What makes me foreign

flagglobeAs a white person living and working in Sub-Saharan Africa, I am immediately identified as a foreigner by the color of my skin. When I first came to Africa, the organization I world for was staffed almost exclusively by white people coming from North America and Europe. We hired some local staff for low-level jobs, but all the missionaries were white. It was very obvious that the organization itself was foreign. Over the years the situation has changed radically. Most of the staff in the offices, on the translation centers and in the translation projects are Africans.

But it’s still a foreign organization.

I’ll illustrate this with an example. Let’s say that a foreign government sets up an office in Washington DC to lobby for its interests. It hires an American lobbyist and sets him up with other American staff – a receptionist and so on. The lobbying office is still a foreign thing even though all the staff are Americans. What makes it foreign is who it represents, and where it gets its orders.

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Image courtesy of Superyoyo

What continues to make Bible translation foreign in Africa is no longer that it is staffed with foreigners. It is that the shots are still called somewhere else. One of my African friends likens what is happening to a conveyor belt. Money, people and ideas about Bible translation are put on a conveyor belt in the West and conveyed to Africa where offices staffed by Africans receive the ideas, add little by way of African ideas or resources then deliver the packages throughout the continent in the form of translation programs guided and resourced by the ideas and money put on the conveyor belt somewhere else.

As long as this situation persists, Bible translation will stop when those in the West stop putting their ideas and money on the conveyor belt, it will be reduced they they reduce what they put on – just like a delivery office (such as Fedex) can only deliver the packages it receives. It will go bankrupt if no one sends packages. The real work of making Bible translation less foreign is more radical and more difficult than changing the staffing of the delivery office. Someone will have to change the delivery service into a factory producing its own product to deliver. The next step in removing the foreignness of translation in Africa is having churches and Christians in Africa owning and shaping translation to fit their reality.

By the way, in this scenario Westerners still have a role to play because the issue is not where the staff comes from but rather who defines the vision and calls the shots. I see my primary focus, whatever my role, in facilitating a process where Africans and their churches design and implement their own translation programs.

I am fascinated to watch how this is starting to happen – here and there, slowly at first, picking up speed.

Deep and wide

Ed addressing the workshop

Ed addressing a regional workshop

A few months back, I attended a few sessions of a training event for African church leaders. The topic was the use of African languages in the ministry of the church. That includes translations of the Bible in African languages, of course. The focus of the training was on getting faith deep into hearts and minds so that influences all of life. Some have remarked that Christianity in Africa is a mile wide and an inch deep. It is common for Christians and churches to split along ethnic lines during ethnic conflicts.

mandela-his-languageI know of cases where Christians have tried to harm, even kill, other members of their own church who were from the “enemy” ethnic group. Corruption is rampant in parts of African where there are many Christians. Serious Christians and church leaders are asking what is wrong and how to fix it. What is lacking in the preaching of the Gospel? What are churches not doing or doing wrong? How does faith get to the level of changing a person’s values, actions and allegiances? I have heard African Christians and their church leaders ask discuss these questions. The leaders of the workshop, themselves Africans, were proposing that deep faith that changes a person often involves the person’s mother tongue, even if it involves other languages as well.

At the end of the workshop, one of the participants, the leader of a large church in the country, told the group that he realized during the workshop that:

We win lots of souls, but we don’t give them what they need to grow in their new faith.

After the event, he asked for help planning a literacy effort for the Christians in his churches so that they could read the Bible in their own languages. We sent him a literacy specialist to help him get started. In Great Commission it is obvious that Jesus was giving instructions to do much more than “win lots of souls”. Jesus said to teach people “to observe all that I have commanded”. So we commend the church leader who wants to see the people in his churches grow in their faith.

We are doing Bible translation so that Christianity in Africa will be as deep as it is wide.

Heart language and human rights

UN Peace Keepers in Côte d'Ivoire

UN Peace Keepers in Côte d’Ivoire

In the past decade, Côte d’Ivoire has gone through two civil wars. The United Nations sent a peacekeeping force to separate the warring factions and bring peace. One of the tasks undertaken by the UN forces was giving out information about Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The idea was to help people at the grassroots be aware of their rights rather than take whatever treatment given them by armed groups and others.

This is where Dayle and I took a temporary, six-month assignment in 2016. One of the Ivorian linguists I worked with was present in a rural area when peacekeepers came through and gave out information on human rights. He could see that it wasn’t going well. Some of the people were even sleeping. One of the reasons was clear – language. There are over 70 languages spoken in Ivory Coast but the peacekeepers were not using the local language. They were speaking in French and an interpreter was interpreting on the fly. That is an impossible job. Just translating “human rights” into the languages is a challenge. It’s not an impossible challenge, but if you give an interpreter 10 seconds to think about it (while he’s interpreting something else), that is impossible. Your going to get a bad translation.

udhr_booklet_en_web_011The linguist decided to translate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into his language, the one in the area where he had witnessed the failed communication. He had training in Bible translation which includes training in translating unknown concepts. There are techniques and options for translating “snow”, for example, into a language in a tropical region that does not have a word for snow. He applied those techniques to words and phrases like “human rights” in the Declaration. He then printed a few copies and distributed them to literacy classes in that language. People in the classes read and discussed the Declaration. The results were immediate.

The next time the peacekeepers came through, an uneducated farmer asked them if they really believed in human rights. He then went on to cite specific parts of the Declaration and specific incidents where the peacekeepers themselves were in violation! In several villages, previously illiterate peasant farmers formed human rights committees which reported abuses of human rights to the peacekeepers and to the authorities. A number of these were acted on. Their situation improved.

Eleanor Roosevelt and the UDHR

Eleanor Roosevelt and the UDHR

God gave us each our heart language for a reason – it reaches into the core of our being. It can motivate us to action where the same information in other languages just goes in one ear and out the other. Our mother tongues (which I call our heart languages) are a vehicle for lasting transformation at the grassroots that touches the lives of everyday people. Development workers, humanitarians and missionaries who neglect it weaken their efforts, sometimes fatally.

On the other hand, the Gospel and the heart language make a potent combination.

(The illustrations come from a fun publication for children on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.)

Old Testament Gap

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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.

Information

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.

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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!!!

John Paton

John Paton

John Paton

John Paton died this coming Saturday (January 28) in 1907. His story is the kind of dramatic and terrifying tale that makes for a great missionary biography.

In 1858, he arrived on Tanna Island in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu). What makes that dramatic is that he set sail for Tanna Island a mere 14 days after his wedding, and the first Christian missionaries to the islands had been killed and cannibalized minutes after their arrival. Back home, people had told Paton he was a fool for going to such a place, especially with his new bride. Then his story gets worse. His first child was born during his first year on Tanna Island. Baby and mother died days of the birth. He buried them with his own hands. For four more years, he struggled on seeing little results for his sacrifice, until the people of the island drove him off.

He returned to Scotland where inspired many to become missionaries and go to the New Hebrides. I have to wonder what he said, because he had nothing but misery to show for his own missionary endeavors.

vanuatu-mapHe remarried and returned to the New Hebrides, this time to Aniwa island. There he lost four more children in early childhood. He was often in poor health and the people of that island threatened him. Under these conditions and for 41 years, he preached and translated the New Testament into one of the many local languages.

It is not until near the end of his life that results started to appear, and even then only slowly. At his death in 1907, there were missionaries on 25 of the 30 islands. Today, Vanuatu today is estimated to be 90% Christian, but that took many decades after Paton’s death. The translation of the New Testament he worked on is still in use.

Those of you who follow this blog will have noted a recurring theme in my blog posts – Bible translation is a mission endeavor that takes time to produce results, but when the results come they also last. This is reflected in the by-line for this blog – Connecting at the deepest level for lasting impact. The story of Paton’s perseverance and suffering in the face of ill health and hostility is challenging. But let’s not let that great story hide the story of the extraordinary spread of Christianity that took place after his sufferings were long over.

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Adapted from a blog posted by Wycliffe Bible Translators UK.

An expert who asks for advice

tamil-english-dictionary-coverThis coming Sunday (January 22) in 1711, Johann Phillip Fabricius was born in Germany. After studying law and theology, he became a missionary to Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka, at the age of 29. He lived in Madras, now known as Chennai, where he was pastor to a small congregation. But he devoted great energy to his study of the Tamil language, the most widely spoken language of Ceylon. He mastered the language to the extent that he began writing hymns in Tamil, eventually publishing a Tamil to English dictionary that is still for sale on Amazon.

Another missionary was translating the Bible into Tamil. Johann added his efforts, translating some books of the Bible while the other missionary translated other books. Others quickly recognized that Johann’s translations were superior. His in-depth study of Tamil was paying off.  Eventually he redid the books translated by the other missionary and the Tamil Bible was all his. He was diligent in reading his draft translations to others to get their feedback. This step, now used in all serious translation programs, was one of the secrets to the quality of his translation.

tamil-language-map-hl-colorsNot everyone who becomes an expert still consults others. Yet Johann Fabricius became an expert in the Tamil language and yet read his translations to ordinary people seeking their feedback. Even today, this unusual combination – the expert who consults others and takes their opinion seriously – is a key step in the best Bible translations. Martin Luther did the same as he translated the Bible into German. He said that Bible translators need to go into the streets and “look into the mouths of women and children”.

Pray for us and for GILLBT as we seek to start translations in the remaining languages of Ghana; that we would find translators who will become experts and have the humility to actively seek and take seriously the input of others.

Genesis chapter 1 in Tamil

Genesis chapter 1 in Tamil

Fighting for language

I recently read something written by an African Christian in which he wrote

“The story of my peo­ple group has been one of a com­mu­nity that fought for a long time to have the right to use its own lan­guage for…worship­ping God.”

This may seem really strange to you, but it is not at all uncommon. Actually, the writer is fortunate, his people fought to get their language used in church. Many peoples just acquiesced, abandoning the idea of using their languages to talk to God, sing his praises, or worship him. They did not dare to think that they might get the Bible in their language.

Some missions and missionaries thought that promoting one language and discouraging others would promote unity in the church. It never did work out that way.  When one of my Ghanaian colleagues talked to church leaders about translating the Bible into some of the smaller languages in their area, one responded:

“You are trying to divide the church”

We looked into it, but that didn’t seem to be a risk. We started translation in the smaller languages and it has had no negative effects on church unity, quite the opposite. In fact, one of the common effects of the process of translating the Bible is greater church unity.

CECCA/16 members

Congolese Christians praying in a regional language

Other missionaries or African church leaders just find the the number of languages daunting, or think that having church services in all of them is just too complicated. In some cases, children were punished for speaking their languages in church and missionary schools. The results of such practices has been that some African Christians have come to believe that they cannot pray to God in their own language. They may even believe that their language and ethnicity are not pleasing to God, or that he has put them under a curse.

The God of the Bible does not require that people abandon their language when entering into his presence. Neither should we.