old Testament that we learn about God’s character
  • Parts of the New Testament are impossible to understand without reference to parts of the Old

Those propositions are true and important, but others have written about them. So I will be limiting myself to one proposition

God has revealed himself in the Old Testament in ways that give his comfort, encouragement and instruction for many of the most burning issues facing African Christians, while the New Testament has much less to say on those burning issues.

In other words, the Old Testament is not just relevant to much of the context in Africa, it contains what God says about things which are not the common experience of Western Christians in ways that the New Testament does not. God has reached out to all his people with revelation dealing with their most pressing issues of life and faith, so that they could love and follow him in everything. We should not, therefore, translate only the parts in which God addresses our issues, but also the parts where he addresses the issue of the people for whom we are translating.

The issues to be covered are:

  • Living in conflict and war
  • Living with corruption and oppression
  • Living with ethnic strife and tensions
  • Living with poverty
  • Living surrounded by traditional religion

Selling out

GILLBT Projects 150 KonkombaIn 1977 the New Testament was completed in the Konkomba language of Ghana. At the time, there were very few Christians among the Konkomba. In fact, the Konkomba people first gave passive resistance to the translation of the Bible in their language. So when the translation was finished, only 2,000 New Testaments were printed, even though Konkomba is spoken by over 600,000 people.

In six years, those 2,000 New Testaments sold out. So 10,000 more were printed in 1984. They sold out by 1997, at which time the translation of the whole Bible was finished. So the first Konkomba Bible appeared in 1997. 10,000 copies were printed. It took just over 10 years to sell them all. This was quite amazing as there probably aren’t more than 10,000 evangelical Christian families among the Konkomba. But the Bible did sell out. So another 10,000 were printed in 2009. They sold out last year – in five years.

A few months ago, we received another 20,000 Konkomba Bibles. They were stored in our offices for a few days and filled the whole building. Within days of their arrival, 9,500 of them are already sold!

Dr. Sule-Saa

Dr. Sule-Saa

So, when all of the the 20,000 are sold, one adult in 10 will have a copy of the Bible, on average. And that is in a people group where only a few decades ago there were hardly any believers.

The Bible in their language has caused big changes. The head of the Presbyterian Church in Ghana’s Northern Region where the Konkomba live says:

Bible translation and literacy in the mother tongue has reshaped the face of the church in the Northern Region

Konkomba is not the only language in Ghana where the Bible has sold out more than once. Siwu, a small language in the Volta Region has sold out two printings of the New Testament. An just a few weeks back we received a shipment of the third printing of the Gikyode New Testament after the first two printings sold out.

While it is legitimate to ask if translating the Bible into the languages of Ghana is a worthwhile endeavor. I propose that we let specific people answer it – those who buy the Bibles till they are sold out. Their opinion is probably more relevant than yours or mine.

DSC09017

Boxes of Gikyode New Testaments just arrived from the printer

Safety

ONUC Peacekeeper in Congo Deploys to Combat Zone, UN Photo/Marie Frechon

ONUC Peacekeeper in Congo Deploys to Combat Zone, UN Photo/Marie Frechon

Most days, I read news about Africa and Ghana. I also subscribe to a very small number of blogs. Among them is a blog by an American living overseas. I don’t think the author is a believer, but she is much better than I am at putting into words what it is like to live and work in a very different culture and context. Sometimes, it is like I am reading my own life. That is how I found the choice quote below. The author decided to go live in a very dangerous country. Her American friends were shocked. She writes her responses to the questions people asked when she visited the US, including the question: “Were you safe?”. (The emphasis is mine.)

Of course we were safe. Of course we were not safe. How could we know? Nothing happens until it happens. People get shot at schools in the United States, in movie theaters, office buildings. People are diagnosed with cancer. Drunk drivers hurtle down country roads. Lightning flashes, levees break, dogs bite. Safety is a Western illusion crafted into an idol…

Camp for displaced people in eastern Congo, UN Photo/Endre Vestvik

Camp for displaced people in eastern Congo, UN Photo/Endre Vestvik

It seems to me that safety is one of the great quests of Western society – safer highways, safer food, safer water, an environment that does not contain toxic threats, less violent crime, children protected from sexual predators, etc. Of course, all of these quests are more than good – they are noble. However…

The horrors of the acts of ISIS cause American Christians fear for their political system, freedom and safety. They demand political and often military responses. So far so good. But…

We live in this world, but we don’t act like its people or fight our battles with the weapons of this world. Instead, we use God’s power that can destroy fortresses.
II Cor 10:3-4

When our reaction is the same as the people of this world, we need to stop and pray. Are we deploying God’s weapons – prayer, missions and evangelism? Has our concern for safety and our way of life overwritten our faith? Are we following Jesus’ approach to personal safety?

Seeking safety causes us to draw in and cut off. So one of the first reactions to Ebola was to proposed cutting off flights to affected countries. But our God does not draw in and cut off. Quite the contrary; he seeks out. He moves towards those in danger. The Jesus who left the safety of heaven and was killed said:

“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”
John 20:21

Camp for displaced people in Congo, photo Julien Harneis

Camp for displaced people, photo Julien Harneis

When we are back in the US for a short stay we get asked if we are safe. In some ways, it’s an impossible question. For a while, Dayle and I worked in the Democratic Republic of Congo, just at the end of a civil war that claimed more civilian lives than any war since WWII. I flew into airstrips controlled by rebel forces where very young soldiers greeted us with assault rifles. I had a drunk soldier with an assault rifle stop us and use his weapon to extort a little money from us. A missionary in the area was recently shot by bandits.

Was I safe? Well, I’m writing this!

Is being safe what actually happens or is it the degree of threat I feel? People who feel perfectly safe end up dead or maimed every day. Every day, people who fear for their safety with good reason finish the day alive and well. Which of them was really safe?

Was it safe to go to the Congo? I’m not sure. Did God keep me safe in the Congo? Obviously.

Safety is a Western illusion crafted into an idol

When I am afraid, I put my trust in you
Psalm 56:3

I trust in the Lord for protection.
So why do you say to me,
“Fly like a bird to the mountains for safety!
Psalm 11:1

Trinity and translation

Trinity relationshipsI once heard a pastor joke about he and other pastors at a church trying to pass the buck as to which one of them would preach on the trinity as Trinity Sunday was approaching. I thought that was a great example of the perceptions of the trinity as a complex topic.

But since Trinity Sunday is May 31 this year, now is as good a time as any to write something on the topic. Especially as a number of theologians have pointed out a connection between the trinity and communication.

Our God is a God who communicates. He reaches out to us in communication which is at our level. That is stated in the Bible, as it is in Deut 30:11-14.

“For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.

Trinity b&wAnyone who does not believe that God reaches out to us in communication will find it impossible to interpret the life of Jesus or the fact that God sent him. God shows over and over by his actions in the New and Old Testaments that he reaches out to us to communicate with us. The Bible itself is a testament to God’s desire to communicate with us. This is where the trinity comes in. Since forever, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit have been in perfect communication with each other.

All Christian communication starts with the fact that God is communication in Himself. – Joseph Oomen

Trinity communicationIf God were not triune, then he would have no need for internal communication. If a god existed forever without communication, then why would he need or want communication with his creation? But if God has perfect, loving and joyful communication between his different persons, then it is no mystery that he would want the same with the people he created. So he would send messages which would be written down in the Bible – his word, and he would send his Son – the Word – to explain himself.

“We love God’s Word because in his Word we hear him speaking to us. We see him coming to us.” – Valdir Steuernagel

“We love the Bible as a bride loves her husband’s letters, not for the paper they are, but for the person who speaks through them.” The Cape Town Commitment

“Translation is about letting God speak anywhere and everywhere … because that is what God is like.”
Dr. Lamin Sanneh

Calvin

Title page to Latin edition of Calvin's Institutes

Title page to Latin edition of Calvin’s Institutes

Those of you following this blog will have notice that I have a fascination with the reformers. A lot of that is because of my ministry – helping African churches engage in Bible translation. So I wanted to know what provoked the spate of translation of the Bible surrounding the reformation, thinking that might help me with my goals. I believe that it does.

Today (May 26) in 1564, John Calvin died. He did not translate the Bible but he was a solid supporter of those who did. One of Calvin’s most lasting legacies is his systematic theology, which he entitled Institutes. In fact, it is still for sale today in several languages. As did many theologians of his day, Calvin wrote his theology in Latin. That was, after all, the language of the clergy and other theologians. It was, however, not accessible to the people. So, when Calvin revised his Institutes, he wrote them in his mother tongue – French. At the time, that was very unusual. But it is easy to see Calvin’s logic. He wanted to get theology out of academia and into the street. The best theology is not written by the pens of academics, it is the simple but profound beliefs written on the hearts of ordinary people when the Spirit makes the Scriptures real to them.

Calvin's Institutes in French

Calvin’s Institutes in French

Other reformers did the same – writing at least some of their academic and popular works in their mother tongues. They turned away from the recognition they might have received from the world of clergy and theologians; turning their focus toward ordinary people. This turn toward ordinary people as “worthy bearers of the message” (Lamin Sanneh’s words) and as a force in change, informed not just their translation efforts, but many other things they did.

Today I have the same confidence – that ordinary Africans, even those with little education, can be a force for change in their families, villages, cities and countries through knowledge of the Word of God in their languages. This confidence is not theoretical. In the places in Ghana where the Bible has been translated, ordinary people are changing things. Sometimes educated Ghanaians are surprised to see the degree of change initiated by those with much less education but who have become conversant with the Bible in their languages.

Titles or names

Dayle at the Shalom University of Bunia

Dayle at the Shalom University of Bunia

In early 2009, Dayle and I were traveling into Congo. Our first stop was at the Shalom University of Bunia. When we arrived at the Bunia airport, we found that the university had sent a driver for us. Dayle introduced herself to the driver and asked him, “Who are you?”  He responded, “I’m the driver”.  But Dayle, of course wanted his name so she asked, “But what is your name”.  “Bahati”, he responded.  A few minutes later we were on the campus of the university conversing with some of the professors. We saw the Rector’s wife coming, who we know well and who is a close friend of the families of the professors we are taking with.  One of them says, the Rector’s wife is coming.  Dayle looks up and says, “Oh, its Feli!”.

Note that in this story Dayle prefers calling people by their names, but the Congolese prefer using titles like “driver” and “rector’s wife”. Congolese and many other Africans prefer titles over names. The wife of the most prominent MAF pilot in Bunia is known as “Mrs. Pilot”.  The staff of the University almost always call each other by a shortened form of their title.  So they are “Rector”, “The Academic” (for the academic dean), or “The Administrative” for the Administrative Secretary. When we lived in Burkina Faso, I was known up and down the street we lived on as “Matthieu baba” – “Matthew’s Father”. Everyone knew who Matthew’s father was, but few knew my name. Men there are often there are known as the father of their oldest son. Just the other day, a police officer in Ghana addressed me as Obroni – white man in Twi. He was not being smart or demeaning, just friendly.

To my American ears, titles sound formal, aloof or demeaning. Calling someone “White Man” even sounds bizarre. But to many Africans, titles are completely natural. Plus, the preference for titles gives them an edge in understanding some parts of the Bible.  “Jesus the Christ” makes a LOT of sense to them because Christ is a title, not a name. But many Americans understand Christ as a name.

Not a few missionaries in West Africa have been irritated by being called “White guy”. When we first arrived in Burkina Faso, we used to be irritated by the incessant cries of Toubabou (white man / white woman in Jula) or Nasara (same in Moore). I have even found blogs by Westerners living in Ghana telling their experiences with being called “White”. I just followed the case of two missionaries figuring out how to deal with always being addressed as “Whites”. At first they were irritated. But after getting advice from other missionaries and local people they trust, they got some degree of acceptance. Better, they started using titles more themselves. When in Rome, do as the Romans – or when in Ghana don’t do as an Obroni.

Parts of this blog post were taken from a post originally published in April 2009.

Incorrigible Grammar

Irregular verbs English_eI work with languages, but I hated most of my English classes in high school and beyond. The literature classes were Ok. The grammar classes on the other hand … It always seemed to me that the grammar of English was a lot more slippery and complicated than my English teachers let on. My linguistics studies confirmed me in that opinion.

One definition of grammar is: “A propriety of speech.” Someone suggested that grammar is not a property of speech but rather an impropriety of speech. It is so hard to get your hands on it. There are rules, but also so many exceptions.

A game with rules like English grammar might be considered fixed by the Gaming Commission! This is not just true of English, but of all living languages. Many African languages are not written, but they have complicated grammar all the same. Just ask the missionaries who learn them, or the translators who attempt to describe them. I asked one translator about the number of genders in the language he was working on. He said that he stopped counting at around 120.

One translator was reading a draft translation to people to see if it communicated clearly. They came to a part that said: “Don’t steal from widows”, and everybody laughed. It turned out that the way it was said implied that one should steal from other people than widows! It sounded like “Don’t steal from widows; steal from someone else instead!” To get the right meaning meant using a grammatical structure in that language called topic-comment. In topic-comment, the topic of the sentence is stated first (widows), then the thing one wants to say about the topic (don’t steal from them). In that structure, the verse read “Widows, don’t steal from them.” This communicated clearly and avoided the idea that it is okay to steal from other people.

All translators, even those translating into their own language, need an explicit knowledge of the grammar of their language, or they might not use features like topic-comment even where they are necessary to be faithful to the meaning. So even translators translating into their own language need training.