It’s all there

Because I’m a Bible translator, so I do strange things. For example, I actually read the prefaces to Bible translations. The preface usually addresses how and why the translation was done The original preface to the King James Version deals mostly with criticisms and objections. For example, the King James translators tackle the perennial question “Why on earth are you guys doing yet another translation? Of course, the question was phrased more eloquently in that day.

I’m interested in a different question – is a translation the Word of God? Purists say that they are not: that in order to truly read the Word of God one has to read the Bible in the languages in which it was first written. The King James translators reject that point of view. They wrote:

… we affirm and avow, that the very meanest translation of the Bible in English set forth by men of our profession containeth the word of God, nay, is the word of God: as the King’s speech which he uttered in Parliament, being translated into French, Dutch, Italian, and Latin, is still the King’s speech, though it be not interpreted by every translator with the like grace, nor peradventure so fitly for phrase, nor so expressly for sense, every where.

So they maintained that every English translation is the Word of God even if it is not a particularly good translation. (I’m sure that they would not have included fraudulent translations.)

A colleague of mine addressed a similar question:

A common assumption about reading the Bible in the original languages is that by “reading the Greek” we’re actually finding out information that isn’t available to people who are reading a translation.

He rejects this idea. He points out that a person needs a very deep knowledge of Greek to get more out of it. In fact, a doctoral level is needed. Those translating the Bible into English have spent their lives studying the original languages. Unless we are willing to put in that same investment, we’re better off piggybacking on their knowledge by reading their translations.

If you are reading any of the major Bible translation, you are reading the Word of God. You are not missing out. God is not hindered in any way in guiding, instructing, or encouraging you through that translation.

Page from first printing of the King James Version of the Bible

Elevating the ordinary

In 2017, PBS released a video documentary entitled Martin Luther: The Idea That Changed the World. It notes that not only did Luther start a great religious change, he also started political and societal changes. When his teachings landed him in trouble with the church, we argued his case before the court of public opinion, bypassing the clergy and experts in theology. He circulated his ideas widely using the recently-invented printing press.

He took the same approach to the Bible. He wrote: “I wish that this book could be in every language, and dwell in the hearts and minds of all.”. He was not willing to reserve the Bible for experts, but rather delivered it the common man. He even consulted ordinary people when doing his translation. He wrote: “To translate, we must listen to the mother in the home, the children in the street, the common man in the marketplace. We must be guided by their language – the way they speak, and do our translating accordingly. I sometimes searched and inquired about a single word for three or four weeks.”

I am an heir of Luther’s approach. We translate the Bible into African languages because we trust African Christians to interpret it with the Spirit’s guidance. Our translation process includes a step where we “listen to the mother in the home, the children in the street, the common man in the marketplace” and where we are “guided by their language – the way they speak, and do our translating accordingly.” So we trust Africans with the translation process.

This elevation of the common man and woman, and Luther’s practice of bypassing those in authority, “set in place cultural changes that led to democracy in America and Europe”, according to the documentary. We see similar changes in Africa where ordinary people empowered by the words of Scripture question and change cultural practices they deem backward or harmful. Normally Those changes are more profound and longer lasting than changes ordered by some authority, because they flow from the heart.

Crottin de chèvre

Crottin de chèvre

There’s a French goat cheese called crottin de chèvre which often served as a starter in France. But you probably wouldn’t order it on your next trip to France if you were using Google Translate to help you decipher the menu. Because if you put in “crottin de chèvre”, Google will tell you it means goat dung!

Computer translation can be very useful. In fact, humor is one of the things it produces. Seriously, computers help speed all kinds of translation including Bible translation. But they need strict supervision. In fact, the best use of a computer in translation is as an assistant to a human translator. It can tell the human translators how they translated a word or phrase last time, or link them to articles discussing the translation of difficult words and phrases, for example.

I predict that computer translation will do very well at translating literal documents like user manuals and scientific papers. It will be great for travel where mistakes are corrected in face-to-face communication, gestures and pointing. But when it comes to translating things like literature, poetry and philosophy, computers will struggle for a long time. The Bible, of course, is full of literature, poetry and philosophy. I predict that no publisher will use computer translation for its best sellers in any of our lifetimes.

In our day, it would be silly to do a translation of the Bible without a computer, even in a very remote area. But it would be even sillier to think that a computer can replace a properly-trained flesh-and-blood translator.

Missionary technology

The first commercially-available computers could only display or accept English. That was a problem. By the time I first started using computers, we had a few more characters available because of something called “extended ASCII”. This allowed the computer to display and accept keyboard input for most European languages. But it still didn’t work all that well. Specialized technicians had to fiddle with the computer to get it to accept and display the characters in the alphabets of African languages we were working on, But every language had its own system, making archiving and computer support a mess.

Technical details for unicode for one specific language

Fortunately, the tech companies wanted to sell their products everywhere, so they were interested in solving this problem. Missionary-linguists got involved in a worldwide consortium working on the issue. We jumped in so that the smaller languages wouldn’t be left out. Besides, we were often the only ones who had thought about what they needed. In the end, we got unicode; a world-wide standard for accepting, displaying and printing all the characters of all the languages of the world, even Tai Lue, wherever that is.

Your smart phone has unicode, your computer has it, your TV has it, maybe even your car and your refrigerator. Someday your doorbell might have it. Actually, I think some already do. You use missionary technology every day. So do atheists.

Now, anyone who wants to read the Bible in his language, no matter how strangely it is written, can see it displayed on a smart phone, tablet or computer. Because of unicode, the Bible in any language can be sent across the internet or put on small chips and carried anywhere. Whatever electronic device receives it will display the strangest characters correctly. Unicode, hidden the background, makes it happen automatically.

Blessings spill out

Students who learned to read

The approximately 30 different people groups of northern Ghana are faced with real difficulties. Their land is semi-arid, they have few economic opportunities, and their children have to go to school in a language neither the students nor their parents know for the most part – English. In one school, only 2% of second and third graders could read.

But, using the alphabet for their language and a reading method developed by missionaries, primary school students from some languages in northern Ghana have started learning to read in their own language. A year ago, these school children could not read a single word. Today almost all reading short stories. Having mastered reading in their language, they will now bridge to Ghana’s official language, English. Experience has shown that they will be more successful in English after starting in their mother tongue. Not only that, they will be able to read the Bible in their language.

The blessings brought by missionaries have spilled over into education. That will, in turn reduce poverty and misery.

(Photos courtesy of J. Yacubu, GILLBT)

Celebrating a successful program

Sidewalk radio

When we worked in Abidjan in the early 1980s, we encountered a local expression “Radio Treicheville”. Treichville is a populous, working class neighborhood in Abidjan. Radio Treichville referred to the local rumor mill. When asked where a piece of information came from, the answer would often be “Radio Treshville”. The local equivalent of “I heard it on the grapevine.” Today, there is an actual Radio Treshville.

Then when we worked in the Congo, the expression changed to “Reed Radio”, after the reeds lining the Congo River in Kinshasa that constantly russled in the wind. It was also known as Sidewalk Radio and was such a potent force that the country’s strongman president Mobutu Sesse Seko had to pay attention to it while he was in power. The term was even picked up and used by a British historian.

I have seen rumors almost destroy programs to translate the Bible, or ruin the reputation of a perfectly good translation. With social media and the internet, sidewalk radio has more ways of spreading.

The grapevine, the rumor mill, radio Treichville, reed radio, sidewalk radio, bush telegraph, the word on the street, a little birdie told me, buzz; whatever words we use, it is part of life. No wonder the Bible says so much about it.

Listening to gossip is like eating cheap candy; do you really want junk like that in your belly? – Proverbs 18:8

Like candy, it’s tempting and tastes sweet at first, but it ultimately fails to nourish. In the middle of this pandemic, Christians must beware of the sweet tasting tidbits coming from sidewalk radio.

Baby dedication

Working in Abidjan in 2016

Back in June 2016 when we were living in Abidjan, there was a baby dedication at the church we were attending. The pastor announced the husband’s name and he came forward quickly followed by his wife and a nanny (or perhaps friend) with the baby. Without being called, a group of family members and friends also came to the front. There were about 20. They had dressed to the nines for the occasion. Some of the women had dresses made out of the same cloth. The mother was all decked out in a stunning African dress, large jewelry and a decoration in her hair (not really a hat, but something small). Her hair was all done up. It was obvious that this was a big event for the couple and for the whole family. Some had traveled to be at the dedication. The baby had been born on March 12, so it was three months old.

Abidjan

The pastor announced the name of the child and everyone applauded loudly and for quite a while. There were also cries of joy. Evidently, this was when the name of the baby was first announced.

Many West African cultures have formal events / ceremonies where new babies are presented to the family and community. In Ghana they are called “outdoorings” because the mother and baby stay inside without visitors until the outdooring. So it’s the first time the baby is brought outdoors where everyone lives. (In traditional society people don’t live in their houses, but rather outside.) So going outdoors is to become part of the community.

The baby dedication had many of the same elements as a traditional outdooring – a family event attracting family members from afar, a community event involving the families’ neighbors, announcing the name of the baby, a celebration worthy of dressing up, etc. My guess is that no one sat down and thought about how to incorporate elements of an outdooring into baby dedications. Instead, it just happened. I probably witnessed the result of spontaneous contextualization.

Contextualization gets a bad rap and sometimes it deserves it. But often it involves adapting outward forms into Christian practice without changing or undermining Christian belief. Sometimes it even helps. The fact that many family members come to baby dedications, probably makes them a good opportunity to share the gospel, for example.

Things that didn’t happen

The news is about things that happen. Steven Pinker points out that we “never see a reporter saying to the camera, ‘Here we are, live from a country where a war has not broken out.’” So things that did not happen usually go unreported, unless you are Jesse Smollet.

Disasters avoided are also not news unless it’s a close call. I read an article by a guy who worked in the the Bush White House on the president’s pandemic preparedness plan and it’s implementation. The president was gung-ho. At the time, this guy thought it was useless, unimportant work. He slogged through it. The effort hardly made the news, until recently, of course. If things that didn’t happen aren’t news, preparations for them are something even less. The Jesse Smollet exception to this rule is nuclear war. I grew up with preparations for nuclear war always in the news. We were big on preparing for that.

Can we make outbreaks of new deseases the kind of motivating threat that nuclear is, or at least was? SARS wasn’t enough, nor was MERS, although those were enough for places like Taiwan and South Korea. We can’t expect our politicians to put big efforts into things nobody cares about, that the news media passes over for any other story, and rightly so because we wouldn’t read it. Expecting politicians to put effort into something that has no hope of making the news or capturing voter interest; good luck with that.

The partisan blame game has predictably started. I would have preferred that we start with voter and news media repentence for deeming pandemic preparations unworthy of the news.

Life is fragile

In 2016, I took a short assignment in Cote d’Ivoire. Because Dayle had to stay in the US I was alone for several weeks before she joined me. The time difference meant that I would get up in the morning and look at the videos of my grandchildren that had arrived during the night. Then I would go to work.

So it was that one morning after enjoying my grandchildren’s antics, I went to my office and opened an email from one of our national translators. It informed me that he had lost one of his grandchildren after a short but severe illness. My buoyant mood was shattered.

Unfortunately, I have experienced this far too often. Endemic tropical diseases and weak healthcare systems leave children (and adults but especially children) at risk. The translator in question had chosen to live in a rural area because that is where the translation is happening. He is an educated man and many Africans with his level of education would not live in remote rural areas precisely because they lack good services such as health care.

Taking the Bible everywhere has risks. Are the risks too high? Let me answer the question this way. This man was living with exactly the same risks as the people he was serving. They live with those same dangers day after day, year in and year out. For many bibleless peoples, life where they live is fragile and they regularly experience that in very painful ways. The only way to be certain to avoid their risks is to cease to minister to them.

Church service in rural Ghana

Contingencies

Way back in early 2009, we were working in the Congo along with other Wycliffe colleagues. A civil war was ending which had caused all missionaries to flee. We were slowly trickling back into the country. In order to move back safely, we needed to develop a contingency plan. Contingency planning is a well-defined process for identifying and ranking the dangers in a specific environment, finding ways to mitigate them and then making plans for each important danger in case it happens.

Contingency planning participants

We decided to do the planning together with the staff of a Christian University, all Congolese. That worked out well because they foresaw things we didn’t. The first part of exercise involved making a list of disruptive events that might happen. We were all together in a room and each person was calling out disruptive events as they thought of them. One of the Congolese offered “a riot by the police or military”. It stopped me in my tracks. One of my Wycliffe colleagues questioned the item. All of the Congolese firmly defended it being on the list. So on the list it went.

Once we had listed all the disruptive events, we proceeded to estimate the likelihood that each would occur at least once in the coming five years. The Congolese all agreed that there was a 100 percent chance that the police or military would riot in the coming five years. It was less than two years afterwards that there was a riot by the military in the very town where we held the planning.

Working with Congolese clued us in to an event we would not have anticipated. I thought of this recently when I saw a newspaper article about police and military fighting each other in the streets of Haiti. Living in a country where the forces of order are governed by law is actually not that common in this world. Seeing the police or military riot was so far from my experience that I would have missed it completely were it not for the Congolese helping us with contingency planning.