Revitalized

I have written several times that translation committees are key to the success of translation in Africa. Have good translators is also important, of course. A translation committee is a group of carefully selected volunteers from the language community who oversee the work of the translators including setting goals, raising funds, creating awareness and organizing the sale and distribution of the translation. How well the committee does its job can affect how well the translation is accepted and how widely it is distributed and read. If it does not work well, some churches might just refuse to use translation, sticking with English or a regional language.

Siwu committee with regional translation coordinator

The translation into the Siwu language in Ghana’s Volta Region had a very dynamic and well-known translator who raised a lot of awareness for the translation and promoted it. When he fell ill and passed away, the translation committee knew that it would have to pick up the slack. Michael Serchie, the regional translation coordinator (center front) helped the community update the committee and revitalize it.

Michael is serving translation programs in more than a dozen languages. But even his wise and dynamic leadership is not enough if the language communities themselves are not interested enough to get involved. Sometimes, it takes a dramatic turn of events to get things moving. Michael saw that was happening and jumped in.

Pray for the translation in Siwu, and for the committee that they would work hard to see it widely used and distributed.

So close

“This command I am giving you today is not too difficult for you, and it is not beyond your reach.It is not kept in heaven, so distant that you must ask, ‘Who will go up to heaven and bring it down so we can hear it and obey?’It is not kept beyond the sea, so far away that you must ask, ‘Who will cross the sea to bring it to us so we can hear it and obey?’ No, the message is very close at hand; it is on your lips and in your heart so that you can obey it. – Deuteronomy 30:11-14

For some, the Bible is inaccessible. It is strange, foreign and impenetrable. The thing is, God never meant for it to be any of those things. In fact, the verses cited above tell us that it was not like that when God gave it. Instead, it was “very close at hand; it is on your lips and in your heart”. So what happened?

Lots of things happened. Some promoted the idea that the Bible should be limited to certain “holy” languages. Others prefered to keep the Bible in archaic language. Still others promoted the idea that one needs special training and knowledge to understand it. Finally, some of us don’t read the Bible enough to have any hope of getting comfortable with it.

We went all the way to Africa to help translate the Bible to bring it close to Africans. It would be tragic if it became more distant back in our home country.
Here are some suggestions for bringing it close.

  • Read a modern translation
  • Read it as a letter from God, not as a theological text.
  • Read the historical books as stories of real people rather than trying to find spiritual lessons everywhere.
  • Read several chapters at a time.
  • Read a chronological Bible.

God’s agent(s)

The big religious question in the West is whether God exists. But that is not the issue in Africa. Everyone knows that God exists. An Akan proverb says that you do not need to show God to a child. By this proverb, the Akan people mean:

God is everywhere and we can know him through his creation which even children can see. Hence, even children don’t need anybody to point out that there is a creator (obooadee) who is the Supreme Being. This is a pervasive Akan world view that is so strongly held that it is the rare Akan who does not believe in God. Saying that even children do not need anybody to tell them that God exists suggests that it is foolish for an adult to claim He doesn’t.

But the belief in an almighty Supreme Being who created all we see is not the end of theological questions. Quite the contrary. Many African cultures believe that God has withdrawn. He is no longer directly involved with the world but is instead like an absentee landlord. The theological question of importance, then, is not whether God exists but rather whether he is to be invoked directly (the Christian teaching) or instead contacted through his agents who act on his behalf (traditional African teaching). God’s agents include various spirits and ancestors who are actually running things in God’s place, according to traditional beliefs.

The traditional teaching has a strong foothold. A Ghanaian friend told me that his uncle was an upstanding member of a prominent church, yet he also did traditional religious sacrifices. His uncle explained that he was covering all the bases just in case. His case is hardly unique.

Unintentionally, the missionaries who first translated the Bible into Akan reinforced the traditional view. Finding no plural for God, they invented one. The history of translation is littered with disasters where translators invented words where one supposedly did not exist. The invented plural “gods” in Akan is one such disaster. Had the translators used the plural for lesser divinities (abosom) Christians would probably have learned not to go to these lesser divinities instead of going directly to God.

In any case, defending the existence of God is useless in most of Africa because it is answering a question people don’t ask; wouldn’t even think to ask. It would be more faithful to the Bible to talk about the role, or lack of role, for God’s agents, a question we in the West don’t ask much.

It’s all there

Because I’m a Bible translator, so I do strange things. For example, I actually read the prefaces to Bible translations. The preface usually addresses how and why the translation was done The original preface to the King James Version deals mostly with criticisms and objections. For example, the King James translators tackle the perennial question “Why on earth are you guys doing yet another translation? Of course, the question was phrased more eloquently in that day.

I’m interested in a different question – is a translation the Word of God? Purists say that they are not: that in order to truly read the Word of God one has to read the Bible in the languages in which it was first written. The King James translators reject that point of view. They wrote:

… we affirm and avow, that the very meanest translation of the Bible in English set forth by men of our profession containeth the word of God, nay, is the word of God: as the King’s speech which he uttered in Parliament, being translated into French, Dutch, Italian, and Latin, is still the King’s speech, though it be not interpreted by every translator with the like grace, nor peradventure so fitly for phrase, nor so expressly for sense, every where.

So they maintained that every English translation is the Word of God even if it is not a particularly good translation. (I’m sure that they would not have included fraudulent translations.)

A colleague of mine addressed a similar question:

A common assumption about reading the Bible in the original languages is that by “reading the Greek” we’re actually finding out information that isn’t available to people who are reading a translation.

He rejects this idea. He points out that a person needs a very deep knowledge of Greek to get more out of it. In fact, a doctoral level is needed. Those translating the Bible into English have spent their lives studying the original languages. Unless we are willing to put in that same investment, we’re better off piggybacking on their knowledge by reading their translations.

If you are reading any of the major Bible translation, you are reading the Word of God. You are not missing out. God is not hindered in any way in guiding, instructing, or encouraging you through that translation.

Page from first printing of the King James Version of the Bible

Elevating the ordinary

In 2017, PBS released a video documentary entitled Martin Luther: The Idea That Changed the World. It notes that not only did Luther start a great religious change, he also started political and societal changes. When his teachings landed him in trouble with the church, we argued his case before the court of public opinion, bypassing the clergy and experts in theology. He circulated his ideas widely using the recently-invented printing press.

He took the same approach to the Bible. He wrote: “I wish that this book could be in every language, and dwell in the hearts and minds of all.”. He was not willing to reserve the Bible for experts, but rather delivered it the common man. He even consulted ordinary people when doing his translation. He wrote: “To translate, we must listen to the mother in the home, the children in the street, the common man in the marketplace. We must be guided by their language – the way they speak, and do our translating accordingly. I sometimes searched and inquired about a single word for three or four weeks.”

I am an heir of Luther’s approach. We translate the Bible into African languages because we trust African Christians to interpret it with the Spirit’s guidance. Our translation process includes a step where we “listen to the mother in the home, the children in the street, the common man in the marketplace” and where we are “guided by their language – the way they speak, and do our translating accordingly.” So we trust Africans with the translation process.

This elevation of the common man and woman, and Luther’s practice of bypassing those in authority, “set in place cultural changes that led to democracy in America and Europe”, according to the documentary. We see similar changes in Africa where ordinary people empowered by the words of Scripture question and change cultural practices they deem backward or harmful. Normally Those changes are more profound and longer lasting than changes ordered by some authority, because they flow from the heart.

Crottin de chèvre

Crottin de chèvre

There’s a French goat cheese called crottin de chèvre which often served as a starter in France. But you probably wouldn’t order it on your next trip to France if you were using Google Translate to help you decipher the menu. Because if you put in “crottin de chèvre”, Google will tell you it means goat dung!

Computer translation can be very useful. In fact, humor is one of the things it produces. Seriously, computers help speed all kinds of translation including Bible translation. But they need strict supervision. In fact, the best use of a computer in translation is as an assistant to a human translator. It can tell the human translators how they translated a word or phrase last time, or link them to articles discussing the translation of difficult words and phrases, for example.

I predict that computer translation will do very well at translating literal documents like user manuals and scientific papers. It will be great for travel where mistakes are corrected in face-to-face communication, gestures and pointing. But when it comes to translating things like literature, poetry and philosophy, computers will struggle for a long time. The Bible, of course, is full of literature, poetry and philosophy. I predict that no publisher will use computer translation for its best sellers in any of our lifetimes.

In our day, it would be silly to do a translation of the Bible without a computer, even in a very remote area. But it would be even sillier to think that a computer can replace a properly-trained flesh-and-blood translator.

Missionary technology

The first commercially-available computers could only display or accept English. That was a problem. By the time I first started using computers, we had a few more characters available because of something called “extended ASCII”. This allowed the computer to display and accept keyboard input for most European languages. But it still didn’t work all that well. Specialized technicians had to fiddle with the computer to get it to accept and display the characters in the alphabets of African languages we were working on, But every language had its own system, making archiving and computer support a mess.

Technical details for unicode for one specific language

Fortunately, the tech companies wanted to sell their products everywhere, so they were interested in solving this problem. Missionary-linguists got involved in a worldwide consortium working on the issue. We jumped in so that the smaller languages wouldn’t be left out. Besides, we were often the only ones who had thought about what they needed. In the end, we got unicode; a world-wide standard for accepting, displaying and printing all the characters of all the languages of the world, even Tai Lue, wherever that is.

Your smart phone has unicode, your computer has it, your TV has it, maybe even your car and your refrigerator. Someday your doorbell might have it. Actually, I think some already do. You use missionary technology every day. So do atheists.

Now, anyone who wants to read the Bible in his language, no matter how strangely it is written, can see it displayed on a smart phone, tablet or computer. Because of unicode, the Bible in any language can be sent across the internet or put on small chips and carried anywhere. Whatever electronic device receives it will display the strangest characters correctly. Unicode, hidden the background, makes it happen automatically.

Life is fragile

In 2016, I took a short assignment in Cote d’Ivoire. Because Dayle had to stay in the US I was alone for several weeks before she joined me. The time difference meant that I would get up in the morning and look at the videos of my grandchildren that had arrived during the night. Then I would go to work.

So it was that one morning after enjoying my grandchildren’s antics, I went to my office and opened an email from one of our national translators. It informed me that he had lost one of his grandchildren after a short but severe illness. My buoyant mood was shattered.

Unfortunately, I have experienced this far too often. Endemic tropical diseases and weak healthcare systems leave children (and adults but especially children) at risk. The translator in question had chosen to live in a rural area because that is where the translation is happening. He is an educated man and many Africans with his level of education would not live in remote rural areas precisely because they lack good services such as health care.

Taking the Bible everywhere has risks. Are the risks too high? Let me answer the question this way. This man was living with exactly the same risks as the people he was serving. They live with those same dangers day after day, year in and year out. For many bibleless peoples, life where they live is fragile and they regularly experience that in very painful ways. The only way to be certain to avoid their risks is to cease to minister to them.

Church service in rural Ghana

My Ezekiel life

Early on in Oregon’s stay home order, I felt an urge to read Ezekiel. I think i was attracted to the outlandish vision of wheels in wheels in the first two chapters. But I found the subsequent chapters fascinating too.

First, there was this verse I didnt remember from chapter 3:

Then the Spirit came into me and set me on my feet. He spoke to me and said, “Go to your house and shut yourself in.

So, I’m not the first healthy person God has shut in.

Then, we sat down to a lunch of sandwiches made from bread made according to a recipe God gave Ezekiel:

“Now go and get some wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet, and emmer wheat, and mix them together in a storage jar. Use them to make bread. – Ezekiel 4:9

Then I was browsing through southern gospel music and Dry Bones by the Cathedrals began to play.

So I read the vision of the dry bones again (Chapter 37:1-14).

That dramatic vision is about a situation that is without life but which is then infused with life and giving rise to an army. Raising a recently deceased body to life is a miracle. How much more bringing back to life piles of scattered, disconnected, sun-baked bones?! Just getting the skeletons straight would take a forensic anthropologist. Maybe that pretty lady from Bones.

I’m still pondering what the Lord might be telling me through his weird prophet Ezekiel. Could I be in Ezekiel just for the weirdness? Is God saying that sometimes things are weird and he’s in that too? Or maybe even that He’s the author of some of it?

Humans and coronavirus

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.” – Genesis 1:27-28

These verses have great relevance to the coronavirus pandemic. God told us “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it.” Theologians call this the Creation Mandate or the Cultural Mandate. God, of course, has the right to run everything. But he has conferred on us the right and authority to be fruitful and govern the earth.

Some have understood those words as commands. They are more like blessings. The confusion comes because we use the grammatical form of a command, such as “Get the silverware”, in blessings such as “Get well soon”. No mafia type comes to a sick person, points a gun at them, and says “Get well soon or else!”.

In fact, we should think of these words as a mandate, which is a combination of a blessing and a granting of authority. When we elect a public official, we give that person a mandate. By virtue of being chosen by the people they have the authority of the people to carry out the specific responsibilities of the position to which they were elected. That’s their mandate. God has given all of us a mandate regarding creation. It comes with a piece of his authority to enable us to carry it out.

Older translations have “replenish the earth, and subdue it”. We actually have a mandate from God to subdue the coronavirus. This is not a magical mandate, but one that requires hard work, ingenuity and sometimes suffering. The coronavirus is a manifestation of Paul’s observation that:

Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope,the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. – Romans 8:20-21

The virus is bad (a curse) but it is also an opportunity for “eager hope”. That hope is most certainly for the new heavens and new earth with no bad viruses. But it is more than that. It is also an eager anticipation of effective treatment and a vaccine on this earth.

The verses also say that we are made in God’s image. God creates. Because we are made in his image, we also create albeit on a lesser scale. We create our children, for example. But the mandate to be fruitful applies to more than children. We are to create good for our families and communities, wealth to share with others and to not be more of a burden to others than is good, and so on. Some of us are scientists who create new knowledge. One piece of new knowledge would be how to make a safe vaccine for the coronavirus.

Because of our creativity and our mandate, the coronavirus doesn’t stand a chance against humanity. God has given us the tools to knock it way down and perhaps even eliminate it. No previous plague has been addressed so quickly or effectively. Many are in some kind of isolation, but because of technology we still talk to each other and even see each other. Furthermore, the technology allows researchers across the world to collaborate better and faster. Our God-given creativity and mandate have shown up big time.

Of course, the virus will cause a lot of pain before that happens so we also need to deploy the compassion God gives us. Instead, some will go around proclaiming loudly that this is God’s judgment. Helping others and praying for medical professionals and researchers would probably be a better use of much of their time. Such people have their secular equivalents who think that humanity is the source of the planet’s problems. They will say that the coronavirus is nature striking back against our evil exploitation of it. They will talk of saving the planet, not humans. I just saw the following in a religious publication.

We have abused Mother Earth. The locust invasion in Kenya was a warning smoke that something was wrong.

There are scientific and historic answers to such claims, but there is also a case to be made against them based on the creative nature and mandate God gave us.

There’s reason to be concerned about our neighbors and ourselves. But let’s not wrap up our minds in a doomsday scenario that will make it even harder for us to help others. Let’s announce good news to those trapped in such scenarios.