Slow feedback loops

Feedback can change our behavior. If I put my fingers on something hot and burn them, I get immediate feedback in the form of pain; causing me to jerk my hand back. I remember not to touch that thing again! A fast and strong feedback loop causes behavior change.

A slow feedback loop is not as effective in motivating us. The danger of HIV/AIDS is that it can take years for the disease to have its first noticeable negative effects. The same is true of a poor diet. It takes information and discipline to make changes in our lives for things that have slow feedback loops. So we have to know the dangers of high blood pressure, for example, and take our blood pressure (information), then we have to have the discipline to change our diet and/or take medication to keep it under control.

Johan Christaller

Johan Christaller

Missions – the effort to make Jesus known everywhere – suffers from a similar problem. An evangelistic campaign with a big public meeting might result in many people accepting Christ. That is quick and positive feedback. Reporting those numbers will motivate Christians to give to the evangelist. But research shows that the number of those who continue in their faith can be quite low. That information is part of a slow feedback loop, so it tends to have less impact on Christians who are deciding where to send their mission dollars. Like slow feedback in health issues, for slow feedback in missions to affect how Christians give to missions, there is a need for information and discipline.

German missionaries first translated the Bible into languages of Ghana. Johan Christaller’s translation of the Bible into the Twi language was published in 1871. Translations of into other languages in the south and central parts of Ghana were completed in the early 20th century. Over the next 100 years, many Ghanaians became Christians through the use of those translations.  Large and solid churches were established. 100 years is a really slow feedback loop. The organization Dayle and I are on loan to, GILLBT, published its first New Testament in a language of Ghana much later – in 1976. It published Scripture in a number languages over the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Around 2000, some Ghanaians started studying the impact these translations were having. The results are quite remarkable. I have blogged about them and spoken in churches about them, so I won’t repeat them here.

Think about the slowness of that feedback loop.

Year translation
work started
Year translation
was published
Year the research
was done
1962 1976 1998
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

The research to show the effectiveness of the translation appeared 36 years after the translation started. The translators must have worked in faith that the translation would have an impact. They probably had some stories of impact the translation was having on some people, but they could not know if the effort was going to effective until it was done. In fact, not until years after that! (We are hoping to speed that loop up in the future, but it will still be relatively slow.) A friend of mine who has done quite a bit of research on the impact of Bible translations in Africa says that the biggest impact of translations start about 10 years after they are published.

But the feedback loop is even slower than that. The translation done in 1976 continues to have impact even after the research about its impact was completed in 1998. We know that from anecdotal information. But we don’t know when that impact will be formally evaluated again. It is probable that the feedback loop on many translations will be so long that those who did the translation and all who supported it through prayer and finances will have left this world before all the feedback is known, if it ever is.

Any mission work that has sustained impact over decades will have a very long and slow feedback loop.

I am working on a project with a church in northern Ghana that builds the methods proven effective in the long-term to reach out to the two least evangelized peoples of Ghana with a total population approaching 1.5 million. That really makes me excited, even though we may not see significant results for another 3-5 years.

Hypothetical missions programs, both with fast feedback loops

Hypothetical missions programs, both with fast feedback loops

Some people may give to missions and Christian ministries when there is a dramatic and quick feedback loop, but not much otherwise. That kind of giving is good for emergencies and disasters, but it doesn’t work well to produce sustained impact. For that, regular and well-targeted giving is better.


Gaining weight while in debt

Gaining weight blurbNot long ago, a Ghanaian friend posted this on his Facebook.

In Africa, people who gain weight are respected. It is a sign of affluence. Only people with means can eat well enough and relax enough to gain weight. If I come back from the US having gained some pounds, Ghanaians will congratulate my friends and family for treating me well, and they will tell me that I look healthy. So if someone owes another person money, does not pay it back and gains weight, that person is spending on himself the money he should be paying back. He is disrespecting the person to whom he owes the money. So “Gaining weight while you OWE me MONEY is a sign of disrespect…”

Culture is not just the outward stuff – what people eat, the kind of houses they live in, and so on. It is the ideas that shape how they perceive actions, such as gaining weight or losing weight. One can’t interpret correctly what people of another culture say without understanding their underlying perceptions.

A Ghanaian friend of ours makes cartoons with Christian messages. They show how common behaviors in Ghana are in contradiction with what the Bible teaches. Here is one of his cartoons which tackles men who ogle beautiful women. One look a the cartoon will tell you what characteristic is considered beautiful in Ghana. The point is, if you made this cartoon with a woman beautiful by Western standards, it would not be effective. Communication which does not take culture into account will fail.






Untranslatable words, not really

From time to time, lists of supposedly untranslatable words appear on the Internet. They consist of a list of words from various languages with their meaning in English. (How did they do that if they are not translatable!?) Here’s an example.

Hawaiian: Pana Poʻo:
You know when you forget where you’ve put the keys, and you scratch your head because it somehow seems to help your remember? This is the word for it. (credit:


In reality, these words are phrases and not untranslatable. They are simply complex and require unpacking. “Tree hugger” is an example of a set of complex ideas rolled up into a small phrase. Merriam-Webster defines it as:

someone who is regarded as foolish or annoying because of being too concerned about protecting trees, animals, and other parts of the natural world from pollution and other threats

A language is a reflection of the thoughts and ideas in a culture. So when a culture has a complicated idea shared by all those in the culture, that complicated idea often gets expressed as one word or a short phrase. German’s like to feel connected to nature. They like walks in the woods. So, it is not surprising that they have a word – Waldeinsamkeit – which means

a feeling of solitude, of being alone in the woods and connected to nature. (credit

The idea is complex, but because it is important to them, they roll it all up into one word. Another culture and its language can understand that complicated idea, even if they do not have one word for it. It might take some hard work on the part of the translator and it might even require a footnote, a glossary entry or even a drawing, but it can be translated.

The authors of the books of the Bible had complex ideas in their heads. Some of those came from their culture and some were God’s revelation to them. Those complex ideas sometimes got put into one word or a short phrase. Jesus’ use of the phrase “kingdom of God” is a great example. Talk about packing a lot of meaning into a little phrase! The thing is, the people listening to Jesus had those complex ideas in their heads already, just Americans have the complex concept of “tree hugger” in their heads, and Hawaiians immediately understand all the complexity of “Pana Po’o” and Germans automatically unpack all the ideas in “Waldeinsamkeit”.

So good translators will put a glossary in their translation where readers get an explanation of the complex ideas behind some words and phrases. In English, we also have Bible dictionaries. Some translations try to deal with the complexity directly. Here is Matthew 6:33 in the ESV and the CEV. You can see how the CEV attempted to unpack the complex meanings of “Kingdom of God”  and “righteousness”.

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (ESV)
But more than anything else, put God’s work first and do what he wants. Then the other things will be yours as well. (CEV)

Lendu translatorsSo, use the glossary in your Bible, consult a translation like the CEV, buy a Bible dictionary or consult one online. Also, pray for Bible translators as they grapple with complex meanings, including preparing glossaries. By the way, in working with churches in Ghana we find that they want Study Bibles in some languages. We are excited to see that.

Just for fun, here are links to articles about supposedly untranslatable words.

Untranslatable words from other cultures

12 Untranslatable words – and their translations

Multiethnic churches are the norm

Over 60 languages are spoken in Ghana. That means more than just 60 languages. It means that many different people groups, each with their own ethnic identity and religious beliefs. You might imagine that each of those people groups lived in its own area with nice, discrete boundaries. The reality is much more complex.

Selling Scripture in 13 different languages at a church annual meeting in Indonesia (Photo: David Moore)

Selling Scripture in 13 different languages at a church annual meeting in Indonesia (Photo: David Moore)

People groups often overlap, at least near the borders of each group. Many people from nearby areas, or even far away, move into small towns, creating a rich tapestry of ethnic identities. On Sundays, churches deal with believers from multiple languages and with multiple traditional beliefs. The idea that each language group has its own area where people worship in their own language is still accurate in some places, but its is fast becoming the exception.

In the photo, taken at a church conference in Indonesia, the Scriptures are for sale in 13 different languages, which probably does not cover all the languages of the Christians at the conference. In Africa, the meetings at such conference is conducted in a national or regional language. Delegates are chosen who speak that language.

Singing hymns in two Ghanaian languages as the same time. This was at a business meeting conducted in English.

Singing hymns in two Ghanaian languages as the same time. This was at a business meeting conducted in English.

Figuring out how to be one, unified church while making sure that everyone hears the message in a language they fully understand is a challenge. There are many approaches, such as having more than one service each in a different language, then once a month having a unified service in a regional or national language. Some churches conduct services in two languages. But translating everything is time consuming plus it is difficult for listeners to stay focused when every other sentence is in a language they don’t understand. Others have church services in a regional or national language, and home Bible studies in local languages. There are no easy answers. But some ignore the issue altogether and do everything in a regional or official language. But that leaves those most disadvantaged in that language to fend for themselves. It is hard to imagine how a person can become a thriving Christian while understanding only a fraction of the Bible and the teaching and preaching in church.

Engaging the church in Africa in dialog about its multilingual environment is an important part of seeing that Bible translation in African languages are used to their full potential. Bringing new Christians still steeped in their traditional religion into a full understanding of their faith and into joyful walk with Christ is a stiff challenge if the language of the church leaves them out. Effectively addressing the complex linguistic situation facing the church is crucial to a healthy future for the church in Africa, one of the world’s largest.

That is why one of our strategic goals is that “use of the translations in the mother tongue will be sustained and growing”. To that end, I am one of a small team working to organize a conference of church leaders in November which will raise awareness of this issue and try to find ways to address it.

No electric meters

In January 2003, I spend a week in the Congolese town of Ariwara helping at an event to help Christians better use the Bibles in their languages. The town had electricity in the evenings but few houses had electric meters. So billing was based on the number of light bulbs in the house – the equivalent in local currency of $2.25 per bulb per month. I was reminded of that because many Ghanaians call electricity “light”, as in “there is no light”, probably because for many people of modest means, light is the principle use of electricity.

Here are some photos of the event in Ariwara, which unexpectedly garnered almost 700 participants.

From 60 to who knows

Ed in Cameroon with Daniel Ngwanou

Ed in Cameroon with Daniel Ngwanou

In the late 1990s my responsibilities included finding ways to increase the number of translation projects in Africa lead by Africans that were linked to Wycliffe. At a time when hundreds were lead by Western missionaries, I found 60 lead by Africans. That was better than the dozen or so of only a few years earlier.

Recently, I came across a document I had written at that time. In it, I had written my personal goal of seeing that number go from 60 to 120 in four years.

Sylvester Nkrumah (Ghana) and Uche Aaron (Nigeria), part of the first wave of national translators in Wycliffe's work in Africa

Sylvester Nkrumah (Ghana) and Uche Aaron (Nigeria), part of the first wave of national translators in Wycliffe’s work in Africa

I am pretty sure that goal was met, although I don’t have data to prove it. The increase was probably only attributable to me in very small part. When I saw that old document, what struck me as more important is that the goal now looks silly. Today, it is the norm that programs to translate the Bible are lead by Africans. Programs started years ago by Western missionaries are winding down and a few new ones are starting here and there. They are the exceptions.

We thought that having more Africans doing Bible translation was something that needed to be promoted. In a way it did. But mostly so that our ways of working would accommodate it. Hindsight allows us to see that it was going to happen anyway. God was making it happen.

I used to be concerned with finding God’s will for me. I now understand that includes getting behind a trend in which I see God’s hand and running with it. At a minimum, I don’t not want to buck a trend only to find later that it was God’s doing. But what I really want is to set unnecessary goals because God is going to accomplish them anyway. By setting the goals, I’m not making them happen, I’m just showing my alignment with God’s actions.

An outstanding example for Bible translators

Cornelius Van Dyck_2On this day (August 13) in 1818, Cornelius Van Dyck was born in Kinderhook, NY. As a young man, he dreamt of being a medical missionary; a dream he realized after his studies at Jefferson Medical College. He went to Syria under the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.

While he was a doctor, what distinguished his service as a missionary was not his excellence as a doctor, but rather his love for the people of Syria. That love lead him to become an expert in their language and culture. He took time to undertake studies of Syrian language and culture from renowned Syrian experts. He put this knowledge to use in many ways, including doing a translation of the Bible in Arabic based on a translation started by Eli Smith. It is still one of the most popular translations in Syria today.

His love for Syria and its people lead him to write medical textbooks in Arabic in internal medicine, physical diagnosis. But his work went well beyond that. He also wrote textbooks in subjects as diverse as geography, navigation, and mathematics. They were used in Syrian schools for many years. All this time, he kept up his medical work and studied theology. From the start, he had started new churches and done mission work. These activities eventually came to take most of his time and efforts. He even founded a school for training ministers of the Gospel.

His accomplishments are such that he appears prominently in a publication about graduates of the Jefferson Medical College who have had an impact around the world.

But Van Dyck was not just an academic. He really loved people. So much so, that 50 years after his arrival in Syria, people threw a big party to commemorate his coming. People from many religious persuasions came from all over Syria to attend the event.

His obituary in the New York Times reads:

News has been received in this city of the sudden death in Beyrout, Syria, of the Rev. Dr. Cornelius Van Allen Van Dyke, who was known throughout the civilized world as the translator of the Bible into Arabic. His death was due to old age and an organic trouble with which he had suffered for many years

The way Van Dyck combined love for, and desire to understand, those to whom he was ministering is a good reminder, especially in these days when some promote a confrontational approach to mission work and other religions. Just consider the years of hard work he put into medical school and then the in-depth study of Arabic and Syrian culture. His love was played out in a life of putting hard work into understanding them. His academic accomplishments were not done for personal academic reward, but in order to pour himself into peoples’ lives. He is an excellent model for Bible translators and missionaries even today, even for those of us who are far from matching his intellect.

A Tsetse Proverb

Africans tend to see proverbs as part of their cultural heritage. They use them every day, although the use of proverbs is going down among urban young people. Even those who don’t know a lot of proverbs, perhaps because they moved out of their language area when they were young, enjoy learning them. I have a book of the proverbs of the Bafut people of Cameroon. Some are interesting and some are very obscure. Because I don’t know the culture I don’t get them, even with an explanation.

Tsetse fly

Tsetse fly

Proverbs are often based on the characteristics or behavior of common things. The English proverb, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”, is an example of a proverb based on a common thing. The tsetse fly is the large, biting fly found in many parts of Africa including Ghana. Because it is common, it is a good candidate for a proverb. The tsetse flyreminds me of the horsefly. But it is dangerous because it carries the parasite that causes sleeping sickness which is fatal if not treated. The Nkonya people of Ghana have a proverb about the tsetse fly.

Obugya tamakpa wʋlʋ nwuntɔ
Translation: Blood does not leave the head of the Tsetse fly (Or there will always be blood in the head of a tsetse fly)

The logic behind this proverb goes like this:

  • The tsetse fly bites and sucks blood from its victim (animal or human)
  • So, it will always have some amount of blood in its head
  • So, an evil person will always have some evil in them, no matter how reformed they look

People use this proverb to buttress their position that a person is still bad even though they appear to be cleaning up their act. The equivalent proverb in English is:

A leopard cannot change its spots

Of course, by God’s power we can change and we see cases where people do indeed change.

I find it interesting that the Apostle Paul knew the proverbs of his day and quoted them. When writing about people who came to the Lord, then turned their backs on him, he quoted a common proverbs of his day:

“Even after they knew what was right, they turned their backs on the holy commandments that they were given.
What happened to them is just like the true saying,
A dog will come back
to lick up its own vomit.
A pig that has been washed
will roll in the mud.”
(II Peter 2:22 CEV)

Translating the Bible into a language for the first time is not just a matter of words. It involves understanding key ideas, including proverbs, so that the translation benefits from insights into all the concepts that the culture and language offer.

Thanks to Wes Peacock for the Nkonya proverb and its interpretation.

What speeds up translation?

Translators correct translation on computerWhen I am in the US, people often ask how much technology is speeding up Bible translation. I don’t know of any formal assessment, but I have seen translations done before computers and now with them. My own personal estimate is that the computer shaves 1-2 years off a translation project. Furthermore, the time is saves was mostly spent doing tedious and uncreative tasks like checking spelling and consistency.

Bible translation for minority peoples is progressing at 2-3 times the pace it was two decades ago. What is producing that increased pace? Well, technology accounts for a small part of the increase. But the biggest increase is coming from elsewhere.

In an article entitled “The Vernacular Treasure” in The International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Dr. Harriet Hill of the American Bible Society says this about the increased speed.

Translation organizations are working more intentionally with partners, recruiting and training translators from all nations of the world, and working with clusters of related languages rather than with one language at a time.

So, she sees three changes that are increasing the pace of Bible translation.

  • working more intentionally with partners
  • recruiting and training translators from all nations of the world
  • working with clusters of related languages

Michael Serchie, Gilbert Ansre and EdI concur with her assessment that these are real causes for the increased pace. Technology is important. But it is the human connections (working intentionally with partners) and the building up of God’s people (training translators from all nations) that reflect God’s kingdom. We should not be surprised, therefore, that increases in the pace of translation come mostly from doing those things.

That is why our goals and activities, are built around partnering in a new way with the churches in Ghana and training their people to accelerate the translation of the Bible for all the peoples of Ghana and beyond.

Three older two younger

I had just met a Burkinabé man named Samuel who was visiting friends in our home town. As we chatted, I asked him if he had brothers and sisters. His response:

Three older and two younger

Jan Swanson, Dayle and Samuel

Jan Swanson, Dayle and Samuel

Have you ever had anyone answer that question in that manner? When I ask that question of a fellow American, I expect to get a number, and possibly the number of brothers and the number of sisters. I have had people ask where I came in the birth order with my two brothers and two sisters, but that comes after the number of brothers and the number of sisters, not before.

There is a very good reason why Samuel answered the question the way he did. In his culture, the relative age (older or younger) of one’s siblings is very important. In fact, it is more important than whether they are brothers or sisters. There is a very clear pecking order due to the hierarchy that is a strong part of his culture.

We assume that certain realities, such as family, are universal. In the broadest sense, they are. But the differences in specifics can lead to misunderstanding. Ask many adult, married Africans about “their family” and they might tell you about their parents and their siblings, not their spouse and their children. So even the primary content of the word “family” changes from culture to culture.

When I hear American preachers on the radio on Africa expounding what the Bible says about the family, I have to wonder what is being miscommunicated. Jesus crossed a great gap to come and live with us, be one of us, speak the language of the people, live inside the culture of his day. So we need to do the same, including wrapping our heads around the answer:

Three older and two younger