Supporting Bible Translation

Sometimes when speaking to a US church or church group, I have been asked what is the most important thing the church can do to support our ministry. The answer is: make the Bible a key part of your life. I am doing Bible translation because studying the Bible changed me. Why would people who are not passionate about the Bible give so that others can have the Bible? Why would they care that there are people who do not have the Bible in their language? On the other hand, people who find life, hope and power in God’s Word understand why others need to have that same Word.

Besides, it has been shown that the surest way to grow in faith and Christian spirituality is to study the Bible with others. It is even more effective than attending church or reading the Bible personally; not that I am proposing that you stop doing either of those!

The American Bible Society recommends:

  • Declaring your confidence in God’s living and active Word
  • Renewing your personal daily encounter with God in Scripture
  • Giving the Bible a central place in your life
  • Inviting others to engage with the Scriptures

If you want to support Bible translation, then the first thing to do is to cultivate a passion for the Bible in your life that encourages and strengthens you. Besides, it will grow your faith. 

What’s Africa like?

When we arrived in Burkina Faso (then Upper Volta) in 1978, gas stations were just gas stations. They had gas pumps and a small office. You stopped there to get gas, nothing more. There might be a sign but the price was not posted. The price was pretty much the same everywhere, so posting it served no purpose.

In 1999 we moved to Kenya where, at the time, gas stations were also mostly just gas stations. Although some had vehicle services like tire repair. But mostly you just went there for gas. They had signs and the price was usually posted.

A few years later I found myself making trips to the northeast corner of the Congo. There gas stations were … well, they kind of weren’t. If you drove a motorcycle, you stopped for gas at crude wooden tables by the roadside on top of which sat old liquor bottles filled with gasoline. Most drivers bought a fifth at a time. Once in a hefty 4X4, we pulled up to a mud hut from which the attendant rolled out a 55 gallon drum of fuel which he poured into a 20-liter container for measurement and from there it went into the vehicle – at more than $10 per gallon if I remember correctly. In the NE of Congo, I only saw one functioning gas station.

We are now in Ghana were gas stations post the price on their electronic sign. In a first in my experience, the gas pumps sometimes talk to me. In a first for me in Africa, the pumps sometimes have a slot for a credit or debit card. The stations mostly have nice, air-conditioned convenience stores with cold drinks, snacks, sometimes a hot food deli or even an adjoining restaurant/snack bar. Dayle has a favorite ice cream bar she sometimes gets when we stop for gas in Accra. Along major roads you will find full-service stops with sit-down dining, quick take away, restrooms, and fuel.

Sometimes people in the US ask me what Africa is like. Well it’s like its gas stations – there’s a lot of variation. Is the US like Arizona or Florida? Miami, Seattle, Las Vegas or Salt Lake City?

By the way, Ghana is definitely like Oregon because in both places an attendant pumps the gas for you.

Size of Africa

Each country show by its flag

Mystic causes

In an article on the BBC New website, an African journalist wrote:

“It is impossible to cultivate a spirit of innovation and transformation when people believe themselves helpless about their plight.” (Source: Is Nigeria being punished by God? by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani)

In the article, the author tells of a Nigeria state governor who blamed sin for an outbreak of cholera.

“People have turned away from God… that is just the cause of this outbreak as far as I am concerned,”

The author goes on to say that this belief is prevalent in Nigeria, not just among politicians. That matches my experience. Many Africans, certainly not all, blame most  problems on supernatural or mystic causes as though unsanitary conditions have nothing to do with outbreaks of disease. Others, like Adaobi, find that approach problematic. Some of them, like some Westerners, think that religion is the problem. 

But does reading the Bible cause people put their trust in mystic causes or believe that they are helpless about their plight?  Some people mught read the blessings and curses in Deuteronomy 28 and come to the conclusion that there is nothing to do but sit back and trust that God will magically intervene to make them rich (even though the chapter itself contains language that contradicts that conclusion). But is that what usually happens? I don’t think so. 

The Protestant work ethic was developed by people who were very serious about the Bible, God’s promises, his punishment of sin, and his blessings for obedience. Mensah Otabil, the founder and leader of the International Central Gospel Church in Accra, is also serious about God’s blessings coming through faith, yet he preaches that God calls us to personal responsibility. According to some, his message has given rise to a new entrepreneurial class in Ghana which has also had no small influence on economic growth and politics. Evaluations of the effects of Bible translation in Ghana find that people to read the Bible in their own languages have greater confidence and they are more likely to take initiative including for their own economic well-being. These results are the opposite of what one would expect if the Bible message caused people to kick back and just rely on God giving them mystic blessings.

In an article in Christianity Today, the renowned American sociologist, Peter Berger, noted that:

The message that most Pentecostals hear, far from preaching passive acceptance, encourages behavior which requires a lot of effort: hard work, saving, giving up alcohol and sexual promiscuity, and so on. If advocacy of this behavior is linked to a promise of, if not great wealth, at any rate material betterment, this is not a false promise.

Research by secular scholars has found that African churches preaching faith and against the sins of womanizing, alcohol and “worldly pleasures” are more effective at reducing urban poverty in Africa than the aid agencies operating in the same cities.

The Seed Company (a Bible translation organization) has found that those who read translations in their own languages feel empowered to take better actions with regard to their problems.

We translate the Bible because it’s message does the opposite of a mass opiate – it causes people to take eternal responsibility, starting right now.

Literacy is simple

You might imagine that literacy is complicated, that it costs a lot of money, or that adults learning to read spend years in classes. After all, not all children in US schools become fluent readers by the end of first grade and it is in second grade that most become fluent readers. Even then, it is not sure that many could read the Bible and understand it. So you might think that it takes years for an adult in Africa to learn to read well enough to read the Bible fluently. But Bible translators run literacy classes that might surprise you in many ways. I have seen adults become fluent readers, including reading Bible passages, after spending 12 weeks in intensive literacy, although it usually takes longer. They have a very big advantage over US grade school students. Because of the work of missionary-linguists, their language sounds like it spells and spells like it sounds. They don’t have to deal with the inconsistent, confusing maze that is English spelling.

Also, the literacy program is adapted to the local context. Classes are held in whatever facilities are available, even if that is under a tree. Whatever the church or community has, that’s what we’ll use.

In addition, the literacy teachers are volunteers. Few have any formal training as teachers. Some just became literate themselves and they are often among the best teachers! They do get a week or two of training. This is possible because the primer is made so the every lesson has exactly the same steps. The teacher doesn’t need to know why or how the steps work. They just learn to follow the same process with each lesson. (This wouldn’t work with English because the spelling is so complicated.) So literacy classes can be run by almost anybody. A church that wants its members to learn to read the Bible does not need to find a trained teacher. Any literate member of the congregation can do it. Even if no literate person wants to, the church can send a few of its illiterate members to a literacy class and then have the one of them who does the best become the teacher for others. When I was in Burkina Faso, one big literacy program run by another organization required a high school diploma to be a teacher. Not many were found and they wanted salaries, of course. Then the wanted proper classrooms, and they did not want to be assigned to literacy classes is remote areas. A literacy program that uses motivated members of the community does not encounter these issues.

 So, these simple literacy methods work because of motivation. The teachers, for example, are often very highly motivated. Some have been volunteer teachers for years, peddling their personal bicycle to a class several times a week, then the next year doing the same for a different class in a different location. They do this year after year. One even continued after being hit by a car while peddling his bike to class and spending some time in a hospital. They believe that they are changing lives and transforming their community, which they are. The learners are also motivated. Many want to read the Bible. Some want to use text messaging on their phone. Others want to write letters to distant relatives. They put up with the inadequacies and spend hours in class because they really want to read. If they fail, they enroll in the next class and try again. Chiefs want literacy classes in their areas so they give what they can and tell people to enroll. Nothing can replace motivation when it comes to literacy.

But the biggest reason why these literacy classes work is that they are in a language people know – their own language, their heart language. Time after time, I have seen adult literacy programs in English or French (in countries where French is the official language) get low results.

A few years ago, I met a young lady in northern Ghana who told me that her father would not let her go to school, but her uncle interceded with her father so that she could go to a literacy class in her language offered by the Ghanaian organization I work for. She did so well and her father was so impressed that he let her start school for the first time as a teenager. She advanced quickly. In the process she became a Christian and married a fine Christian man. When I spoke to her she was a few weeks from graduating from university. There are tens of thousands of similar cases in Ghana.  Combine literacy in the heart language with the Bible also in the heart language, and amazing things happen. Simple literacy yields results that are anything but simple. 

Photos: Rodney Ballard, courtesy of Wycliffe Global Alliance

Empathy and mission

I have mentioned several times my favorite blogger, Seth Godin. In 2014, he posted this as part of a short blog entitled Tone Deaf:

Great marketers have empathy.
They’re able to imagine what it might be like to have a mustache or wear pantyhose. They work hard to imagine life in someone else’s shoes.
“What’s it like to be you?” is an impossible question to answer. But people who aren’t tone deaf manage to ask it.

Doing Bible translation well includes being able to imagine what it is like to be part of a bibleless people. In fact, the primary skill of someone ministering the Gospel across cultures might be imaginative empathy. Mastery of linguistics or translation skills is crucial when translating the Bible, but if they are wielded without empathetic understanding, they are not ministry.

A basic knowledge of cultural anthropology also really helps in cross-cultural ministry, but if I employ it without empathy, people will feel like mere objects of study or even curiosities. I might go to another culture and imagine that I know how to solve their problems, but until I make the effort to understand those problems the way they do, my efforts will almost certainly fail.

Pray for us and for others working in Bible translation — that we will have imaginative empathy.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (I Corinthians 13:1-3)

No no no

The Apostle Paul wrote:

I have always tried to preach where people have never heard about Christ (Romans 15:20 CEV)

John Piper calls this a Holy Ambition. Piper is far from alone in getting inspiration from the Apostle’s desire to take the good new about Jesus to places where it has not yet been announced. The website JoshuaProject.net is dedicated to listing all the peoples and languages of the world and the degree to which each has heard the good news. As is evident from perusing the website, intentionally taking the good new to new places requires research. One cannot just strike off in a random direction and hope to encounter a people who has not heard of Jesus.

I have colleagues who have spent a good part of their lives going out into the field and finding out where languages are, how many people speak them, if the people in one location can understand the people in another and if the language is dying out or perhaps growing. One of them is Ted Bergman who was an engineer before getting involved in Bible translation. After spending a couple decades training, organizing and leading small teams of researchers across Africa, he set out to find out how many places there in the world where there are no Christians, no missionaries and no Bible in the language of the people — a triple no.

The purpose of the research, of course, is so that people will know of those places and take action to remove one or more no. He found 138 such places. There are none in North America, South America or the Pacific. There is only one in Europe. The majority are in Asia but there are also a number in the Middle East and 18 in Africa. Just three countries have over half of the 138 places, but 19 countries have at least one. You can look at the list yourself, just ignore the columns of codes only missiologists understand.

I was a missionary for a while before I fully appreciated that missions requires research. Not the kind of research one does in a lab or on a computer, but rather the kind where one goes out among the people, talks to them, and seeks to understand their situation. What language do they speak? Have they ever heard an adequate presentation of the good news? Are there missionaries working among them? How many of them are Christians, if any? What religion do they follow? Is there a Bible in their language? This research is seeking out every niche where the good news of Jesus is still missing. A few months back, I was involved in an inter-agency committee in Ghana where we looked at research, made inquiries and came up with a list of all the remaining Bible translation needs in Ghana. What’s cool about that is the efforts now being made to shrink that list until it has nothing on it.

Area near the town of Goz Béïda in Chad which is near the Dar Sila Daju language area, one of the places with no Christians, no missionaries and no Bible

 

 

Public

For years Africans told me, “Your translation work is not well known. People should know about it.” The thing is, I didn’t know what to do about that. We weren’t trying to keep it a secret. We did tell people what we were doing, so I couldn’t figure out what we might change. In the last few years I have started to see what Africans meant and why it is important, mostly by observing what Ghanaians are doing in the translation programs when they have the full freedom to do it their way.

When we first arrived in Africa, we were sent to a village in the southwest of Burkina Faso. With help from translators in a neighboring language, we contacted missionaries in the area, met with a few local officials and set to work. While I was briefly acting director in Côte d’Ivoire last year, we officially started the translation into the Abure (pronounced ah-boo-RAY) language. The process was quite different. First, some well-known Christians from the language area were contacted about the translation. They formed a committee composed of representatives of all the major churches. Then they informed all the pastors, chiefs and officials of the plans to do a translation of the Bible into Abure. All of this culminated in a public event to which all the churches were invited and most attended. It was lead by people well-known in the language area. At the ceremony, an agreement was signed detailing how the translation would proceed and how the churches and Bible agencies would cooperate.

Only after the ceremony, was the translation program considered to have officially started. Having a public ceremony to launch a translation was something I first saw in Ghana in 2012. In found it significant that in both Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire people who didn’t know each other and who were unaware of each others’ actions spontaneously started translation programs the same way.

Prayer at the launch of translations in three smaller languages in Ghana’s Volta Region

Public ceremonies, it turns out, are key events for informing everyone that the translation is taking place. I finally figured out that I could spend a lot of time going around telling people about the translation without accomplishing what can be done by visiting a few key people then holding one public event. Because chiefs and leading pastors attend, the whole community sees that they support it; a key to getting others to volunteer. I have also seen them become important fund-raising events. Finally, after the public event, everyone in the community, even those who do not attend, are thought to know about the translation, because the communities are very effective at spreading information by word of mouth.

But public meetings are about more than spreading information or raising funds. They give the translation program something nothing else can – legitimacy. Programs that are not publicly launched can attract suspicion – what are they hiding; why don’t they make themselves known? But programs that start with a public ceremony are seen to be transparent and have the endorsement of the right people; so people can trust them, contribute to them, and recommend them to others.

If you liked this, you might also like Making the Right Decision.

Jumping ship

In 2010, I worked for an organization that was like a well-run ship. The crew was well-trained and beyond competent. The equipment might not have been the latest, but it was fully functional and well-maintained. Relations between crew members were cordial. All the safety equipment was in place. But there was a problem. The captain said we were headed to New York but it looked to me like we were going to miss New York by a very long ways.

Paul Opoku-Mensah

It was in this quandary that Paul Opoku-Mensah, the director of the Ghana Institute of Linguistics, Literacy and Bible Translation (GILLBT), asked me to come to Ghana twice to do some training of his staff. During my trips to Ghana, I had the opportunity to talk for hours on end with Paul, including twice on 14-hour drives between the north and the south of Ghana. Paul’s organization was nothing like mine. It had recently been rescued from nearly sinking and it was still leaking and listing. The crew suffered from factions and discord, even threatening to mutiny against the captain. But Paul had a plan for getting to New York I found compelling. His plan was similar in some ways to what I was thinking, but involved a number of things I had never heard of. When Paul asked Dayle and I to join the crew of his ship, we were faced with a stark choice – we could stay on our sleek ship going the wrong direction or join the fractious crew of a troubled derelict taking an uncharted course. We prayed and jumped ship.

Our “New York” destination involved engaging the church in Africa in translating the Bible into African Languages, and sustaining the use of the Bibles being translated.

A few days ago, Paul, the man who has been our captain for the last 7 years,  moved on to something new. So I am looking back and evaluating the progress the ship has made. First, it didn’t sink! And while it hasn’t yet arrived at its destination, it is a LOT closer. Churches in Ghana have been engaged. They are giving money. It’s not enough yet, but it is growing substantially every year. Because churches understand and support ministry in Ghana languages, sustained use of translations in those languages is much more likely. 

In addition to being fruitful, the journey has been intellectually stimulating. Paul taught me a lot about the theory and the practice of sustainability and engaging the church in Africa,

In 2011, God put before us a very uncertain path. That was not at all a bad thing. 

Power interface

Paramount chief being carried on litter

Akan chief being carred to a funeral in Kumasi, Ghana

One of my first big surprises in Ghana was to find traditional chiefs who are very educated. The leading newspaper in Ghana recently carried the installation of a new chief of the town of Kwahu Abene in Ghana’s Eastern Region. The new chief is a medical doctor, professor of pathology and medical researcher. I used to think of chiefs as traditional rulers with no or little education, but that is not the trend in Ghana. The Akan King has been a successful businessman in London and Toronto after which he returned to Ghana and started a successful business. When he became king, he revitalized and reorganized the royal court, settling longstanding disputes and creating a focus on education.

One of the driving forces behind the trend toward more educated chiefs is that people want a chief who has influence outside the language community, who understands how the wider world works, and has connections in that world so that he or she can create a favorable interface with the outside world – attracting economic growth on the one hand and fending off unfavorable developments on the other.

Globalization-smallerThis points to a situation common to many peoples around the world, including many bibleless peoples. They feel that they don’t fully understand the outside world or they have trouble negotiating with it and getting favorable results. They may feel that forces they don’t want or don’t understand are pushing their way into the lives.  Naming a chief who is both one of their own and who has had success in the outside world is a way of improving their ability to get the outcomes they want in a world where outside forces are a bigger and bigger part of their lives.

These peoples may be in a similar situation with regards to religion. On the one hand, they may perceive that their traditional religion is no longer be serving them well. On the other, they may be getting confusing and contradictory appeals from Christians and those of other faiths. Translating the Bible into their language puts them back in control. They can judge the claims on their own with full information. Like an educated chief, the Bible in their language gives them a power interface they often lack in dealing with ideas and forces coming from the outside world. In northern Ghana, Christians with the Bible in their languages reported that they felt able to answer people coming into their communities spreading another religion, whereas those without a Bible felt less informed and unable to respond to the claims of other religions. A chief reported that since the publication of the New Testament, so few people are going to the traditional shrine that the path is overgrown and difficult to find. Those people have found a new power interface with the spiritual world.

New Norms

The Ghanaian organization we work for has just established norms for the length of translation programs — five years for the New Testament and 7 for the Old. These assume that the basic linguistic work like getting and alphabet and primer, have already been done. They also assume that all the right conditions have been met such as adequately trained translators with biblical training including at least one with who knows biblical languages; and adequate funding for all the translation activities and equipment. I have seen under-resourced translation programs drag on and end up costing more in the long term than if they had been well-resourced in the short term.

Translation progress graph

Translation progress is more like the blue line than the brown line

Translation does not progress in a straight line. That is, if it takes 5 years to translate the New Testament, the translation does not progress at the rate of one fifth per year. Rather, progress in the first year will be slow as the translators learn and as they solve translation issues that only need solving once then can be applied throughout such as how to translate “sin”. So we expect the translation to pick up speed as it goes along and at the same time to be better quality – clearer and more accurate.

But there is a limit. The translation can only go so fast without the speed causing problems like poor translation accuracy. I’ve seen that first hand and more than once. On the other hand, translations that proceed too slowly also create problems. Local churches and international funders can get discouraged and stop their support, for example. I have seen cases where translation progressed so slowly that the translators became a joke in the community and no one would lend a hand or give money any more. Even getting the translation back on track was difficult because no serious person in the area wanted to be associated with such a sorry project.

In this way, translations are like the speed (RPM) of large diesel engines. When they are pulling a load it is bad for them to go either too slow or too fast. So the operator has to keep them in a certain RPM range. Unfortunately, many Westerners like me who are involved in translation are (rightly) worried about translation going to fast and loosing quality, but we don’t seem to see the problems of going too slow.

Just for comparison, it took the translators of the King James Version seven years to translate the whole Bible, but there were over forty translators divided into six groups each of which did part of the Bible. Also, they borrowed heavily from Tyndale’s translation which done only a few decades earlier. In fact, not a few passages in the King James translation are lifted directly from Tyndale with only minor changes if any. On the other hand, the KJV translators worked part time alongside their church duties. Nevertheless, doing a whole Bible in Ghana in 12 years with 3-4 full-time translators and no previous translation to draw on will push the limits in many of the languages where translations are still needed. If the new norms provoke efforts to see that translation programs have everything they need to progress well, they will be valuable even if they are not always met.