Old Testament Gap


Participants talk in between sessions

Last month in Accra, I attended a consultation on accelerating Old Testament translation. It was attended by people with wide-ranging interests: Bible agencies, organizations training people in biblical and modern Hebrew in Isreal, and church leaders. One of the topics was the Old Testament gap; that is, the gap between the number of languages which have a translation of just the New Testament and those that have the whole Bible. There are 1,442 languages in the world with a translation of only the New Testament. Of those, 1,188 have no active translation work on the Old Testament. Of those, approximately 300 are in Africa and about 90 have more than 500,000 speakers. Some languages have had the New Testament for many decades and still have no translation of the Bible and none in progress.

The gap is due to several factors. One is training. Many translators and consultants who work on New Testament translation lack the skills to be involved in Old Testament translation, especially the Hebrew language. One of the saddest parts of the gap is that when the translation of the New Testament in a language was completed and the missionaries left, the churches were often left without anyone qualified to translate the Old Testament even if they wanted to continue on their own.

The biggest gap, in my opinion is the transformation gap. Most sermons in African churches are based on Old Testament texts. The Old Testament deals with issues which most Africans face every day. I call this is impact or transformational gap – the gap between the transformation which could be happening with a translation of the whole Bible and the lesser impact that is happening now. Did you know that during the Reformation, there was a major push for more just and democratic government and that a lot of the ideas that created that movement came from the Old Testament? You can even download the Geneva Bible which preceded the King James translation and see the footnotes on fair and just government it contains.  A few weeks ago I wrote about how a sermon on the first chapter of Genesis brought a lawyer to faith.

The consultation called for a number of actions to remedy the situation. Some of them, like training more people to help with Old Testament translation, started not long after the consultation closed.


When Dayle and I were in Côte d’Ivoire, we were part of a small team of Africans and Westerners running translations in almost 30 different languages. We realized that we needed to make some changes in the translation projects. After deciding what changes we would try to make, we also decided how we would let everyone know about them including all the national translators – we would call a meeting. For scheduling reasons, the meeting could not be held right away. We scheduled it for 2 1/2 months in the future. Before that meeting could take place, some of the Ivorian translators were at the translation center for training. They worked in five of the thirty or so languages.

A workshop where translators from five languages perfected their translation of the book of Romans.

A workshop where translators from five languages perfected their translation of the book of Romans.

Some of the Westerners in the small management team came to me during that event and suggested that I tell the national translators who were gathered about the changes. My experience with Westerners is that if there is information, we want to know it as soon as possible. We don’t like to be kept in the dark. They assumed, naturally, that the gathered national translators would want to know soon as well. But none of the Africans in the management team came to me with that suggestion. They thought that the gathered translators should wait to get the information at the same time as the other translators – at the meeting planned to let everyone know.

Working in cross-cultural teams is an interesting challenge. The Westerners want information given out as quickly as it is known. They feel left out if they learn that they did not get information well after it was known. But for the Ivoirians, information is power. If some get it and some don’t, those who get it have an advantage. So they prefer that everyone concerned get the information at the same time, even if that means some who could have had it earlier have to wait.

togetherFor Westerners, being treated fairly means getting relevant information quickly. For Ivoirians, being treated fairly means getting information at the same time as others. There’s only one way to make everyone happy – someone is going to have to change their expectations to match those of their colleagues. Since were in Côte d’Ivoire, it seemed most logical and fair that we foreigners be the ones to adapt.

Ideophones and prayer

Some time ago, I was at a training event where an African was praying in her language. In the middle of the prayer came a rapid, staccato “dedede” (pronounced day day day). The person was using very common kind of word in African languages – an ideophone. When linguists first encountered these words in African languages they said that the words were “painting with sound”. And that’s how they came to be called idea-sounds, which is what ideophones means. (Not to be confused with idiophones which is a class of musical instruments. If you remember onomatopoeia from your English classes in school, you may wonder if ideophones are just onomatopoeia. Actually, ideophone is a broader term. Onomatopoeia are a kind of ideophone.)

Information about this ideophone from "The Structure of Ideophones in African and Asian Languages: The Case of Dagaare and Cantonese", Adams Bodomo, The University of Hong Kong

Information about this ideophone from “The Structure of Ideophones in African and Asian Languages: The Case of Dagaare and Cantonese”, Adams Bodomo, The University of Hong Kong

Cock-a-doodle-doo is an ideophone. While English has ideophones, there are not nearly as many as there are in African languages, nor are they used as frequently. In English, they are limited mostly to sounds made by animals and machines. In African languages ideophones are used for many other things such as the way something moves, its shape, or its position. One of my favorites means “gigantic, unwieldy blob of a thing”

In African languages, ideophones have the same sounds (consonants and vowels) as other words in the language, but they put them together in ways other words do not. They are also different because they don’t take prefixes or suffixes.

We can say that the rooster was cock-a-doodle-dooing, or that he cock-a-doodle-dooed, but African ideophones can’t add things like “ing” and “ed” the way we do in English. These features make ideophones a separate class of words in African languages.

But the most important thing about ideophones is that they paint mental images that stir up feelings, visual memories, or sensations. Their use in a prayer is a sign that the the person praying is saying something straight from their heart. In fact, the person is saying something that would require a whole phrase or sentence to say without the ideophone. An ideophone is a like a very compact, and therefore powerful, dose of images.

Praying 1

Prayer in a church in Congo

But ideophones are somewhat in danger. Many educated Africans don’t say them often. Perhaps they have been influenced by the official language, English or French, they learned in school. Or, they may mistakenly consider them primitive. So when an educated African Christian uses an ideophone in prayer in front of other educated people, that person is showing an attachment to and respect for their language that goes beyond the ordinary. It also shows that they are conveying to God thoughts and emotions that come straight from their heart.

We work in Bible translation, but our concern is wider than that. Through translation, we want people to know that they can use all of their language to connect to God, so that they will connect to him from the deepest part of their being. The person praying was doing just that. – Woo woo woo woo woo!!!