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.

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.

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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Big payout coming

Kenneth Lee Pike

Kenneth Lee Pike

Today (June 9) in 1912, Kenneth Lee Pike was born. He wanted to be a missionary to China, was rejected, and ended up with William Cameron Townsend who would found Wycliffe Bible Translators. He did a translation of the New Testament for the Mixtec people of Mexico. While doing that, he became a renowned scholar at the University of Michigan. He wrote numerous books and articles, was a member of  the Linguistic Society of America (LSA), the Linguistic Association of Canada and the United States (LACUS), and the American Anthropological Association. He served as president of LSA and LACUS. He was named to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, and nominated for the Nobel Prize many times. He won the Templeton Prize three times.

Tone Langauges bookBut those are not his greatest achievements, if you ask me. Those who went to Mexico with Townsend encountered languages which they found difficult, impossible really, to write. Linguists had not yet studied or described the systems of tone, for example, which are common there. Pike applied his brilliant mind to the issues, and found a way forward. Today, many Mexicans read the Bible in their languages without difficulty because of the work of Pike. The thing is, they probably never heard of him. They don’t know who gave them the gift of being able to accurately write and fluently read their languages.

And Pike’s work would never get a rousing or tearful response from a church, certainly not the way the result of a successful evangelistic effort might – with thousands saved. (Hundreds of thousands may have read the translations Pike assisted.) Pike’s contribution was crucial, and it came at the right time, but it is largely unknown outside Wycliffe and academic circles.

 “Watch out! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven. When you give to someone in need, don’t do as the hypocrites do—blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity! I tell you the truth, they have received all the reward they will ever get. But when you give to someone in need, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you. (Matthew 6:1-5 NLT)

Mixtec mapPike has huge rewards waiting for him from the Right Person at The Big Event. Today, hundreds of African Christians translate into their languages and devote themselves to helping their fellow Christians learn how to read. They are mostly unknown except in their own small communities, often underpaid and sometimes work in dangerous places, like the Tembo team we worked with in Congo, or  like the two translators killed by extremists in Nigeria and the CAR, in recent weeks. There’s a lesson here for all of us, especially in this world of celebrity philanthropy and donations posted on Facebook . Who, I wonder, has already “received all the reward they will ever get”, and who still has a big payout coming? A lot of people we have never heard of. Pike is one. May you be one too.

Phonetics book

The Party Line

Some time ago, I listened to someone in missions aviation tell the story of the introduction of the first helicopter. At the time, the party line was that helicopters were too expensive to operate, and so were unsuitable for missions aviation. He then told an amazing story of the need for an aircraft to go into a place where it was not possible to build an airstrip and God’s amazing provision of a helicopter well under market price. And so that particular party line about helicopters faded into history.

Ed with Congolese translators he was consulting

Ed with Congolese translators he was consulting

The party line is an interesting concept. People in organizations, especially political organizations, are expected to “toe the party line”– to say in public only things that follow the party line – the organizations policy or mission.

I have been there.

I was living in Burkina Faso doing Bible translation under the model where each person raises support for their ministry. The Wycliffe website says:

Wycliffe missionaries do not receive a guaranteed salary from our organization. Instead, they rely on God to provide through the gifts of interested individuals and churches

Because of this model, we had very little money for anything but the ministry of each missionary. At the same time, young people from Burkina Faso were coming to me saying that they felt God calling them to ministry. They wondered if their might be a place for them in Bible translation. They were mostly university students engaged in their churches and campus ministry. I told them the party line which went like this:

It is great that you want to serve our Lord. But we don’t have any way to involve you in what we are doing because of our financial structure.

It was more elaborate and polite than that, but you get the idea. I would also pray with them and send them on their way. I had come to Africa with a call to do Bible translation. My call, or rather my understanding of my call, did not include finding ways for Africans to be involved. No, I was going to do the translation myself.

Meanwhile, more and more young, educated Burkina Faso Christians kept coming to talk to me. Their stories became more and more compelling. Worse (or better!), the call of God on their lives was evident. One day, one came with an incredible story. You can listen to it here.

Samy Tioye and Ed

Samy Tioye and Ed

After hearing his story, I knew that I could not give him the party line. I could not say to someone with such a clear call of God for Bible translation on his life that I could not be involved with helping him move that forward. I came to the conclusion that party line had become out of step with what God was doing. Today that has changed, but changing it required some doing.

Having a party line for a ministry is actually a good idea. It gives direction and helps keep us focused. The thing is, we have to always pay attention to our circumstances because God might be using them to shift our party line, even one that is longstanding and justifiable. The Bible is full of stories of God changing the party line, including when he did that with the Apostle Peter. The trick is to be less thickheaded than I was. God had to put me in front of the same situation many times before I recognized it as His doing.

If you liked this, you might also like Why Nationals, Nessiel Nodjibogoto, or Undeserved.

The first Wycliffe translators from Madagascar in our home in Nairobi

The first Wycliffe translators from Madagascar in our home in Nairobi

Ansre

Michael Serchie, Gilbert Ansre and Ed

Michael Serchie, Gilbert Ansre and Ed

One of my great joys in Ghana is working with Gilbert Ansre (pronounced like haunts-ray without the h). I had heard about him years ago when we worked in Burkina Faso. Now he is one of those people who are supposedly retired, but is always involved in something. And so we persuaded him to lend a hand in developing a plan to finish translations in all the languages of Ghana.

He is over-qualified. His past includes:

  • Setting up and heading the first department of linguistics at the University of Ghana
  • Being an ordained minister in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Ghana, for more than 50 years
  • Working on the translation of the Bible into 13 languages in West Africa, including his own language, Ewe (pronounced eh-vay)

There are few people who can bring high level theological and linguistic expertise to the task of Bible translation. Ansre is one of those. Missionary translators often work in remote areas. Their sacrifices for marginalized peoples are laudable. But their focus on remote areas can also cause them to overlook nationals who might champion their work or even contribute to it, such as Gilbert Ansre.

In a way, there are two Africas:

  • A rural one which can be difficult to access because of poor roads, suffering from poor schools and other problems
  • An urban one where political power resides and where most educated people live.
Prof Ansre speaking

Prof Ansre speaking

An idea has emerged in planning to finish the translations in Ghana which I had not expected – join those two worlds together. It turns out that they have a lot to offer each other. The urban environment has expertise, such as Gilbert Ansre, that the rural one needs. But the rural people have important things to offer too. For example, when they read the Bible in their own languages, they develop truly African theologies. By that, I mean theologies that answer their most burning questions. For example, tribal conflict is a problem in some parts of Africa. But Western commentaries and theologies rarely deal with it and never at any length, even though the Old Testament is full of tribal conflict. It turns out that rural African Christians seek answers in the Bible that can enhance the teaching of theology in the urban seminaries. In fact, Gilbert Ansre teaches two such courses.

By linking the urban and the rural worlds, we can enrich both and provide a platform for sustaining the use and impact of Bible translation in African languages, all while driving theology where it needs to go – into answering the questions rural and urban Africans really have today.

Undeserved

John Daboney

John Daboney

This is John Daboney, a Ghanaian from the Nawuri language. He is holding his copy of the Nawuri New Testament at its dedication on November 23.

John was the main reviewer for the translation of the New Testament into the Nawuri language. As a  reviewer he was an unpaid volunteer and John is retired. In Ghana, that means that he has a very modest income. He lost his wife a year ago. She had a job that brought in most of their income. But rather than go out and find work or do some farming, John kept devoting all his time to review the Nawuri translation. He put in thousands of volunteer hours pouring over each verse to check that it was clearly and accurately translated. In April 2012, I stopped briefly in Kpandai, where the translation office is located. The translators told me that John’s suggestions were many and invaluable. He saw things that were not clear and had a knack for knowing how to say things more clearly and accurately. Some people just have a gift for their language. They are invaluable in the translation process.

Nawuri translation team including volunteers

Nawuri translation team including volunteers

John has a problem with his eyes for which he underwent an operation two years ago. He needed more treatment but he postponed it because of time and lack of money. For him, the translation was higher priority.

Missionaries who travel to difficult places get recognized. Books are written about some of them. But across the world and across the centuries, tens of thousands of local people play crucial roles in the missionary endeavor. They contribute with little or no pay. Sometimes, they are persecuted. I met another Ghanaian whose father was the first pastor from one of the language communities in northern Ghana. His childhood memories include that most people were against is father, considering him a traitor for leaving the traditional religion. The believed that he endangered everyone because the spirits and deities would certainly retaliate for being abandoned and everyone would suffer. But his father showed immense faith and perseverance. Now Christianity is widely accepted.

No missionary biography will be written about that pastor nor about John Daboney. When I see their contribution I think of these verses in Hebrews:

Many of these people were tortured, but they refused to be released. They were sure that they would get a better reward when the dead are raised to life. Others were made fun of and beaten with whips, and some were chained in jail. Still others were stoned to death or sawed in two or killed with swords. Some had nothing but sheep skins or goat skins to wear. They were poor, mistreated, and tortured. The world did not deserve these good people, who had to wander in deserts and on mountains and had to live in caves and holes in the ground. (Heb 11: 35-38, CEV, emphasis mine)

At the dedication of the Nawuri New Testament in November

At the dedication of the Nawuri New Testament in November

John Daboney and many others like him really are better than the world deserves, better even than we missionaries deserve. In mid February, John passed away suddenly; barely three months after the dedication of the translation to which he was so dedicated. In Ghana and in many other places more like him continue to work on the translations in their languages. Pray that God would meet their needs and that He would encourage them. But most of all, thank him for calling them and filling them with unselfish faith.

If you liked this, you might also like Counted, Not just anyone can translate, or Why nationals.

Don’t forget the heroes

A few months ago I was intrigued by the following news article.

Jewish and historical groups in Poland have called for a special day be put in the Polish calendar to remember the thousands of Poles who aided Jews during WW II.

The Association of the Children of the Holocaust, the Jan Karski Association and the Museum of the History of Polish Jews have addressed an appeal to President Bronisław Komorowski to initiate a Day in tribute to Poles-holders of the Righteous among the Nations medals.

Those who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust deserve a special place in the nation’s memory and historical debate, the appeal says. Read more

Map of eastern Africa

Map of eastern Africa showing Rwanda, Congo and Kenya

Something similar is needed for Africa. We see the horrors in Africa, such as the genocide in Rwanda in which radical Hutus killed almost one million Tutsis. We rightfully ask why? How could such a thing happen? Those are excellent questions, but we should ask other questions too. If you take time to read about the genocide in Rwanda, you will notice that those killed are described as “Tutsis and moderate Hutus”. The fact is that many Hutus died protecting Tutsis from the murderous rage of the  radicals in their own Hutu ethnic group (or tribe). The movie, Hotel Rwanda, illustrates just one such case.

I was in Kenya when the 2008 election crisis caused ethnic clashes. One of my colleagues, a Kenyan who gave me computer support, was saved from certain death by people of the ethnic group which were supposedly against his ethnic group. They harbored him against the attacks of their own people.

Ed and Congolese graduate

Ed and Lamumba (not his real name) graduating with a degree in Bible translation

When I worked in Congo, we sponsored a Congolese Bible translator for advanced translation studies. I’ll call him Lamumba, as it still is not safe to use his name. When he came out of Congo to start the studies in Kenya, he told a harrowing story. In his area there was a tribal war going on. One tribe would take control of his town and then kill or imprison people from the other group, then the other tribe would take over and do the same in reverse. When the militants from his own tribe were in control, a believer from his church, but from the other tribe, was imprisoned. He took that person a meal in prison. Incredibly, people from Lamumba’s church, who were from his own ethnic group, perceived that as aiding the enemy and sought to kill him. He had to sleep in a different house every night to avoid them.

When we react in horror to ethnic clashes, as we should, we should also remember that God probably has his heroes right smack in the middle. There will be many Hutu martyrs for Jesus in heaven who died defending Tutsis against the attacks of their fellow Hutus. There are other Congolese, like Lamumba, who helped fellow believers in spite of the tribal clash that should have separated them. Some probably died for it. The instigators of the ethnic conflict in Kenya are going to be tried in the International Criminal Court, but no official body is looking into the stories of those in their ethnic group who acted against their machinations.

God remembers, and one day he is going to put on display the righteous acts of those who suffered to do right, and thereby thoroughly humiliate this world (Rev. 17:8). Don’t find yourself listening to the stories and saying, “Oops! I really should have expected that,” or, “Oh! How wrong I was to condemn all Africans!”

Not just anyone can translate

Because I am involved in Bible translation, I read about translation – all kinds of translation, not just Bible translation. These days, that means reading on the web. I came across an important article by a professional translator and researcher in translation issues, Nataly Kelly. It is entitled “Clearing up the Top 10 Myths About Translation“. A number of the 10 myths are not very applicable to Bible translation, but one is applicable not just to Bible translation, but to all kinds of Christian ministry in places where there is more than one language – which is most of the world. So what is this myth?

Any bilingual can be a translator or an interpreter.

Nataly goes on to write:

The ability to write in English does not make a person a professional writer. The ability to speak English does not make a person a professional speaker. Likewise, the ability to write or speak two languages does not mean that a person can translate or interpret. Plenty of people who are perfectly fluent in two languages fail professional exams for translation and interpreting. Why? Being bilingual does not guarantee that a person will be able to transport meaning from one language and culture to another without inflicting harm in the process.

Why do I think that this is important for Christian ministry in areas where there is more than one language? Well, because it seems to me that many missionaries, evangelists, pastors and even whole churches do not know it. Churches in settings with more than one language pick a person from the congregation to translate the Pastor’s sermon. They do so only on the basis that the person speaks both languages. The interpreter receives no orientation or training, nor is his or her interpretation evaluated.

Short term missionaries come and pick just any person who speaks the local language and English to be their interpreter. The interpreter may even be interpreting Bible stories in the VBS classes run by the short-term missions team. The result is the message gets lost in poor translation. But that is not what God intended, because we read in Deuteronomy chapter 30:

11 “This command I am giving you today is not too difficult for you to understand, and it is not beyond your reach. 12 It is not kept in heaven, so distant that you must ask, ‘Who will go up to heaven and bring it down so we can hear it and obey?’ 13 It is not kept beyond the sea, so far away that you must ask, ‘Who will cross the sea to bring it to us so we can hear it and obey?’ 14 No, the message is very close at hand; it is on your lips and in your heart so that you can obey it. (NLT)

Congolese translator candidates

A leading Congolese Bible translator teaching potential translators selected by their churches. Out of this group, only one or two will be chosen. Photo by Doug Wright

We need to be wary of making God’s message difficult or far away. Unfortunately, naïvety about language causes some to do just that. When churches and missions were offered (they did not ask, we offered) training for their interpreters in Burkina Faso, they came back afterward to say how much more people understood of the sermons, thus affirming that the interpretation of sermons needed improvement and that they did not know that improvement was needed.

Here in Ghana and most places, all Bible translation is done by native speakers of the languages. But not just any native speakers. Churches send a group of at least 8 potential translators matching a specific profile to a short course in translation. In 5-10 days we can see which are gifted in translation and which are not. The gifted ones are chosen as translators. It is not just any person whom God has gifted to translate into his language.

Bible Translators receiving specialized training in Tamale, Ghana

Bible Translators receiving specialized training in Tamale, Ghana

But we do not stop there. Bible Translators receive specialized training and that training is renewed regularly. For example, if the national translators in a language has translated the Gospels, and they plan to translate the Psalms next, then they will get special training on translating poetry before they start. The need for training is why we made it a priority to help a Christian University in Congo start a training program for Bible translators.

It will seem odd to those of us who speak English or another major language, but it is not uncommon to have pastors trained in English in Africa who do not know the names of the books of the Bible in their own languages, nor the correct words for key concepts like faith, salvation or repentance in their own languages. The Ghanaian responsible for pastoral training for a large denomination here in Ghana confirmed this to me just this week. This is because their schooling and training is entirely in English. If you take someone like that to be an interpreter into his language, you will not get a good result, even worse if you just take any person off the street.

Interpreting the pastor’s sermon, or for a short terms team does not need the same degree of rigor as Bible translation, but they do need more than just choosing anyone. Businesses, governments, book publishers, Nataly Kelly and many more know that they need professional translators with specialized training to get their message clear. Sometimes we Christians don’t, proving Jesus’ words:

For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. (Luke 16:8 ESV)

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