New Norms

The Ghanaian organization we work for has just established norms for the length of translation programs — five years for the New Testament and 7 for the Old. These assume that the basic linguistic work like getting and alphabet and primer, have already been done. They also assume that all the right conditions have been met such as adequately trained translators with biblical training including at least one with who knows biblical languages; and adequate funding for all the translation activities and equipment. I have seen under-resourced translation programs drag on and end up costing more in the long term than if they had been well-resourced in the short term.

Translation progress graph

Translation progress is more like the blue line than the brown line

Translation does not progress in a straight line. That is, if it takes 5 years to translate the New Testament, the translation does not progress at the rate of one fifth per year. Rather, progress in the first year will be slow as the translators learn and as they solve translation issues that only need solving once then can be applied throughout such as how to translate “sin”. So we expect the translation to pick up speed as it goes along and at the same time to be better quality – clearer and more accurate.

But there is a limit. The translation can only go so fast without the speed causing problems like poor translation accuracy. I’ve seen that first hand and more than once. On the other hand, translations that proceed too slowly also create problems. Local churches and international funders can get discouraged and stop their support, for example. I have seen cases where translation progressed so slowly that the translators became a joke in the community and no one would lend a hand or give money any more. Even getting the translation back on track was difficult because no serious person in the area wanted to be associated with such a sorry project.

In this way, translations are like the speed (RPM) of large diesel engines. When they are pulling a load it is bad for them to go either too slow or too fast. So the operator has to keep them in a certain RPM range. Unfortunately, many Westerners like me who are involved in translation are (rightly) worried about translation going to fast and loosing quality, but we don’t seem to see the problems of going too slow.

Just for comparison, it took the translators of the King James Version seven years to translate the whole Bible, but there were over forty translators divided into six groups each of which did part of the Bible. Also, they borrowed heavily from Tyndale’s translation which done only a few decades earlier. In fact, not a few passages in the King James translation are lifted directly from Tyndale with only minor changes if any. On the other hand, the KJV translators worked part time alongside their church duties. Nevertheless, doing a whole Bible in Ghana in 12 years with 3-4 full-time translators and no previous translation to draw on will push the limits in many of the languages where translations are still needed. If the new norms provoke efforts to see that translation programs have everything they need to progress well, they will be valuable even if they are not always met.


When I talk to groups in the US about the accelerated pace of Bible translation, people often jump to the conclusion that the cause of the acceleration is technology. Technology has indeed increased the pace, but other things have increased the pace even more than technology.

One of them is clusters.

Translators from several languages in a cluster, praying during a training session.

Translators from several languages in a cluster, praying during a training session.

It used to be that the translation in every language was a stand-alone activity. A missionary-linguist moved into each language area and learned each language. Each one did research on the language to which they were assigned, trained local people and lead the translation effort. There was some cooperation between the translation efforts in different languages. It was often sporadic and informal in nature, depending on times when the missionary-translators would get together for another reason.

I’m not sure who discovered it, but a solution to a translation problem in one language can often be used in other languages. I saw it myself vividly. I was at a training course for national translators in Burkina Faso. They were all grappling with the same translation problem when one of the students – not one of the staff, mind you – came up with a solution they all could use. The solution had to do with how the passive voice is used in many of the languages. So the solution was not just for one verse, but for many of the of the times the passive voice is used in the Bible. That one solution could save days, weeks perhaps even months of work because the passive voice occurs many times.

Fabien Dapilla who leads two new clusters in Ghana

Fabien Dapilla who leads two new clusters in Ghana

From this kind of experience came the idea of clusters – doing translation with a group of languages together, all at once. It looked like that would make translation go faster and cost less. In many cases, it has. But it has done more. In projects staffed entirely by national translators in Congo, we found that clusters increased morale among the translators. Surprisingly, along with increasing morale, accountability was also increased. So we got speed increases, cost reductions, increased morale and increased accountability.

When we came to Ghana, we found that there were lots of opportunities to speed translation by starting clusters.

A word of caution. The clusters sometimes cost less in the long term and more in the short term. The cost of getting translators together on a regular basis meant that the budget for each translation for each year increased. However, the number of years needed decreased. So the cost per year went up, but the total cost for the translations went down. It is my experience that under-funded translation programs actually cost more, sometimes a lot more, in the long term even though they cost less in any given year.


Photo: Marc Ewell

Photo: Marc Ewell

In 1910, a major world missions conference was held in Edinburgh. Those present held hope for evangelism among the followers of eastern religions. The well-developed philosophical positions of those religions appealed to Europeans and American academics. Not a few Westerners romanticized Hinduism as a new world religion. We all know the attraction of eastern gurus in some segments of US society.

In contrast to the appeal of eastern religions, the missions conference came to the conclusion that the “primitive” religions of Africa would prove difficult ground for Christian faith. Many Western Christians find the masks, face paints, and rituals of African religion scary, barbaric and primitive – something so different from Christian faith that it could not possibly be fertile ground for evangelism – a religion that held no redeeming qualities such as eastern religions seemed to have.

Africa’s traditional religions are called “primal” religions by theologians, and anthropologists. Those at the conference saw Africa’s primal religions as rocky ground where the seed of the Gospel would struggle to survive, while the Eastern would produce a bountiful crop. It has not turned out that way; not at all.

Chart evangelicals in AfricaIn 1910 when the missions conference was held, only 9% of Africans were Christian. Furthermore, almost all of those were in just four of the many countries in Africa: Ethiopia, South Africa, Egypt and Madagascar. Early missionary efforts had not borne fruit. But by 1970 almost 40% of Africans professed Christian faith. That number is for all kinds of “Christians”. What is more astounding is the growth of evangelical, Bible-believing faith in Africa, as you can see in the graph.

Meanwhile, evangelism among those following eastern religions has been very slow.

But this is not just an African phenomenon. In the last century Christianity has spread the fastest among peoples who follow what theologians and anthropologists call “primal” religions. This is true in Africa and around the world. It seems that people who follow the so-called “primal” religions are the best prepared by their traditional religion for Christian faith. In any case, the conclusions of that missions conference in 1910 were way off the mark.

God has a delicious way of turning the human wisdom into obvious folly. In this case, he has chosen those whose religious practices we considered primitive, vile, even barbaric, and poured out his Spirit on them. Paul wrote about things like this.

Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. (I Cor 1:27)

Not only has Christianity flourished in Africa, churches in Africa are now sending out missionaries. Professor J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu of Trinity Theological Seminary in Ghana has written:

“It is indeed a surprise that Africa, associated in Western minds with poverty, deprivation, squalor, political instability and barbarism, should emerge in God’s purposes as a leading player in Christian mission, including missions to the West.”

I believe that the confounding of the powerful and sophisticated is in full swing. But sometimes missionaries seem to miss it. I wonder if some mission activity in Africa goes on as though a major movement of God were not happening. The kind of growth in numbers, depth and capacity we see in the church in Africa must be matched by an equally significant shift in how we do translation here. Otherwise we effectively deny by our actions the marvelous thing God is doing. Let’s not make the blunder of painting our African brothers and sisters with the same mistaken brush used in 1910. Our methods and goals need to align with and celebrate the awe-inspiring movement of God’s Spirit among people who are coming out of primal religions.

How long

In the US, I am often asked how long it takes to translate the New Testament. Answering this question requires that we back up a bit. How long to do what, exactly?

Proposed alphabet for a language of the Congo

Proposed alphabet for a language of the Congo

Most languages without the Bible also have no alphabet. So the work of translation must start with some linguistics. After tackling the alphabet, then comes the grammar There are no books, so no dictionary, no description of the grammar. How is the past tense formed? The future tense? Many such questions must be answered.

No books means no theological books. So, what is the right name for God? The Holy Spirit? What are the best words to translate sin, holiness, spirit, synagogue, temple, adultery, and so on. There are many such questions. They must all be researched so that the translation will be accurate.

Then we need to take into account that the people may live in an area with poor roads or no electricity, which will make things take longer.

Congolese translators working together

Congolese translators working together

If you are very good and have the right circumstances, you can start from zero, go through all the steps, and complete the translation of the New Testament and a few Old Testament books in ten years. Most translations take longer. As a comparison, it took the translators of the King James Bible 7 years to translate the whole Bible, but they had some big advantages:

  • There were 47 active translators, many more than the 2-3 who work on most translations in Africa
  • English already had an alphabet, a grammar and theological works
  • English already had other translations. Scholars estimate that a full third of the King James Version was taken word for word from Tyndale’s translation and another 50% was taken from Tyndale with small changes.
Congolese translators working with a consultant

Congolese translators working with a consultant

Today we have methods which can speed things up without needing 47 translators. Translations in several languages can be done all at once by having translators from several languages work together. In one case in Ghana, translations of the New Testament were done simultaneously in seven years. That’s less than 2.5 years per language. Not all clusters are that successful, though.

Finding ways to accelerate translation is something we are building into the plan to have translations in all the languages of Ghana, all while maintaining high standards.