Parking under mango trees

Mango trees make great shade

A Ghanaian colleague of mine was making contacts in a rural area for Bible translation. In one particular village, he didn’t know anyone. So he parked his pickup under a handy mango tree for the shade. He made his contacts and left.

He learned later that the village chief had passed away some time earlier and that two men were vying for the position. The mango tree under which he had parked belonged to one of them. That man then said that the vehicle parked under his tree showed that he had received an important visitor.

He used that as a reason why people should support his bid for the chieftancy. My colleague unwittingly got involved in a bit of political intrigue.

Working in cross-culture ministry means acting with insufficient information, especially at the beginning. You never know how people are going to interpret your actions. So some missionaries start out with a lot of trepidation that they will make a big mistake and ruin their ministry. That is highly unlikely. In any case, there’s not much you can do about it.

Actually, there’s a lot we can do. Pray that missionaries will have wisdom and good relationships. When I trust God and have his wisdom I can live my life without worrying if I’m parked under the wrong mango tree.


Ensuring quality

It is very important that translations of the Bible be accurate. So how do we do that for translations in smaller languages? Well, that’s not as simple as doing just one thing.

  • The first step is to select the translators with care. If done well, that is a multi-step process in itself.
  • Then we train the translators in seminars and on the job.
  • Then the translators get helps and specialized software. Today, most of the helps are computer based.
  • It is crucial to train at least two Translators and have them work as a team, confirming each other’s work and working through difficult translation problems together.
  • For thorny problems, the translators should be exposed to the solutions found in nearby languages. So they should have the opportunity to work together with other translators, especially those with experience.
  • Next, the translators meet with groups of local people and read the translation with them, asking what the people understand.
  • Finally, a translation expert goes over the translation with them verse by verse. This is as much for training and for improving the translation as it is for giving approval for printing.

These steps are repeated over and over. Each book of the Bible goes through this process. For longer books, just part of it might go through this process then the rest later. Because the translators learn through the process and their translations get better and go faster, it is better to run through the complete process with smaller portions of translation, especially at the beginning. I have seen cases where translators took the whole New Testament though only first few steps. Then when they got to the next steps, they learned things that caused them to go back and revise all they had done. What’s a waste of time and money.

These days, people are experimenting with changes to this process with a view to making translation go faster and cost less. I think that’s great, as long as accuracy doesn’t suffer.

Translation consultant Matthieu Ouattara training translators in Abidjan

Threshing sledge

Behold, I make of you a threshing sledge, new, sharp, and having teeth; you shall thresh the mountains and crush them, and you shall make the hills like chaff; Isaiah 41:15-16 ESV
Translating unknown objects is one of the more interesting translation problems. The text above speaks of a threshing sledge, a farm implement no longer in use in most of the world. The threshing sledge is unknown to most Americans of whom only 2% are farmers and even they don’t use threshing sledges. The New Living Translation gets around the problem by using a more generic term for sledge, calling it an instrument.
You will be a new threshing instrument with many sharp teeth.
Isaiah 41:15-16
Using a more generic term is a frequently-used method for dealing with unknown objects. When the Bible mentions an unknown animal, the best translation may be “an animal called…”
English speakers have an advantage, especially in these days of Google search. You can Google threshing sledge and find out about them. Or you can consult a Bible dictionary or encyclopedia. Those who speak small languages don’t have those options. That puts more responsibility on the transistor, widening the acceptable translation options, in my opinion.
When a passage mentions an unknown item, it can be a distraction. Readers tend to focus on the unknown item, distracting them from the meaning of the text. The meaning of the passage can get lost in the details. You can research threshing sledge all you want: finding out that it was made of wood studded with pieces of flint, and that it was used to separate the edible parts of grain from the inedible. But that detail adds little, if anything, to the point of this particular passage. It’s a classic case of not seeing the forest for the trees. Here’s a translation of the passage that translates little-known and unknown terms as generically as possible in order to get to the point.

Look, I’ll make you into such a powerful, sharp-toothed new farm implement that you’ll grind up mountains and hills into flakes blown away by the wind.

In this translstion threshing sledge becomes more generic – a farm implement (which it is). Thresh become more generic too – grind up. Finally chaff become the much more genetic flakes. The details could be put in footnotes. To my mind, the loss of detail is more than compensated by this translation returning the passage to its intended focus and power.
Whether you agree with this particular use of generics for translating unknown or little-known objects, I hope I have given you a little window into the practice of translation

Man with threshing sledge 1937

The primary transformation

Traditional cultures enforce unity through social sanctions like shunning, withdrawal of social support, ostracism or even threats and violence. People who break the group’s norms pay a price. This encourages those who support the norms and tends to keep those who would break them in line. The result is a unity that is enforced by the whole of the group, not just its leaders.

The first Christians in the group may be seen as threats to group unity, bringing them under intense pressure to abandon their newfound faith. I met the son of one of the first Christians in a people of northern Ghana. He was in his 50s when I met him. But he told of remembering a childhood of persistent social pressure from neighbors consisting of condemnation, blame, threats, and ostracism. Nevertheless, his family stood fast and after many years the social pressure was much reduced.

However bad this sounds, changing a whole society belongs to those who break norms that need breaking, form solidarity with others doing the same, continue to politely but firmly speak and act against the norm, and persist through the resulting social pressures. In fact, these are the very actions the Bible recommends to us.

The movement to abolish slavery in the United States went through exactly these steps and was the target of the same social pressures described above. It’s meetings were stormed and broken up. Its leaders were targeted, not by government but by pro-slavery citizens. They were denounced, shunned, threatened and ridiculed. But slowly the tide turned. The obolitionists even convinced some slave holders to give up their slaves. Most of the early abolitionists who persisted through the worst public reaction were Christians coming out of the Second Great Awakening – a revival.

It is understandable that some Africans feel that they cannot change inherited cultural norms and practices they find abhorrent or just counterproductive. But they can and do when they have confidence. Research into the effects of translating the Bible into local languages in Ghana and some other places has shown an increase in confidence; including a willingness undertake new things, and to stand against wrong practices. I am coming to the conclusion that this might be the primary transformation because it is a manifestation of faith and because confidence helps generate all other transformations.


The word of the year for 2016, according to Oxford Dictionaries, was post-truth. In 2013 is was selfie. Whether we agree with these choices or not, one thing is very clear – English is adding new words and some of the new words are very widely used. In Ghana, an English word invented by Ghanaians is getting lots of exposure. That word is galamsey. But you won’t find galamsey in any of the major on-line dictionaries of English. It is absent from, Merriam-Webster and the Oxford Dictionary on-line, even though the latter lists other Ghana-isms such as outdooring.

Galamsey refers to illegal or informal mining, usually for gold. Ghana is known for its gold as its former name, The Gold Coast, implies. There are gold mining companies, but there are also other kinds of mining. One is informal mining carried out with hand tools by Ghanaian individuals, not companies. These mines are not regulated. They are both unsafe and they pose some environmental risks. The conditions are sometimes deplorable as you can see by doing a Google Image search for galamsey.

But galamsey is not just informal mining by hand. Some unregistered mining operations use large machinery. These can degrade the local environment to the point where local people start complaining. There has been a recent push in society and by the government to put a stop to galamsey. Even though the word has been around for years, I heard it for the first time in the last few months and now I hear it all the time.

The human mind and human societies are language factories constantly churning out new words and phrases and taking a plow to the settled ground of old words and phrases, turning them over and over. Did you know that “nice” meant “precise” in the 18th century and until fairly recently some English teachers taught that was the correct meaning? Or that in the 14th century it meant “foolish”, then “wanton” or “lascivious” in the 15th century?

So even though a translation stays exactly the same, it’s meaning is changing. To keep the meaning the same, sometimes the words need to change. That is why modern translations such as English Standard Version are updated regularly. By updating the translations where words have changed meaning, the translators are working hard to keep the meaning the same. For the same reason, translations in Africa will need to be revised when the languages change.

Here are some other words Ghanaians use in English to talk about things in their context for which English does not have good word or phrase: