Necessary for a chief

The Sisaala paramount chief's representative giving remarks

The Sisaala paramount chief’s representative giving remarks

In Ghana, one necessary accessory of a king or paramount chief is an umbrella. Someone carries it for the king or chief. The Ashanti King, and even his representative, has his umbrella over him at all times, even inside a building (although not at his own palace).

So when the representative of the Sisaala Paramount Chief spoke at the dedication of the Sisaala Bible, the Master of Ceremonies was shocked to find that they had not provided an umbrella. (Although most chiefs bring their own.) So he immediately asked someone to go get an umbrella. Within a minute one appeared, but it was quite small. A couple minutes after that, a larger umbrella appeared. At first, the MC held it, but he was quickly relieved by a young man who volunteered.

One of the things I like about Ghana is their attachment to the parts of their traditions they find valuable.

Hover over a photo to see a caption, click on any photo to start a sideshow.

Apollo

When we were working on translation into the Cerma language of Burkina Faso, Dayle and I both got pink eye(conjunctivitis). One of our friends saw the condition and told us that we had Apollo. We thought that was a rather strange name for a disease, but what did we know. We asked around and discovered that there had been a widespread outbreak of pink eye in West Africa at the same time that Apollo 11 was landing on the moon. Local urban legend (yes, that happens in Africa too), linked the two events and ever since West Africans have called the disease Apollo.

Blessings come from God's Great Covenant - Hair salon.

Blessings come from God’s Great Covenant – Hair salon.

The association made between the Apollo 11 moon landing and an outbreak of conjunctivitis might seem strange to you, but keep an open mind for a minute. Different cultures have different ideas about the causes of events. We in the West have largely adopted the enlightenment idea that causes are physical, not mystical. We think that science completely explains causes. Many Africans accept mystic causality. If you think that education will change that, you are wrong. Studies have shown a slightly higher percentage of educated Ghanaians accept mystic causality than do uneducated Ghanaians. But don’t roll your eyes. Consider the following illustration of Ghanaian thinking which I have adapted from  well-known Ghanaian churchman Peter K. Sarpong.

A boy always walks to school following a certain path. He always goes with his friend who comes to his house and they walk together. One morning, his friend comes a few minutes later than usual, and so they set off late. As they are walking their usual route, a large tree falls on the boys, killing them.

A westerner will look for a scientifically sound cause for the tragedy.  So we might say that the boys died because recent, heavy rains had loosened the earth around the roots of the tree, so it fell. A Ghanaian might agree, but he would make other observations. He wold note that the boys set off late that morning. If they had been on time, the tree would have fallen after they passed. So what made them set off late? Also, the tree’s roots were loose, but why didn’t it fall an hour before or an hour after? Why didn’t the rain come more slowly in a way that would not loosen the roots? The questions go on and on. It does not take long for such questions to defy answers from a perspective of pure, scientific causality. Many Ghanaians conclude that even though scientific causality explains some things, it cannot bring answers that really satisfy.

This sign asks a question about causality

This sign asks a question about causality

Working effectively across cultures means not dismissing or making fun of what people say and believe about causes, even if at first you just want to roll your eyes. For one thing, people might stop telling you what is really on their minds if you make fun of what they say. And if you think about it, you will find that educated, scientific Westerners are not very different. The not uncommon view that “everything happens for a reason”, for example, cannot be justified by pure science. It is fundamentally a statement of mystic causality. Yet one sees and hears it all the time from educated Americans.

In Jesus’ day, many thought that sin caused all disasters and disabilities. See Luke 13:1-5 to see how Jesus dealt with that.

I find that I have learned from African viewpoints on causality. Besides, I still remember the  shocked look on the African pharmacist’s face when I told him I needed a treatment for Apollo. A white guy is not supposed to know that kind of local legend.

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.

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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: maptia.com)

translators-build-model-of-desert-tabernacle_1_e

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 maptia.com)

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

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.

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

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.