One of Wycliffe’s pioneers and leaders, George Cowan, passed into glory a few days ago at the age of 100. Here’s short video in which he talked about why we should translate even for small language groups.
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.
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.
For 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.
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.)
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.
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 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.
He 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.
Adapted from a blog posted by Wycliffe Bible Translators UK.
This 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.
Not 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.
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.
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.
A newspaper headline in Côte d’Ivoire read:
Les pasteurs sont devenus des jeteurs de cauris
Here’s an accurate literal translation of that sentence from Google Translate:
Pastors have become throwers of cowries.
The newspaper article was in French, the official language of Côte d’Ivoire. It was quoting an Ivorian church leader who was criticizing the actions of certain pastors. I thought that this newspaper headline would be an interesting way to show some of the issues that a translator faces.
Many of you won’t know what the church leader meant. So what if pastors throw cowries? Why would a pastor throw cowries? Is that good or bad? What are cowries anyway?
Cowries are small sea shells used widely in Africa and other places. They used to be used as money. In this photo, cowries are being used as dice in a game. Now you know what cowries are, but what does it mean to throw them? People from West Africa will know immediately what the church leader was saying. Throwing cowrie shells is a common tool of diviners – what we in the US call “psychics” or fortune tellers – people who tell the future, give advice or reveal secrets by interpretation of omens, by “reading” you, or by supernatural powers. Throwing cowrie shells is the functional equivalent of reading you, your palm, Tarot cards or tea leaves.
The church leader was decrying that some so-called pastors have abandoned the true Gospel and engage in fortune-telling calling it prophesy under the guise of Christianity. They call themselves prophets, make predictions of all kinds including political. They collect money from people, just like fortune tellers or psychics, in exchange for their revelations. Some make a very good living plying their trade.
The phrase “Les pasteurs sont devenus des jeteurs de cauris” evokes all of that. But for most of my readers, the literal translation “Pastors have become throwers of cowries” doesn’t. It is not a very informative translation. What might we do to improve it?
At a minimum, I suggest that we replace “cowries” with “cowrie shells”. While cowries can be found in the dictionary as the plural of cowrie, the word is not that well known. For people who don’t know what cowries are, the translation “cowrie shells” tells them generally what they are – shells. The reader still might not know what shape, color or size cowrie shells have, but the reader will at least know they they are a kind of shell. We have not changed the meaning at all. “Cowrie shells” is a very good translation of the French word “cauris”. So our first improvement in the translation is
Pastors have become throwers of cowrie shells.
Next, we need to recognize that we are dealing with a relatively common translation challenge – translating an action whose meaning was clear in the language and context where the phrase was spoken or written, but which is not clear to the people for whom it is being translated. We are dealing with translating an unknown action. One of the techniques for translating an unknown action is to include the purpose or meaning of the action. So, if we want to make the translation more transparent, we can make explicit the purpose of throwing cowrie shells. We can do this in subtle or obvious ways. Here’s a subtle option:
Pastors have become readers of cowrie shells.
What we have done with this translation is translate the action “throw” by a word that tells the purpose of throwing. When the church leader said the sentence, he knew that he was talking about divination and he knew that his Ivorian audience would understand that. So, by translating the meaning of the action we are adding nothing to what he actually communicated at the time when he said the sentence.
The literal translation “throwers of cowries” has a stylistic problem as does “readers of cowrie shells”. We generally don’t phrase things that way. We would never say of a young lady who just got her driver’s license: “She has become a driver of cars”. That just sounds weird. We would not say or write “he has become a reader of books” or “she has become a player of golf” but rather “he now reads books” and “she has started playing golf”. The translation “have become readers of cowrie shells” has this same un-English awkwardness. If we repackage the same information in a sentence that sounds like normal English we get:
Pastors now read cowrie shells.
But not everyone will understand the idea behind reading cowrie shells. Some will get get the connection to “reading” Tarot cards or tea leaves, but others won’t. Besides, the church leader did not literally mean that pastors throw cowrie shells. He was using throwing cowries to mean divination in general. He was including so-called prophets who never actually throw cowrie shells. So if we were to take the translation a step further, we could translate the purpose of throwing cowries even more explicitly with a translations like:
Pastors have become fortune tellers.
Pastors are now fortune tellers.
Or we could split the difference and keep the throwing of cowries and make the purpose explicit with a translation like:
Pastors have become cowrie-throwing fortune tellers.
We have choices for “fortune tellers”. We have the more technical but less well-known term “diviners” or the broader term “psychics”. I think that “fortune tellers” is more exact than “psychics” and better known than “diviners”. Besides, “fortune tellers” has a bit of a negative connotation which fits the pastor’s critique.
How far can we go in making the meaning clear? The following translations are very clear, but they are not acceptable:
Pastors have started reading tea leaves
Pastors become readers of tarot cards
These translations explain the meaning, but they introduce factual inaccuracies. Tea leaves and tarot cards are not widely known arts of divination in Ivory Coast. This translation implies that they are. The church leader was referring to a specific common practice, we can’t substitute and another practice that is not common as though it were. We have made the pastor’s meaning explicit, but at the expense of a factual problem. If the sentence we were translating were telling of a person throwing actually cowrie shells, we would be more constrained in our translation for the same reason. But in this case, the pastor was not recounting an actual incident of someone throwing cowrie shells. Instead he was comparing some pastors to the general category of people who are “throwers of cowries”.
A consideration in the translation is the fact that the church leader used a comparison. He could have said “Pastors have become diviners”, but he didn’t . He said something more evocative, something more poetic when he compared them to the practitioners of a long-established and traditional method of divination. Perhaps our translation should reflect that. Here’s a translation that tries to do that:
Pastors have reverted to being old-fashioned, cowrie-throwing fortune tellers.
This translation captures the fact that by saying “throwers of cowries” the church leader was saying that there has been a regression to old practices. For me, this translation is the best at evoking the mental image the church leader intended and it also captures his disdain. But it takes us quite a ways from the original text. It is more of a commentary or an explanation than a translation. My preferred translation would stick closer to the text :
Pastors have become fortune tellers.
But this is only my preferred translation if the translated sentence appears in a daily newspaper in the US. If I were translating it for a daily newspaper in Ghana where the official language is English, I would use the literal Google translation because the Ghanaians who read the newspaper will understand all that was meant by the phrase “throwers of cowries”. If I were translating this phrase for a professional journal for anthropologists, I would use the literal translation because they have the academic background to know what it means. In fact, in such a case I might put the original French in the text and the English translation in a footnote. If I were translating it for a paper for a college class, I would use the literal translation and explain its meaning in a footnote. That doesn’t work in newspapers because they don’t have footnotes. If I were translating the phrase for a Christian magazine in the US, I would use “Pastors have become fortune tellers” and include the literal “throwers of cowries” in a footnote or in parenthesis if the editor allowed. So my choice of translation would depend on the knowledge of the most likely readers of the publication in which it would appear and what the editor of the publication allows.
So, what is the “best” translation? Well, it depends. The best translation is one that respects the original, that the intended audience is most likely to understand they way the church leader meant it and which fits in the style of the publication where it will appear.
Some time ago, I had a meal with a man from Ivory Coast who told quite an unusual story about his salvation. When he started his professional life as a professor of law at a university, he was not a believer. One of his students kept bugging him to attend her church. He really was not interested so he kept putting her off, but she persisted. One day, she invited him to a church convention. He thought: “I am not going to get rid of this girl until I go to her church, so I’ll go and get it over with.” And he went.
He was intrigued by the message, especially about an all-powerful God. Then the preacher said that after God created man, he gave him dominion, citing Genesis 1:26-28:
Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us. They will reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the wild animals on the earth, and the small animals that scurry along the ground.” So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Then God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground.”
When the preacher said that God gave human beings dominion, the man was amazed. He thought: “This means that God took some of his authority and confided it in us!” This idea of dominion kept going around in his head. It caused him to think of a traditional practice he and his wife followed in their family. It was the practice of a totem or taboo.
Totems or taboos are part of the traditional practices of many African peoples. They often take the form of a prohibition to eat certain foods because they are associated with a person’s clan or family. So members of the crocodile clan can’t eat crocodile meat, for example. Depending on how these taboos or totems are distributed, there can be members of the same family who have different taboos or totems – some not eating crocodile, others not eating monkey, and so on. It is believed that if a person eats a taboo food, the spirit of the totem will harm, even kill, them.
One of this man’s daughters had a taboo against a certain food. But this dominion idea got him thinking: “If God gave me dominion over things, how could it be that a taboo spirit could have dominion over me?” He fasted and prayed for three days, and then had his wife cook the taboo food and they all ate it with no ill effects. He gave his life to Christ and has been a stalwart in the church ever since. He gives legal advice to those of us doing Bible translation and to other organizations.
It struck me as the man was telling this story that all of the concepts and Bible texts that lead him to salvation are from the Old Testament. The idea that God is all powerful is present in the New Testament, but it is in the Old Testament that it is fully present and developed. The story of creation and God giving human beings dominion over creation is obviously an Old Testament story.
I have never heard a salvation message in the US on Genesis chapter one. I doubt that it would be effective. But it was powerfully effective for this man. Plus, the preacher was using that text, so he must have thought that it was relevant and appropriate for his audience. Here have a highly educated African man coming to Christ through Genesis chapter one.
Why do I think that we need to translate the Old Testament into more African languages? Because, among other good reasons, it’s teaching resonates in ways that change peoples lives and bring them to salvation.
During my last weeks in Côte d’Ivoire, two Ivorians friends told me about the experiences of their parents who were some of the first believers in their areas. Their parents had told them of numerous power encounters – events where God intervened by his power to validate and protect them as they evangelized. The story of Elijah on Mount Carmel tells of a power encounter.
My friends’ parents told of going to villages on evangelism trips. They ate when people offered them food, but unbeknown to them, the people had poisoned the food. However, they ate it with no ill effects. After they ate, the people who had offered the food thought that it must be okay, so they ate the rest. But they became very ill and some died. My friends said that their parents told them lots of such stories when they were growing up.
This story came up because one of my friends is helping with conflict resolution in an area of the country where there is a conflict over religion. Those who follow traditional religious practices are insisting that others, including Christians, also respect those practices. Christians who don’t are being harassed and even attacked. He is working with others to resolve the conflict before it escalates, but they’re not having a lot of success.
My Ivorian friends are seeing the return if some religious practices they thought had disappeared with their parents and grandparents generation. This matches my observations in Ghana where traditional religion is making a bit of a comeback. A survey in Ghana showed that a higher percentage of educated people believe that sorcery has real power. And this is at a time when more Ghanaians have more education than ever before. It seems that education is not the answer. But then, we knew that.