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.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Angry talking

This Congolese lady asked that I take a photo of her and her son

This Congolese lady asked that I take a photo of her and her son

An African friend of mine found himself at an airport in the US where he saw and heard a Nigerian man talking to a relative on his mobile phone in his mother tongue. He commented on Facebook:

Other passengers are happy that the people being “quarreled with” are not here or else it would be war. What they do not know is that this is not a quarrel. It is just a natural way of talking for these guys. It is fun being an African. Very few people in the world understand you.

I would have loved to be there and see the passengers freaked out by the loud and animated talking while the Nigerian talked on unaware of the emotional commotion he was creating. We encounter the same thing here in Ghana.

Ghanaian man at his phone store

Ghanaian man at his phone store

Accra, where we live, is in the middle of the Ga people. They speak so loudly and in such an animated way that even other Ghanaians think they are quarreling! The thing is, they are not angry. That’s just the way they talk. So when I hear a Ga person talking, I know in my head that the loud and animated speech is normal, but I get startled anyway. My fight or flight response kicks in and I want to get away. I have no choice. After thinking for a second, I realize there is no problem and try to treat the loud talking as normal. But that is not easy.

A while back, I stopped to ask some taxi drivers directions. They engaged in an exchange between them in their language that seemed heated to say the least. I just wanted to drive off.

Ladies worshiping in church

Ladies worshiping in church

When people talk about cross cultural issues they may focus on physical things like strange food. But the hardest cultural adaptations are those where the person in front of you is doing something that causes you to have a strong emotional reaction over which you have little control. You “know” that the person is not angry, but that does not stop the emotions. It is just plain difficult to wrap your head around the fact that the other person’s behavior is normal when it is making you uncomfortable.

The hard work of having empathy for people whose behavior makes you uncomfortable, or even afraid, is at the heart of cross-cultural mission. It feels sometimes like we have to abandon part of what makes us who we are. It mirrors what Jesus did when he left the comfort of heaven, came to this earth and fit himself into the culture of that day and place.

That is something we are still learning, even in our fourth decade in Africa.

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

Slow motion Pentecost

define Pentecost - Google SearchThis coming Sunday is Pentecost Sunday. It commemorates something strange that happened at the Jewish festival of Pentecost two millennia ago. The Holy Spirit took control of everyone, and they began speaking whatever languages the Spirit led them to speak. Many people from every country in the world were living Jerusalem. When they heard this noise, a crowd gathered. But they were surprised, because they were hearing everything in their own languages. They were excited and amazed, and said:

“Don’t all these who are speaking come from Galilee? Then why do we hear them speaking our very own languages? Some of us are from Parthia, Media, and Elam. Others are from Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, parts of Libya near Cyrene, Rome, Crete, and Arabia. Some of us were born Jews, and others of us have chosen to be Jews. Yet we all hear them using our own languages to tell the wonderful things God has done.” Act 2:4-11 CEV

Bus loaded with boxes of New Testaments destined for a remote area of Ghana

Bus loaded with boxes of New Testaments destined for a remote area of Ghana

This phenomenon, of people “hearing everything in their own languages”, has been accelerating. In 1900, The whole Bible or some part of it had been translated and published in 530 languages. By 2000, that had increased to 2,298. That is an increase of 1,768 languages – a rate of a new languages every three weeks for 100 years! Since the year 2000, the rate has increased further, jumping from 27 languages per year to over 70,” which amounts to a new language every 5 days!

That is not as dramatic as if it happened on the same day and at the same place, like it did at the festival of Pentecost. Instead, today we have a slower-motion Pentecost. But, unlike the event being commemorated this Sunday, it is spread over the world. What the new, slow-motion Pentecost lacks in immediacy, it gains in geographic spread.

Congolese ladies in Bible study in Kisangani

Congolese ladies in Bible study in Kisangani

But the real wonder is not the number of languages. It is the impact the translations are having. On the broadest level, we have the assessment of Ghanaian theologian Kwame Bediako:

African Christianity today is inconceivable apart from the existence of the Bible in African indigenous languages.

Then we have the assessment of leaders about what is happening in their areas where translation is being done:

“Some people are gradually shifting away from the evil aspects of the culture,” Lefa language of Cameroon

“Drunkenness is reduced and people cooperate together better. Now my job is easier.” Unbelieving community leader in Ghana

Pokomo man (Kenya) with 5 New Testaments

Pokomo man (Kenya) with 5 New Testaments

At the narrowest level, we have the statement of people.

 “I have read many times the book of Jonah, where God tells Jonah to get up and go to Nineveh. But when I read this in [my language] it is like God is standing right next to me and speaking to me! It makes me realize that God is close, and that he speaks directly to people.”
Tanzanian man

“I came to know the Lord four years ago, but I was still living with my idols. No one in the church had taught me that I needed to abandon them completely. My pastor preached many sermons but had never spoken of that. Listening to Scriptures, I heard Jesus say you cannot serve two masters. In Thessalonians, I heard how people left behind their idols to serve the living and true God. I called the pastor and explained my situation to him. He was very upset that he had not taught me about such things. That day I repented and handed over my idols. Since that time, I have had peace in my heart.”
Man from southeast Mali

“I used to lie, slander, and quarrel. That has changed.”
A young mother in Mali

At that festival of Pentecost many years ago, they were surprised, excited and amazed at “hearing everything in their own languages.” The slow-motion Pentecost of our day calls for that same response. It’s time to be surprised and amazed and to get excited.

If you liked this, you might also like The day tribal ended.