Making the right decision

decisionAs I have written several times on this blog, we tend to think about culture as the things we see – the different clothes, houses, food, etc. But culture goes deep. In recent years I have been particularly interested in two aspects of culture. One is how different cultures view the causes of things. I’ll reserve that one for another blog. This week, I will describe my thoughts and experiences about how different cultures know what is right – specifically, how they decided if a decision is the right one or not.

Many years ago when I worked in Burkina Faso, I was with a colleague from Burkina Faso and we were working with church leaders concerning the translation of the Bible into their language. At one point, one of them asked why something in the language (his language) was written the way it was. Linguistic nerd that I am, I gave him and explanation of the linguistic reasons why the translators were writing it that way. I tried to take out the technical jargon and I gave a couple of examples. I hoped that I had explained clearly. In any case, the man who had asked the question did not look satisfied.

After I finished, my Burkina Faso colleague took on the question from a totally different perspective. He mentioned the linguist who did the research into the sounds of the language, his qualifications and the amount of time he spent. He then moved on to the translation committee including that it represented  all the churches. Then he said that it was the translation committee which made the decision on such and such a date after reviewing the recommendations of the linguist and studying options.

authorizedThe explanation given by my African colleague clearly satisfied the man asking the question whereas mine had fallen flat. The explanation that the people who made the decision were qualified and duly authorized to do so was much more powerful than my explanation of the linguistic basis.

In other words, in that culture a decision is right when the right people make it.

Dedication of translation committees for three languages in Ghana

Dedication of translation committees for three languages in Ghana. These are the right people to make decisions about the translations.

In my Western culture, it is important that I check the evidence myself and make up my own mind. So I found this idea that a decision is right if the right people made it very strange, even disconcerting. It didn’t take much thinking to realize that we often do the same in the West, just not to the same degree.

I work in a cultures were people give more credence to decisions made by “the right people”. Conversely, they distrust decisions made by “the wrong people”. The “wrong people” include those not authorized to make the decision by virtue of their position. It may also include those who don’t have expertise.

Creating something sustainable, therefore, necessarily includes getting “the right people” in on the decisions – from how to write the language to what word to use for “salvation”. This was driven home to me once when a translation of the New Testament fell quickly into disuse because key decisions about the translation were not made by “the right people”. Because of that, people distrusted it. But that’s a story for another time.

Role ending

The new director and her husband

The new director and her husband

As many of you know, I was unexpectedly asked to serve as acting director for translation work in Côte d’Ivoire and I have filled that role for the last six months. That ended on October 1 when I handed over to an Ivorian, Mrs. Pierrette Ayité (pronounced ah-yee-TAY). One of my principle responsibilities was to work with a group of Ivorian Christians to recruit a new director. It was with great thankfulness to God and a sense of satisfaction that I handed over to her because I believe that she will do a great job.

I have been reflecting on these last few months. I could say lots of things, but one reflection keeps coming back to me. I’ll get to it in a moment.

For a couple decades, our ministry has focused on helping African churches and African Christians understand the role they can play in Bible translation and perhaps receive a call from God to be involved. We did not come to Africa with that focus, not at all. Instead it flowed out of a set of personal experiences and out of seeing how God is growing his church on this continent – both in terms of numbers and in terms of depth.

My time in Côte d’Ivoire confirmed another reason why we pursue this focus. In familiarizing myself with the translation work after my arrival, I discovered a rather serious lack in some of the translation programs. The thing was, it was the Ivorians who saw the lack, not we white missionaries. As I dug into it, I came to be convinced that they were right to be concerned. At the end of September we has a meeting with church leaders where they fully confirmed that the lack was real and that it was crucial that it be dealt with. We should not be surprised that they saw the problem first. This is their country, their languages and their churches. They will understand them in ways we do not.

Ed working with Ivorian staff

Ed and other staff members preparing information for the recruitment of a new director

A very good reason to involve local people in Bible translation is that they will make it more effective because will see problems and opportunities we don’t. That is the reflection that keeps coming back to me. By the way, that reflection is confirmed by recent research showing that translation has more impact where local people are more involved in decision making. If you are interested in working in a cross-cultural team where each person and culture contributes and all are appreciated, ask God if working to produce lasting impact through Bible translation is for you.

PS: Dayle and I will stay in Abidjan for a few more weeks before returning to Ghana.

If you liked this post, you might also like Why Nationals? or Span.


Legible or fancy

KJV 1611 Genesis 1A change in technology changes the thing to which we apply the technology. There are lots of examples. Here’s one I love. What you see here is the first page of the first printing of the King James Bible in 1611. (enlarge). It is quite difficult to read. When Bibles were painstakingly hand copied by scribes, before the printing press, they became ornate. Each scribe was in fact a calligrapher.

Few had Bibles, few read them and those who did mostly had jobs that had them reading all day long – university professors, etc. So this system worked. Those who read learned through long practice to read the ornate letters with ease.

After the invention of the printing press, the first printers made Bibles that looked like the hand copied ones. They used the same kind of  ornate “fonts” and decorations. What else would they do? That kind of Bible was the only example they had. Printed Bibles spread more widely than he old hand-copied ones. Soon they were in the hands of lots of people who did not read all day long.

It took quite a while, but someone noticed that Bibles printed this way were difficult to read, especially for people who might only read the Bible a few times a week. People started experimenting with shapes of letters which were easier to read. The focus on the shapes of letters shifted from being fancy or ornate, to being easy to read. Eventually, educators began experiments to see which fonts were easier to read. Soon publishers were printing Bibles in easy-to-read fonts. Today, publishers consider carefully which font to use when printing a Bible and the main consideration is legibility. Get into the right circles, and there are still discussions of which fonts are best.

The technology of printing made the Bible and other documents available to more people. Those people needed something other than ornate letters, so the shapes of the characters (their font) eventually changed to match their needs. It’s one of very many examples of technology changing the thing to which it applied.

ImageTo print Bibles and other documents in local languages, we use fonts created by experts in making easily readable fonts. Those fonts contain all the characters we need, including a number not found in English. For many languages, we use letters like those we have in English, but we add some new letters to account for all the sounds in the language. Here’s an example of some of those added letters.

Capital of engFor the most part, these experts were and are missionaries supported by their churches and friends. Their work is a very important, if often unheralded, part of translating the Bible into all the languages of the world. In fact, I recently saw that Wycliffe is looking to recruit missionaries to do font development.


I was at a meeting where an African was giving a meditation on the story in Luke 13:10-17 where Jesus saw a woman who had been crippled for 18 years. She was completely bent over and could not straighten up. The person giving the meditation repeatedly asked his African listeners about this woman’s condition:

Is that an honorable position?
Is that an honorable position?
Is that an honorable position?
Is that an honorable position?


The workshop

Everyone was in agreement that it was not honorable. I agreed too. But if I had been giving the devotional on that passage I would not have focused on the honor or dishonor associated with the woman’s condition. I would have talked about the woman’s condition being painful or limiting. I think that most of my American friends would do the same. We would feel pity for the limitations or pain that such a condition would cause. If we prayed for someone with that condition, it would be to relieve the suffering and limitations that come with it.

Not many of us would pray for relief from the dishonor. Think about the word we use to use about such conditions. We called them disabilities. The focus in that word is on the (supposed) lack of some ability. It is a dis-ABILITY. But my African friend focused on the dis-HONOR. Honor is so important to cultures here that, in a discussion of what makes for good teamwork, one of my Ivorian friends said that is it important to good teamwork that no members of the team bring it dishonor. If they behave in wrong ways, he explained, others will think that the whole team is bad and thereby lacking in honor.

Different cultures bring different perspectives to the same text. My focus on the pain and limitations is not wrong or right nor was my African’s friend’s focus on dishonor wrong or right. Rather, we each bring a perspective that can enrich and expand the perspective of others.

Voices of the PoorIn this case, the perspective of honor and dishonor is very helpful. First of all, it is almost certain that the woman and the people around her in her day had the same focus as my African friend – considering the lack of honor as important as the lack of ability or the experience of pain. So his perspective helps me to understand the incident more like Jesus and the others who were present at the actual event. Second, at the turn of the millennium, the World Bank asked 60,000 experts on poverty from 60 countries to give their perspective on poverty. These experts were the poor themselves. The results can be found in a book entitled Voices of the Poor. Here’s a quote from one of the experts:

Poverty is pain; it feels like a disease. It attacks a person not only materially but also morally. It eats away one’s dignity and drives one into total despair- a poor woman, Moldova.

Voices of the Poor reveals that the poor experience poverty not just as lack of finances. They a feel the lack of respect, the dishonor. When I treat poverty as only a lack of finances, I miss an important way I can fight the effects of poverty – by giving respect to the poor. The same is true for people with dis-abilities, we can counter one of the effects by giving respect.

Jesus brought honor to the woman by healing her. We can’t always heal, but we can follow Jesus’ example by treating with respect those others may disrespect. The person bringing the meditation noted that many of the peoples without the Scriptures are bent into an dishonorable position by poverty, by disdain, or through being marginalized by others. Not infrequently, they see the translation of the Bible into their languages as something that disperses some of their dishonor.


Seminar participants

Seminar participants

Recently, I attended the closing ceremony of a training event held near Abidjan. I found my lowly self in a meeting with a number of august people. One of the teachers at the training event was an American friend of ours married to an Ivorian. She has been involved in Bible translation all her life and is now officially retired, but still active. When it was her turn to speak, the African moderator introduced her as:

Our old mother


Seminar session

Having spent her life in Africa, she knew that this was an expression of both honor and affection. She is greatly respected for her contributions to Bible translation and for her expertise. She is also loved for her friendship and care. So in Ivorian terms, “our old mother” was the perfect thing to call her in an introduction to an august assembly as that phrase reflects both her exceptional professional accomplishments and her personal care and friendship.

She understood that. However, she did tease the moderator that such an introduction would not be well received in the USA.

Respect for others is a universal in human cultures. It is held as a value even by people who could do much better at putting it into practice. However, the words and expressions people use to show respect are anything but universal. I doubt that any Western women reading this would consider “our old mother” an accolade, but here it most definitely is.

Black Hole

UNESCO School statsAccording to UNESCO, 42% of African children will drop out before finishing primary school. Because the dropout rate is so high, many adults don’t know how to read or write. So in most areas where translation is going on or needed, there are high levels of illiteracy. In fact, in most of those areas the dropout rate is well above 42%. So, translating the Bible without doing literacy results in little impact. But the major North American agencies that fund most of translation work are hesitant to do much literacy because they consider it a “black hole”.

By black hole thy mean something one can put lots of money into and never get to the end of it. They are both right and wrong about this.

Artwork courtesy of Alain r via Wikimedia Commons

Artwork courtesy of Alain r via Wikimedia Commons

They are right because of the statistics I cited above. Africa’s population is growing and many children drop out of school. So every year hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Africans become adults not knowing how to read. Even if a literacy program reached all of them, the next year more would be added. A charity could spend millions of dollars for decades and not solve the problem. The metaphor of a black hole fits. But, the metaphor is also wrong. Literacy is only a black hole if you try to solve it once and for all. There are lots of low-cost things we can do to help people learn to read their newly translated Bibles without trying to “solve the literacy problem”.

Reagan - everyone can help someoneMany people could be blessed by spending a fraction of the money spent on translation on well-conceived literacy efforts. Many churches in Africa could run such programs at very low-cost and some, if informed and trained, could cover the costs themselves. It’s a modern malady – if we can’t solve something definitively we feel discouraged and don’t want to do anything about it. But Jesus didn’t call us to solve the world’s problems definitively, just to love our neighbor. The idea that we must fix a problem can prevent us from obeying that simple injunction. For me, calling literacy a black hole is a great example of that.

A Ghanian woman demonstrates her newly writing skills by writing in the sand. It's very low cost - no paper, no pencil, no blackboard, no chalk.

A Ghanaian woman demonstrates her newly acquired writing skills by writing in the sand. It’s very low cost – no paper, no pencil, no blackboard, no chalk. (photo courtesy of GILLBT)

Hmong alphabet

Today is International Literacy Day. So my blog today is about literacy, and it will be about literacy next week too.

Hmong alphabetThis is a wood carving in the Hmong language. It uses a writing system developed in about 1959 by Shong Lue Yang, a Laotian peasant farmer. He may be the only person in history who was killed for creating an alphabet. Writing their language in an alphabet developed by one of their own, the Hmong people began to have pride in their identity. These developments cause some to perceive Shong Lue Yang threat, so they had him assassinated in 1971.

I know of similar situations in Africa. In one case, a people dominated by another began to assert their rights after the development of an alphabet for their language and the start of the first literacy classes. The group that had dominated them reacted with violence. They even attempted to burn down the buildings of the organization doing literacy.

Young woman in literacy class in Burkina Faso

Young woman in literacy class in Burkina Faso

Literacy is about learning to read and write, but its effects go well beyond the realm of reading. Christians in Ghana who learn to read and write their languages become more active in their churches, so much so that some churches now recognize the ministry of uneducated lay people who have learned to read and who read the Bible in their languages. Women who learn to read and write are more likely to undertake new initiatives or businesses and to speak out in their communities and churches, even though the literacy classes don’t teach any of those things.

Literacy among minority peoples is a very neglected but effective form of Christian ministry. As I have written before, through literacy a person can touch many aspects of life: spiritual, economic, social and even political.

PS: The photo of the Hmong alphabet comes from Tim Brookes of the Endangered Alphabets Project. They have a gift shop with some very beautiful and unusual gifts.

Put the most important last

Consider these two sentences:

Why she married him I really don’t know.
I really don’t know why she married him.

The first carries a lot more emotional content than the second. If the person speaking wanted to make clear their complete disagreement with the woman’s choice, the first sentence works better. It puts “why she married him”at the front whereas it would normally come at the end – something grammarians call fronting.

But not all languages use fronting for emphasis. Languages here do the opposite. My boss in Ghana and the Director of the national organization we work for, GILLBT, says that the organization has a three-fold heritage – language development, literacy and Bible translation. On more than one occasion I have heard him mention to other Ghanaians that it is important to put Bible translation last because it is the most important. That’s because in Ghana, the most important words come last. It was the same way in Congo – the most important words came at the end.

Consultant advising translators to put "blessed" at the end

Consultant advising translators to put “blessed” at the end

Recently, I sat in for part of a workshop on the translation of the book of Romans. A translation consultant was giving instructions to translators from five languages. One piece of advice he gave concerned the following verse:

Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves (Romans 14:22)

He asked the translators to think about how to translate this verse, specifically where they would put the word “blessed”. They indicated that they would put it at the end, something like:

The one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves; he is blessed

Why? Because the important bit needs to come at the end in the languages here. The consultant warned them not to weaken the verse or make the translation awkward by keeping the word “blessed” at the front. He mentioned that the same thing applies when translating the beatitudes.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
(and so on) (Matthew 5:2-12)

Blessed with emphasis are the first words in English. In the languages of Ivory Coast, the last words are the ones so blessed.

As serpents

I recently developed a new understanding of a saying of Jesus that I’ve always found a bit odd:

“Look, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. So be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves. (Matthew 10:16 ESV)

APN front page - colorizedI am serving as interim Director of translation and language development work in Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast). A few weeks after arriving, I started getting small indications that there was something not quite right in our cooperation with churches in some of the languages where translations are in progress. I found that we have written agreements those churches. In some cases, we have written agreements with local associations that represent the churches. On a hunch, I started studying the articles of incorporation of those associations. My head was full of phrases about Annual General Meetings, Executive Committees, Internal Auditors, quorums and so on. I also got a copy of the standard articles of incorporation and by-laws recommended by the government for the sake of comparison.

The articles of incorporation for the association for the Nghlwa language (cover pictured above) are exemplary. But in a couple of cases, while the associations pretend to represent their members (churches and interested people), key parts of the standard documents had been changed so that the associations are effectively controlled by a small number of individuals and in one case by only one person. No wonder some churches and key people were starting to say that they were being frozen out.

Dedication of representative translation committees in three Ghana languages, 2014

We have known for a long time that involving local churches in decision-making is a key element in the success of a translation. Yet I found that we are working with associations purporting to represent churches but which in reality are controlled by a small number of people who are making all the decisions. If allowed to continue, this will limit the use and impact of the translations, perhaps severely. I guess that being “shrewd as snakes” includes checking to see if articles of incorporation have been carefully crafted to be something other than what they appear on the surface.

Now, I need a substantial shot of serpentine circumspection to set things straight.

Two Theologies

Theologie et vie chretienne en AfriqueA couple years ago, African theologians and church leaders got together at a conference. One of the realizations that came out of that conference was that there are two theologies developing among Christians in Africa. One is an official and academic theology. It is taught in Bible schools and theological seminaries. But it often doesn’t spread beyond those. The other is a people’s theology. It is found among ordinary Christians. The official and academic theology happens in the official language, but the people’s theology is created and discussed in local languages. So the two don’t interact. The people’s theology is created when people talk to each other about how to deal with issues coming out of their traditional beliefs such as spirits, sorcery, and their fears The official theology often fails to touch those issues or to take them seriously.

Unfortunately, few missionaries taught on such things other than to quickly issue a general condemnation. In that gap, people filled in their own theology. They sit in church and listen, and not hearing something that answers their questions, they may leave church and go to a practitioner of traditional religion where they do find answers, not good answers, but answers nevertheless.

Reading the Bible in a language of northern Ghana

Reading the Bible in a language of northern Ghana

My Congolese friend and theologian, Bungushabaku Katho, has been experimenting with what he calls “The Village Academy”. He gets ordinary people in Congolese villagers to read the Bible in their languages, then he and other theologians interact with them about what they read and what they think that it means for them. Of that experience he wrote:

“Very often we realized that the experience of villagers became much more enriching for our understanding of the Bible; well above the bookish methods of the seminary hall.”

The experiment of the “Village Academy” is teaching us that a theologian must keep his ear tuned to the community in which he lives.

KathoWhat kind of Christianity will we find in Africa in 25 years, or 50? Will it be split in two with a academic part stuck in theological seminaries and a people’s part in the pews and the streets but which is less and less recognizable as the Good News taught by Jesus and the Apostles? I hope not.