Threshing sledge

Behold, I make of you a threshing sledge, new, sharp, and having teeth; you shall thresh the mountains and crush them, and you shall make the hills like chaff; Isaiah 41:15-16 ESV
Translating unknown objects is one of the more interesting translation problems. The text above speaks of a threshing sledge, a farm implement no longer in use in most of the world. The threshing sledge is unknown to most Americans of whom only 2% are farmers and even they don’t use threshing sledges. The New Living Translation gets around the problem by using a more generic term for sledge, calling it an instrument.
You will be a new threshing instrument with many sharp teeth.
Isaiah 41:15-16
Using a more generic term is a frequently-used method for dealing with unknown objects. When the Bible mentions an unknown animal, the best translation may be “an animal called…”
English speakers have an advantage, especially in these days of Google search. You can Google threshing sledge and find out about them. Or you can consult a Bible dictionary or encyclopedia. Those who speak small languages don’t have those options. That puts more responsibility on the transistor, widening the acceptable translation options, in my opinion.
When a passage mentions an unknown item, it can be a distraction. Readers tend to focus on the unknown item, distracting them from the meaning of the text. The meaning of the passage can get lost in the details. You can research threshing sledge all you want: finding out that it was made of wood studded with pieces of flint, and that it was used to separate the edible parts of grain from the inedible. But that detail adds little, if anything, to the point of this particular passage. It’s a classic case of not seeing the forest for the trees. Here’s a translation of the passage that translates little-known and unknown terms as generically as possible in order to get to the point.

Look, I’ll make you into such a powerful, sharp-toothed new farm implement that you’ll grind up mountains and hills into flakes blown away by the wind.

In this translstion threshing sledge becomes more generic – a farm implement (which it is). Thresh become more generic too – grind up. Finally chaff become the much more genetic flakes. The details could be put in footnotes. To my mind, the loss of detail is more than compensated by this translation returning the passage to its intended focus and power.
Whether you agree with this particular use of generics for translating unknown or little-known objects, I hope I have given you a little window into the practice of translation

Man with threshing sledge 1937

The primary transformation

Traditional cultures enforce unity through social sanctions like shunning, withdrawal of social support, ostracism or even threats and violence. People who break the group’s norms pay a price. This encourages those who support the norms and tends to keep those who would break them in line. The result is a unity that is enforced by the whole of the group, not just its leaders.

The first Christians in the group may be seen as threats to group unity, bringing them under intense pressure to abandon their newfound faith. I met the son of one of the first Christians in a people of northern Ghana. He was in his 50s when I met him. But he told of remembering a childhood of persistent social pressure from neighbors consisting of condemnation, blame, threats, and ostracism. Nevertheless, his family stood fast and after many years the social pressure was much reduced.

However bad this sounds, changing a whole society belongs to those who break norms that need breaking, form solidarity with others doing the same, continue to politely but firmly speak and act against the norm, and persist through the resulting social pressures. In fact, these are the very actions the Bible recommends to us.

The movement to abolish slavery in the United States went through exactly these steps and was the target of the same social pressures described above. It’s meetings were stormed and broken up. Its leaders were targeted, not by government but by pro-slavery citizens. They were denounced, shunned, threatened and ridiculed. But slowly the tide turned. The obolitionists even convinced some slave holders to give up their slaves. Most of the early abolitionists who persisted through the worst public reaction were Christians coming out of the Second Great Awakening – a revival.

It is understandable that some Africans feel that they cannot change inherited cultural norms and practices they find abhorrent or just counterproductive. But they can and do when they have confidence. Research into the effects of translating the Bible into local languages in Ghana and some other places has shown an increase in confidence; including a willingness undertake new things, and to stand against wrong practices. I am coming to the conclusion that this might be the primary transformation because it is a manifestation of faith and because confidence helps generate all other transformations.

Galamsey

The word of the year for 2016, according to Oxford Dictionaries, was post-truth. In 2013 is was selfie. Whether we agree with these choices or not, one thing is very clear – English is adding new words and some of the new words are very widely used. In Ghana, an English word invented by Ghanaians is getting lots of exposure. That word is galamsey. But you won’t find galamsey in any of the major on-line dictionaries of English. It is absent from Dictionary.com, Merriam-Webster and the Oxford Dictionary on-line, even though the latter lists other Ghana-isms such as outdooring.

Galamsey refers to illegal or informal mining, usually for gold. Ghana is known for its gold as its former name, The Gold Coast, implies. There are gold mining companies, but there are also other kinds of mining. One is informal mining carried out with hand tools by Ghanaian individuals, not companies. These mines are not regulated. They are both unsafe and they pose some environmental risks. The conditions are sometimes deplorable as you can see by doing a Google Image search for galamsey.

But galamsey is not just informal mining by hand. Some unregistered mining operations use large machinery. These can degrade the local environment to the point where local people start complaining. There has been a recent push in society and by the government to put a stop to galamsey. Even though the word has been around for years, I heard it for the first time in the last few months and now I hear it all the time.

The human mind and human societies are language factories constantly churning out new words and phrases and taking a plow to the settled ground of old words and phrases, turning them over and over. Did you know that “nice” meant “precise” in the 18th century and until fairly recently some English teachers taught that was the correct meaning? Or that in the 14th century it meant “foolish”, then “wanton” or “lascivious” in the 15th century?

So even though a translation stays exactly the same, it’s meaning is changing. To keep the meaning the same, sometimes the words need to change. That is why modern translations such as English Standard Version are updated regularly. By updating the translations where words have changed meaning, the translators are working hard to keep the meaning the same. For the same reason, translations in Africa will need to be revised when the languages change.

Here are some other words Ghanaians use in English to talk about things in their context for which English does not have good word or phrase:

Challenging identity

A couple years ago, I worked with a church in Ghana on a program to reach out to the Gonja and Dagomba peoples of northern Ghana. They constitute the two largest unevangelized people groups in Ghana, comprising 1.2 million speakers. 100 years of outreach to these people groups has so far had minimal impact.

Identity is s good part of the reason. The Dagomba and Gonja have wolven identities for themselves that exclude them from Christian faith. Almost all of them follow another world religion and they believe that religion is part of their identity. Their ethnic identity and their religion are rolled onto one package. There are several facts that sustain this belief.

  • Their rival people groups in southern Ghana are largely Christian while the Gonja and Dagomba are not. Before Christianity and other world religions came to Ghana, each group had its own variety of African traditional religion as most African peoples do. So it makes sense to them that each group has its own religion.
  • The rival, largely Christian people groups of southern Ghana have started churches in the Dagomba and Gonja areas. But those churches were built for Christians from southern Ghana who have moved to the north for work. Those attending them are often civil servants posted to the north. The churches are lead by pastors from the Christian peoples of the South and they hold their services in the languages of the southern transplants, not in Gonja or Dagomba. So it appears that the churches are only for the southerners, and in fact, they are. The logical conclusion is that Christianity is also only for southerners.
  • Furthermore, the churches in question sometimes don’t attempt evangelism or outreach to the Dagomba or Gonja people in whose communities they are situated.

Ghana is not strange in this regard. I remember worshiping on Sunday evening in California with an entirely Anglo congregation located in a Hispanic neighborhood. I learned that the church had no service or outreach in Spanish. It is likely that the church’s neighbors considered Protestantism to be the religion of Anglos and Catholicism their religion. The behavior of the church certainly reinforced that perception, unintentionally I’m sure. So what’s happening in northern Ghana is not all that strange. In fact, I suspect that it happens in many places.

Translating the Bible into Dagomba and Bimoba presents a radical challenge to people who link their ethnic identity to a particular religion. When the Dagomba or Gonja see the Bible in their language, and then churches with services in their language, attended by Dagomba or Gonja people, the idea that Christianity is not for them breaks down. But that can’t happen if the churches keep holding services only in the languages of southern Ghana.

So the program I helped the church plan had the following components:
  • Holding literacy classes for the small numbers of Christians, and in the community for all who are interested,
  • Translating the church’s liturgy into Gonja and Dagomba so that church services can be held in those languages.
  • Translating training materials used to train lay ministers in the church so that Gonja and Dagomba Christians can be trained to lead services and perform other church functions.

Solomon Sule-Saa presenting the program to the regional church business meeting

Recently, I talked to the Ghanaian man, Solomon Sule-Saa, with whom I designed the program. He was all smiles. It is working well, he said. The churches are growing. Incorporating their languages into the church is eroding the walls between Christianity and the Dagomba and Gonja peoples.

How this blog started

Meeting the man in the striped shirt was part of my journal the same evening

The roots of this blog go way back, to well before I started writing it or even considered having a blog. I used to travel a lot for our ministry. When I would return home after a few days, and occasionally after a couple of weeks, my wife, Dayle, would ask me what happened. In typical husbandly fashion, I would compress it all into a couple of sentences, leaving out lots of the detail she wanted to hear. So she let me know that things had to change.

So, I reluctantly started to take time, every evening when I was traveling, to quickly write down what happened during the day. It turned into a journal of my trip. This was in the days before computers and well before the Internet So the journal was hand-written in a small notebook. I would go over it with Dayle when I returned home from my trip. She loved it.

But something happened I did not expect. First, in the evening when I was remembering what happened during the day, I would realize that something that happened, or something that was said, was important for my ministry. Perhaps a church leader had said that a translation was progressing too slowly, or a Christian in church would say that he or she was having trouble buying a translation in his languages because the sales point was always closed, or far away. Then I began so see patterns. For example, over time I found that several Church leaders had mentioned in passing that a translation was going too slow – each speaking about a different translation.

I realized that I had been missing these patterns and forgetting important things that were said.

So in addition to writing my journal to Dayle, I started writing a paragraph or two about what I had noticed, a bit of analysis of it and perhaps further actions to take, such as gathering more information. That started guiding my conversations with translators, local people and church leaders. The result was rich in insights.

When blogs became a thing, I started putting my reflections online. And that has turned into this blog.

I realized in the process that God really is in the still small voice. He is not pushy. But he does reveal Himself. We just have to take the time to reflect, be quiet and listen. My way of being quiet and listening is to stop and write a little journal. The things God is revealing almost pop off the page at me.

the Lord passed by, and a mighty windstorm hit the mountain. It was such a terrible blast that the rocks were torn loose, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire there was the sound of a gentle whisper. I Kings 19:11-13

Stuffing or stingy

Much of the Bible was written in an farming society. The parables of Jesus include many word pictures from the farming practices of his day. The parable of the sower is probably the best known, but there are many others. All of those listening to Jesus would have been well aware of the practices he was referring to, because they were all around. But 80% of Americans live in cities. Even in American agricultural belts more than 3/4 live in cities. So Jesus word pictures based on farming are distant. We may understand them or not. Even when we understand them, they don’t grab us. On the other hand, just over half of the people of Ghana live in cities. But even those have close ties to rural communities. They may have moved to a city after spending the childhood in a farming community, or they may visit, or there may be farming communities very close to the city. They may buy most of their food in a market where the produce comes from nearby farms. When we lived in Ouagadougou, a capital city, the woman next door would winnow grain in her yard; people planted millet, sorghum and maize in vacant lots. So people see traditional farming even in the cities.

For them, Jesus’ farming parables are not just understandable, they are vivid.

One part of many African markets is full of grain crops: rice, millet, maize, sorghum, etc. In traditional markets, the grain is in bags, one of which the seller opens so that buyers can see the quality. On top of grain is a tin. It is full to overflowing with whatever grain is in the sack. The grain is priced by the tin. When you buy it, the seller shakes down and heaps on more gain till the tin is overflowing and then pours the heaping tin into whatever container you brought, maybe even adding a handful for good measure. No “level’ measures here!

Jesus said:

If you give to others, you will be given a full amount in return. It will be packed down, shaken together, and spilling over into your lap. The way you treat others is the way you will be treated. (Luke 6:38)

In the US, we buy things like grain or flour in packages by weight. In fact, cereal boxes may have some empty space in them. So we aren’t used to this idea of buying something and having the seller pack as much as possible into the container. But we do get this treatment at fast-food joints when they often pack as many fries as possible into that little paper thing. So if we change the image from farming to fast food we get:

When we give, God will give back even more, like stuffing as many fries as one can into the holder so that they spill out in the bag or onto your lap and get lost in the gaps between your car seats. The way you treat others will be the way God treats you.

Are we stuffing or are we stingy?

If you liked this, you might also like Translating Obsolete Measures

Information neglect

Programs to Translate the Bible generate information about those programs. One of the aha moments in my missionary career came when I thought about where that information goes and where it doesn’t and why.

When a missionary goes to a place to translate the Bible into a language, the missionary produces information about their work and life. This can be in the form of personal letters, prayer letters, and presentations given to churches, church groups, missions conferences, etc. The primary purposes are:

  • To raise funds to support the missionary and his/her work.
  • To generate prayer for the missionary and the people they are serving.
  • To recruit others to serve in Bible translation.

The information is intended for people and churches in the place the missionary came from. Very little, if any, of the communication is distributed in the language community where the missionary works, or to Christians or churches in the country where the missionary is works.

Today, most Bible translation programs are conducted without a missionary. Instead, nationals do the translation but often with funding coming from churches and Christians in another country. These translation programs also produce information. Reports photographs and prayer requests are sent to those providing the funding. Here’s an example. As with missionary translations very little, if any, of the information is distributed to churches or Christians in the area or at the national level, even where discretion is not needed. So people in the country can feel that they don’t know anything about the program being carried out in their midst. This means that churches and Christians are not mobilized to support the translation program through prayer, giving or serving. It might also mean that when the translation is printed fewer people read or use it.

This was the situation when I first came to Ghana in 2011. But the new director had a vision for mobilizing churches and christians in Ghana in support of Bible translation. Dayle and I played a supporting role in that vision. Today, most denominations in Ghana are well aware of translation efforts and many give significant gifts out of their annual budget for translation. Out of the effort to make Ghanaians fully aware of translation came a group of Christian business men who now support translation. Also, now GILLBT (the Ghanaian organisation I work with) has Ghanaian staff who make sure that information about translation is made known in Ghana. So we only get involved in that occasionally.

God acts through information. So spreading information about Christian ministry is cooperating with God. Neglecting to spread it where it needs to go would then be…

Doing better

When I was in Ghana in July 2018 I had an interesting conversation with a Ghanaian Christian medical doctor. He is from a part of Ghana where there are very few Christians and where the poverty is not uncommon. He told me that he went out into a rural part of his home area where he met a pastor. The pastor is a man with no formal education, not even primary school. But he had learned to read in a literacy class and avidly reads the Bible In his own language. Like most pastors in Ghana, he is bi-vocational. That is, he receives little or no pay as a pastor and supports himself and his family through other activities. Being uneducated and living in rural Ghana means that he is probably a subsistence farmer, like many of his neighbors.

The doctor said with amazement that the uneducated pastor was clearly doing better than most of those around him who also lack education. He attributed the difference to the Gospel. That’s almost certainly right. There are lots of anecdotes and even at least one formal study linking better life outcomes in rural Ghana to reading the Bible.

Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus. – Acts 4:13

Same values but different

Talking to my very engaging acquaintance

In northern Ghana in July 2017, I met a man who was missing his right arm. He was very engaging to talk to so I dared ask him how he lost his arm. He told a horrific story of losing it to snakebite when he was a young boy. He began his tale by saying that he doesn’t know exactly how old he was when it happened because he never has known his exact age.

I have met a number of Africans that don’t know their exact age although that is getting rarer and rarer. The issue of age, in fact, shows how very different cultures can be. Although he doesn’t know his birth date he does know whether he is older or younger than everyone in his extended family and in his village. Even though his father doesn’t know his exact age both he and his father know whether his father is older than or younger than each of the father’s brothers, cousins and even neighbors. The same is true for his mother.

Almost every time an African mentions his aunts or uncles their relative age is specified, as in “my mothers older sister” or “my father’s younger brother”.

And even when none of them know what year they were born, they do know on what day of the week they each were born.

My acquaintance did not know his age, but that does not mean that his culture does not value knowing one’s age, quite the contrary. But rather it values knowing one’s age in a very different way than does my culture.

When people say that different cultures have different values, that’s true. But it is also true that many times they share very similar values but express them in wildly different ways.

Pentecost language

Depiction of Pentecost on cathedral ceiling

The Bible continues to surprise me. By that, I mean that I see new things in passages that I know well, especially the narratives. Not long ago, I saw something I had not noticed before in Acts chapter two. Here’s the passage in question:
1 On the day of Pentecost all the believers were meeting together in one place. 2 Suddenly, there was a sound from heaven like the roaring of a mighty windstorm, and it filled the house where they were sitting. 3 Then, what looked like flames or tongues of fire appeared and settled on each of them. 4 And everyone present was filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in other languages, as the Holy Spirit gave no them this ability.
5 At that time there were devout Jews from every nation living in Jerusalem. 6 When they heard the loud noise, everyone came running, and they were bewildered to hear their own languages being spoken by the believers. 7 They were completely amazed. “How can this be?” they exclaimed. “These people are all from Galilee, 8 and yet we hear them speaking in our own native languages! 9 Here we are—Parthians, Medes , Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, the province of Asia 10 Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, and the areas of Libya around Cyrene, visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism), Cretans, and Arabs. And we all hear these people speaking in our own languages about the wonderful things God has done!”
(Acts 2:1-11 NLT)
This passage tells us that Jerusalem had a diverse population.
At that time there were devout Jews from every nation living in Jerusalem. (verse 5)
So when the gathered believers began “speaking in other languages“, there were people around who understood the languages they were speaking. They were shocked to hear a bunch of Galaleans speaking everyone’s “native languages.”
The story continues with a list of the places the people all came from, each place with its own language. We don’t recognize many of them because the names of the places have changed or they have become parts of other countries. Some of the languages have even disappeared. But at the time they were important languages from recognized places.
In verse 11, we are told that some of those present were Arabs. They too heard in their own language which means that Arabic was one of the languages the Holy Spirit caused believers to speak.