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 as churches 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 with 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. We use it to mobilize Ghanaian churches to get involved in translation. It worked because many were unaware of some of the languages and that some did not 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.

Missions is for others

There has been an explosion of short-term missions in the US. With it, has come a focus on the experience of the person going on the mission. Was it positive? What did the person learn? Are they now more motivated to pray, or to give? This focus is new. Historically, missions was about doing something good for others while it brought hardship, even danger, to the person going.

I am not opposed to missions having a benefit for the missionary. But, I have seen a number of short-term missions trips close-up and noted that they are not all created equal. For me, the most striking difference is between those highly focused on accomplishing something specific, and those preoccupied with the experience of the missionaries. Enough people have noted this that the Babylon Bee satirized it.

Young Ghanaian women reading the Bibles in their languages

There is a group who is unusually unconcerned with their experience in missions. I think of them whenever I see Africans reading the Bible in their languages. I’m not thinking of missionaries who came to translate but rather of those who gave and prayed. They don’t get any missionary experiences. They derive no direct benefit from the translations because they can’t read them. In fact, the translations done through their giving and prayers probably won’t benefit anyone they know. They gave and prayed to produce good for others. By faith, they expect an eternal benefit, but for the moment, their only benefit is hearing occasional anecdotes.

I laud them, not because they embody some humanistic ideal, but because their actions fit the model of Jesus, who came not for himself but for us.

Those of you who support translation through their prayers and giving are the most worthy of heavenly reward because you, of all those involved in translation, recieve the fewest earthy rewards.

Church in Accra

Legon Interdenominational Church

This is my Sunday experience in Accra:

  • There are LOTS of children in church, perhaps as many as one child for every three adults.
  • There are many young adults in church. They compose about a forth of the congregation. At least two Sundays a month, an engagement is announced, occasionally two the same Sunday.
  • Our church has a well-attended Bible adult study before church just like the US adult Sunday School classes of my youth.
  • Covenant Family Church

    The church has a well-organized Sunday school program for kids.

  • The church is over full every Sunday. There are people sitting outside listening even though they can’t see.
  • Our church has a choir that performs every Sunday. The choir members all wear matching outfits made out of brightly colored African cloth. Correction, two choirs, each with different outfits.
  • Our English-speaking congregations has part of the worship time in a Ghanaian language. People are really engaged during those times and the worship is vibrant.
  • The sanctuary is full of ceiling fans blasting away. We look for a spot right under one.
  • People dress up for church, and they dress up their kids too. The ladies are in dresses or skirts and blouses. Some men are wearing ties. The little girls have frilly dresses, black shoes and socks with lace and ribbon. They also all have earrings.
  • During worship time, people wave their hands in the air, dance and twirl white handkerchiefs.
  • The PA system is turned up way too loud!
  • Instead of walls, the sides of the Church are a row of big doors that are opened to let in the breeze.
  • There is a long prayer time. When elections are near, we are instructed to pray against voter intimidation, stuffing ballot boxes, voters who take bribes, and politicians who offer bribes.
  • There is a LONG announcement time which includes lots of personal announcements – deaths, engagements, birthdays, etc.
  • Visitors are asked to stand and introduce themselves. It appears that many visitors actually like being asked.
  • The pastors wear clerical collars.

And that’s how I know I’m in church in Ghana.

Africa loves to read and hear the Bible

A while back, a friend pointed me to an article about translating the Bible in Africa by one of Africa’s most well-known theologians – John Mbiti. Before launching into the main point of the article, Mbiti briefly assesses the impact of translations of the Bible in African languages. He writes that:

Reading the Bible in their language

Africa loves to read and hear the Bible read.

Thus, through its translation… the Bible is very present in Africa. In some ways, we find our traditional life reflected in it… It is wielding a tremendous impact on the Church and beyond… It is generating Biblical Christianity and invigorating Oral African Theology.

The Bible has found a home in Africa, and Africa has become a Biblical continent. Statistically the Bible has become very much an African book. Many African readers and hearers of the Bible spontaneously identify themselves with the Bible through its content of (ancient) Jewish culture, family traditions, farming, history, pastoral (livestock) life, persecutions, suffering, death rituals, and religiosity…

Paul Hema reads the Bible in front of his humble dwelling in Burkina Faso

Our neighbor reading the Bible in Bambara

At a deeper level, the translation from Biblical languages into local languages encourages creativity and the proliferation of oral theology. This has already been happening (in the field) spontaneously among the Christians, the laity and clergy, young and old, women and men, through their composition and use of local hymns, songs, and music, instead of, or in addition to imported Western hymns translated in Kiikamba. They sing everywhere with or mainly without instruments – in the fields, in buses, walking, fetching water, herding, at school, in Churches and market places. They say or give spontaneous prayers (at home and Church services), sermons or meditations, religious education (in schools, Sunday School and their homes), all produced in one’s mother tongue.

It is easy to visit churches in the big African cities, and even a number of the smaller ones, and conclude that Christianity in Africa is doing quite well using English or another European language. But the reality is different. Christianity in Africa has its roots in the Bible in African languages even if a number of Christians are now educated and practice much of their public worship in English or another European language. The goal of getting the Bible into all the languages of Africa is still relevant even as English spreads.

No new understanding

After the dedication of the Jamaican New Testament in Jamaica, a ceremony was organized in London to introduce it to the sizable Jamaican community there. The organizers didn’t know what kind of reaction they would get. After all, those attending would have an excellent command of English. In addition, some have been critical of doing a translation in the Jamaican language also called Patwa. Critics contend that the language is too crude and undeveloped for a translation.

As part of the ceremony in London, they read some short passages from the translation. The Jamaicans present shouted with joy. They all stood. They waved their arms and jumped some with eyes full of tears of joy.

This reaction is a bit surprising. After all, they were hearing passages they had heard in English many times. There was nothing new. They were not getting a first, new or better understanding because the passages are so well-known in English. The passages nevertheless had a dramatic, fresh effect when packaged in the heart language – their mother tongue.

That is interesting and moving, but is it important? I think so. After all, Jesus said we are to love God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind, implying that the soul and heart are as important as our understanding. Words that activate our emotions – that touch our hearts – are more likely to change our behavior and our thinking – to align our hearts with God’s. Without those effects, understanding isn’t worth much.

The Bible in the mother tongue goes so much deeper than mere understanding – just imagine those Jamaicans in London waving their arms and dancing around with eyes full of tears.