Bibleless Peoples part 2, language myths

I recently read “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave”, Frederick Douglass’ autobiography. Douglass wrote it in 1845. It contained a number of words I did not know. Take this passage, for example.

His carriage-house contained three splendid coaches, three or four gigs, besides dearborns and barouches of the most fashionable style.

I had to look up gigs, dearborns, and barouches, having never had occasion to be around or talk about these types of horse-drawn wagons and coaches. I knew of covered wagons and stage coaches because I have seen those and heard them called by their names, but everything else was just a wagon to me.

Choir in Congo singing AIDS prevention song in their language

That brings me to bibleless peoples. They are often accused of having impoverished, substandard or unscientific languages. These accusations are bolstered by pointing out that the languages do not have words for modern things. But in Frederick Douglass’s day, even English did not have the word “microbe”. Was his language therefore impoverished? Was mine impoverished because I didn’t know barouches? Not having words for something is a silly way to judge someone’s language. Many common words today were unknown to Shakespeare and it is ridiculous to call the English he spoke and wrote impoverished or substandard. In fact, such accusations are misplaced for any language because languages adopt or invent new words for the things they encounter. Vocabulary is a function of context rather than a sign of adequacy or inadequacy. All languages can and do develop – acquiring new words as needed. Did you know that “vegan” wasn’t invented until 1944 and remained obscure for decades after that? When we were involved in translating AIDS information into Congo languages, we had to find ways to say HIV, AIDS, seropositive, virus and many other things. Those doing the translations always found good translations of all the terms and even had them approved by medical professionals.

Unfortunately, sometimes bibleless peoples believe the negative statements made about their languages. They can even believe that the lack of certain words will make it impossible to translate the Bible. Sometimes we have to convince church leaders who fear that the Bible will be degraded by translating it into “substandard” languages. It’s all part of mobilizing churches in Africa for Bible translation.

But when the translation produces the joy of salvation and the fruit of godly living, the language myths are often dispelled. Besides, dare we call any language “impoverished” in which God speaks to people?

Publications in many topics in Ghanaian languages

The Bibleless part 1 – Hidden

The United Nations has declared 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages. This prompts me to write a short series of blog posts about a related topic – the peoples around the world who still don’t have the Bible in their language – the bibleless peoples.

The bibleless peoples and their languages are almost invisible. That is, you only notice them if you look. Unlike the things in life that force themselves into our perception whether we want them or not – potholes, polluted air, loving hugs from family and friends – most of us could live our whole lives without encountering someone from a bibleless people, or not noticing if we did. In this way, the bibleless peoples are very much like the one lost sheep from among the 100 that the good shepherd took pains to locate.

Being an imitator of Jesus means more than responding with love and the gospel to the people and circumstances that we find clearly in our vision. It also means going and looking for cases we don’t readily see. That’s the point of the parable and indeed of Jesus life – he came looking for us even while we were hidden (lost), far away and not looking for him.

We owe a debt to those who have located and made known the bibleless peoples. They embody Jesus’ seeking spirit.

I remember vividly a chief of the Nawuri people expressing how hidden his people felt until they had the Bible. Raising high the newly-printed New Testament in Nawuri, and with emotion in his voice he said:

Politicians don’t know us, but now God knows us.

Jesus said of himself:

For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.” – Luke 19:10

Jesus seeks, actively searches for, the lost. He didn’t and doesn’t wait for them to find him. To be true to Jesus, our mission endeavors should also spend effort searching for those who would normally remain hidden.

Made for leaving

I think I always knew it, but my friend and the person who has overseen most of my work in Ghana, Paul Opoku-Mensah, clarified it for me:

Missionaries are temporary

Or as I like to say, missionaries are made for leaving. By that, I do not mean that they are forced to leave. Rather, I mean that missionaries are temporary by design. Leaving is what we are built for. We see this clearly in Jesus ministry which lasted roughly three years. We see it in the Apostle Paul’s missionary journies during which he went many places, stayed some time, then moved on. But when I say that missionaries are made to leave, I am not speaking primarily about the length of their ministry, but more about the conditions that end it. A missionary might move to an area to translate the Bible into the language there, then move on or return home when the translation is complete. That might take quite a long time, but it is still destined to end if and when the missionary succeeds. A mission that has not ended is, therefore, one which has not yet succeeded.

There’s an irony in the fact that a mission which succeeds creates the conditions for its own demise. But it goes further than that. A mission that does not end stifles new life.

Paul Opoku-Mensah taught me that it is good and natural that missionaries have different ideas than those who come to faith through their ministry. The missionary who founded The Church of Pentecost in Ghana, James McKoewn, only did evangelism and discipleship, but he was pleased when, after his retirement, the very successful church he planted branched out into medical work, schools and more. He saw these changes as a sign of his success. But many missionaries resist changes to ministries they start. I remember a person highly respected among his people telling us that a particular missionary had to go. The missionary had not done anything wrong except keep control too long.

If a missionary translates the Bible for people, those people may develop their own vision for what comes next. They will want to make sure that the translation is reprinted and on sale for the next generations. They might want to have their language used in the first few years of primary school to help their children get better grades. They may want lots of literacy classes. Or maybe they will want to translate their church’s liturgy. There’s no telling what things they will want to do to that the missionary didn’t do.

In order for this to happen well, the missionary must leave, or at least relinquish his or her hold on the ministry, so others can take it new directions.

To really succeed, a missionary must create the conditions that bring an end to his or her ministry.

Fraud

money-on-mouse-trap

Quite a few years ago, I was following a national organization doing Bible translation in a particular African country. Their board let their director go and brought in a new director. He brought in new top-level staff and they set about making some changes to the organization.

In the course of making the changes, they found that one of the translation project leaders was embezzling funds. They fired him and set about finding a new project leader. They also informed the US organization which was funding that translation project. That organization wrote back that they were stopping funding because of the fraud. They did not suspend funding pending a resolution of the issue, but rather stopped it permanently.

Now, I can understand stopping funding as a gut reaction. But I wondered if they really thought about the impact of what they were doing.

First, the people group still needed a translation. The embezzlement didn’t change that. Should they not get a translation because one person acted badly?

Second, they stopped funding to an organization that was undergoing reforms that had caught the problem. That didn’t seem like the right way to reward reformers who were fixing things.

Perhaps stopping funding gave a good feeling to the leaders of the funding organization or perhaps it made them look tough on fraud in front of their donors. But I could not think of any positive effect for the kingdom of God where the translation was happening. There, reformers were a bit disheartened and the people group saw their translation stop.

However, the reformers did go on to put in place a system where well-chosen local committees had oversight over the translation, and that put a virtual end to problems with missing and miss-spent money for translations.

Interpretation without communication

talking-head-word-cloud

Way back in 1982, I knew a missionary in Abidjan. At one time, he had just returned from a trip to another city in the country where he had preached at a church. I asked him how it went. He laughed and told me that he had preached in French and the church supplied an interpreter to translate him into the local language. After the service, the interpreter told him:

God really helped me to translate you, because I didn’t understand anything you said!

It appears to me that missionaries and African church leaders sometimes assume that as long as a person speaks both languages, he or she can be an interpreter. The business and diplomatic worlds know better.

In Africa, it is not uncommon that educated people speak their local language and the official language (French, English or Portuguese depending on the country), but have never actually read the Bible in their language. They may not know the names of the books of the Bible in their language, or how to say “Holy Spirit” or other key words in their language. They know all that in the official language, but not in their own. As most interpretation goes from the official language to the local language, you can imagine the kind of disaster than can occur if such a person is asked to translate a sermon or evangelistic message. Then there are can be other problems. The person speaking might speak too fast, or have an accent the interpreter isn’t used to.

I have sat through church services that were both well-interpreted and inadequately interpreted. Usually I understand the language of the speaker, but not the language into which the message is being interpreted. But it is still clear that the interpretation is lacking. For example, the person speaking may say something that elicits a strong response from the members of audience who speak his language, but when that is interpreted into the other language, no one reacts. Or perhaps the person speaking is telling a longish story that it is building to a climax. At the climax, the same thing happens – no audience response to the interpretation. This is more marked in churches where it is usual for listeners to verbally interact with the preacher during the sermon. When only those who understand the speaker’s language are interacting, something is wrong with the interpretation.

Few Bible schools or theological seminaries offer courses in interpretation or translation, even though their graduates will end up doing that from time to time all their lives. Their graduates will also be responsible for selecting members of their congregations to interpret, which they will do, most often without given them any instruction or training. How can they? They never got any themselves!

Fortunately, a number of Bible schools and seminaries in Africa have notice these problems and started to address them. They may require that pastoral students to study the key Bible terms in their own languages, or require them to write a synopsis of their thesis or key papers in their own language. One requires post-graduate students to give a summary of their thesis in their language at graduation when friends and family from their language are present.

Others, however, are still putting great effort into having their students understand the Bible but little helping them clearly communicate that to others. Some never even mention language to their students even in countries with many, many languages.

Transformational parnership

When I worked in Congo, we partnered with another organization to translate Luke and produce the Jesus’s Film in ten languages.

Congolese women glued to the Jesus Film in their language at the dedication ceremony

It went pretty well until we got past the recording stage and were working on planning the showing of the films. The representative of the other organization for Congo informed us that most people only view the Jesus Film once. Because of that, he said, it is very important to to make sure that there be a system to identify and counsel people who make a decision for Christ, similar to what is often organized for evangelistic campaigns. For the same reason, distribution should be tightly controlled. The representative preferred that the film be given only to trained protection teams who would travel with projection equipment from place to place. Our Congolese church partners would have to implement this phase, but they had other ideas. They thought that people would watch the film many times, so they preferred that many copies be given away for free. Besides, this approach would cost far less. The other organization strongly opposed these ideas.

So, we have a large Christian organization with decades of experience showing the film insisting on one plan, but churches with no experience wanting a very different plan. It seemed crazy to argue that we should abandon the advice of an organization with so much experience in favor of a untested idea from those with no experience. But that’s what we did.

In the end, DVDs of the film were distributed widely for free. People watched it multiple times. In fact, some watched it so often that they memorized it. We had reports of illiterate adults and even children quoting Jesus’ words verbatim in response to something happened. We had every indication that the film was getting Jesus’ teaching deeply into society and people’s minds and hearts.

In hindsight, it seems that the other organization had proposed a way to distribute the film that fit well in places where people have many films available in their language (watch it once or twice), but couldn’t predict how people would use the film when it is the only film in their language (watch it over and over). Also, the organization saw the film as having impact in evangelism, but its actual impact was in discipleship of believers. Note that none of the languages involved had a translation, so the Jesus Film, which is taken directly from the Gospel of Luke was the most available Scripture.

In the same vein, I read a report of an international evaluation undertaken by a US-based Christian ministry. One of the ministry’s overseas partners was not running their program according to norms; so much so that the ministry was about to sever relations. But the evaluation showed the program run the “wrong” way by the “faulty” partner got the better results than any other program around the world. Furthermore, the evaluator concluded that the excellent results were attributable to the supposedly incorrect methods of the partner.

From my Congo experience and others, and from reading the evaluation, I propose the following conclusions which are also challenges to Western missions and churches partnering with churches overseas.

  • If a Western mission has a partnership with church or ministry in another country, and that partnership is not transforming the Western mission, then the Westernern mission is probably not as effective as it should be. It might not be engaged in true partnership.
  • If the western agency is always doing things the way they know will work, even when partners on the ground in another country want something else, then it is probably not as effective as it should be. The western agency needs to find a way to open itself to risky new ideas, to experiment.

Criticism of translations

Domenico Ghirlandaio : Saint Jerome in his Study (1480 — Church of Ognissanti, Florence)

It is fascinating to see how translations of the Bible are recieved. Books are written about translations of the Bible into English extolling their virtues or exposing their weaknesses. Some give new translations kudos and other castigation. This kind of reception for new translations is not at all new. In fact, the history of what was said about new translations reveals a pattern.

In 382 AD, Euseius Hieronymus, later known as Saint Jerome, was asked to produce a new translation of the Bible in Latin to replace the Old Latin Version which some considered divinely inspired – once for all delivered for all believers. Jerome was highly qualified for the task. But, when his translation appeared it was not widely accepted. It took some time, but his translation was finally recognized for what it was – a work of great accuracy, beauty and skill.

But that was only after Jerome’s death. Then people started saying about his translation exactly the opposite of what its critics said when it first appeared. In fact, they said that Jerome’s translation had all the qualities — accuracy, eloquence, clarity — an earlier generation said only belonged to the Old Latin Version.

In the late 1800s, the Swiss theologian Louis Segond did a translation into French from the original languages because the existing French translations were all over 100 years old. When it first appeared in 1880, it encountered a firestorm of criticism from French protestants, especially from more conservative churches. Nevertheless, it eventually it became the standard translation, occupying a place similar to the King James in English. Revisions in 1978 and 2007 are still the most popular Bibles among French protestants, while the revision done in 1910 is still widely used in French-speaking Africa. When newer translations in French started to appear in the late 20th century, many protestants defended Segond’s translation, saying that it was more accurate whereas their grandfathers and great-grandfathers, often members or leaders of the same churches, had criticized its accuracy.

When the King James Version first appeared in 1611 many Puritans continued to use the Geneva Bible, even printing it after that was outlawed. As late as 1800, almost 200 years after the King James was first published, some Puritan families were still using the Geneva Bible. In fact, it was the Geneva Bible that the pilgrims brought to the New World, not the King James. After the first publishing of the King James Version a renowned Hebrew scholar named Hugh Broughton became its strongest critic. Upon receiving a courtesy copy of the first printing, we wrote a blistering critique. But the opposition died away and the King James Version became synonymous with the Bible for English speakers.

So, it is entirely predictable that when a new translation appears, there will be claims that a well-established older translation is better because it is more accurate, more beautiful and/or more holy.

The same thing is happening today in Ghana. The first translations of the Bible appeared into the Ga, Ewe (pronounced eh-vay), and Twi languages in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Bible Society did revisions in the late 20th century, but some people still come to their sales points asking for the original versions because they believe that they are more accurate, beautiful or holy.

The same will happen, alas, to the translations in which we have been involved when they are revised.

If you liked this, you might also like Why New Translations.

Counting languages

Word cloud of the languages of Ghana

Most people are surprised to learn that there are over 7,000 languages spoken in the world today. Over 800 of those are dying and another 1500 are in danger of dying in a generation. Even assuming that all those will die within a generation, that will still leave upwards of 4,700 languages spoken in this world.

The Ethnologue has a fascinating page showing where the languages are an giving other facts about them. It features a fun, interactive map where each language is represented by a dot at its geographic center. There are clusters of dots into which you can zoom to see the details. There are other facts about languages as well, like a comparison of the number of languages to the number of people who speak them, and which countries have the most languages.

Did you know that it was only in the early 1990s that the number of languages in the world and their location was known with any accuracy and that it was Bible translators who made the effort to collect the information, compile it and make it public?

That is the case in Ghana too. A couple years ago, I worked with a small group of Ghanaians to produce a definitive list of Ghanaian languages. People use it to mobilize Ghanaian churches to get involved in translation. It works; because few people know all the languages of their country, nor do they know that some Ghanaian languages don’t have a translation.

Optimism preferred

Decades ago, when we were expecting our oldest, I went to my favorite furniture maker in Ouagadougou and asked him if he knew how to make a rocking chair. He answered “no problem”. But when I went to pick up the chair, it was very clear that there was a big problem – the chair wouldn’t stay upright, toppling over on its back whenever I stood it up. I designed new rockers and had the furniture maker make them to my design. That rocking chair served us for more than a decade until we sold it when we moved.

Many of my colleagues and other Westerners living in Africa have been frustrated by the promises they received from Africans who told them “No problem” but there was a problem. It appears to them that Africans will say anything to get you to do business with them. A number see this as inherently dishonest.

While “no problem” optimism seems to be everywhere, it is not at all universal. I have many African friends and people I do business with who tell me exactly how it will be even if they know that is not what I want to hear. There are also some who say “no problem” intending to deceive.

But for many Africans who say “no problem”, I think that there is a very different explanation. It seems to me that rather than dishonesty or incompetence we are dealing with optimism. I don’t mean wishful thinking. Nor do I mean some conscious attempt to think in “positive” ways.

Rather, I believe that those saying “no problem” are making promises in which they themselves are fully confident. They are sure that they can deliver, even though the results later show that their self-confidence was not warranted. By Western standards, they are recklessly overconfident but I don’t think that they are intentionally dishonest. They have a can-do optimism.

Some of my readers might think that I am just wanting to put the most positive light on what I see because I love Africa. I don’t think so and I have a powerful reason. My interpretation that we are dealing with optimism fits with all kinds of other behaviors including but certainly not limited to:

  • Avoiding bad news (For example, if someone asks about an person who is ill, the answer is always that they are better, whatever their actual condition. In fact, in one place we worked if you said that their condition had deteriorated, that mean that the person died. So you couldn’t say that.)
  • Avoiding negatives (For example talking about HIV and AIDS was difficult because it was not culturally appropriate to say that someone had an incurable illness.)
  • Avoiding the idea of impossible (For example, in many places we have worked, something that was impossible was referred to as merely difficult.)

In all these ways and more, the Africans I know show that they prefer optimistic, can-do assessments. So, rather than engage in complaining or blame, it works better for me to just translate their sureness into my frame of reference by toning it down several steps. I can avoid frustration by realizing that the person I am dealing with actually believes he can and will do what he says. Instead of trying to judge his honesty, I focus on competence. This makes life a lot less stressful and it’s easier on relationships.

Hakuna matata.

Photo: John Vandermeer

Is Development Human?

Once when we lived in Burkina Faso, I made a trip to a rural area. After my arrival, I was told that another westerner had visited earlier that day. He was evaluating some development projects in several villages. If I remember correctly they were water projects, wells perhaps. Anyway, he had left his air-conditioned room in a nearby city with the idea of quickly stopping at each village and being back in his comfortable room the same evening. But the villagers where the projects were located had been other ideas. To express their joy and appreciation, they had prepared food and cultural dances. The man knew that if he stayed to eat and celebrate with the people at each village he could not visit all the villages in one day. So, at each village, he excused himself from the celebrations prepared for him and continued to his next stop. The villagers were devastated.

In Ghana a few years ago, I was in a meeting where a Ghanaian man was talking about the development project he had been hired to lead. It had been designed by a university in the US to improve the soil in northern Ghana, a region of chronic food shortages, so that crop yields would increase. It sounded really helpful. But he said that after being hired he read the entire description of the project – its goals and methods with all the technical details. He found that it contained no component to involve the farmers it was designed to benefit. Their knowledge was not solicited, nor was their feedback on the findings and proposals the project would make. The project was all bout the soil and not at all about the farmers. The Ghanaian man hired to lead the project said that he immediately wrote the farmers into the proposal and got the revision approved.

These experiences and others cause me to ask questions – is it legitimate to “help” people in a way that excludes them from celebrating the help; or from giving their opinion or feedback? Would we want someone to “help” us while they remained oblivious to the impact (good or bad) their “help” really had? Doesn’t the Golden Rule apply? In addition to it being right and good to involve those we try to help, it is also often more effective. A study in the US found that church programs are more effective in reducing homelessness because those involved get to know the homeless personally. Research into the impact of Bible translation has found that it is greater where local people have greater input into decisions about the translation.

Also, if we do help a group of people, shouldn’t we plan to share their joy and recognize their appreciation? If they are Christians, shouldn’t we praise God and celebrate his goodness together? If we send a person to evaluate the help, shouldn’t we plan that they have the time and spend the time sharing the joy (or other reactions) of the people being helped?

Ladies reading a new translation to see if it communicates

Bible translation, and other attempts to make the world better, should never let things or techniques crowd out the people, unfortunately it is not uncommon that they do.