Training Ghanaians

Back in the early 1990s, my role lead me to read documents describing a program in Ghana to train Ghanaians as leaders of Bible translation projects. The program looked very interesting to me, so I began to follow it; reading reports and asking questions of people working in Ghana. But after the first cohort of Ghanaians went through the program, it stopped without explanation. However, I did hear that the people from that first cohort went on to lead translation programs. One of them even led translations in two different languages. So when I took an assignment in Ghana in 2011, I was pleased to meet all of them and hear their stories. 

At the send-off. The five trainees are in front

Well, it is starting up again; not the same program exactly, but something close. Dayle and I were thrilled to be part of a send-off meal for five Ghanaians traveling to Israel for eight months to do intensive study of modern and biblical Hebrew in preparation for becoming experts in Old Testament translation. When they return to Ghana, they will train translators, do accuracy and quality checks on translations, and teach Hebrew to Ghanaians translators. These five will be the team of experts who will make sure that translations in Ghana will be accurate, clear and natural. They will also serve beyond Ghana.

Board chairman explaining the importance of this training

Even better, the training was largely organized by leading Ghanaian Christians. They intervened at various steps in the process to help with visas and other formalities. The board of the Ghanaian organization Dayle and I are loaned to, GILLBT, has also caught the vision for training their own.

I am convinced that, as in the 1990s, this program will result in more and better translations in Ghanaian languages. Given the commitment and involvement of leading Ghanaian Christians, there will be more than one cohort this time.

Favorite Verse

YouVersion is a Bible app for tablets and phones. It has the Bible in hundreds of languages and it is very popular around the world. Among its many functions, it allows users to highlight, bookmark and share verses. Because the app works with an Internet connection, the makers of YouVersion can see which verses people are highlighting, bookmarking and sharing. Also, they can tell which country the activity is coming from. This allows them to track which verses get the most attention in which countries.

YouVersion has revealed that in 2016 the same verse got the most attention in 88 different countries. It would be fun to see what verses my readers would guess. Without a doubt, John 3:16 would get lots of votes. In reality, the verse that got the most highlights, likes and shares in 88 different countries in 2016 was this one:

“And the Lord will be king over all the earth. On that day there will be one Lord—his name alone will be worshiped.” (Zechariah 14:9 NLT)

Perhaps you are now surprised.

Ghanaian woman reading Bible in her language. (Original photo: Rodney Ballard, Wycliffe Global Alliance; effects E. Lauber)

It turns out that what Bible verses people like varies a lot from place to place. That’s because different verses in the Bible speak to different issues and which issues are most important to people depends on their culture, beliefs and circumstances. I can’t assume that someone from another culture and place will find my favorite parts of the Bible most relevant. That’s probably why God had the Bible written over many centuries, in many places, in many different circumstances, and in different cultures. I wouldn’t want someone from another culture to limit me to their favorite food, let alone their favorite Bible verse.

We are involved in the translation of the whole Bible so that Zechariah 14:9 and other verses that you or I would never pick can be someone’s favorite. With the whole Bible, everyone can find the verses that brings them the most hope, encouragement, joy and faith; the ones without which they would never find their way into God’s kingdom.

Your language doesn’t go far

Night literacy class in Ghana, photo courtesy of Paul Federwitz

A Christian from a smaller ethnic group in northern Ghana told me that he told the district pastor of his church that he was enrolled in a literacy class in his language. The pastor responded that what he was doing was useless because he could not go far with his small language. If he traveled even a short distance he would quickly be outside the area where the language is spoken, so it would not serve him any more. According to the pastor, he was leaning a skill with very limited range. 

Any psychologist will tell you that a person only learns to read once. Its just like math – if you learn it in any language, you know it. The skill of reading can be transferred to any language with much less time and effort than learning the skill in the first place. So enrolling in a literacy class in any language will give a person a skill they can use in any other language. Being able to read will go a long way, even if the language won’t. So the pastor was focusing on the wrong thing – language instead of literacy.

Woman teaching literacy class

Besides, it is the end that matters not the start. A primary school education cannot take you far, but you cannot get more education without it. It would be silly to think that primary school education is worthless for those who get high school diploma’s and university degrees. Literacy in a small language might not get you far in one sense, but in another it can be the start of something that goes a long ways. Tens of thousands of primary school dropouts in Ghana have gone to literacy classes in their small languages, gained skills, then returned to school with success becoming nurses, teachers, pastors and even a university lecturer!

In addition, there are tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of Ghanaians who have had their lives transformed through reading the Bible in their languages, even though they never went to school. That wouldn’t have happened if they had not enrolled in a literacy class in their small language. Then there are the many Ghanaians who would never have even considered the claims of Christ and the Gospel except they enrolled in a literacy class and then read the Bible in their language.

But the pastor’s point about the language is true. The language is only used in one small part of Ghana which is an even smaller part of the world. The usefulness of a language over large geographic areas is important for commerce, politics, etc. Nevertheless, the pastor has another problem. His own language, while many times larger than the smaller language, is a very small language by world standards. Yet he reads the Bible in his language because people who speak a really important language like English or German came to Ghana and did not think his language too small or trivial to translate the Bible and teach people to read. They did not dismiss his language as one that wouldn’t take people far.

It turns out that people often think that languages smaller than theirs are too small to be worth it but their own language is worth it. An ethnocentric viewpoint like that does not square with God’s own sense of mission. He could have easily dismissed us because being human doesn’t take you far in this universe.

What are mere mortals that you should think about them,
human beings that you should care for them? (Psa 8:4 NLT

This post is made in honor of International literacy day which is tomorrow.

FM and language

Logo for a Ghanaian-language FM station

Some people believe that globalization will result in a universal consumer culture that wipes out local culture including local languages. But there are a number of indications that this is not the case. One is the explosion of FM radio stations in Africa. Some of them get some or even all of their content via the Internet. For example, the BBC World Service is broadcast in Accra on 101.3. Such stations represent a homogenizing globalization where local people are affected by international influences. But many more FM stations use local languages. Of necessity, much of their content is generated locally.

This localization of FM language and content is a significant hedge against homogenizing globalization. Ghana’s National Communications Authority says that 481 FM stations are authorized to broadcast of which only 5 are foreign stations like the BBC.

In addition to FM stations, other forces are giving new vitality to African languages. In recent years, it has become a virtual requirement that Ghanaian politicians give their political speeches in their language when they’re in their area. That did not used to be the case. Some have even spoken their language in Parliament, although some mocked that. However, some defended it as well.

In some parts of the world many languages are dying. Ghana is not one of them. Here the languages are spreading their wings and traveling into new territory including the Bible, radio, politics and even education. They are carving out spaces in globalization for local culture and preferences. Ignoring them in Christian ministry would be an against-the-flow mistake.

PS: This is the next-to-last post in my series about small languages.

Impact in the Volta Region

Ghana’s Volta Region borders the neighboring country of Togo. The veneration of the python is practiced in the Volta region and extends east through Togo and Benin. It is even thought that it formed the origin of the practice of Voodoo in the Caribbean through slaves taken from the area. Even today, there is a voodoo festival in Benin  and a Python temple. The most widely spoken language in the Volta Region is Ewe (pronounced Eh-Vay). It is the language of church, commerce and relationships between peoples, in addition to the being by far the largest mother tongue in the region, extending into large parts of Togo. Christianity came to the Volta Region with German missionaries in the 1800s.

They worked in the Ewe language, including translating the Bible. In this language map you can see that the embedded in the Ewe people and language there are a number of smaller languages that Ewe is surrounded by smaller languages. Ewe became the de facto church language not only for the Ewe people, but for the people speaking those smaller languages as well. While the work of missionaries had a dramatic impact on the Ewe people and in some other places, it did not displace the veneration of the python in some of the smaller language groups. In fact, the influence of the python actually grew in the mid to late 20th century, in some cases pushing back advances that Christianity had made. Women are the most affected. They are inducted as young women. Placating the spirit of the python can even deplete a woman’s financial resources. One of the effects of the veneration was the there were few women in churches in areas of the Volta Region where smaller languages were spoken.

The first Bible translations (just the NT to be precise) in the smaller languages of the Volta Region were finished in the 1980s, with more completed in the 1990s and even more started since 2010 and a few with no translation work yet. Research done by a colleague of ours, Naana Nkrumah, focused on the impact of those translations on the veneration of the python. They were summarized in an article in the Journal of African Christian Thought and at a conference I attended. One of the marked changes since the translations were published is the number of women in the church, which has increased dramatically. Other results include:

  • Very few young women are now inducted into the veneration. In some areas, none has been inducted for over a decade.
  • Women report significantly improved financial status as a result of not spending resources placating the spirit of the python
  • The veneration has lost prestige and power. In past confrontations with Christiantiy, Python priestesses did powerful miracles which convinced women to stay away from Christianity and stay faithful to the python. Now such miracles are rare and when they do occur many women have the courage to stay with their Christian faith in spite of them.

Naana Nkrumah

What is interesting about these findings is that the Bible and preaching in an African lingua franca (trade language) was unable to compete with devotion to the python. This was in spite of the fact that the language in question, Ewe, is widely spoken and understood in the area. On the other hand, the translation of the Bible into smaller local languages resulted in dramatic change. It is my contention that understanding a language is often not enough to produce all the benefits of the Gospel. Instead, the Bible and preaching must be in the people’s heart language (mother tongue) – the language that touches their deepest center. Only then can deeply-seated beliefs and traditions be changed.

This blog is the 4th in a series on why we translate into small languages.

Small languages: part 3

A friend of mine who has been to Israel several times asked me if I had been. I haven’t. She then said that the first thing that struck her when she arrived was how small the place is. The total land surface area of the earth is more than 57 million square miles. Israel’s land area is 7,847 square miles. (8,019 total minus 172 square miles of inland water). So Israel’s percentage of the world’s land is 0.0137% – a little more than one hundredth of a percent or 14 parts in 100,000.

We might ask why a God of infinite power would give his chosen people such a small bit of real estate.

But that’s not all. There are an estimated 14 million Jews in the world Today, down from a peak of almost 17 million in 1939. Against the world population of almost 7 1/2 billion, that makes Jews 0.188 percent of the world’s population. We might ask why God has not caused his chosen people to grow to be more numerous.

It seems that numbers and land surface are not that important to God. What we might use to measure the prestige and value of a people or a nation are not the measures God uses. We shouldn’t be surprised. God told his prophet Isaiah exactly that:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. (Isaiah 55:8 ESV)

In Corinthians, the Apostle Paul develops this idea further:

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are (I Corinthian 1:27-28 ESV)

God often works through the small, the despised, the marginalized, those no one considers important. It is a theme throughout the Bible.

  • When God sent his son he arranged to have him born during a trip forced by the taxation order of a foreign, pagan invader. He had him born in a trough for animal fodder.
  • When God wanted to overthrow the corrupt regime of Elie and his sons Hofni and Phineas, he chose the lowliest person in the society of that day – a childless married woman. He gave her a son who became a just leader. (I Samuel 1-7).
  • Jesus illustrates God’s methods with the parable of the lost sheep where the shepherd goes looking for the lost 1% of the sheep.

Why do we translate for small languages? Because we are following our God. We are trying to be like him. Because to be valid, our mission has to reflect his heart, his mission, his values and his methods.

Small Languages: Part 2

I’m in the middle of a series of blogs on why we bother translating the Bible into smaller languages. This is an important question because the overwhelming majority of languages still without a translation of the Bible are spoken by 10,000 people or less and some are spoken by less than 1,000. In Ghana, there are 18 languages with fewer than 10,000 speakers each. The languages without translations in Ghana are mostly smaller languages. So this is a very relevant question.

If 10,000 is too few to translate, then is 50,000, or 100,000 enough? Perhaps one million should be the limit. To answer this question we need to back up and ask why we translate at all. That leads us to ask what God thinks of the fact that there are many languages in the world. Is that part of his plan? Are they a curse? Should we be trying to get rid of them? What place, if any, do these languages have in the plan of God?

Tower of BabelThese questions lead us inevitably to Genesis chapter 11 where we have the story of the Tower of Babel.

At first everyone spoke the same language, but after some of them moved from the east and settled in Babylonia, they said:

Let’s build a city with a tower that reaches to the sky! We’ll use hard bricks and tar instead of stone and mortar. We’ll become famous, and we won’t be scattered all over the world.

But when the Lord came down to look at the city and the tower, he said:

These people are working together because they all speak the same language. This is just the beginning. Soon they will be able to do anything they want. Come on! Let’s go down and confuse them by making them speak different languages—then they won’t be able to understand each other.

So the people had to stop building the city, because the Lord confused their language and scattered them all over the earth. That’s how the city of Babel got its name.
(Genesis 11:1-9 CEV)

Some read this story and come away with the idea that the multiplicity of languages is a curse. And if the diversity of languages is a curse, then maybe we should be trying to get rid of languages and return to all speaking the same language. I believe that thinking springs from a misunderstanding of God’s judgment. Jonathan Martin, author and pastor, wrote:

I do not believe God’s judgment is about retribution, but a manifestation of hard-edged mercy. Judgment is an illumination of the ugliness that lurks within us, bringing to the surface all that we would otherwise bury so that it might be acknowledged, named, repented of, and ultimately healed.

Even if we understand the Tower of Babel as judgment, that does not mean that it is punishment or a curse. Our God is all about redemption, about bringing good out of bad. If people are drifting away from God, he does not punish them to make them suffer for it. No, he does things designed to draw them back. Martin further writes:

sometimes mercy must take on a violent, apocalyptic form

This understanding of God’s judgment shows us a better way to understand the Tower of Babel – not as a curse but as redemption. Dividing mankind into pieces by causing us to speak many different languages is not punishment, but rather a way to help us, to bless us. But how on earth might the multiplicity of languages be a blessing? The Apostle Paul answers that question Acts 17:34 where he is addressing a gathering in the city of Athens. He told them (emphasis is mine):

“From one man he created all the nations throughout the whole earth. He decided beforehand when they should rise and fall, and he determined their boundaries. His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him—though he is not far from any one of us.” (Acts 34-26-27 NLT)

Remember that when Paul uses the word “nations” he does not mean countries but rather peoples. So God’s purpose in having us live as different peoples with different languages is not to thwart our efforts, but rather so that all peoples would “seek after God.”

The experience of missionaries and of churches shows over and over again that local languages and cultures are wonderful vehicles for faith and redemption. Where they have been seen as a problem – as in some mission efforts to native North Americans – missions has often had little result. Where the church has tried to promote a common language, as was the case for Latin in Europe, the result has been weak and distorted belief. Paul’s teaching that we are divided into different peoples and languages so that we would seek God works itself out in evangelism and missions every day and year after year. God s purpose, that the division of people into many peoples and languages would help them find him, is more than a theoretical bit of theology. It works in practice, on the ground, in the real world.

Why do we translate into smaller languages? Because it works. It works because God made those languages so that the people who speak them could find him through them. Can a language be too small for that to be a good thing? 

Small languages: Part 1

The August 9th is the International Day of Indigenous Peoples. So I’m going to post some blogs about small languages.

Sometimes, people ask me how big a language has to be for us to translate the Bible into it. You may be surprised at my response – how many people speak a language is not an important criteria for whether we translate into it. Don’t get me wrong, it is a valid criteria, just not a very important one.

Language Vitality in Africa

That is because other criteria are more useful, especially the criteria of language vitality. Language vitality asks the question whether the language is being passed to the next generation, in other words whether there are signs that it is dying. To understand this, let’s imagine a situation that is and has been quite common in the USA. Say Swedish immigrants, a married couple, arrived in Minnesota in the early 1900s. In their home, they speak Swedish, but they learn English through contact with their neighbors and others in the community. When they have children, they continue to speak Swedish in their home, but the children quickly learn English through their friends and at school. In fact, the children speak English better than their parents. As the children graduate from high school and move out of the home they speak Swedish less and less, perhaps only when they visit home. Then the children get married. One or two may marry the children of other Swedish immigrants in the community, but others have spouses who do not speak Swedish. In any case, the couples speak English together, not Swedish. So when they have children, they speak to them in English. So the grandchildren of the immigrants no longer speak their language.

This imaginary story shows a typical case of the interruption of transmission of a language from one generation to the next. This process typically takes three generations. While my imaginary story concerns one migrant family, the same thing can happen to a whole community without migration being a factor. The same process can be found in communities of Native Americans where one generation speaks the language at home, the next learns the language at home but has as much or more contact with English and starts using English as its preferred language, then the next generation does not learn the language from those parents. Or they may learn only very limited parts of the language.

Language Vitality in North and South America

So, a crucial criteria for translating the Bible into a language is the language’s vitality – whether the language is being transmitted to the next generation. A simple survey can determine if the language is being passed to children in the home. When we know that, we can project the number of people who will speak it in 30, 50 or 70 years. If that projected number is increasing because of population growth and children learning the language in the home, then a translation might be warranted even if a smaller number of people speak it today. On the other hand, a language with more speakers but low vitality and hence a projection of decreasing numbers of speakers, might not get a translation. Vitality is more important than number.

While I was in Côte d’Ivoire, language surveys were being done to assess language vitality and other relevant factors, so that resources for translation can be allocated wisely. While some languages in Côte d’Ivoire have low vitality, most of them them are alive, well and growing.

All bad, all good, or

There are three approaches that missionaries take to traditional religion:

  • It’s all wrong
  • It’s all good
  • There’s truth in failure

Many missionaries to Africa took the first approach. Mission documents show the widespread belief that African traditional religion was all wrong. Some held that the religious practices came from Satan himself. Some even condemned all African customs – religious or not.

The second – that it’s all good – is relatively new. It’s part of total cultural relativity. I remember a group of French academics warning us Bible translators against telling people to destroy their idols. For them, idols were good and should be retained. The people doing wrong were missionaries who taught otherwise.

The third approach – that there’s light in the darkness – says that Jesus Christ is the only way, truth and life; that no one gets to God except by him. So all other religions fail in their primary purpose. People following them may sincerely try, but their religion cannot do what religion is supposed to do. Nevertheless God puts slivers of truth in their failed religious beliefs which validate the Gospel when it comes. Don Richardson’s books The Peace Child and Eternity in their Hearts present dramatic cases of this approach.

Depending on the place, it has been decades or even centuries since missionaries came with their approach that African traditional religion was all wrong. That has given plenty of time for African pastors and theologians to evaluate the missionaries’ efforts. First, they almost always commend the selfless work of missionaries. But they also go on to propose ways it could have been better. I just read an article showing some of the mistakes missionaries made in Ghana including how they misunderstood traditional religion. It shows the inaccuracy of the it’s-all-wrong approach; but more importantly, it shows how that approach limited Gospel impact and missionary effectiveness. For the author, it hindered dealing effectively with the issue of ancestors and other spiritual powers (the Abosom).

That mirrors a book a read by an African church leader in which he states that the missionaries’ wholesale attribution of traditional religious practices to Satan actually strengthened witchcraft and sorcery, making it more difficult for the church to deal with and leading to a situation today where some church members continue to dabble in it and many more fear it.

One would think that the it’s-all-wrong approach would be the safest. It does feel like an uncompromising stand for the truth. In its effects, however, it can be counterproductive. Besides, the Apostle Paul took the truth-in-failure approach in dealing with idolaters in Athens, (Acts 17:16-31) taking time to study their different idols. He obviously thought that it was good to learn about their religion even though idolatry is condemned by the first two of the Ten Commandments and the idolatry of Athens troubled him greatly. Then he made the claim that one of their forgotten deities is the true and living God. Today, many Africans Christians take the truth-in-failure model in dealing with their traditional religion. One leading theological seminary in Ghana has even taken as its motto a traditional Akan sayiing: Nsem Nyinaa Ne Nyame (God is the primary reality in all things).

If you have friends or acquaintances who follow another religion, I suggest you try the truth-in-failure approach in witnessing to them. We promote Bible translation that takes seriously the culture and language of the people; seeking the expressions and word-images that are the slivers of truth God has placed there so that people can understand and believe.

The most dangerous animal

This week is national mosquito control week in the US. Worldwide, controlling mosquitoes is a big deal because they are, in fact, the world’s deadliest animal. Every 40 seconds, a child dies of malaria transmitted by a mosquito. Dayle and I have had colleagues whose children died of malaria. Here in Ghana, our Ghanaian colleagues in Bible translation regularly take sick days because of malaria or take time off work to go get tested. Some of my African friends involved in Bible translation spend days every year in hospitals with children, spouses or other family members who are very ill with the disease.

In a 2011 survey, 72% of companies in sub-Saharan Africa reported a negative malaria impact, with 39% saying the negative impact was serious. Malaria not only kills, it reduces productivity. Translators’ work suffers when they are extra tired because malaria is depleting their strength but not yet making them sick. Malaria affects the education of their children.

One survey found some poor households spend as much as 25% of their income on malaria treatment. The link between malaria and poverty is widely recognized with malaria being the cause and poverty the result, whereas for many other diseases poverty is the cause and the diseases are the result. T. H. Weller, a Nobel Laureate in Medicine in 1958, wrote:

It has long been recognized that a malarious community is an impoverished community.

In Sri Lanka, an outbreak of dengue fever, another mosquito-born disease, infected tens of thousands and killed hundreds. Dengue is a debilitating illness. When I contracted it, I was not able to work for two months.

When you pray for national translators and others, pray for protection against malaria and other mosquito-born illnesses.