The multitudes

A Ghanaian colleague told me of a case where an interpreter translated
“When Jesus saw the multitudes”
From English into his language. But the word-for-word translation meant
“When Jesus saw many animals

The whole church broke out in laughter.

Jesus feeding the multitudes

Words are strange. Some imply something else. Herd implies livestock but crowd implies people, for example. We can figure out what” herd of people” or “crowd of cows” means, but those are strange turns of phrase. In English, we can say multitudes alone, but the interpreter’s language required that “of people” be added. We know that Jesus meant multitudes of people because the English word multitudes strongly implies people. It would be strange to say multitudes for animals, or nails, or cars.

People make a big deal of Bible translations being accurate, and rightfully so. By accurate they generally mean that the translation is faithful to the original text. For example, a translation from German to English must be faithful to the German original. But a translation from German to English must also be faithful to English – it should use words the way English uses them, not in some un-English or German way. Sometimes, that means adding a word or two to keep the meaning the same, or perhaps just to keep people from laughing.

Beyond mere understanding

I was intrigued by one story I got recently from Ghana. It was about an older man who followed his traditional religion. He offered sacrifices to his gods on a daily basis and had no interest in Christianity. The churches in his area used trade languages or English, but never his language. He thought that a god that did not speak or understand his language was not worth worshiping. After all, he prayed at his shrines in his own language.

One day, while walking to his fields he heard a gathering of Christians speaking his language. Out of curiosity, he stopped, listened and asked what was happening. They told him that they were reading the Bible in their language – his language. He abandoned his old religion and became a believer on the spot.

This story illustrates one of the reasons why we translate the Bible. It is not just so people will understand. Being easy to understand doesn’t mean much if people don’t listen to or read the Bible. This translation caught this man’s attention first. Understanding came next.

We translate the Bible so that God’s words will carry the intimate authenticity and life they had when God first spoke them in the heart language of the people being addressed.

Process and results

Tunesia (courtesy NASA)

Bible translators are very concerned about method and process, and rightfully so. Long experience tells us that following a rigorous process yields a good translation most of the time. Whereas ignoring process almost always results in a poor translation. One of the quickest ways to improve an under-performing translation effort is to examine the translators’ process and make changes to bring it in line with best practice.

Because a healthy obsession with process works so well, translators can be tempted to try the same process approach in other areas. One of those is the use and impact of the finished translation. This is fueled by research into what causes some translations to be widely used while others to pile up in storerooms. While that research is helpful, it’s easy to turn that research into a process and then believe that rigidly following it will guarantee that the translation will be enthusiastically received by slavish adherence to the right process and then bring spiritual revival.

But the research tells us that what creates impact and transformation varies. It also seems to tell us what is necessary to promote acceptance and use, but not what will guarantee those desired results. If I don’t put gas in my car, it will stop. But if I do put gas in it, it will stop anyway if something breaks. Gas is necessary but not sufficient.

Jesus said:

The wind blows wherever it wants. Just as you can hear the wind but can’t tell where it comes from or where it is going, so you can’t explain how people are born of the Spirit.” – John 3:8

In my understanding, this verse means that there will never be a sure-fire process for results in missions. There are no magic bullets. We shouldn’t say “If we do this, then we will see results” like a some kind of strange combination of social science and Harry Potter incantation.

Chile / South America (courtesy NASA)

There’s a great illustration of this where deserts meet the ocean. One would think that it would be impossible to have a desert next to a large body of water, but it happens with some frequency in places as diverse as Chile, Mauretania, Namibia and the Arabian Peninsula. Likewise, We can bring the water of our well-studied ministry process next to people and still end up with a fruitless desert.

Effective ministry requires listening for the Spirit speaking into, even sometimes breaking into and disrupting, our well-engineered processes. On occasion, I have sometimes seen amazing results when the experts’ processes were intentionally dropped in favor of a process proposed by people who had no experience at all in translation but who knew their context.

Arabian Peninsula (courtesy NASA)

For granted

Title page of first Twi Bible

The Bible was first translated into the most widely spoken language of Ghana, Twi, in 1871. So when I arrived in Ghana in 2011, those people already had the Bible for 140 years. Children growing up in Christian families just found the Bible. Hardly anyone wondered how they came to have the Bible in their language. No one ever preached on the history of the Twi Bible. So it was just an unquestioned feature of their lives.

Not only that, most Twi Christians assumed without evidence that other languages in Ghana had the Bible too. All this makes Ghanaian like many American Christians who read their Bible without wondering where it came from or if it has been translated into other languages.

Meeting with pastor after presenting Bible translation to his church

When we began presenting Bible translation to Ghanaian churches, people were astonished. We frequently heard surprised voices realizing that they had never wondered how they got their Bible. They were even more surprised to learn that a number of languages in their country did not have the Bible. Knowing the role the Bible in their language played in their personal lives and their churches, they were dismayed that some of their compatriots lacked that same blessing.

On hearing the facts, church leaders sometimes committed their churches on the spot. They just needed to hear facts they didn’t know and to be challenged about things they had assumed or taken for granted. Besides, those who value the Bible in their own lives make the most ardent supporters of Bible translation.

Systematically putting out the facts to the right churches and church leaders is a key way to include them in the worldwide Bible translation movement. Growing that movement is speeding translation dramatically, outpacing even the speed increase from technology

Black Elijah

harris-book-cover

During the growth of Christianity in Africa in the late 1800s and early 1900s, there was a phase where African “prophets” appeared. One of them was William Wade Harris, a Liberian man who had fallen out of favor with the church and had even spent time in prison where he had a vision from the Angel Gabriel telling him to preach repentance and the destruction of objects used in traditional African religion; then baptize those who received his message. So in July 1913 at the age of 53, he set off on foot with a small entourage for the neighboring French colony. He was not backed by any church or missionary agency.

They ended up walking across the whole coast of what is now the country of Côte d’Ivoire and on into what is now Ghana. They must have been quite a site in their bare feet, white garments with and crosses, especially Harris who always carried a large staff with a cross on top in his right hand and a Bible in his left. They walked all the way to what is now the country of Ghana. It is estimated that 200,000 people heeded Harris’ preaching and abandoned their traditional religious practices. This was a sizable portion of the total population.

His message was often opposed by traditional religious leaders, leading to power encounters reminiscent of stories in the Old Testament such as Elijah on Mount Carmel. Harris would triumph and large scale destruction of the objects of traditional religion would follow. Some of these events were recorded by French colonial administrators.

Prior to Harris, small churches had started in some towns, but they had little impact. Harris spoke in local languages and stripped western trappings from Christianity while targeting his preaching at the heart of traditional beliefs and practices. It got him in trouble with the French colonial administrators. He was arrested several times. He apparently made a miraculous escape from jail in Grand Lahou, the colonial capitol at the time. It is said that he pronounced a curse on the capitol when he left. Today, it is a deserted ghost town.

Harris instructed converts to worship on Sunday, to pray in their own languages, to keep the Sunday for worship, to pray in their own tongues, and to praise God with their own music. He named local elders and he told people that white missionaries would come later can give them the Bible in their languages. When Methodist missionaries arrived, they found churches full of believers waiting for them.

Harrist church hear Abidjan

Harrist church hear Abidjan

Today, the Harrist church is found across the area where Harris ministered. It still uses local languages and still has solid teaching, for the most part. Early Western missionaries falsely considered it a cult, probably because of its different worship practices, which you can see in the photos below. Where the Bible has been translated into the local languages, the Harrist church uses those translations avidly. Unfortunately, more than 100 years after Harris started his trek, a number of those languages still don’t have translations of the Bible. Harris’ promise has not yet been fulfilled, although slow progress is being made.

During the months we spent in Côte d’Ivoire in 2016, we were privileged to be in a position to help the translations in some of those languages on their way.

Village theology

Theologie et vie chretienne en Afrique

I have blogged before about this book written by Africans about theology in their countries and churches. The articles have a common theme – making the teachings of the Bible known and making them clear. One of the authors is a Congolese friend of mine, Dr. Bungushabaku Katho. These are my favorite quotes from his article:

“There are many resources in our villages for the understanding of the Bible and the transformation of our communities.” pg 74

“The illiterate masses can understand the Bible if we know how to reach them. Very often we realized that the experience of villagers became much more enriching for our understanding of the Bible; well above the bookish methods of the seminary hall.” pg 74

Dr. Katho has acted on these observations and that has taken him in a very interesting direction. He and his colleagues go out to discover how ordinary Africans understand the Bible in their languages. He calls this the “Village Academy”.

“But the type of education we [theologians] received keeps us from going out to discover these resources [villagers]. We think that good resources are those are found only in our libraries, in books that come to us from elsewhere. We want to read the Bible for villagers rather than with them. The experiment of the “Village Academy” is teaching us that a theologian must keep his ear tuned to the community in which he lives. In this sense, theology must cease to be a speculative discourse done for the pleasure of a few specialists.

Katho

Why this change? It’s simple. Dr. Katho is interested in real, tangible, transformational change in and for people at the grassroots.

“To have impact on on Christian living, the practice of theology in Africa must place the Bible at the center of its activities and be capable of speaking to Africans in their real situations.”

As you might expect, Dr. Katho is a big supporter of translating the Bible into African languages. After all, without translations into the languages of the people, his approach is impossible. But I like it also for another reason – it rings true to the Gospel. God sent his son to be born in the a food-trough for animals. He announced that birth to pagan stargazers and shepherds, rather than to the proper religious leaders of the day. Then his son worked as a skilled laborer before taking on a grassroots ministry with a group of uneducated men. By this method he changed the world. So standing the traditional, academic approach to theology on its head and starting with the Bible-inspired theological reflection of ordinary people in African villages strikes me as something God himself would do; or rather does, in fact.

Not only that, it works. For example, one issue in Africa is tensions between ethnic groups. But academic theology doesn’t address the issue in spite of the fact that the Bible is full of stories about ethnic conflict. However, African villagers reading the Bible in their languages have spontaneously started preaching and teaching on the issue having discovered what fancy, erudite theological seminaries have long overlooked. And it’s an issue critical to the health of both their churches and their countries.

Western Christmas in Africa

One of my Ghana colleagues and friends tells of Christmas in his village when he was a child. It was a big celebration. Most of the year people didn’t eat meat. It was a luxury. But at Christmas, my friend’s family butchered and had lots of meat. It was a real treat. Also, children got new clothes or even a pair of shoes. The adults’ Christmas parties involved unrestrained drunkenness.

Ideas about Christmas had leaked into my friends village from surrounding areas, mostly the western secular idea that it was a time to party. But the Christmas story was unknown.

Decorated palm branches

Nowadays, there is a translation of the New Testament in my friend’s language. That has changed how Christmas is celebrated. Families gather colorful flowers and weave them into palm branches that they attach to their doorframes for everyone to see. Children still get new clothes and everyone eats special meals. But now Christmas Eve is a time to go to church. The party has turned into a focus on Christ. People know who he was and what he did. They have allegiance to him.

Whereas secular western traditions of Christmas borrowed from British colonizers debased Christmas for my friend’s village, the Bible in the people’s language elevated it. In the process, the Bible has replaced secular western cultural influence with the real story of that amazing Middle Easterner named Jesus and the salvation he brings.

Bibleless Peoples part 3 – Controversy

This is part three of a series on the bibleless peoples. In this part, I want to look at the political controversy that often surrounds the languages they speak.
Fear of disunity and conflict is one of the main drivers of political controversy over language. Some people worry that having different communities speaking different languages will result in tensions between those communities that will eventually create enough conflict to tear a country apart. That is the view from the national level. People with this view will sometimes propose that everyone in the country speak the same language.

The view from within a small language community in a nation is very different. They often hear the proposals that there be only one language as a threat – not to their language but to their very identity and existence. So they often react with opposition to the proposals.

Ironically, proposals that there be only one language often create the very political tensions they are designed to end. Recently this exact scenario was played out in India when a prominent person proposed that all India should speak one language. Opposition from those whose mother tongue is another language was strong and swift. Even when they already spoke the proposed language! They said it was an attempt to enslave them and “a war cry” against them. The controversy continued even after the proposal was backtracked. So a proposal made to create unity created tensions instead. Something similar happened over omitting a language on a plaque.

To understand the political reaction against one-language proposals, we need to move away from understanding language as simply a means of communication. Instead, ethnic groups often use the individual threads of their language, their culture, their history, and their religion into weave a cloth that constitutes their identity. They perceive that they cannot lose any one thread, say language, without unraveling the whole cloth. So their language is not just their means of communication, but rather an integral and cherished part of who they are. For this reason, bibleless peoples often feel that their identity is threatened when their language is threatened.

Professor B Y Quarshie says:

Local languages are not morphology and syntax, they are a people’s identity

And Professor Lamin Sanneh wrote:

Language [is] not merely a tool fashioned to achieve limited and temporary goals. It [is] also a dynamic cultural resource, reflecting the spirit of the people and illuminating their sense of values.

And a recent article in a Nigerian newspaper stated:

Language is more than spoken words. It is the bedrock of any cultural and traditional society. Take away the language, and the core spirit of heritage and history is lost.

Ghanaian with his Bible

People’s attachment to their language showed up recently in South Africa when the daughter of TV stars would only speak English and not her parents’ African language. Many South Africans criticized her for abandoning her true identity. They were fine with her speaking English, but thought she should speak her African language too. I could continue with unending examples of the fierce attachment people have to their language because it is part of their identity.

Language will probably always be a hot political issue given the competing demands of national unity and local identity. But the attachment people have to their language makes it a great medium for transmitting the Gospel. Those announcing the Gospel do themselves a great disfavor if they see language as divisive, or as only a utilitarian issue of communication rather than as a God-given door to peoples’ hearts.

We take the latter approach, and so we call this blog Heart Language.

Bibleless Peoples part 2, language myths

I recently read “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave”, Frederick Douglass’ autobiography. Douglass wrote it in 1845. It contained a number of words I did not know. Take this passage, for example.

His carriage-house contained three splendid coaches, three or four gigs, besides dearborns and barouches of the most fashionable style.

I had to look up gigs, dearborns, and barouches, having never had occasion to be around or talk about these types of horse-drawn wagons and coaches. I knew of covered wagons and stage coaches because I have seen those and heard them called by their names, but everything else was just a wagon to me.

Choir in Congo singing AIDS prevention song in their language

That brings me to bibleless peoples. They are often accused of having impoverished, substandard or unscientific languages. These accusations are bolstered by pointing out that the languages do not have words for modern things. But in Frederick Douglass’s day, even English did not have the word “microbe”. Was his language therefore impoverished? Was mine impoverished because I didn’t know barouches? Not having words for something is a silly way to judge someone’s language. Many common words today were unknown to Shakespeare and it is ridiculous to call the English he spoke and wrote impoverished or substandard. In fact, such accusations are misplaced for any language because languages adopt or invent new words for the things they encounter. Vocabulary is a function of context rather than a sign of adequacy or inadequacy. All languages can and do develop – acquiring new words as needed. Did you know that “vegan” wasn’t invented until 1944 and remained obscure for decades after that? When we were involved in translating AIDS information into Congo languages, we had to find ways to say HIV, AIDS, seropositive, virus and many other things. Those doing the translations always found good translations of all the terms and even had them approved by medical professionals.

Unfortunately, sometimes bibleless peoples believe the negative statements made about their languages. They can even believe that the lack of certain words will make it impossible to translate the Bible. Sometimes we have to convince church leaders who fear that the Bible will be degraded by translating it into “substandard” languages. It’s all part of mobilizing churches in Africa for Bible translation.

But when the translation produces the joy of salvation and the fruit of godly living, the language myths are often dispelled. Besides, dare we call any language “impoverished” in which God speaks to people?

Publications in many topics in Ghanaian languages

The Bibleless part 1 – Hidden

The United Nations has declared 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages. This prompts me to write a short series of blog posts about a related topic – the peoples around the world who still don’t have the Bible in their language – the bibleless peoples.

The bibleless peoples and their languages are almost invisible. That is, you only notice them if you look. Unlike the things in life that force themselves into our perception whether we want them or not – potholes, polluted air, loving hugs from family and friends – most of us could live our whole lives without encountering someone from a bibleless people, or not noticing if we did. In this way, the bibleless peoples are very much like the one lost sheep from among the 100 that the good shepherd took pains to locate.

Being an imitator of Jesus means more than responding with love and the gospel to the people and circumstances that we find clearly in our vision. It also means going and looking for cases we don’t readily see. That’s the point of the parable and indeed of Jesus life – he came looking for us even while we were hidden (lost), far away and not looking for him.

We owe a debt to those who have located and made known the bibleless peoples. They embody Jesus’ seeking spirit.

I remember vividly a chief of the Nawuri people expressing how hidden his people felt until they had the Bible. Raising high the newly-printed New Testament in Nawuri, and with emotion in his voice he said:

Politicians don’t know us, but now God knows us.

Jesus said of himself:

For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.” – Luke 19:10

Jesus seeks, actively searches for, the lost. He didn’t and doesn’t wait for them to find him. To be true to Jesus, our mission endeavors should also spend effort searching for those who would normally remain hidden.