All or nothing

For most of my career, agencies involved in Bible translation have had a binary approach to deciding which languages get a translation of the Bible. After a field survey, we declared that some languages needed s translation and others did not.

Languages determined to need a translation received significant resources, often a highly trained missionary-linguist for a significant period of time, sometimes for decades. The others got nothing.

Relatively early in my career, it became obvious that this binary approach did not fit reality. Languages do not group themselves nicely into those whose speakers don’t know any other language and those whose speakers all speak another language perfectly. Or into languages that will quickly die and those which will continue for another thousand years. There are all kinds of gradations. There are languages which show signs of dying, but not strongly or not everywhere. It is not easy to know what percentage of a people speak another language well enough to understand the Bible in that language. Besides, how well is that anyway? Then we have cases where translations in the mother tongue produced transformative impact even though the people all knew another language and read the Bible in it for decades without the same positive changes.

Because we were trying to fit all languages into just two categories, we had endless discussions with colleagues over whether specific languages fit in one or the other. We reclassified some languages several times. I even saw a case where a missionary became distressed after spending a few years learning a language, developing an alphabet, and starting translation only to come to the conclusion that we had put him in a language which did not need a translation. We disagreed with him, but that didn’t help.

Then there are the pastors and Christians who come asking for a translation in their language only to have us tell them that we missionaries thought it was unnecessary.

No one wants to be the one who says that this moment will never happen for a language because the translation is not needed

Fortunately, the binary approach is dying. Encouraged by that, I worked with a Ghanaian colleague to develop a set of graded responses to languages without translation in Ghana. We are dropping the binary all-or-nothing response in favor of four separate responses. One puts high priority on languages where there are very few Christians. In such cases we will put significant amounts of effort, expertise and funding into the translation. Another response is for languages where there are many Christians who are using the Bible in another language. In such a case, we will demand a lot more of the churches. They will have to organize themselves and raise a very significant part of the funds. We will supply training and quality control.

It’s not perfect. We will still find gradations the four responses don’t address perfectly. But they will be fewer and less shocking. Plus, we will probably use kingdom resources a bit better.

Eternally Diverse

The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) conducts regular and highly respected research in the US. Their 2016 Values Atlas came up with unexpected findings which show that the denominations that say a lot about diversity are less diverse than denominations not known for their public stances on diversity – by a lot.

More than nine in ten Lutherans (92%) and roughly eight in ten Meth­odists (83%), Presbyterians (83%), and Episcopalians (80%) are white, non-Hispanic. In contrast, fewer than six in ten (58%) Baptists are white, and a sizeable share of members are black (30%) or Hispanic (5%). Similarly, only half (50%) of Pentecostals are white, while one-quarter (25%) are Hispanic, and 17% are black. Protestants who belong to non-denominational Protestant churches are also somewhat diverse: Two-thirds (67%) are white, 13% are black, and 10% are Hispanic.

According to the 2010 census, the US is population is 69% white, non-Hispanic. So Pentecostals and Baptists, at 50% and 58% white non-Hispanic, are more diverse than the general population. The PRRI also found that whites who attend mainline churches are less likely to have close friends of other races than those who attend churches that adhere more closely to historic Christian beliefs.

Woman from a small language in Ghana reading the New Testament in her language. Photo courtesy of Rodney Ballard, Wycliffe Global Alliance

I am not at all surprised by these findings. After all, the churches adhering to historic Christian faith believe that Jesus died for everyone and that God commands us to reach out to all peoples. So they have active outreach in their communities and around the world. Beliefs and actions like that are powerful antidotes to keeping others out of your church or out of your life.

Want real diversity? Join those who read their Bible regularly. There are not many groups of people more diverse than that one; speaking more than 3,300 languages in more than 150 countries, the rich and the poor, insiders and marginalised, educated and uneducated, the praised and the persecuted… I was just among the Siwu people of Ghana; numbering only 14,000 and unknown even in parts of Ghana. I heard them reading the Bible in their language and telling how it changed their entire people.

Join the Siwu and others who read their Bible regularly with faith and be part of a marvelous, diverse, and eternal throng.

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands (Revelation 7:9)

When a pear is not a pear

Dayle in the hospital in Ghana, with fresh coconut

When Dayle was hospitalized in Ghana, a Ghanaian friend called to say he was coming to visit and wanted to bring something Dayle wanted. She told him she would like an avocado, but she used the local word for avocado that she uses at local vegetable stands: pear. When he came, he brought actual pears which are hard to find and expensive. It sure was sweet of him but we were embarrassed to have inadvertently caused him the trouble and expense.

When two people in a cross-cultural situation each adapt to the other, the result can be a miss-step like this one. In general, we don’t expect Ghanaians to adapt to us. We are the ones temporarily in a country not our own, so we should be the ones to adapt, even if we don’t always succeed. But Ghanaians are hospitable, so they try to adapt to us. The result can be like ships passing in the night.

When thst happens, intentions matter. When they are taken into account, we end up appreciating each other rather than becoming irritated, disappointed or angry, but we still laugh.

Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. – 1 Peter 4:8

Motivation for giving

If you look at the websites and publicity put out by missions and charitable organizations, you will see that many use the “problem” approach to raising funds. That approach emphasizes the lacking, negative or even disastrous aspects of a situation. Then say they need your help to fix it. When I talk to groups about Bible translation, I use several approaches including the problem approach, but I don’t emphasize it nor do I use guilt-inducing emotional appeals, or fear tactics (If you don’t give something disastrous will happen). I prefer an approach which emphasized the beneficial effects and successes of translation, inviting people to join something significant, successful and blessed by God. The Bible says:

Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. – 2 Corinthians 9:7

Andy Ring, who started the translation into the Buem language, being honored at the dedication of the Buem Bible

Here in Ghana, I have discovered that Ghanaians involved in Bible translation use a fascinating type of motivation. It is based on the fact that dozens of Westerners (Germans, Americans, Dutch, British, etc) came to Ghana to do Bible translation. Many were highly trained. My Ghanaian colleagues often mention this fact, emphasizing that highly-trained missionaries often poured their whole professional lives into translation and they did it in difficult places where most educated Ghanaians would refuse to live or work. Ghanaian Christians find this inspiring. If high-prestige Westerners do this for Ghana, they conclude, then Ghanaians should do as much or even more.

After all, it is their country. This is a motivation based on nationalism, specifically, that Ghanaians should take responsibility for Ghana.

I would have thought that telling the missionary story would demotivate. My logic would have been that if missionaries are doing it, then it is taken care of so Ghanaians won’t need to give themselves or their money. I have heard some of my Western colleagues express that same concern. But we are mistaken. The missionary story motivates Ghanaians very powerfully. It’s a good thing I was not in charge of communication for fundraising.

It’s professional

I asked a young Uber driver in Accra why he liked Uber. He responded: “Because it’s professional.”

In his culture, status and shame matter a lot. I could tell by his lack of mastery of English that he doesn’t have much education. So he has low status. But now he is part of something professional. He likes the status. He never did mention money, but he did mention specifics related to status and shame, including that he doesn’t get hassled at places where taxis (which have low status) get hassled.

You might find his ideas strange. But note that we Westerners tend to follow materialism – the idea that matter is all that matters (pun intended). So we would rate Uber based on its economic impact, whereas my Ghanaian Uber driver’s used an evaluation based on the non-material concept of human dignity.

That fits his culture. It also matches the findings of a World Bank report entitled Voices of the Poor which is a study of poverty based on interviews with 60,000 poor people in more than 50 countries. In it the poor often defined their poverty in non-material terms such lack of social connections and lack of respect.

Some Westerners are so stuck in their mindset of materialism that they criticize translating the Bible for the poor because that doesn’t meet material needs. But the poor people in question often support the translation. Why? Because they have a much more holistic view of their situation and its solutions than critics trapped in their western cultural materialism.

It is central to Christian faith that God’s care for us extends way beyond our material needs; our salvation is the example par excellence, but salvation does not stand alone. In the Beatitudes, Jesus presents an outline of human blessedness that relegates the material to its rightful niche.

We translate the Bible for the poor in part because the poor say it helps and it does, the objections of materialism notwithstanding.

IPA

IPA is the International Phonetic Alphabet. It contains a symbol for every sound made in human speech. If you master the IPA, you can literally write down what anyone says in any language whether you understand the language or not. Not only is there a symbol in the IPA for every sound made in any language, the IPA contains the definition of how that sound is made by the human articulatory apparatus otherwise known as your mouth – well actually a bit more than your mouth. Every sound in human speech can be defined by the position of the parts of the articulatory apparatus. Does the tip of the tongue touch the alveolar ridge producing t or d, or does the back of the tongue touch the palate producing k or g? Do the parts touch and briefly stop the flow of air completely, as happens when you pronounce t, d, k or g? Or do they merely restrict the air flow as happens for s, f, sh and th. Are the lips rounded or not? Do the vocal cords vibrate or not? Does the air come out of the mouth or out of the nose as it does with n, m and ng?

All of this is taught in courses on articulatory phonetics and it is described in detail in textbooks. We have abundant and widely-available knowledge of the way the sounds in human speech are made. One of the foundational books on the subject was written by a Bible translator, Kenneth Pike. The process of translating the Bible starts with someone who knows the IPA sitting down with someone who speaks the language to write down words and phrases in the language using the IPA. It sounds like magic – writing down a language that has never been written – but its all described in the IPA and the books about it.

Congolese man telling of unsuccessful attempts to write his language

Without this bit of human knowledge, writing a language for the first time may prove impossible. I remember this older man in Congo saying that every since he was a child his people had been trying to write down their language without success. Oh, those who had been to school in French (the official language and the one taught in school) could write, but they couldn’t really figure out how to write some words. Also no one could read what they wrote. After a few weeks, not even the person who wrote the words could make sense of them. Decades went by. Then a few months work by a missionary trained in descriptive linguist and the problems were fixed. The old man said he was thrilled, and that he was finally confident that the translation could now move ahead. In fact, with the training given to the local translators, he said that the translation could succeed even if we missionaries left.

This was not the first time I have heard Africans tell of their repeated failed efforts to write their language. Some have even mistakenly concluded that their language could not be written. Then, decades later, a missionary linguist solved the problem in relatively short order. This happened so often in one area that I heard leaders of the biggest church in the area tell churches in other areas to be sure and ask for missionary linguists.

Bible translation is a spiritual ministry, but the science of linguistics sure helps, especially when it empowers local people.

Translation and poetry

Organizations doing Bible translation all over the world have a common set of translation principles they use. These principles are designed to insure that their translations are accurate, communicate clearly and have the widest possible impact. I thought I would take a look at one of their translation principles:

To preserve the variety of the original. The literary forms employed in the original text, such as poetry, prophecy, narrative and exhortation, should be represented by corresponding forms with the similar communicative functions in the receptor language.

Among other thing, this principle means that poetry should be translated as poetry, not as prose. Even though the Psalms are all poetry, the original Living Bible and some other translations translated them as prose.  Here are links that will show you the difference in Psalm 1 and Isa 53.

The Contemporary English Version takes special care with poetic passage as this explanation of the translation method reveals.

Poetic sections were expected not only to sound good but also to look good. Poetic lines were carefully measured to avoid awkwardly divided phrases and words that run over to the next line in clumsy ways.

It may surprise you to learn that even supposedly undeveloped languages in Africa have a tradition of poetry. A Ghanaian told me of the beauty he experienced when he heard one of the poetic parts of Genesis chanted to drums in the Dagbani language. Chanting to drums is the traditional Dagbani way of performing poetry as writing it down has only come in the last few decades.

A third of the Old Testament is poetry and the New Testament contains some as well. So translating the Old Testament means dealing with poetry. The first step in translating poetry as poetry is to figure out how poetry is structured in the language into which the translators are translating. Many English poems rhyme and/or have a strict meter. A Haiku has a strict structure, but does not rhyme. Hebrew poetry uses parallelism of words and concepts. Other languages use other techniques. Bible translators need to take the time to understand poetry in their language. They might consult a traditional singer, or record one and analyze his or her poetry. They might find that certain kinds of poetry are for specific occasions. For example, there might be a kind only used for bereavement, just like we have dirges. So translators might need to use different poetic styles for poetic passages with different emotional content. A couple weeks of research can yield enough information for years of translating.

Then when they finish, the translators can get local singers or chanters to perform their newly-translated poetry, conveying the full emotional content God put there and thereby comforting, encouraging and transforming.

Being a bibleless Christian 

Photo Rodney Ballard, Wycliffe

We think of peoples without the Bible as being without the Gospel. While that is often the case, it is sometimes the case that people are evangelized using a language they understand to some degree. Churches are formed that use the other language. This situation can go on for a long time without the Bible being translated into the language of the people.

What is it like to be a biblesss Christian – a Christian who has to read the Bible in another language, or for whom there is no Bible in any language he or she speaks? I really don’t know because I grew up with the Bible in my language. But, I have talked to bibleless Christians and read things they said. So here’s what I have learned.

A older Congolese Christian told me he never thought his language would be written and therefore the Bible would never be translated into it. In one language in Burkina Faso, people walked for miles to see the first literacy class because they did not believe that their language could be written. Many were Christians. It is not uncommon that bibleless Christians believe that their language is defective and that is why it is not written like “real” languages.

If the language is defective, then perhaps it is not suitable for communication with God. Thomas Atta-Akosah reports that:

An indigenous Ghanaian Christian from a minority language group prayed: “God in heaven, we thank you for all the good things you have done. But you know that I do not speak Akan well and I know you do not speak my language. So I am finished. Amen.”

That Christian knew that the Bible had been translated into Akan and that Akan was therefore suitable for praying.

The opposite also happens to bibleless Christians. They have no doubt that their language is suitable. Perhaps they have never questioned its suitability, but existing churches insist they worship and pray in another language. One African wrote that his people had to push back for decades to worship in get their language and get the Bible translated into it.

Christians in dominant groups that have translations may not see the need, or they may worry that the church will be divided. One of my colleagues had a church leader tell him that with his translation he was trying to divide the church. Since that comment was made the Bible has been translated into several smaller languages in that area with no sign of dividing the church. But, a group did split off that speaks the same language and uses the same Bible. I have witnessed quite a few situations where church leaders and even missionaries oppose worship and translation in a local language.

So bibleless Christians often have struggle through barriers to translation they either erect for themselves or that others throw up in their path. Prayer is our most powerful tool for overcoming those obstacles because they are based in the heart.

Development by giving hope

The traditional approach to development work has been to provide things for people. If people lack education, we build them schools. If they are unhealthy, we build them hospitals. If their children suffer from repeated bouts of Malaria, we give them bed nets. If they don’t have clean water we drill a well. Providing things is always appropriate and necessary following disasters. But simply providing things in other cases can fail to truly transform. Today, few who are serious about sustainably improving the lot of the poor think that giving things is enough or even primary.

But to define development as an improvement in people’s well-being does not do justice to what the term means to most of us. Development also carries a connotation of lasting change. Providing a person with a bednet or a water pump can often be an excellent, cost-effective way to improve her well-being, but if the improvement goes away when we stop providing the bednet or pump, we would not normally describe that as development. (From an article What Development? by Owen Barder)

The key to development that ends poverty resides in the capacity of human beings to create lasting, positive change. It is therefore crucial that they believe that they can change things. Indeed, every time we provide something, we may be sending a subtle message to the recipients that we believe they are incapable of providing for themselves. By only providing things we may be reinforcing an inferiority complex among the poor.

Good development organizations understand this. Along with providing some basic resources that allow children to progress farther in school, Compassion International’s child-development efforts instill aspirations, character formation, and spiritual direction. In short, it tries to make actors and givers instead of passive receivers. The best development creates an environment where people solve their own problems.

Some laugh at the idea of giving poor people the Bible in their language, saying that what  they really need is concrete things. This criticism reflects a simplistic understanding (misunderstanding actually) of development. Many of the poor know this. They do not define their poverty strictly in material terms. Furthermore, the Bible brings hope. It encourages people to act in faith that God is with them. Without the hope that things can change, people wallow in passive fatalism – in poverty of hope.

    An evaluation of the literacy and Bible translation programs of the Ghanaian organization I work with, GILLBT, demonstrates that those who read the Bible in their own languages are more likely to take initiative, such as starting new businesses, than those who do not. Why? Because they have new hope and confidence. They believe God will bless their efforts. That kind of development is so much better, so much more sustainable, so much more affirming of them as persons, than just giving them things. Want to support efforts to reduce poverty that are centered on empowering people? Then support Bible translation. 

    Leviticus as humor

    Humor can be macabre. The Darwin Awards are a good example. I’ve seen people laughing almost uncontrollably when reading the stories most of which involve someone dying, often in a gruesome manner. This kind of humor happens often enough that we have an phrase for it – gallows humor. There are articles where people share how humor helps with grief and serious articles debating the value and ethics of this kind of humor, some of which defend it.

    I’ve seen a streak of gallows humor in Africa, although not everyone is comfortable with it. When we were in Côte d’Ivoire last year, I wanted to go see the famous crocodiles at Yamoussoukro. But I learned they were no longer there because they ate their long-time caretaker when he slipped feeding them. Some of my Ivorian colleagues laughed and giggled as they told me the story as if it were hilariously ridiculous that anyone would take a job that involved walking among crocodiles holding raw meat.

    When we were working on the translation in the Cerma language of Burkina Faso, Dayle was shocked when local people laughed as she told them that I had come home all scratched and scraped from a fall off my motorcycle. They already thought it was odd and silly that white people did not own a car. During that time, we wrote down a number of traditional Cerma folk tales. One involved characters who acted badly toward each other then suffered a series of disasters. People would laugh loud and long when hearing of the disasters.

    A colleague told me that one of the people helping with a translation found the Egyptian plagues hilarious. He also found the Israelites’ mistakes during their wanderings in the wilderness and God’s reactions quite humorous  For him, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy contain no small amount of material for laughter.

    There seems to be a link between all these incidents of gallows humor — some people think it’s very funny when evil or imprudent people have their evil or reckless deeds come back and bite them with poetic justice. In such cases, laughter is probably not about making light of the situation and perhaps it does exactly the opposite. Could it be the nervous laugh in recognition that they too could end up reaping the consequences of their actions? One thing is sure: when the translation helper laughed at the repercussions God’s people suffered for their misdeeds, he was showing that he understood very well that their problems were the consequences of their own actions. The translation communicated. 

    Ghanaian taxi