Leverage

Old Presbyterian church in Abetifi

About two centuries ago, German church leaders, business people and others seized an opportunity. They sent missionaries to evangelize and translate the Bible into the languages of the Gold Coast, now called Ghana. Some came with their coffins in tow and a number died while carrying out their work. Some lost children. But they bent German economic-industrial and theological prowess to the task. They trained select Gold Coast citizens in the world’s best seminaries of the day – German seminaries – under the best theologians of the day – again German. They did language development, translation, literacy education and evangelism in the languages of the Gold Coast using some of the best linguistics training of the day from German universities. They created dictionaries and grammars of Ghanaian languages which are still highly regarded, even definitive. They produced world-class Bible translations in the languages of the southern half of Ghana. As the translations were completed, they were forced to leave because of World War I. At that point, their evangelistic efforts had only yielded modest fruit as the Gold Coast was then less than 5% Christian.

During the first half of the twentieth century, Christianity expanded rapidly, but only where there were translations. Where they existed, mother tongue translations enabled Christianity to penetrate all classes of society. Men with minimal education but who read the Bible in their mother tongues became church leaders, pastors, and evangelists. With their mother tongue Bibles they grew the church in a relatively hostile environment. Some of those churches now have millions of members and thousands, even tens of thousands, of congregations. Schools founded by the missionaries trained the people who went on to militate for and then gain Ghana’s independence and lead its businesses and industries.

Meanwhile, the transformation did not take place in areas where there was no translation. Ghana was decisively transformed where German missionaries translated the Bible, and left untouched elsewhere. Let us remember that their efforts were initiated, organized and financed by German churches and that those churches were being empowered by their members who were both creating and benefiting from 19th century Germany’s emergence as a world theological, industrial and economic power. When church members stand behind missions, amazing things happen.

The same, but different

On March 16 we arrived in the US for our regular “furlough” – a time when we speak in churches an other groups about Bible translation and our ministry, visit family and even take a little break. Then we go back to our overseas assignments. This time though, things are a bit different. Ed will be going back, but differently, and Dayle won’t be going back at all. We closed up out apartment in Accra and sold our stuff there, but kept our little SUV for Ed to use whenever he’s in Ghana. That’s because he will be making regular trips, including a six-week trip beginning in late June.

Ed’s will continue in his assignment to the national organization to which Wycliffe has loaned us – the Ghana Institute of Linguistics, Literacy and Bible Translation. He will be working from the US and making regular trips to Ghana.

Ed has a number of projects on his plate. The biggest of those is coordinating the creation of training curriculum and materials for local translation committees. Each Bible translation has a local committee of volunteers guiding it. A lot depends on that committee functioning well. Experience and evaluations of translation programs tell us that translations will be more widely read and they will have more impact when the committees effectively engage the churches and communities in various ways, including in decisions about the translation, such as the selection of the local translators and which books of the Bible to translate first.

But not all committees work well.

Michael, one of the GILLBT staff Ed works with, addressing a rural church about translation into their language

For some time, Ed has been working with GILLBT staff to put in place more effective committees. The next step is to develop training for them because now there is none. This project is a high priority for GILLBT’s Director who wants to get the translation closer to the people it serves, and make it more responsive to their needs. Ed will be leading the development of the training. He will be working directly with him and with other staff. He hopes to have the training ready for his next trip to Ghana in late June. Then he will help give it to selected committees to test it.

After that, he will revise the training based on feedback, give it to more committees on subsequent trips to Ghana, and then serve as a resource while Ghanaians give the training.

GILLBT Director, Thomas Sayibu Imoro

This is not our retirement yet, but it certainly is a big first step in that direction. We will be looking at that every time we do our annual evaluation with GILLBT Leadership and Wycliffe. Missionaries are made for leaving, and so we want to leave well – in a way that honors the Lord, our supporters and the ministry we have been privileged to undertake. Ask the Lord to give us wisdom

We appreciate so much all those who pray and who provide financial support, especially during this new phase of our ministry. Contact us if you have questions about specific financial needs related to our new mode of ministry.

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)

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.

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.

Leviticus?

By Philip De Vere, via Wikimedia Commons (license CC 3.0)

Recent research shows that when local people have a say in how the Bible is translated into their language, it will be more widely read and have greater impact. So translation programs in Ghana now include consultations with local people, pastors and community leaders. When asked what book of the Bible they wanted to translate next, pastors and key lay leaders in the Delo language community in Ghana said that they wanted Leviticus. According to them, Leviticus will be most useful for evangelism, discipling believers, preaching, teaching and personal reading.

Delo translators with model of the Tabernacle

One Delo Christian pointed out that many of his people still follow traditional religion with practices very much like those described in Leviticus. He said that it is from Leviticus that he can build an effective bridge to the Gospel. I don’t think very many Americans Christians would name Leviticus as the book of the Bible they need most or first. Nor would they be likely to cite a verse from Leviticus when  talking to others about their faith. 

One of the realities and challenges of working in another culture is that what is most relevant might be different than you think. It’s not that the truth changes, not at all. But which part of the Bible is immediately relevant changes a lot.

By the way, did you know that the inscription on the Liberty Bell includes part of a verse from Leviticus?  The inscription reads in part:

Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof

Apparently those who designed the bell thought Leviticus was relevant to their political views. 

Mary’s song

Courtesy Brooklyn Museum

Mary’s song of praise is part of the story of Christmas. It is found in Luke 1. 

Oh, how my soul praises the Lord.
How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!
For he took notice of his lowly servant girl,
and from now on all generations will call me blessed.
For the Mighty One is holy,
and he has done great things for me.
He shows mercy from generation to generation
to all who fear him.
His mighty arm has done tremendous things!
He has scattered the proud and haughty ones.
He has brought down princes from their thrones
and exalted the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away with empty hands.
He has helped his servant Israel
and remembered to be merciful.
For he made this promise to our ancestors,
to Abraham and his children forever.

Luke 1:46-55 (NLT)

This is quite a display of sophisticated theology for a simple peasant girl! Mary weaves her understanding of the Bible into her understanding of history, her circumstances, God’s promises and their fulfillment.

Lamin Sanneh, a professor at Yale, has written:

The Christian approach …. [contends] that the greatest and most profound religious truths are compatible with everyday language, and [targets] ordinary men and women as worthy bearers of the religious message.
Lamin Sanneh. Christian Missions and the Western Guilt Complex

We see this at work in Africa where large and successful churches were started and led by people with low or no education but who devoured the Bible in their own languages. In fact, that is still happening today. Let none of us think that we are too ordinary to grasp or announce great Bible truths, or that others are too ordinary. The first translations of the Bible into English sprang from that same democratic ideal – that ordinary people would understand. When we translate the Bible into the languages of ordinary people we show that we have the same confidence in them that God has in them and in us. 

That’s actually a Christmas message because Christmas shows us that God has confidence that ordinary humans will understanding his ultimate message when it comes down. 

Merry Christmas - animated banner

Supporting Bible Translation

Sometimes when speaking to a US church or church group, I have been asked what is the most important thing the church can do to support our ministry. The answer is: make the Bible a key part of your life. I am doing Bible translation because studying the Bible changed me. Why would people who are not passionate about the Bible give so that others can have the Bible? Why would they care that there are people who do not have the Bible in their language? On the other hand, people who find life, hope and power in God’s Word understand why others need to have that same Word.

Besides, it has been shown that the surest way to grow in faith and Christian spirituality is to study the Bible with others. It is even more effective than attending church or reading the Bible personally; not that I am proposing that you stop doing either of those!

The American Bible Society recommends:

  • Declaring your confidence in God’s living and active Word
  • Renewing your personal daily encounter with God in Scripture
  • Giving the Bible a central place in your life
  • Inviting others to engage with the Scriptures

If you want to support Bible translation, then the first thing to do is to cultivate a passion for the Bible in your life that encourages and strengthens you. Besides, it will grow your faith.