Language Committees: Part 3

This is the last in a series of posts on language committees. I’m writing posts on this topic because helping language committees be more effective is currently the focus of my ministry.

In my first post, I explained where language committees fit in the five groups that are all needed to make a translation program successful. In my second, I wrote about the problems that happen when the committee doesn’t do its job well. In this post, I propose that there are three underlying causes of weak language committees.

The first underlying cause has to do with who is on the committee. If there are committee members from various parts of the community, the committee will be more effective. For example, are all the major church denominations are represented on the committee? A committee that represents only a very narrow swatch of the community will almost certainly result in a translation effort that is full of problems.

The second underlying cause of committee ineffectiveness is motivation. When the members of the language committee are deeply committed to the translation and therefore care about its success, the committee will be more effective. A colleague of mine is dealing with three ineffective committees where people became members because they thought there would be money in it. Sometimes this is related to the first point – the wrong people are on the committee. Other times, it is related to the next point.

The last underlying cause of committee effectiveness or ineffectiveness is lack of knowledge. Doing a translation for the very first time in a language obviously means that people will be doing something they have never done before. Unless the committee gets orientation, usually from the translation agency, it will have trouble making good decisions. Lack of information can lead community leaders to select the wrong people to serve on the committee.

As you have certainly noticed, having effective committees is no small matter.

I started out my focus on committees by seeing the issue as being mostly knowledge and the solution, therefore, being mostly orientation or training. Now, my focus has shifted to committee composition as the cornerstone issue. After all, what good would it due to train the wrong or unmotivated committee members? To address those issues I am working with two GILLBT leaders. We are dealing with the issues as a team.

Language Committees: Part 2

I’m in the middle of a series on language committees, which are currently the focus of my ministry. In my last post, I explained where language committees fit in the five groups that are all needed to make a translation program successful.

In this post, I will present some things that go wrong when the language committee doesn’t do its job well.

If the committee fails to do a good job of choosing the translators, then problems can occur. I witnessed a case where the committee chose translators because they were related to the committee chair. Their translation was so poor that they had to be replaced with translators chosen for their skill. I have seen several cases where churches and Christians started loosing confidence in the translation because one of the translators was not living according to the Bible’s norms. The language committee had messed up either its selection or supervision of the translators.

I was close to one translation where a key church leader denounced the New Testament as soon as it was published. The committee had failed to mobilize all the churches in favor of the translation. The man who denounced the translation perceived, perhaps rightly, that the translation effort was dominated by a rival denomination.

I have seen some cases where the funding agency limited its funding because the churches in the language area contributed far less than they were capable. The committee simply failed to mobilize the churches to give.

Lastly, I know of several cases where translations sit in storerooms unsold and unread. One of the reasons is that the language committees fails to promote the translation or even, in some cases, to distribute it.

I have a list of even more problems caused by ineffective committees, but I think you get the point.

Next week, I’ll talk about the underlying weaknesses of committees that are the source of these problems and what can be done to strengthen committees. As we will see, sometimes committees are ineffective through no fault of their own.

Language committees: Part 1

For the last few months, I have focused my work in Ghana on the question of making language committees more effective. It’s probably not clear to you what that means, so I’m going to dedicate a few blogs to the topic.

Language committees are a crucial cog in the translation machine serving minority languages in Africa. They play a very different role in translating into major languages like English. So my descriptions do not apply to those languages.

A program to translate the Bible into a language in Ghana involves five groups of people / organizations.

  • Translator’s
  • Reviewers
  • Translation agency
  • Funding agency
  • Language committee

The translators, also called the translation team, are just that – those who do the translation. These days, they are a group of 2-4 speakers of the language screened and chosen for their role and given special training. They are usually employed full time.

The reviewers are a group of unpaid volunteers who meet occasionally to read the draft translation proposed by the translators and comment on it. They mostly consider whether the draft translation communicates clearly.

The translation agency is an organization specializing in translating the Bible. It has experts in biblical languages, translation, and linguistics. It gives training, carries out accuracy checks, identifies which languages need translation, and works with language communities and churches to set up new translation programs, among other tasks.

The funding agency raises funds for translation in smaller languages.

The language committee is a group of unpaid volunteers which meets from time to time to initiate then guide the translation effort. They have a lot of responsibilities such as:

  • Choosing (with the help of the translation organization) and supervising the translators
  • Mobilizing their community in support of the translation, including giving.
  • Coordinating with the translstion and funding agency.
  • Setting program goals (New Testament, Old Testament, Jesus Film. etc.)
  • Promoting and/or organizing adult literacy
  • Choosing the reviewers and assuring they work well.
  • Stocking and distributing the translation,

As you can see, the language committee is, or at least should be, the glue that holds all the pieces together. In my next post, I’ll give examples of what can go wrong if the committee does not do its job well.

On losing authority

Missionaries get respect. We are held in high esteem in many churches in the USA. Plus missionaries are respected in many places in Africa. Officials, local people, even those who follow other religions give us deference. However, our ministry of Bible translation undermines our authority, as Yale historian Lamin Sanneh says:
“Often the outcome of vernacular translation was that the missionary lost the position of being the expert.”

In fact, translating the Bible is the perfect way for a missionary to lose the position of expert, even if he or she is still appreciated.

Otabil’s church starting to fill up on Sunday – 2nd service

Earlier this year, I took American friends to the very large church of well-known Pastor Mensah Otabil in Accra, Ghana. He said that his ministry focuses on raising up leaders. He defined a leader as a self-directed individual. I took that to mean someone who takes responsibility before God for his or her actions. Someone who is not dependent on others in an unhealthy way. Someone who has confidence in God and in the Holy Spirit within. Otabil said that he did not want the members of his church to depend on him for every little thing.

Church of Pentecost Council 1954

Church of Pentecost Council 1954 including McKeown, courtesy Church of Pentecost Canada

A famous missionary to Ghana, James McKeown, often told new Christians who tended to depend on the him as their missionary for everything:

I have not come to create beggars but to make men Sons of God.

The members of the church McKeown founded still quote that today to encourage themselves to take hold of the responsibilities God has given them.

Research into the impact of translating the Bible into African language has found that those who read the Bible in their own language take more initiative. They are more likely to witness to their neighbors and to start small businesses. Women speak up more in their families and churches. They are more likely to resist pressure from the proponents of traditional religious practices. They become self-directed individuals, as Otabil put it, or children of God as McKoewn put it.

When we translate, we joyfully and deliberately undermine our authority by putting people in direct contact with a much better authority.

Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth. Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ Ephesians 4:14-15 (NLT)

Staying awake

Siwu translators at their translation desk

Back in February, we visited the area where the Siwu language is spoken. Siwu is a small language surrounded by a much larger language, Ewe (pronounced eh-vay). So everyone speaks both Siwu and Ewe. We spoke to the two men translating the Old Testament into Siwu. (The New Testament appeared a few years ago.) I asked what caused them to be interested in translating the Bible into their language. One said that previously he was a pastor and he used to preach in Ewe. But he occasionally preached in his own language. When he did, people did not fall asleep. In fact, they were very attentive.

So when it was announced that there would be a translation into his language he jumped at the chance.

What preacher, I thought, wouldn’t jump at the guarantee that his audience would all stay awake.

Corruption conundrum

Banner for change Attitude Ghana

During the five weeks I’m in Ghana, I’m renting a room from a man who is a leader in a Ghanaian organization called Change Attitude Ghana. It is fighting corruption, which a continuing problem. As its name indicates, Change Attitude Ghana seeks to solve the problem by a personal change of attitude in Ghanaians. I applaud this approach.
Laws have their place, but they can rarely eradicate widespread societal problems, as I noted in my post about FGM. One of the ways corruption is embedded in culture came up in a conversation I had with a Ghanaian passenger on my flight to Accra. He noted that people put pressure on the politicians and civil servants who come from their region, people or clan demanding jobs or other benefits the civil servant controls. If the civil servant does not comply, he or she becomes known as an evil person who does not take care of their own. This is a very potent charge because sharing and generosity is are highly valued and people without those traits can be considered as bad as murderers. The passenger noted that even if the civil servant does not want to be corrupt, the pressure from his friends, family and clan may push him or her into it anyway.
What makes this more insidious, is that those putting on the pressure often consider their actions virtuous. After all, they are looking out for the well-being of their family, clan or region. They might even cite I Timothy 5:8:
But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. – 1 Timothy 5:8
So tackling corruption must include a change of attitude in the people, not just the civil servants and politicians. A narrow approach won’t work.
It is no coincidence that the man who is a leader in Change Attitude Ghana is a solid Christian who is active in his church and various Christian organizations. He is the leader of the Christian Business Men’s association for my part of Accra, for example. He knows the power of God to change people in profound ways. He believes that profound change is key; that Christianity in Ghana must produce people with new attitudes. He does not want Christianity
having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. – 2 Timothy 3:5
All that is why he is also in favor of translating the Bible into all the languages of Ghana. As the tag line for our website says, translation is “connecting at the deepest level for lasting impact.”

New thoughts on Old

Early in July, I attended a one-day conference on the subject of the Old Testament in Africa and Christ’s message. We easily forget that Jesus preached exclusively from the Old Testament for the simple reason that the New Testament did not exist yet. The conference was organized by the Ghanaian organization I am on loan to. All of the speakers were from Ghana.

As I have written before, the Old Testament is particularly relevant to African culture. That came out again at this conference. But I learned new aspects of that. Some speakers pointed out that the Old Testament is relevant to the most pressing issues in Christianity in Africa. For example, one speaker showed how the Old Testament is most helpful in guiding the many African Christians who have retained some of their traditional religious practices. Another showed how the Old Testament prophets and Old Testament teaching about prophecy bring a much-needed correction to modern day prophetic ministries in Africa which are rapidly expanding. Yet another pointed out that of the healing of Naaman speaks directly to abusive practices of healing found in some African churches; bringing a healthy correction to them.

Another speaker informed us that there are 650 languages in the world spoken by a half a million people or more (the rest have fewer than that). Of those, 250 have a translation of the New Testament but not of the Old Testament. His point was that at least those languages should have the whole Bible.

The representative of a Western translation organization shared the results of a survey his organization did of churches in Africa and elsewhere asking for translation in their languages. When asked how they would use translations if they were done, the most common response was evangelism. If those, 62 percent said the Old Testament is preferred for that purpose.

I came away with a new appreciation for the Old Testament . As a Ghanaian speaker said, the Old Testament is needed for the spiritual, political and intellectual transformation of Ghana.

Patwa

I have been following the translation of the Bible into the Jamaican language, often called Patwa or Patois. The translation has stirred a controversy that is not typical. New translations of the Bible are often criticized for “faults” in the translation. But that is not what is happening with Patwa. Instead, the critics are unhappy that there is a translation in the language at all. They think that Patwa is not a real language, or not a language worthy of a translation, or they think that people should read the Bible in English instead of Patwa.

In the reformation era in Europe, controversies of this kind were common. Church leaders, kings and others opposed the translation of the Bible into English in principle. In his book Reformation Europe: 1517-1559, historian G.R. Elton notes one of the reformation-era objections to translating the Bible into English and other European languages:

It ‘put [the Bible] into the hands of the commonality and interpreted no longer by the well-conditioned learned, but by the faith and delusion, the common sense and uncommon nonsense, of all sorts of men.’

But since the reformation, objections in principle to translating the Bible have been rare in the West. But they are surfacing again in Jamaica. Those making the objections probably are mostly unaware that they are saying many of the same things that were said against translation into English before and during the reformation.

Some of the objections are just silly. When the Jesus Film in Patwa was released, a number of people objected that Jesus never spoke Patwa. Of course, those same people have no such objection to the Jesus Film in English. But many sincerely feel that a translation in Patwa is offensive. They cannot imagine any good reason for putting holy, divinely-inspired words into a simple and sometimes reviled language like Patwa.

C. S. Lewis addressed the same concerns about modern English translations. He noted:

Some people whom I have met go even further and feel that a modern translation is not only unnecessary but even offensive. They cannot bear to see the time-honoured words altered; it seems to them irreverent.

His response to their concerns is relevant to the discussion in Jamaica today.

The only kind of sanctity which Scripture can lose (or, at least, New Testament scripture) … is an accidental kind which it never had for its writers or its earliest readers. The New Testament in the original Greek is not a work of literary art: it is not written in a solemn, ecclesiastical language, it is written in the sort fo Greek which was spoken over the eastern Mediterranean after Greek had become an international language and therefore lost its real beauty and subtlety. … It is a sort of ‘basis’ Greek; a language without roots in the soil, a utilitarian, commercial and administrative language.

Does this shock us? It ought not to, except as the Incarnation itself ought to shock us. The same divine humility which decreed that God should become a baby at a peasant-woman’s breast, and later an arrested field-preacher in the hands of the Roman police, decreed also that He should be preaching in a vulgar, prosaic and unliterary language. If you can stomach the one, you can stomach the other.

We sometimes run into this same objection in Africa. Christians in African countries were English is the official language and who are used to the time-honored phrases of the King James Version, can find the translation in their language too commonplace, lacking solemnity. The same happens in French-speaking countries with the revered Louis Segond translation. As Lewis points out, the supposed “solemnity” is an invention, something that did not exist in the original New Testament, but something that we have added. The expectation that God speaking will be in a more solemn and holy language than ordinary is aided and abetted when we use an older translation. The archaic language sounds flowery and solemn leading some readers to associate that style with Scripture. We forget that God came down in very, very ordinary form and that we should expect his Word to be the same.

So, in order to see translations widely used, we sometimes have to address the concerns of those who find them too commonplace, especially if they are in positions of authority. It’s not a part of being in Bible translation that I expected. I’m following the developments in Jamaica to see how proponents of the translation answer the critics. I might borrow some of their arguments. On the other hand, it looks like maybe the positive impact of the translation in peoples’ lives will be more powerful than any logic.

Two blessings; two mandates

Through the ages, Christians have noted that the Bible gives humans two great mandates:

* The dominion mandate in Genesis 1:26-28, also called the cultural mandate or the creation mandate
* The great commission found throughout Scripture, and summarized in Matthew 28:18-20

The dominion mandate concerns the place and role we have in creation. The text reads;

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

Some have read this text as a command, but it is more properly understood as a blessing and a mandate, after all the text says “God blessed them.” To be sure, we can fail in fulfilling our mandate or in reaching God’s intended blessing, and we do. But this text is less like a mother telling a reluctant child to go clean their room, than it is like a proud parent telling their child that they have potential to develop into whatever they put their mind to. Some have understood “be fruitful and multiply” in relationship to having children. While it certainly includes that, I believe that the mandate to be fruitful is much wider. When we raise children to be productive members of society, create businesses that serve the needs of the community, do our work with a view to serving our fellow human beings, or act in politics and civic organizations for the benefit of all, we fulfill this primary mandate. We make our heavenly father proud because these are all ways that we can be fruitful by creating good.

Sin came along, tarnishing and deforming this mandate; severely limiting man’s ability to achieve it. Laziness, unwarranted dependency on others, greed, narcissism, workaholism, crime, addictions, and oppression are among the ways the blessing is thwarted and the mandate distorted by sin.

Enter the second mandate. It. reads:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20

This text is sometimes read as a command to evangelize, and that is included. But the verbs are “teach” and “make disciples”. Fulfilling Jesus words brings a salvation that frees people to fulfill the first mandate – pulling them out of greed, materialism, addictions, oppression and belief systems that dehumanize; making them truly fruitful.

Formal evaluations and ordinary observation of the effects of translating the Bible into Ghana’s languages confirm that effects are not limited to personal salvation. Women, for instance, have gained a greater voice in their families and communities, and the are more likely to undertake new initiatives such as small businesses. They spend less money on traditional religion, and they are more likely to cooperate with others in economic activities. Their children are more likely to be enrolled in school. These changes come in addition to seeing more women in church in joyful and enthusiastic praise to God. Translating the Bible, it turns out, is a way to fulfill both mandates.

Nationalism and Bible Translation

In 2011, I took an assignment in Ghana with a Ghanaian organization – the Ghana Institute of Linguistics, Literacy and Bible Translation (GILLBT).

I started working with Ghanaian Christians committed to seeing that everyone in Ghana has the Bible in their language. They are also very attached to their country. They are nationalists. So are their churches. Church leaders address national issues and say that the church is important to national development.

The mix of Bible translation and nationalism creates some benefits I did not expect. It turns out that the nationalism I found was one that is focused on responsibility. For example, one of the leaders in GILLBT told me:

It was our responsibility to learn from missionaries and take on the work ourselves.

GILLBT’s first translators were missionaries from Europe and North America. My colleague was saying that it was right and good that missionaries came, but that Ghanaians should eventually take responsibility. From other conversations, I have learned that it is a matter of nationalistic pride that Ghanaian churches take financial and other responsibility for Christian witness and ministry in Ghana.

GILLBT board of directors

When Ghanaian Christians learn that most of the money for translation in Ghana comes from elsewhere, their immediate reaction is to want to change that – to have Ghanaians “take on the work” in all its aspects.

Interestingly, the Ghanaian Christian nationalism I have seen is not exclusionary – it does not exclude others. Missionaries and outside money are still welcome, but on the condition that they don’t undermine Ghanaian responsibility. I like this brand of “take responsibility” nationalism. It feels empowered, bold, welcoming and full of faith.