When I talk to groups in the US about the accelerated pace of Bible translation, people often jump to the conclusion that the cause of the acceleration is technology. Technology has indeed increased the pace, but other things have increased the pace even more than technology.

One of them is clusters.

Translators from several languages in a cluster, praying during a training session.

Translators from several languages in a cluster, praying during a training session.

It used to be that the translation in every language was a stand-alone activity. A missionary-linguist moved into each language area and learned each language. Each one did research on the language to which they were assigned, trained local people and lead the translation effort. There was some cooperation between the translation efforts in different languages. It was often sporadic and informal in nature, depending on times when the missionary-translators would get together for another reason.

I’m not sure who discovered it, but a solution to a translation problem in one language can often be used in other languages. I saw it myself vividly. I was at a training course for national translators in Burkina Faso. They were all grappling with the same translation problem when one of the students – not one of the staff, mind you – came up with a solution they all could use. The solution had to do with how the passive voice is used in many of the languages. So the solution was not just for one verse, but for many of the of the times the passive voice is used in the Bible. That one solution could save days, weeks perhaps even months of work because the passive voice occurs many times.

Fabien Dapilla who leads two new clusters in Ghana

Fabien Dapilla who leads two new clusters in Ghana

From this kind of experience came the idea of clusters – doing translation with a group of languages together, all at once. It looked like that would make translation go faster and cost less. In many cases, it has. But it has done more. In projects staffed entirely by national translators in Congo, we found that clusters increased morale among the translators. Surprisingly, along with increasing morale, accountability was also increased. So we got speed increases, cost reductions, increased morale and increased accountability.

When we came to Ghana, we found that there were lots of opportunities to speed translation by starting clusters.

A word of caution. The clusters sometimes cost less in the long term and more in the short term. The cost of getting translators together on a regular basis meant that the budget for each translation for each year increased. However, the number of years needed decreased. So the cost per year went up, but the total cost for the translations went down. It is my experience that under-funded translation programs actually cost more, sometimes a lot more, in the long term even though they cost less in any given year.


I came to Africa with pretty well-formed ideas in my head about how my career in Bible translation would work out. It hasn’t been anything like that. And that’s a good thing. This story is about one of the people who caused my career to deviate from the path I had assumed, Marc Zalve.

Mark Zalve preparing a quality control

Mark Zalve preparing a quality control

I was overseeing translation work in a number of languages where missionary-translators were working. In one of them the missionary-translators had to return to their home country, stopping the translation in that language. A short time later I received an unannounced visit from church leaders from that language. They wanted to restart the translation. They proposed that Marc Zalve lead it in the place of missionaries. He was the Director of a Bible School and an ordained pastor.

I agreed to look into it. I had to find funding and convince others that this was a good idea. The first was easier than I thought and the later much more difficult. In the end, Marc Zalve lead the efforts to translate the Bible into his language. Since then, he has helped translators in ten other languages to produce accurate translations.

The fact that an African church was willing to let one of their key pastors leave an important role to work on translation showed me that they were serious about Bible translation. It was but one in a series of actions by churches and individual Africans that did not conform to my well-formed ideas about my career and Bible translation. It took a lot of such incidents to get me to question my ideas and even more to reshape them.

Frempong and Zalve

Frempong and Zalve

This all came back to me powerfully when I ran into Marc again at the Dedication of the Bible into Sisaala in Ghana in 2013. That translation was lead by a Ghanaian, Justin Frempong (on left in photo). Justin was the first Ghanaian to lead a translation associated with Wycliffe in Ghana. To that point, that had been the realm of missionaries. And there was Marc Zalve (on right in the photo), the first to lead a translation associated with Wycliffe in Burkina Faso. When I greeted Marc, he reminded me of the struggle we had together. Not a few opposed this new thing, and some of them had quite a bit of influence.

When I first came to Africa, I thought that I knew all my call to Bible translation. But God was not through unveiling it and I still had more to learn about it. My call shifted from doing translation myself to being involved in mobilizing Africans and their churches to do their own translations. A missionary call, I came to realize, is not a static thing, any more than our God is static or my relationship with him static.

Our religious world

ReligionsIn 2013 the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon Conwell Seminary released a results of research entitled “Christianity in its Global Context, 1970–2020: Society, Religion, and Mission“. One of their findings is that the world is getting more and more religious. The graphic to the right shows the details. The report states:

In 1970, nearly 82% of the world’s population was religious. By 2010 this had grown to around 88%, with a projected increase to almost 90% by 2020.

This finding contrasts sharply with some in the West who seem to believe that religion is dying. Dr. Rodney Stark, internationally known author, and co-director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University is authoring a book entitled “The Global Religious Awakening” because, he says, “there is more religion going on in the world than ever before”.

Rene Padilla, a leading Latin American missions leader has written:

..there is plenty of evidence to demonstrate that we are today in the midst of a great religious revival. The order of the day is not irreligiousness but religious pluralism.

It does not surprise me that the Western press seems unaware of growing religiosity in the world, but it does bother me when missions, missionaries and churches don’t take it into account.

Today, most Christians in the world have neighbors who are highly religious. Many live in an environment where there are two or more competing religions.

A colleague of mine working overseas sponsored a young man he met to go to Bible School run by a mission agency. When he returned after the first year, my colleague asked him what courses he had taken. The young man responded that he had taken a course in proofs the existence of God. The thing is, everyone that young knows believes in God, even the non-Christians. Here is a young man taking a course in his first year of Bible school that is relevant to the place the missionaries come from, but which is quite irrelevant to his life and ministry. The world in which we are doing mission is a religious world. All Bible translation programs in Africa are carried out in very religious environments.

Akan proverb (from Ghana): Obi Nkyere Abofra Nyame
Translation: No one points out God to a Child
Meaning: It is obvious even to children that God exists. Even to children, the fact that God exists is self-evident. (Note that this proverb existed before missionaries arrived.)

Christian books, TV broadcasts and Bible school courses designed to reach atheists and agnostics are irrelevant in this context. Films like “God is not dead” which address real issues in the West don’t fit the context in which I work, where I would have to search a while to find someone who believes that God is dead, and many don’t even know that some people think God is dead.

When Dayle and I were last in the US, we ran into publications and believers talked to us about creationism and intelligent design. That is all well and good, but I meet very few Africans who do not already believe that God created everything. That’s just not an issue here.

Historic Mosque

Historic Mosque

In addition to the mission field being a very religious place, many Christians around the world live in places where there are two or more competing religions, and quite a number live in places where Christians are a minority. Christianity has been dominant in the West for so long that Western Christians have little practical teaching to offer to believers who live where another religion is the dominant feature on the religious landscape. Let me even suggest that the church in the US is still figuring out how to react to the fact that the majority culture is increasingly hostile to its beliefs and values. If we haven’t figured that out for ourselves, how will we teach others?

I had an interesting talk with a church leader in Ghana who told of places where the Bible is now in the language of the people and a good number of Christians have taken literacy classes so that they can read. He said that this results in places where those promoting other religions have no success because of ordinary people who read the Bible for themselves and can therefore explain their faith.

Rather than exporting our answers to the issues we face as Western Christians, we need to do mission in a way that is relevant to an increasingly religious world – one where some of the key battles facing the church in the West are not very relevant. Our mission efforts need to help believers develop answers relevant to their environment. The Bible in people’s language is a key resource for that.

How words get their meaning

Humpty DumptyIn Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, we find this exchange about the meaning of words between Alice and Humpty Dumpty:

“When I use a word”, Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master— that’s all.”

What about Humpty Dumpty’s approach; can words really mean whatever the person saying them wants? Can I say “house” and mean “flower”? The problem, of course, is that if everyone did that, words would end up with no meaning at all.

SelfieThe people who create dictionaries comb through masses of data including ­ newspaper articles, books, magazines and more. That is how they determine what words mean, and that is how Oxford dictionaries named “selfie” word of the year for 2013. My word processor has not caught up. It is still marking selfie as a misspelled word!

ColoredDictionary makers also track changes in the meaning of words. An interesting case is word “colored” especially in the phrases “colored people” or “people of color” which are now offensive. It was once considered a term of racial pride. But in the 1960s, “black” replaced “colored people” as the acceptable term.

The fact that it used to be acceptable is shown clearly in the name of an organization – the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

dictionariesHumpty Dumpty’s approach is the wrong one. The meanings of words are established by collective use, not by the pronouncements of any one person, no matter how expert. Dictionary makers know this, so they compile how people really use words and they produce new dictionaries to keep up with the changes.

This leads to a difference I have with some theologians who are critics of some translations of the Bible. While they are experts in the languages of the Bible – Greek and Hebrew – their approach to English can sometimes be that of Humpty Dumpty when they declare that this or that English word is the correct translation for this or that Bible word. Sometimes I read such pronouncements and wonder how the theologian can be so out of touch with the way people actually understand the English word (or phrase) in question. That a word used to have a meaning or should have a certain meaning is not as important as how people actually understand it.

A good translation of the Bible uses words as people really understand them, not how a theological tome defines them. The great reformer and Bible translator Martin Luther said that a translator should study how ordinary people speak. He wrote:

“For one must not inquire of the literal Latin language for how one should speak German . . . instead one must ask the mother in the house, the children in the street, the common man in the market about this, and listen very closely how they speak and then translate accordingly so that they understand it and realize that one is speaking German to them.” (quoted in Luther’s Translation of the Bible by Birgit Stolt)

In other words, Bible translators should know how ordinary people use the language into which they are translating. Fortunately, almost all modern English translations take this approach, but some critics use Humpty Dumpty’s method.

It is very good to be concerned that translations of the Bible be faithful to the original languages. But we need to be equally concerned that translation is faithful to English (or whatever language) as people really understand it. When Jesus spoke, he spoke using words as the people of his day understood them, so did the prophets and the apostles. A translation, therefore, dare not use words in other ways.

Divine communication is never in a sacred, esoteric, hermetic language, rather it is such that ‘all of us hear … in our languages … the wonders of God’ – Kwame Bediako

Ladies reading a new translation to see if it communicates

Ladies reading a new translation to see if it communicates

One of the steps used is a solid translation programs is called testing. After a first draft of the translation is created by translators, another group of people meet (usually called reviewers or testers), read it, and comment on what it means to them. If it means something different to them than what the original text means, then the translators have to revise the draft until they find a translation that has the same meaning as the original.