An expert who asks for advice

tamil-english-dictionary-coverThis coming Sunday (January 22) in 1711, Johann Phillip Fabricius was born in Germany. After studying law and theology, he became a missionary to Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka, at the age of 29. He lived in Madras, now known as Chennai, where he was pastor to a small congregation. But he devoted great energy to his study of the Tamil language, the most widely spoken language of Ceylon. He mastered the language to the extent that he began writing hymns in Tamil, eventually publishing a Tamil to English dictionary that is still for sale on Amazon.

Another missionary was translating the Bible into Tamil. Johann added his efforts, translating some books of the Bible while the other missionary translated other books. Others quickly recognized that Johann’s translations were superior. His in-depth study of Tamil was paying off.  Eventually he redid the books translated by the other missionary and the Tamil Bible was all his. He was diligent in reading his draft translations to others to get their feedback. This step, now used in all serious translation programs, was one of the secrets to the quality of his translation.

tamil-language-map-hl-colorsNot everyone who becomes an expert still consults others. Yet Johann Fabricius became an expert in the Tamil language and yet read his translations to ordinary people seeking their feedback. Even today, this unusual combination – the expert who consults others and takes their opinion seriously – is a key step in the best Bible translations. Martin Luther did the same as he translated the Bible into German. He said that Bible translators need to go into the streets and “look into the mouths of women and children”.

Pray for us and for GILLBT as we seek to start translations in the remaining languages of Ghana; that we would find translators who will become experts and have the humility to actively seek and take seriously the input of others.

Genesis chapter 1 in Tamil

Genesis chapter 1 in Tamil

Fighting for language

I recently read something written by an African Christian in which he wrote

“The story of my peo­ple group has been one of a com­mu­nity that fought for a long time to have the right to use its own lan­guage for…worship­ping God.”

This may seem really strange to you, but it is not at all uncommon. Actually, the writer is fortunate, his people fought to get their language used in church. Many peoples just acquiesced, abandoning the idea of using their languages to talk to God, sing his praises, or worship him. They did not dare to think that they might get the Bible in their language.

Some missions and missionaries thought that promoting one language and discouraging others would promote unity in the church. It never did work out that way.  When one of my Ghanaian colleagues talked to church leaders about translating the Bible into some of the smaller languages in their area, one responded:

“You are trying to divide the church”

We looked into it, but that didn’t seem to be a risk. We started translation in the smaller languages and it has had no negative effects on church unity, quite the opposite. In fact, one of the common effects of the process of translating the Bible is greater church unity.

CECCA/16 members

Congolese Christians praying in a regional language

Other missionaries or African church leaders just find the the number of languages daunting, or think that having church services in all of them is just too complicated. In some cases, children were punished for speaking their languages in church and missionary schools. The results of such practices has been that some African Christians have come to believe that they cannot pray to God in their own language. They may even believe that their language and ethnicity are not pleasing to God, or that he has put them under a curse.

The God of the Bible does not require that people abandon their language when entering into his presence. Neither should we.

Throwers of Cowries

newspaper-articleA newspaper headline in Côte d’Ivoire read:

Les pasteurs sont devenus des jeteurs de cauris

Here’s an accurate literal translation of that sentence from Google Translate:

Pastors have become throwers of cowries.

The newspaper article was in French, the official language of Côte d’Ivoire. It was quoting an Ivorian church leader who was criticizing the actions of certain pastors. I thought that this newspaper headline would be an interesting way to show some of the issues that a translator faces.

Many of you won’t know what the church leader meant. So what if pastors throw cowries? Why would a pastor throw cowries? Is that good or bad? What are cowries anyway?

Photo: Sodabottle (Wikimedia Commons)

Photo: Sodabottle
(Wikimedia Commons)

Cowries are small sea shells used widely in Africa and other places. They used to be used as money. In this photo, cowries are being used as dice in a game. Now you know what cowries are, but what does it mean to throw them? People from West Africa will know immediately what the church leader was saying. Throwing cowrie shells is a common tool of diviners – what we in the US call “psychics” or fortune tellers – people who tell the future, give advice or reveal secrets by interpretation of omens, by “reading” you, or by supernatural powers. Throwing cowrie shells is the functional equivalent of reading you, your palm, Tarot cards or tea leaves.

The church leader was decrying that some so-called pastors have abandoned the true Gospel and engage in fortune-telling calling it prophesy under the guise of Christianity. They call themselves prophets, make predictions of all kinds including political. They collect money from people, just like fortune tellers or psychics, in exchange for their revelations. Some make a very good living plying their trade.

The phrase “Les pasteurs sont devenus des jeteurs de cauris” evokes all of that. But for most of my readers, the literal translation “Pastors have become throwers of cowries” doesn’t. It is not a very informative translation. What might we do to improve it?

At a minimum, I suggest that we replace “cowries” with “cowrie shells”. While cowries can be found in the dictionary as the plural of cowrie,  the word is not that well known. For people who don’t know what cowries are, the translation “cowrie shells” tells them generally what they are – shells. The reader still might not know what shape, color or size cowrie shells have, but the reader will at least know they they are a kind of shell. We have not changed the meaning at all. “Cowrie shells” is a very good translation of the French word “cauris”. So our first improvement in the translation is

Pastors have become throwers of cowrie shells.

Next, we need to recognize that we are dealing with a relatively common translation challenge – translating an action whose meaning was clear in the language and context where the phrase was spoken or written, but which is not clear to the people for whom it is being translated. We are dealing with translating an unknown action. One of the techniques for translating an unknown action is to include the purpose or meaning of the action. So, if we want to make the translation more transparent, we can make explicit the purpose of throwing cowrie shells. We can do this in subtle or obvious ways. Here’s a subtle option:

Pastors have become readers of cowrie shells.

What we have done with this translation is translate the action “throw” by a word that tells the purpose of throwing. When the church leader said the sentence, he knew that he was talking about divination and he knew that his Ivorian audience would understand that. So, by translating the meaning of the action we are adding nothing to what he actually communicated at the time when he said the sentence.

The literal translation “throwers of cowries” has a stylistic problem as does “readers of cowrie shells”. We generally don’t phrase things that way. We would never say of a young lady who just got her driver’s license: “She has become a driver of cars”. That just sounds weird. We would not say or write “he has become a reader of books” or “she has become a player of golf” but rather “he now reads books” and “she has started playing golf”. The translation “have become readers of cowrie shells” has this same un-English awkwardness. If we repackage the same information in a sentence that sounds like normal English we get:

Pastors now read cowrie shells.

But not everyone will understand the idea behind reading cowrie shells. Some will get get the connection to “reading” Tarot cards or tea leaves, but others won’t. Besides, the church leader did not literally mean that pastors throw cowrie shells. He was using throwing cowries to mean divination in general. He was including so-called prophets who never actually throw cowrie shells. So if we were to take the translation a step further, we could translate the purpose of throwing cowries even more explicitly with a translations like:

Pastors have become fortune tellers.
Pastors are now fortune tellers.

Or we could split the difference and keep the throwing of cowries and make the purpose explicit with a translation like:

Pastors have become cowrie-throwing fortune tellers.

We have choices for “fortune tellers”. We have the more technical but less well-known term “diviners” or the broader term “psychics”. I think that “fortune tellers” is more exact than “psychics” and better known than “diviners”. Besides, “fortune tellers” has a bit of a negative connotation which fits the pastor’s critique.

How far can we go in making the meaning clear? The following translations are very clear, but they are not acceptable:

Pastors have started reading tea leaves
Pastors become readers of tarot cards

These translations explain the meaning, but they introduce factual inaccuracies. Tea leaves and tarot cards are not widely known arts of divination in Ivory Coast. This translation implies that they are. The church leader was referring to a specific common practice, we can’t substitute and another practice that is not common as though it were. We have made the pastor’s meaning explicit, but at the expense of a factual problem. If the sentence we were translating were telling of a person throwing actually cowrie shells, we would be more constrained in our translation for the same reason. But in this case, the pastor was not recounting an actual incident of someone throwing cowrie shells. Instead he was comparing some pastors to the general category of people who are “throwers of cowries”.

A consideration in the translation is the fact that the church leader used a comparison. He could have said “Pastors have become diviners”, but he didn’t . He said something more evocative, something more poetic when he compared them to the practitioners of a long-established and traditional method of divination. Perhaps our translation should reflect that. Here’s a translation that tries to do that:

Pastors have reverted to being old-fashioned, cowrie-throwing fortune tellers.

This translation captures the fact that by saying “throwers of cowries” the church leader was saying that there has been a regression to old practices. For me, this translation is the best at evoking the mental image the church leader intended and it also captures his disdain. But it takes us quite a ways from the original text. It is more of a commentary or an explanation than a translation. My preferred translation would stick closer to the text :

Pastors have become fortune tellers.

But this is only my preferred translation if the translated sentence appears in a daily newspaper in the US. If I were translating it for a daily newspaper in Ghana where the official language is English, I would use the literal Google translation because the Ghanaians who read the newspaper will understand all that was meant by the phrase “throwers of cowries”. If I were translating this phrase for a professional journal for anthropologists, I would use the literal translation because they have the academic background to know what it means. In fact, in such a case I might put the original French in the text and the English translation in a footnote. If I were translating it for a paper for a college class, I would use the literal translation and explain its meaning in a footnote. That doesn’t work in newspapers because they don’t have footnotes. If I were translating the phrase for a Christian magazine in the US, I would use “Pastors have become fortune tellers” and include the literal “throwers of cowries” in a footnote or in parenthesis if the editor allowed. So my choice of translation would depend on the knowledge of the most likely readers of the publication in which it would appear and what the editor of the publication allows.

So, what is the “best” translation? Well, it depends. The best translation is one that respects the original, that the  intended audience is most likely to understand they way the church leader meant it and which fits in the style of the publication where it will appear.

Dominion

Some time ago, I had a meal with a man from Ivory Coast who told quite an unusual story about his salvation. When he started his professional life as a professor of law at a university, he was not a believer. One of his students kept bugging him to attend her church. He really was not interested so he kept putting her off, but she persisted. One day, she invited him to a church convention. He thought: “I am not going to get rid of this girl until I go to her church, so I’ll go and get it over with.” And he went.

He was intrigued by the message, especially about an all-powerful God. Then the preacher said that after God created man, he gave him dominion, citing Genesis 1:26-28:

Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us. They will reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the wild animals on the earth, and the small animals that scurry along the ground.” So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Then God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground.”

dominionWhen the preacher said that God gave human beings dominion, the man was amazed. He thought: “This means that God took some of his authority and confided it in us!” This idea of dominion kept going around in his head. It caused him to think of a traditional practice he and his wife followed in their family. It was the practice of a totem or taboo.

crocodile-tabooTotems or taboos are part of the traditional practices of many African peoples. They often take the form of a prohibition to eat certain foods because they are associated with a person’s clan or family. So members of the crocodile clan can’t eat crocodile meat, for example. Depending on how these taboos or totems are distributed, there can be members of the same family who have different taboos or totems – some not eating crocodile, others not eating monkey, and so on. It is believed that if a person eats a taboo food, the spirit of the totem will harm, even kill, them.

One of this man’s daughters had a taboo against a certain food. But this dominion idea got him thinking: “If God gave me dominion over things, how could it be that a taboo spirit could have dominion over me?” He fasted and prayed for three days, and then had his wife cook the taboo food and they all ate it with no ill effects. He gave his life to Christ and has been a stalwart in the church ever since. He gives legal advice to those of us doing Bible translation and to other organizations.

scrollIt struck me as the man was telling this story that all of the concepts and Bible texts that lead him to salvation are from the Old Testament. The idea that God is all powerful is present in the New Testament, but it is in the Old Testament that it is fully present and developed. The story of creation and God giving human beings dominion over creation is obviously an Old Testament story.

I have never heard a salvation message in the US on Genesis chapter one. I doubt that it would be effective. But it was powerfully effective for this man. Plus, the preacher was using that text, so he must have thought that it was relevant and appropriate for his audience. Here have a highly educated African man coming to Christ through Genesis chapter one.

Why do I think that we need to translate the Old Testament into more African languages? Because, among other good reasons, it’s teaching resonates in ways that change peoples lives and bring them to salvation.

Power Encounters

broken-chainDuring my last weeks in Côte d’Ivoire, two Ivorians friends told me about the experiences of their parents who were some of the first believers in their areas. Their parents had told them of numerous power encounters – events where God intervened by his power to validate and protect them as they evangelized. The story of Elijah on Mount Carmel tells of a power encounter.

My friends’ parents told of going to villages on evangelism trips. They ate when people offered them food, but unbeknown to them, the people had poisoned the food. However, they ate it with no ill effects. After they ate, the people who had offered the food thought that it must be okay, so they ate the rest. But they became very ill and some died. My friends said that their parents told them lots of such stories when they were growing up.

This story came up because one of my friends is helping with conflict resolution in an area of the country where there is a conflict over religion. Those who follow traditional religious practices are insisting that others, including Christians, also respect those practices. Christians who don’t are being harassed and even attacked. He is working with others to resolve the conflict before it escalates, but they’re not having a lot of success.

gye-nyame

The Ghanaian symbol for God the exceptional – Gye Nyame

My Ivorian friends are seeing the return if some religious practices they thought had disappeared with their parents and grandparents generation. This matches my observations in Ghana where traditional religion is making a bit of a comeback. A survey in Ghana showed that a higher percentage of educated people believe that sorcery has real power. And this is at a time when more Ghanaians have more education than ever before. It seems that education is not the answer. But then, we knew that.

What do we do

Alphabet chart for previously unwritten language - a step in language development

Alphabet chart for previously unwritten language – a step in language development

I work in Bible translation. I find the complexity of language and translation intriguing. I love the linguistic and cultural sleuthing required to find exactly the right word to translate biblical concepts like salvation and righteousness. But that is not my real passion. If Bible translation were only that, it would not be enough. This came home to me in while I was part of the process of recruiting a new director for the translation work in Côte d’Ivoire. Part of that process included interviews with selected candidates. One of those interviews stayed with me.

The person’s knowledge of the organization and Bible translation was impressive, even though they had not worked in Bible translation or been closely associated with it. The person described our goals and the nature of our work with a level of detail that I did not expect from someone who had not worked in the organization. This candidate talked knowledgeably about the role of language development in Bible translation, for example. He had obviously taken time to study the organization.

changeBut there was something missing. For this candidate, translation work had great value because it preserved an important part of African culture – the language. It kept languages from dying out, he said. But there was something big missing – something that came out in the interviews with the other candidates; even those who did not cite our goals in such great detail. They all talked about the transforming effect of translating the Bible into African languages. This candidate did not mention that.

Photo: Rodney Ballard

Photo: Rodney Ballard

Where the Bible has been translated into the heart languages of the people, change has followed and sometimes very big change. Churches sprang up in places were there was longstanding resistance to the preaching of missionaries; churches spang up or held on under intense persecution; believers got newfound joy, peace and fruitfulness in their lives; societal ills like drunkenness declined. In some cases translation was an important contributor to the creation of political and religious freedom.

Translation is what we do, but transformation is what we pursue … lasting, authentic, God-fashioned transformation.

PS: The candidate in question is still has the same job he had before the interview.

Ghanaian woman in literacy class. Photo Rodney Ballard

Ghanaian woman in literacy class. Photo Rodney Ballard

Big is overrated

319px-seth_godin_in_2009

Seth Godin

One of my favorite bloggers is Seth Godin. I don’t think that he is a believer and his blog is about business. But it has two great qualities. First, it’s very short. Second, it gets down to human nature and the nature of things.

Early in 2016 he wrote a blog about tidal waves being overrated. Here’s an except:

Yes, it can lead to wholesale destruction, but it’s the incessant (but much smaller) daily tidal force that moves all boats, worldwide.

And far more powerful than either is the incredible impact of seepage, of moisture, of the liquid that makes things grow.

We can definitely spend time worrying about/building the tsunami, but it’s the drip, drip, drip that will change everything in the long run.

Translating the Bible works this way. Plus the translation stays around so its drip, drip, drip goes on and on; certainly long after the missionary leaves.  Besides, Jesus already said the same thing, but this way.

Jesus told them another story: The kingdom of heaven is like what happens when a farmer plants a mustard seed in a field. Although it is the smallest of all seeds, it grows larger than any garden plant and becomes a tree. Birds even come and nest on its branches. (Matthew 13:31-32 ESV)

It doesn’t change the world that this Ghanaian woman reads the Bible in her language. But it changes her and maybe those around her. Photo: Rodney Ballard for Wycliffe GA

Are we trying to live a tidal wave story about the Gospel – big crusades, large numbers of conversions, fantastic stories? Or are we living the story of God’s rule coming on this earth by small things that eventually have big impact? We Americans prefer bigger and faster. So we like big evangelistic events with thousands, tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands in attendance. But in my experience, those events often don’t produce long term impact and change. We should go with the mustard seed, with the drip, drip, drip. Evaluations of impact where a Bible translation has been done show that the big impacts often start ten years or more after the translation is finished.

By the way, that’s often when no one is around to report it.

Do you believe that your personal faithfulness and love has an impact, or would you prefer to be part of something “big”? For which story do you live? Give your money? Pray? For the sensational breakthrough? The big event? Or the drip-drip-drip the will erode the most hardened stone, the planted mustard seed that will grow bigger than others?  Which story of the growth of God’s kingdom on earth engages our hearts and our vision, then our actions?

Drip, drip, drip.

dripping-faucet

You might also like Mr. Godin’s post on the Myth of the Quick Fix

What is a taxi, a mechanic or a Christian?

Ranault 4

Photo of a Renault model 4 by Xalax, via Wikipedia commons

For a time when our boys were young and we lived in Ouagadougou, we did not have a car. I had a scooter and when we went out as a family, we went by taxi. At the time, most taxis in Ouagadougou were the Renault model R4 and they were in terrible condition. I got in one that filled with blue exhaust when the motor started. I jumped out and got into the next R4 in the taxi line. When that one started off, it rattled, banged and shook side-to-side. The driver, having seen what happened to me in the first R4 said: “That guy’s taxi is rotten!”. My jaw dropped. I asked him: “And yours?”. “Oh, it’s rotten too!”, he said, “They’re all rotten”.

Some time later, we were planning a vacation in neighboring Côte d’Ivoire. We were to fly to Abidjan and spend one night there. Before leaving, Matthew asked me how we were going to get from the airport to where we were staying. I told him that we would take a taxi. After arriving in Abidjan, we got a taxi and started smoothly off. Matthew said: “Dad, you said that we were going to take a taxi!”. I responded that we were in a taxi. Matthew retorted, “No, a taxi goes …” and he made all sorts of clanking and grinding noises while wiggling his body violently.

Roadside mechanics in Tamale, Ghana

Roadside mechanics in Tamale, Ghana

A friend from West Africa told me a story of her first trip to South Africa. She was traveling around by car and it broke down. Going to a place people told her was a mechanic she found a nice, clean shop and a man in a relatively clean uniform approached her. She said that she was looking for a mechanic. The man told her that he was a mechanic. “No! You’re way too clean to be a mechanic!, she retorted” In West Africa, many mechanics work in the open by the road, do not wear uniforms and are generally covered with grease and grime. For her, this man in a recently laundered uniform in a well-kept shop did not fit the picture.

When we lived and worked in Burkina Faso there were some parts of the country where there were very few Christians. Burkina Faso is a former French colony, so the only kind of Christianity some people had seen was the Catholic variety. Many of the educated and civil servants were marginal Catholics. It was considered the religion of the educated. This resulted in a situation where the only supposed Christians some people had ever known were civil servants who were corrupt, drank and womanized. They also attended mass occasionally and claimed to be Christians. One young man told me that when he told his family he had become a Christian, his father, a practitioner of another religion, cried saying that he would know become a drunk, corrupt womanizer. In such contexts, I avoided calling myself a Christian.

Matthew understood taxis according to his experience of them. My West African friend understood mechanics by her experience of them. Some in Burkina Faso understand “Christian” by their experience of the only people they know who call themselves Christians.

When I avoided calling myself a Christian, I was not appeasing someone. I just wanted people to know Who and what I really stand for. I am quite suspicious of the accusations I see in Christian publications and websites that some Christians are “appeasing” others when they don’t use certain words. In some cases, I know that those accusations are false. The accused are just trying to be clear in places where those words have other meanings.

Troubled places

A while back, I was talking to another American working in Bible translation in Africa. They had put a lot of effort into getting something going and then turning it over to Africans. But it was not continuing as well as they had hoped. It dawned on me that there were places where someone had put effort into the same thing and it was continuing very well with Africans in charge. The difference? In the places where there were lots of difficulties and economic hardship it is doing well. In the easy places, it’s struggling.

trouble-signIn fact, this is general true wherever people are translating the Bible for the very first time in Africa. There is more interest in the translations in the difficult places, and less in the easy places. I can think of dozens of contrasting examples. Dayle and I were recently serving temporarily in Côte d’Ivoire. The southern parts of the country are more prosperous, have better schools, roads and health care. The northern parts are behind on all those counts. But it is in the northern parts that new translations are more widely read. In the north, local people volunteer to teach others to read and they are enthusiastic to help the translation effort by volunteering their time in other ways In the south, that doesn’t work so well and more people expect money to do those same things. I listened to several Ivorians from the south lament the lack of volunteering to help in translation or literacy in their communities.

One of the best parts of the road

One of the best parts of a long road I once traveled

There are exemptions, but in general translations done in more challenging environments are more widely used, benefit from more local support and have greater transformative impact.

The places in Africa to which a person can easily go on mission – those within a short drive on a good road from an international airport – are generally less likely to produce big impact and less likely to sustain the impact for a long time. But go to a place for which the US government regularly issues travel warnings, or where getting there takes some doing, or where there is some other difficulty, and your mission is more likely to have significant, lasting impact.