What value for unity

Road to Siwu country

Road to Siwu country

Shortly after we arrived in Ghana, we travel to the Volta Region to participate in the launch of a reprint of the New Testament in the Siwu language, the first printing had sold out. The Siwu are a small, people group in Ghana’s Volta Region. They number about 36,000. In spite of being small, they were a divided community. At some point, a number of them had moved some distance away where they established new Siwu towns and villages. Even though it was not that far, the new and the old Siwu communities did not have that much contact with each other.

Then rivalries developed. Siwu from one community did not go to the yearly festivals in the other, which is rare, Worse, they no longer went to the funerals in the other community. In Ghana, everyone goes to funerals. People go to the funerals of distant relatives and even the family members of people they work with. They even go to the funerals of people they don’t like or get along with. Not going to the funeral is a powerful statement of separation. The Siwu were very divided.

Siwu New Testaments being auctioned

Siwu New Testaments being auctioned

What brought the two Siwu communities back together was the process of translating the Bible – not the teachings of the Bible mind you, but the process of translating it. The two sides collaborated on the translation. People from both Siwu communities started coming to translation events. Both communities sent people to be involved in the translation. The same translation was distributed in both communities. Literacy was organized in both. And then, of course, they started coming to other events in each others’ communities.

I have heard this story over and over with variations. The most usual is Christians and church leaders saying that the effort to translate the Bible into their language caused churches to work together who had not cooperated ever. At dedications of Bible translation, the most often cited impact of the translation program I have heard is the unity the translation program brought between churches.

Siwu chief at the launch

Siwu chief at the launch

At first I did not think that much of an impact. It was not one which motivated me personally. Other results, like people coming to faith, church growth, reduced drunkenness, and less domestic violence are big motivators for me. But unity as a motivation kind of fell flat. On the other hand, Africans have a high value for unity. This does not necessarily mean that they are more united. It does mean that they have strong feelings of loss when unity is absent, and they rejoice more when it is regained. The repeated and joyful comments about unity regained at that Siwu event confirmed their value for unity and gratefulness at its return.

Jesus prayed for unity for his followers:

I want all of them to be one with each other, just as I am one with you and you are one with me. I also want them to be one with us. Then the people of this world will believe that you sent me. I have honored my followers in the same way that you honored me, in order that they may be one with each other, just as we are one. (John 17:21-22)

Young Siwu man with traditional drums

Young Siwu man with traditional drums

Unfortunately, Jesus’ value for unity hadn’t rubbed off on me. I’m too American, valuing individualism more than unity. Also, I’ve been taught to be wary of approaches to unity which negate Jesus’ teaching. But years of hearing the joy of Africans at regained unity among their churches has finally rubbed off on me. Unity is one of the wonderful results of translating the Bible. It is one of the ways Jesus’ prayer for unity among believers is worked out in practice.

The Doctor

Rev Dr Browne (right), at a conference on translating the Bible

Rev Dr Browne (right), at a conference on translating the Bible

Doctor Browne is a real doctor. By that I mean a medical doctor. But these days he is also a minister of the Gospel with Lighthouse Chapel International, a church that was started in Ghana, and is found throughout Ghana and in other countries. Doctor Browne is a doctor’s doctor. Before becoming a minister he taught at a medical school and consulted on difficult cases. For a while, he was responsible for all the churches belonging to Lighthouse Chapel International in northern Ghana.

As soon as he was given that responsibility, he started learning one of the most important languages of northern Ghana – Dagbani, the language of the Dagomba people.

That is an interesting thing to do. Northern Ghana is not as prosperous as the part of Ghana Doctor Browne is from. Many Ghanaians with credentials not nearly as impressive as Dr. Browne’s don’t want to work or live there. Also, learning Dagbani is a big step down the social ladder. But Dr. Browne saw value in learning Dagbani, of identifying himself with them. In a few months, Doctor Browne learned Dagbani better than others in his church who had been there for much longer.

Doctor Browne’s actions are all the more amazing when compared to the actions of others. For example, some ministers in Ghana will only use English because it is prestigious. They preach in English even when they know that people don’t understand. They would never learn Dagbani, or any other Ghanaian language. Also, many Ghanaians with his education and credentials dread, as I wrote above, being assigned to northern Ghana because of the lack of services. Instead, many are emigrating to the USA or to Europe.

The continued use and impact of translations in the languages of Ghana depend on ministers of the Gospel like Doctor Browne who are more interested in communicating the Gospel than in prestige or their careers.

While others are heading up, Doctor Browne is going the other direction. Actually, his direction is the real up – the direction Jesus took:

Think the same way that Christ Jesus thought: Christ was truly God. But he did not try to remain equal with God. Instead he gave up everything and became a slave, when he became like one of us. Christ was humble. He obeyed God and even died on a cross. Then God gave Christ the highest place and honored his name above all others. (Phil 2: 5-9)


Announcement in a church bulletin

Announcement in a church bulletin

In Ghana, some churches announce banns of marriage. Three Sundays in a row there is a public announcement of the names of the couple to be married with the planned date of their wedding. The announcer tells the congregation that if they know of any reason why the couple should not be married, they should inform the church leaders If the couple are from different churches, the banns are announced in each church.

If the church uses a projector, the name of the couple is projected and sometimes a photo. If the couple is present, they are asked to stand. At that point, it is not uncommon that people in the congregation cheer, whistle, clap their hands, trill or otherwise show their joy. There may also be laughter or giggles.

The word “banns” comes from a middle English word meaning “proclamation”. So “banns of marriage” is just an archaic way of saying “public announcement of plans to get married”. One might think that the word banns would be dropped in favor of a more up-to-date word, especially given how close “banns” is to “bans” – the spelling is different, but the pronunciation is the same.

Churches tend to be very attached to certain words, like banns. That can have an effect on translation.

©2013 GospelGifs

©2013 GospelGifs

Imagine a place where the Gospel has never been preached. Missionaries come and preach to the people through interpreters. The missionary doing the preaching uses the word “sin” and the interpreter has to find the equivalent word in the language. Very often and unfortunately, the interpreter has to find the word on the fly with no preparation. So he chooses a word. It might be a good choice and it might not. Unfortunately, few missionaries take the time to consider what words their interpreters are using for key Bible concepts. The interpreter picks words for other key ideas – salvation, savior, heaven, Holy Spirit, etc. using this same haphazard process.

It was in this hit and miss way that specific local words for key Bible concepts were “chosen” in some places. And sometimes those first choices stuck and became tradition, just like banns. In contrast, the method used to chose key terms for English was quite different. Many of them were chosen by an Oxford scholar who knew Hebrew and Greek – the languages in which the Bible was written. That scholar was William Tyndale.

Places where there are Christians, but not yet a translation of the Bible, the accidental process by which words are chosen for key Bible concepts sometimes had the result that different churches use different words than others for the same Bible concept.

Bible translators have to sort this out. Each church may be quite attached to the words it uses. It may not even have thought about the slapdash way the words were chosen nor have considered that there are better words than the ones they use. As we have seen with banns, church tradition in the use of words can be very important to people. If the translators are not careful, some people might reject at translation if it does not use the words they prefer, even when their those words do not have the right meaning. In insisting on their words, church leaders and Christians will say that they are protecting good teaching. In reality, they are protecting their tradition.

Pray for Bible translators. In the matter of key Bible terms, they not only have to find the best words, they often end up having to be negotiators and peacemakers to the get best words accepted over church tradition.

Endangered Languages

Endangered languagesYou may have heard that many of the world’s languages are dying. That might lead you to ask why translate the Bible if languages are dying. It’s a good question. The answer is simple. But let’s back up a bit before answering it.

A while back I heard one of Ghana’s leading linguists, a man who spent decades helping to translate the Bible into 13 language in Ghana and neighboring countries, Professor Gilbert Ansre, speak about Ghana’s languages. Here’s what he said:

‘The numbers of speakers of most of the indigenous languages are on the increase and the vast majority of our mother-tongues are not about disappear or “die”. They are here to stay for a long time and need to be reckoned with…’

Dr and Mrs Ansre with portrait

Prof and Mrs Ansre with portrait

Professor Ansre was talking about Ghana. In other places language are dying in significant numbers. Those places include the Americas and Melanesia. The situation simply is not the same in Ghana. In fact, in all of West Africa few of the hundreds of languages are dying. Most are increasing in number just as Professor Ansre said that they are in Ghana. Data gathered independently by governments, churches, linguists and others all lead to this same conclusion.

Why are most of Ghana’s languages growing? Because of population growth. The population growth rate in Ghana is 2.5%. At that rate, the population in Ghana will double in 29 years. Since almost 100% of the native population of Ghana speaks at least one Ghanaian language, the number of people speaking those languages increased by 28% during the last decade and doubled in the last 29 years.

Children in the street

Children in the street

The evidence of population growth is everywhere. When our son Matthew visited with his fiancée who had never been to Africa, she keep commenting on all the young children she saw. They are with their mothers who sell food or vegetables by the road or in the market. Children are everywhere. The church we attend has an attendance of about 500. There are about 100 children in Sunday School, in spite of fact that many who attend are unmarried university students without children.

To see the effect of population growth on keeping languages alive, let’s take an imaginary case of a language spoken by 100,000 people where two thirds of its speakers stop speaking it in the coming 50 years. Here are the numbers using Ghana’s annual population growth rate of 2.5%.

Number of speakers of the language today         100,000
Number in 50 years (2.5% compounded)           335,000
2/3rd stop speaking the language                       -224,000
Remaining 1/3rd                                                      111,000

Children in the street

Children in the street

As you can see, even though 2/3 of the people stopped speaking the language, there were still more people speaking it at the end of the 50 years than there were at the start. Besides, it appears that very few of Ghana’s languages will lose 2/3 of their speakers in the coming 50 years. On the contrary, the number of people speaking Ghanaian languages will probably double or triple.

Back to the original question – why translate the Bible if languages are dying. The simple answer is that we do not translate the Bible into dying languages, but rather into languages that are not only alive; they are growing.

If you liked this, you might also like Dying Langauges or Ten Thousand.

Not my religion

MosqueA number of years ago, I helped at a workshop for translators working in a country where the dominant religion is not Christianity. One of the national translators told of becoming a Christian. He had believed all his life that to be patriotic he had to follow his country’s dominant religion. Everyone from his country followed that religion. So religion and national identity were fused. It took him a long time to realize that he could still be a faithful citizen of his country and become a Christian.

In 2012, I attended a conference on evangelism in Ghana. One of the speakers, told a story about William Ofori Atta, one of the founders of modern Ghana. He had traveled to a town in northern Ghana to help with evangelism. With a church member from that city, he was witnessing in the streets. He started talking to someone. The church member stopped him, saying: “Don’t talk to him, he’s a Dagomba”. The Dagomba are one of the larger people groups in Ghana. Almost all Dagomba follow a world religion other than Christianity. The church member, himself a Christian from the south of Ghana and not a Dagomba, considered it natural that the Dagomba people follow a different religion. The Dagomba man thought the same because after listening for a minute, he said: “As for me, I am Dagomba.” Many Dagomba think that being Dagomba means following a religion other than Christianity.

Sisaala chiefs

Sisaala chiefs

Many people in northern Ghana have woven themselves an identity in which language, ethnicity, culture and religion are part of the same cloth. Following a particular religion, speaking their mother tongue and following their ethnic customs are all part of an immutable identity. In their minds, religion is not a matter of personal conviction or choice any more than being born a member of their ethnic group is a personal choice. One particular religion is seen as part of their identity. They cannot imagine being authentic members of their ethnic group while following another religion.

Worse, some Christians from other ethnic groups believe the same, like the man who stopped William Ofori Atta from witnessing.

Local languages are not morphology and syntax, they are a people’s identity
– Prof B Y Quarshie

B Y Quarshie

B Y Quarshie

Before translation, decades of missions and evangelism in northern Ghana did not change these perceptions of identity and religion. Sometimes, the way evangelism is done aggravates the perceptions – such as when evangelism is done by members of an ethnic group that is mostly Christian and they do it in their language. Or missionaries do evangelism only in the language of one of the largely Christian ethnic groups in Ghana. So, how does one break down perceptions that Christianity is a religion for only some of the peoples of Ghana?

We are working with churches in northern Ghana on a program which has been shown to change those perceptions. The key elements are:

  • Using the heart language (mother tongue) of the people including the Bible in their language
  • Holding church services and evangelism in the heart language of the people
  • Organizing literacy classes for anyone, in their heart language

Research has shown that these methods are effective in breaking down perceptions that Christianity is a religion only for others. Language is also part of peoples’ identity. When a message or teaching is “at home” in their language, people no longer think that it is foreign, or only for others.

We are rolling out this program, including seeking funding for the first three years from Ghanaian Christians. Prayers appreciated!

Bad news

Since Dayle fell desperately ill on July 8, we have gone from one medical surprise to the next. Every few days, her illness and it’s treatment would take a new twist.

Most of those twists were not the kind we were hoping for. I am writing this three months into the saga, and the twists finally stopped, we think, two weeks ago. She is free of infections and her heart problem is not serious, it seems.

On the first week of this saga I was reading Psalm 112. Verse seven says of the righteous person that:

He is not afraid of bad news; his heart is firm, trusting in the LORD.
Psalm 112:7

It is not because the righteous person never gets bad news that he or she doesn’t fear it. Rather, the person who trusts in the Lord realizes that sometimes life will bring him or her bad news, yet he or she doesn’t fret, worry or obsess about the potential for bad news.

I understood this verse as a promise. If I kept my focus on trusting God, he would keep fear of bad news out of my head and heart. So far, he has.

Naval Blockade

This week is Banned Books Week which is an annual celebration of the freedom to read, first celebrated in 1982. I don’t like everything that everyone celebrates during banned books week, but I would like to celebrate a particular case.

Do you know what country mounted a military operation, including deploying its navy to prevent a book from being imported into the country? And do you know what book that might be?

Given the subject of this blog, you have probably guessed that the banned book was the Bible.

William Tyndale

William Tyndale

Years before the King James translation was commissioned, some wool merchants secretly sponsored an Oxford scholar named William Tyndale to do a translation of the Bible into English. But King Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey, the head of the church, banned the Bible in English. Not only that, they set up a network of spies to seek out translators, arrest them and burn them at the stake. So Tyndale fled to continental Europe where he completed his translation and had it printed. But King Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey heard of Tyndale’s translation and that he was planning to smuggle into England. Their reaction was dramatic. Here’s what Melvyn Bragg wrote about it in his book The Adventure of English:

It now seems quite extraordinary, but the whole country was put on alert. In order to prevent the word of God in English landing in the land of the English, naval ships patrolled the coastal waters, boats were stopped and searched, men were arrested and a great many Bibles were intercepted. The action taken was indistinguishable from being on a war footing and to Henry VIII and Wolsey it was just that. Latin was the only word of God allowed by the state and now the state came out in full armed force to defend its most loyal ally, the Church.

There are two competing ideas about religious truth. One is that it is known by experts who tell the rest of us what we should believe. That was the view of Henry VIII and Wolsey, one they were willing to defend to the extent of deploying the military. For them, the Bible should be in Latin and accessible only to the clergy who would interpret it for everyone else. Lamin Sanneh points out that this idea is found in some cultures:

In many traditional societies, religious language has tended to be confined to a small elite of professionals.

Ghanaian girls with Bibles in their languages

Ghanaian girls with Bibles in their languages

In contrast to this view, Tyndale held the view that God created every person with the ability to know what is true when they have the Word of God to consult and the Holy Spirit to guide them. Tyndale subscribed to that idea. To a member of the clergy critical that he was translating the Bible into English, he said:

If God spare my life, I will see to it that the boy who drives the plowshare knows more of the scripture than you, Sir!
Lammin Sanneh points out that Bible translation is the enemy of the “expert” approach to religious truth:

The Christian approach to translatability strikes at the heart of such gnostic tendencies, first by contending that the greatest and most profound religious truths are compatible with everyday language, and second, by targeting ordinary men and women as worthy bearers of the religious message.

Jesus said:

“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth.” (John 13:16)
“Make them holy by your truth; teach them your word, which is truth.” (John 17:17)

Ghanaian man reading the Bible in his language at a church service

Ghanaian man reading the Bible in his language at a church service

Today, few Christians subscribe openly to the idea that we should blindly follow religious experts. But sometimes our actions are not fully aligned with the idea every person can know the truth when they have the Word of God to consult and the Holy Spirit to guide them. I have seen missionaries and churches willing to put resources into propagating their doctrines but not into giving people the Word in their language. That approach is closer to Wolsey’s than it is to Tyndale’s. I have full confidence that making God’s Word widely accessible is good for Christian faith, the church, families and all of society. Research into the impact of Bibles in Ghanaian languages confirms this.

During banned books week, let’s celebrate Tyndale. Let’s also check the practices of our churches and missionary endeavors to make sure that they do not subtly elevate something else to the place where it eclipses the Bible.

Tyndale Bible

Tyndale Bible

Official languages

Official languages of African countries

Official languages of African countries

Most countries in Sub-Saharan (Africa south of the Sahara Desert) Africa have one official language. Furthermore, the official language of most of those countries is only spoken by a small percentage of its citizens, and only a few of those speak it as their heart language (mother tongue). In general, the official language is the language of the former colonial power. In former French colonies the official language is French; in former British colonies it is English; and in former Portuguese colonies it is Portuguese. Sometimes an African language is given official status in addition to the language of the former colonial power. So Sango is an official language of the Central African Republic alongside French. In most of those cases, the European language still dominates. Laws and regulations, for example, are generally distributed only in the European language in spite of the official status of the African language.

Since the 1960s, countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have spent all their educational resources to teach their citizens to speak, read and write their official languages. They are still far from accomplishing that goal. Let’s take Ghana as an example. English is the official language of Ghana. When you arrive at the Kotoka International Airport in Accra, you will be greeted by officials who speak English. You will find taxi drivers who speak English eager to give you a lift. If you go to a hotel, a restaurant or a store, you will find staff who speak English. You might get the impression that everyone speaks English. Understandable, but false nevertheless.

Bilingualism is a funny thing. A person can be very good in a second language in one area and not in another. For example, my Ghanaian car mechanic whose mother tongue is not English knows the names of car parts in English that I don’t know. That does not mean that he can talk about every topic in English with the same proficiency I have. It is mistake to have a satisfactory talk with hotel staff in English about hotel stuff and conclude that they can also carry on a conversation in English about politics, family life or religion with the same degree of fluency. It is possible to learn another language in a way that is deep yet narrow. People do it all the time. Then other people hear them talk fluently in that one area and conclude, wrongly, that they know English perfectly. When someone says: “Everyone speaks English”, I always take that with a grain of salt.

In Accra, Ghana’s capital, there is a proliferation of businesses that help Ghanaian high school and university graduates improve their English to get jobs or to prepare them for English proficiency tests some employers and universities require of Ghanaian applicants. If the secondary schools and universities were giving Ghanaians excellent English, these would have no reason to exist, much less abound.

Professor Gilbert Ansre is one of the leading authorities on languages in Ghana. As a linguist, he did research into the use of languages in Ghana. At an event a few months back, he said this about English in Ghana.

There is an erroneous belief that English is actually preponderantly used in Ghana. This is really true only of its enforced use in the educational system, on government and civic official functions such as now, in documentation and when the speaker is unable to use the commonly used language of the locality. Even the most highly educated Ghanaian prefers and frequently uses a Ghanaian language commonly shared.

The use and actual usefulness of English as a tool for wide spectrum National Development, especially at the “grass-roots” level is highly debatable to say the least.

Professor Ansre with his family

Professor Ansre with his family

He went on to say that:

… the quality of English as spoken and written in Ghana is drastically on the decline …

The official language of a country tells us in what language its laws are written and what language its elites master. The language(s) in which the people can grasp the Gospel, or even needed health information, might not be the same at all.

Countries have official languages. God’s people, the church and God’s Word should not.


When I talk to groups in the US about the accelerated pace of Bible translation, people often jump to the conclusion that the cause of the acceleration is technology. Technology has indeed increased the pace, but other things have increased the pace even more than technology.

One of them is clusters.

Translators from several languages in a cluster, praying during a training session.

Translators from several languages in a cluster, praying during a training session.

It used to be that the translation in every language was a stand-alone activity. A missionary-linguist moved into each language area and learned each language. Each one did research on the language to which they were assigned, trained local people and lead the translation effort. There was some cooperation between the translation efforts in different languages. It was often sporadic and informal in nature, depending on times when the missionary-translators would get together for another reason.

I’m not sure who discovered it, but a solution to a translation problem in one language can often be used in other languages. I saw it myself vividly. I was at a training course for national translators in Burkina Faso. They were all grappling with the same translation problem when one of the students – not one of the staff, mind you – came up with a solution they all could use. The solution had to do with how the passive voice is used in many of the languages. So the solution was not just for one verse, but for many of the of the times the passive voice is used in the Bible. That one solution could save days, weeks perhaps even months of work because the passive voice occurs many times.

Fabien Dapilla who leads two new clusters in Ghana

Fabien Dapilla who leads two new clusters in Ghana

From this kind of experience came the idea of clusters – doing translation with a group of languages together, all at once. It looked like that would make translation go faster and cost less. In many cases, it has. But it has done more. In projects staffed entirely by national translators in Congo, we found that clusters increased morale among the translators. Surprisingly, along with increasing morale, accountability was also increased. So we got speed increases, cost reductions, increased morale and increased accountability.

When we came to Ghana, we found that there were lots of opportunities to speed translation by starting clusters.

A word of caution. The clusters sometimes cost less in the long term and more in the short term. The cost of getting translators together on a regular basis meant that the budget for each translation for each year increased. However, the number of years needed decreased. So the cost per year went up, but the total cost for the translations went down. It is my experience that under-funded translation programs actually cost more, sometimes a lot more, in the long term even though they cost less in any given year.


I came to Africa with pretty well-formed ideas in my head about how my career in Bible translation would work out. It hasn’t been anything like that. And that’s a good thing. This story is about one of the people who caused my career to deviate from the path I had assumed, Marc Zalve.

Mark Zalve preparing a quality control

Mark Zalve preparing a quality control

I was overseeing translation work in a number of languages where missionary-translators were working. In one of them the missionary-translators had to return to their home country, stopping the translation in that language. A short time later I received an unannounced visit from church leaders from that language. They wanted to restart the translation. They proposed that Marc Zalve lead it in the place of missionaries. He was the Director of a Bible School and an ordained pastor.

I agreed to look into it. I had to find funding and convince others that this was a good idea. The first was easier than I thought and the later much more difficult. In the end, Marc Zalve lead the efforts to translate the Bible into his language. Since then, he has helped translators in ten other languages to produce accurate translations.

The fact that an African church was willing to let one of their key pastors leave an important role to work on translation showed me that they were serious about Bible translation. It was but one in a series of actions by churches and individual Africans that did not conform to my well-formed ideas about my career and Bible translation. It took a lot of such incidents to get me to question my ideas and even more to reshape them.

Frempong and Zalve

Frempong and Zalve

This all came back to me powerfully when I ran into Marc again at the Dedication of the Bible into Sisaala in Ghana in 2013. That translation was lead by a Ghanaian, Justin Frempong (on left in photo). Justin was the first Ghanaian to lead a translation associated with Wycliffe in Ghana. To that point, that had been the realm of missionaries. And there was Marc Zalve (on right in the photo), the first to lead a translation associated with Wycliffe in Burkina Faso. When I greeted Marc, he reminded me of the struggle we had together. Not a few opposed this new thing, and some of them had quite a bit of influence.

When I first came to Africa, I thought that I knew all my call to Bible translation. But God was not through unveiling it and I still had more to learn about it. My call shifted from doing translation myself to being involved in mobilizing Africans and their churches to do their own translations. A missionary call, I came to realize, is not a static thing, any more than our God is static or my relationship with him static.