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

Isiro-Wamba

There are two airstrips in Wamba, but in 2007 neither had been maintained. I had to meet with church leaders to get their input. That meant traveling the 66 miles by road, well, sort-of road. The forest and its rains had taken advantage of years of civil war and resultant neglect to almost reclaimed the space once occupied by the road. What had once been a pretty good improved dirt road was now a rutted, rocky, muddy and lumpy track.

One of the best parts of the road

One of the best parts of the road

We did not have a vehicle. A local development agency would rent us a solid Land Rover with driver. Scarcity had driven up fuel prices. So it was going to cost me over $500 to rent the vehicle for two days and 132 miles. It would have been cheaper and faster to fly.

As soon as we hit the outskirts of Isiro we ran into eroded slopes and muddy holes. We crawled along. Three hours into the trip we had not yet covered 20 miles.

Repairing vehicle on the road 02Fortunately the road got better and soon we were zipping along at 20 even 25 miles an hour, slowing for holes, ruts and large pools of water hiding under huge bamboo stands hanging over the road. I put a lot of physical and mental energy into steadying myself against the unpredictable movements of the vehicle. A noise from the engine brought us to a halt.

This is where the Congolese practice of hiring a mechanic as a driver proves its wisdom. He was able to get us going but there was still a noise. He would make full repairs in Wamba.

Church by road 01We stopped to visit a little church in a small hamlet. Probably a missionary had never preached here. Certainly one had never lived here. Like most churches in Africa, it had been started by African believers. It was a reminder that African believers have taken their faith to the most remote places where they worship the Highest One in very humble surroundings.

We spent six hours in roll, pitch and weave before we reached Wamba.

The plan was to meet with the church leaders for 4-5 hours the next morning then drive back to Isiro in the afternoon. But after the morning meeting, we found that our faithful driver-mechanic had the noise-producing parts of the motor taken apart. Better to wait and get it fixed. The driver got the vehicle back together at about 6 PM and after an hour of testing declared it repaired. I had to catch a MAF [www.maf.org] flight out Isiro at noon the next day, so we set off to make the journey at night.

Road at night 11The bad news? It is impossible to sleep in a vehicle that is being tossed and rolled in unpredictable ways. The good news? The road was so bad that we could go just as fast (meaning slow) at night as during the day.

Whenever I got in a small airplane with a missionary pilot in Congo, I remembered that road trip to Wamba and I thought about the days I would be spending, the back I would be wearing out, and the extra money I would be spending if this plane and pilot were not provided. In fact, translating the Bible would cost more and go slower without those planes. Thank you to all those who support the MAF, JAARS and other pilots and mechanics and those who give toward the purchase of the airplanes. I love the impact you have including the fact that I suffer a lot less impacts.

Words all have a meaning, right?

Words are interesting things. We take it for granted that each one has a meaning, but anyone can see that is not the case. Open a dictionary, and you will see that most words have multiple meanings. We use this fact to create humor, as in the following piece of advice: “Never trust an atom. They make up everything.” Or the boy in Sunday School listening to the story of Lot fleeing from Sodom and Gomorrah. Upon hearing that Lot’s wife looked back and turned into a pillar of salt, he said to the teacher: “That’s nothing. My mom looked back while driving the car and she turned into a telephone pole!”

When I first saw the following chart, I loved it. It shows that some English words have a crazy number of meanings.

Words with Multiple Meanings
In spite of how weird this seems, it is actually not weird at all. All languages do it. It is normal, in fact. But there’s a twist. There is no language in the world that has a word with the same 179 meanings as does the English word “run”, or the same 127 as “take”, and so on. That makes translation more of an art than a science. This crazy state of affairs does not seem to bother God who created all languages in all their weirdness – oops, I meant wonderfulness.

Of, by and for the people

President Lincoln stood at Gettyburg and delivered one of the most quoted speeches in history. We especially remember his phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. But did you know that most of those who heard Lincoln’s speech would have recognized that this phrase came from someone else? Lincoln was quoting the prologue to John Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible into English – the very first such translation. The exact words were: “This Bible is for the government of the people, for the people and by the people.” They were penned almost 500 years before Lincoln delivered his timeless address at Gettysburg!

Friend and colleague Arthur Lightbody playing John Wycliffe

Friend and colleague Arthur Lightbody playing John Wycliffe

Wycliffe was an odd bird for his time. He believed in the centrality of the Bible when most theologians and people believed in the centrality of the organized church. He was considered a trouble-maker for teaching that ordinary people should read the scriptures and come to their own conclusions, rather than relying on priests and experts to interpret the Bible for them. Because the Bible was only available in Latin at the time, that teaching was pretty meaningless. So he organized the very first translation of the Bible into English. At the time, the translation of the Bible into the language of everyday speech was not just a religious activity. It was a profoundly political one. (One of many historical facts that undermines the very recent notion that religion is something people should live out privately.)

Wycliffe reading his translation

Wycliffe reading his translation

Wycliffe not only knew this, he promoted it. In his mind, having the Bible in the language of the people had profound implications for politics, religion, education and even business. At the time, most believed that affairs of the state were the domain of the King and everyone believed what he believed and did what he said. The same was true of religion. There was only one variety of church in your village, town or city, all teaching the same thing. Everyone was expected to follow that teaching. No thinking for yourself! Wycliffe proposed a revolution: first, people would make up their own mind about what to believe based on their own reading of the Bible. Second, that would flow over into government and politics where people would demand the same right. After all, if people were allowed to make up their minds about the most important truth – that about God – on what basis could they be denied their own opinion about lesser matters, including those of politics and government!?

The thing is, Wycliffe’s “crazy” idea proved right. In his book “Wide as the Waters The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired”, Benson Bobrick traces the political revolution that accompanied the first translations of the Bible into English. He notes that:

The development of the vernacular marked the origin of a culture belonging to the masses, which increasingly reached toward popular and democratic institutions (pg 280)

Nawuri Chief: "We have now been counted among the people of God!"

Nawuri Chief: “We have now been counted among the people of God!”

Today, we see similar things happening in Ghana. In language areas where there is now a translation of the Bible, local people are starting to reconsider and overthrow traditional practices they find harmful. Research shows that the impact of the translations is not limited to spiritual and religious matters. Women have a greater voice in their families and communities, people are more willing to start new small businesses, more children are enrolled in school, people quote the Bible in political meetings to argue for peace instead of conflict.

Ghanaian woman learns to read and write her language

Ghanaian woman learns to read and write her language

One of the reasons we translate the Bible is to give people freedom – a situation where they take control of what they believe and what they follow, so that what happens in their nations, communities, families and churches is “of them, by them, and for them”.

PS: Sorry to those of you who recognized similar thoughts to those I wrote last year on a similar theme.

Sisaala Bible Dedication

The dedication of the Bible into the Sisaala language was quite an event. Hundreds attended. The Sisaala are only 10% Christian and only 1% Evangelical – both up from 0% not that long ago. Many still follow their traditional religion. So it was significant that many attended. It means that many are open to the message of the Gospel even if they have not made the decision to believe.

Only about 600 of the world’s 7000 languages have the Bible. So Sisaala joins a rather exclusive club. (Many more languages have the New Testament.)

In people groups like the Sisaala, it is likely that the Old Testament will have as much impact as the New Testament, or even more, because the culture of the Sisaala and that in the Old Testament are so similar. Also, they ask similar questions and have similar problems to the ancient Hebrews.

Enjoy the Photos. I’ll post more details later. Hover over a photo to enlarge it and see a description. Click on a photo to enlarge it and start a slide show.

Translation by asking around

Tembo boy reading Luke in his language

Tembo boy reading Luke in his language

Martin Luther, the German reformer who first translated the Bible into German, wrote that to translate well, the translator should go out into the streets and “look into the mouths of women and children”. He meant that the translator must find ways of saying things that are the usual way people speak – not a complicated or sophisticated way, or one full of theological jargon. This tradition is still at work. After the translators in Africa understand the Bible passage to be translated, they make a draft translation. That draft is then taken out into the community and read to people so see if they understand. Before that, translators flag things that are difficult to translate. What is the best way to say “mighty tempest” in Jonah 1:4, or that God is “gracious” in Jonah 4:2? In cases such as this, translators might find several alternative phrases or words and discuss them with people.  So, translators today are following Luther’s method of looking “into the mouths of women and children”.

Nawuri translation volunteer

Nawuri translation volunteer

Some people have a particular knack for this kind of thing. One was this man who volunteered many hours on the translation into the Nawuri language of Ghana. The translators told me that his suggestions were invaluable. Pray that every translation will have several such people among the translators and volunteers. In other cases, there is nothing like an object lesson. Here in Ghana, translators butchered a goat to get all the internal organs right when translating parts of the Old Testament that deal with sacrifice.

Remember, African translators are producing the first ever translations into their languages. There is no history of words to use for Bible concepts. Actually, sometimes its worse than that. People may have started using inaccurate words or phrases. When we were in Congo, we discovered that the word people were using for adultery only applied to women!

That kind of thing can only be discovered and corrected by a translation method that includes a heavy dose of asking around.

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