Empathy and mission

I have mentioned several times my favorite blogger, Seth Godin. In 2014, he posted this as part of a short blog entitled Tone Deaf:

Great marketers have empathy.
They’re able to imagine what it might be like to have a mustache or wear pantyhose. They work hard to imagine life in someone else’s shoes.
“What’s it like to be you?” is an impossible question to answer. But people who aren’t tone deaf manage to ask it.

Doing Bible translation well includes being able to imagine what it is like to be part of a bibleless people. In fact, the primary skill of someone ministering the Gospel across cultures might be imaginative empathy. Mastery of linguistics or translation skills is crucial when translating the Bible, but if they are wielded without empathetic understanding, they are not ministry.

A basic knowledge of cultural anthropology also really helps in cross-cultural ministry, but if I employ it without empathy, people will feel like mere objects of study or even curiosities. I might go to another culture and imagine that I know how to solve their problems, but until I make the effort to understand those problems the way they do, my efforts will almost certainly fail.

Pray for us and for others working in Bible translation — that we will have imaginative empathy.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (I Corinthians 13:1-3)

No no no

The Apostle Paul wrote:

I have always tried to preach where people have never heard about Christ (Romans 15:20 CEV)

John Piper calls this a Holy Ambition. Piper is far from alone in getting inspiration from the Apostle’s desire to take the good new about Jesus to places where it has not yet been announced. The website JoshuaProject.net is dedicated to listing all the peoples and languages of the world and the degree to which each has heard the good news. As is evident from perusing the website, intentionally taking the good new to new places requires research. One cannot just strike off in a random direction and hope to encounter a people who has not heard of Jesus.

I have colleagues who have spent a good part of their lives going out into the field and finding out where languages are, how many people speak them, if the people in one location can understand the people in another and if the language is dying out or perhaps growing. One of them is Ted Bergman who was an engineer before getting involved in Bible translation. After spending a couple decades training, organizing and leading small teams of researchers across Africa, he set out to find out how many places there in the world where there are no Christians, no missionaries and no Bible in the language of the people — a triple no.

The purpose of the research, of course, is so that people will know of those places and take action to remove one or more no. He found 138 such places. There are none in North America, South America or the Pacific. There is only one in Europe. The majority are in Asia but there are also a number in the Middle East and 18 in Africa. Just three countries have over half of the 138 places, but 19 countries have at least one. You can look at the list yourself, just ignore the columns of codes only missiologists understand.

I was a missionary for a while before I fully appreciated that missions requires research. Not the kind of research one does in a lab or on a computer, but rather the kind where one goes out among the people, talks to them, and seeks to understand their situation. What language do they speak? Have they ever heard an adequate presentation of the good news? Are there missionaries working among them? How many of them are Christians, if any? What religion do they follow? Is there a Bible in their language? This research is seeking out every niche where the good news of Jesus is still missing. A few months back, I was involved in an inter-agency committee in Ghana where we looked at research, made inquiries and came up with a list of all the remaining Bible translation needs in Ghana. What’s cool about that is the efforts now being made to shrink that list until it has nothing on it.

Area near the town of Goz Béïda in Chad which is near the Dar Sila Daju language area, one of the places with no Christians, no missionaries and no Bible

 

 

Jumping ship

In 2010, I worked for an organization that was like a well-run ship. The crew was well-trained and beyond competent. The equipment might not have been the latest, but it was fully functional and well-maintained. Relations between crew members were cordial. All the safety equipment was in place. But there was a problem. The captain said we were headed to New York but it looked to me like we were going to miss New York by a very long ways.

Paul Opoku-Mensah

It was in this quandary that Paul Opoku-Mensah, the director of the Ghana Institute of Linguistics, Literacy and Bible Translation (GILLBT), asked me to come to Ghana twice to do some training of his staff. During my trips to Ghana, I had the opportunity to talk for hours on end with Paul, including twice on 14-hour drives between the north and the south of Ghana. Paul’s organization was nothing like mine. It had recently been rescued from nearly sinking and it was still leaking and listing. The crew suffered from factions and discord, even threatening to mutiny against the captain. But Paul had a plan for getting to New York I found compelling. His plan was similar in some ways to what I was thinking, but involved a number of things I had never heard of. When Paul asked Dayle and I to join the crew of his ship, we were faced with a stark choice – we could stay on our sleek ship going the wrong direction or join the fractious crew of a troubled derelict taking an uncharted course. We prayed and jumped ship.

Our “New York” destination involved engaging the church in Africa in translating the Bible into African Languages, and sustaining the use of the Bibles being translated.

A few days ago, Paul, the man who has been our captain for the last 7 years,  moved on to something new. So I am looking back and evaluating the progress the ship has made. First, it didn’t sink! And while it hasn’t yet arrived at its destination, it is a LOT closer. Churches in Ghana have been engaged. They are giving money. It’s not enough yet, but it is growing substantially every year. Because churches understand and support ministry in Ghana languages, sustained use of translations in those languages is much more likely. 

In addition to being fruitful, the journey has been intellectually stimulating. Paul taught me a lot about the theory and the practice of sustainability and engaging the church in Africa,

In 2011, God put before us a very uncertain path. That was not at all a bad thing. 

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.

Recipe for transformation

I don’t put much stock in the idea that there is some recipe for doing missions that will make it successful everywhere and always. Doing mission means caring about the people to whom one is ministering. If I care, then I seek to understand the specifics of their situation. But a recipe is meant to work everywhere the same. The danger is that it can remove the need to understand people and their circumstances and by that eventually remove the need to care and then caring itself. On the other hand, we ignore successful mission endeavors at our peril because they point us to ways the Holy Spirit might be working.

In 2014, OneBook, a Canadian organization that sponsors Bible translation, did an evaluation of the translation programs they sponsor in nine different countries. The evaluation focuses on whether the translation programs were effective at producing transformation in the communities they served.

The answer to that question was an unqualified yes, but there was more. Some translation programs had more impact than others. Furthermore, the ones that had more impact had some things in common. They were:

  • Local decision making
  • Adult literacy
  • Immediate distribution of the translation
  • National leadership

These findings match my own personal observations of dozens of translation programs in Africa.

The translation programs with the most impact all had a great deal of local decision-making. Churches, for example, had control over who was chosen to be a translator and other key program decisions. Assurance of the accuracy of the translation stayed in the hands of the translation organization, but many other decisions were turned over to the churches (for translation) and chiefs (for literacy). I have seen other evaluations that came to the same conclusion.

Translation programs which produce significant transformation in the language community also were those conducting small-scale, inexpensive adult literacy programs. These literacy programs often started in churches and were attended by church members wanting to read the new translation. But they then spread to the community at large and then eventually into primary schools. Literacy programs mean that people can read the new translation, an obvious key to the translation having impact. But they have many, many more benefits.  Literacy classes were the main sources of health teachings for the economically poor and those attending had more knowledge and exhibited the best health care practices, Furthermore, 76% of those attending reported having benefited economically, almost as high as the 79.8% who reported spiritual benefits.

Another key was immediate distribution of the translation. This is a relatively new idea for many translation programs where the translation was not distributed until a whole book was translated and even then some books were not printed and distributed until the whole New Testament or Bible was distributed. It was not unusual for whole books of the Bible, translated and ready for people to read, sat on the translators’ desk for years before being distributed so that people could read them. Immediate distribution does the opposite. As soon as a passage is translated, it is distributed. So the parable of the lost sheep might be distributed as soon as it is translated; before the rest of the chapter in which it appears is even translated. It might be distributed by printing off a few copies and giving them to pastors or read in church, or to literacy classes to read in the class.  Or a translator might quickly record it on their phone and share it with others on their phones via Bluetooth or NFC. In turn, they share it with others causing it to spread rapidly. A constant flow of new passages into the community can have a powerful effect.

Having the program be lead by a national rather than by a missionary from another country did not create greater or lesser impact, but it did reduce the cost significantly.

So, here’s one recipe for real gospel transformation of communities. It is the basis for the translation programs in Ghana we are helping to implement. I believe that anyone doing translation in Africa should try it out. It might work other places too, but I can’t speak to that.

Training Ghanaians

Back in the early 1990s, my role lead me to read documents describing a program in Ghana to train Ghanaians as leaders of Bible translation projects. The program looked very interesting to me, so I began to follow it; reading reports and asking questions of people working in Ghana. But after the first cohort of Ghanaians went through the program, it stopped without explanation. However, I did hear that the people from that first cohort went on to lead translation programs. One of them even led translations in two different languages. So when I took an assignment in Ghana in 2011, I was pleased to meet all of them and hear their stories. 

At the send-off. The five trainees are in front

Well, it is starting up again; not the same program exactly, but something close. Dayle and I were thrilled to be part of a send-off meal for five Ghanaians traveling to Israel for eight months to do intensive study of modern and biblical Hebrew in preparation for becoming experts in Old Testament translation. When they return to Ghana, they will train translators, do accuracy and quality checks on translations, and teach Hebrew to Ghanaians translators. These five will be the team of experts who will make sure that translations in Ghana will be accurate, clear and natural. They will also serve beyond Ghana.

Board chairman explaining the importance of this training

Even better, the training was largely organized by leading Ghanaian Christians. They intervened at various steps in the process to help with visas and other formalities. The board of the Ghanaian organization Dayle and I are loaned to, GILLBT, has also caught the vision for training their own.

I am convinced that, as in the 1990s, this program will result in more and better translations in Ghanaian languages. Given the commitment and involvement of leading Ghanaian Christians, there will be more than one cohort this time.

Your language doesn’t go far

Night literacy class in Ghana, photo courtesy of Paul Federwitz

A Christian from a smaller ethnic group in northern Ghana told me that he told the district pastor of his church that he was enrolled in a literacy class in his language. The pastor responded that what he was doing was useless because he could not go far with his small language. If he traveled even a short distance he would quickly be outside the area where the language is spoken, so it would not serve him any more. According to the pastor, he was leaning a skill with very limited range. 

Any psychologist will tell you that a person only learns to read once. Its just like math – if you learn it in any language, you know it. The skill of reading can be transferred to any language with much less time and effort than learning the skill in the first place. So enrolling in a literacy class in any language will give a person a skill they can use in any other language. Being able to read will go a long way, even if the language won’t. So the pastor was focusing on the wrong thing – language instead of literacy.

Woman teaching literacy class

Besides, it is the end that matters not the start. A primary school education cannot take you far, but you cannot get more education without it. It would be silly to think that primary school education is worthless for those who get high school diploma’s and university degrees. Literacy in a small language might not get you far in one sense, but in another it can be the start of something that goes a long ways. Tens of thousands of primary school dropouts in Ghana have gone to literacy classes in their small languages, gained skills, then returned to school with success becoming nurses, teachers, pastors and even a university lecturer!

In addition, there are tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of Ghanaians who have had their lives transformed through reading the Bible in their languages, even though they never went to school. That wouldn’t have happened if they had not enrolled in a literacy class in their small language. Then there are the many Ghanaians who would never have even considered the claims of Christ and the Gospel except they enrolled in a literacy class and then read the Bible in their language.

But the pastor’s point about the language is true. The language is only used in one small part of Ghana which is an even smaller part of the world. The usefulness of a language over large geographic areas is important for commerce, politics, etc. Nevertheless, the pastor has another problem. His own language, while many times larger than the smaller language, is a very small language by world standards. Yet he reads the Bible in his language because people who speak a really important language like English or German came to Ghana and did not think his language too small or trivial to translate the Bible and teach people to read. They did not dismiss his language as one that wouldn’t take people far.

It turns out that people often think that languages smaller than theirs are too small to be worth it but their own language is worth it. An ethnocentric viewpoint like that does not square with God’s own sense of mission. He could have easily dismissed us because being human doesn’t take you far in this universe.

What are mere mortals that you should think about them,
human beings that you should care for them? (Psa 8:4 NLT

This post is made in honor of International literacy day which is tomorrow.

Impact in the Volta Region

Ghana’s Volta Region borders the neighboring country of Togo. The veneration of the python is practiced in the Volta region and extends east through Togo and Benin. It is even thought that it formed the origin of the practice of Voodoo in the Caribbean through slaves taken from the area. Even today, there is a voodoo festival in Benin  and a Python temple. The most widely spoken language in the Volta Region is Ewe (pronounced Eh-Vay). It is the language of church, commerce and relationships between peoples, in addition to the being by far the largest mother tongue in the region, extending into large parts of Togo. Christianity came to the Volta Region with German missionaries in the 1800s.

They worked in the Ewe language, including translating the Bible. In this language map you can see that the embedded in the Ewe people and language there are a number of smaller languages that Ewe is surrounded by smaller languages. Ewe became the de facto church language not only for the Ewe people, but for the people speaking those smaller languages as well. While the work of missionaries had a dramatic impact on the Ewe people and in some other places, it did not displace the veneration of the python in some of the smaller language groups. In fact, the influence of the python actually grew in the mid to late 20th century, in some cases pushing back advances that Christianity had made. Women are the most affected. They are inducted as young women. Placating the spirit of the python can even deplete a woman’s financial resources. One of the effects of the veneration was the there were few women in churches in areas of the Volta Region where smaller languages were spoken.

The first Bible translations (just the NT to be precise) in the smaller languages of the Volta Region were finished in the 1980s, with more completed in the 1990s and even more started since 2010 and a few with no translation work yet. Research done by a colleague of ours, Naana Nkrumah, focused on the impact of those translations on the veneration of the python. They were summarized in an article in the Journal of African Christian Thought and at a conference I attended. One of the marked changes since the translations were published is the number of women in the church, which has increased dramatically. Other results include:

  • Very few young women are now inducted into the veneration. In some areas, none has been inducted for over a decade.
  • Women report significantly improved financial status as a result of not spending resources placating the spirit of the python
  • The veneration has lost prestige and power. In past confrontations with Christiantiy, Python priestesses did powerful miracles which convinced women to stay away from Christianity and stay faithful to the python. Now such miracles are rare and when they do occur many women have the courage to stay with their Christian faith in spite of them.

Naana Nkrumah

What is interesting about these findings is that the Bible and preaching in an African lingua franca (trade language) was unable to compete with devotion to the python. This was in spite of the fact that the language in question, Ewe, is widely spoken and understood in the area. On the other hand, the translation of the Bible into smaller local languages resulted in dramatic change. It is my contention that understanding a language is often not enough to produce all the benefits of the Gospel. Instead, the Bible and preaching must be in the people’s heart language (mother tongue) – the language that touches their deepest center. Only then can deeply-seated beliefs and traditions be changed.

This blog is the 4th in a series on why we translate into small languages.

Small languages: part 3

A friend of mine who has been to Israel several times asked me if I had been. I haven’t. She then said that the first thing that struck her when she arrived was how small the place is. The total land surface area of the earth is more than 57 million square miles. Israel’s land area is 7,847 square miles. (8,019 total minus 172 square miles of inland water). So Israel’s percentage of the world’s land is 0.0137% – a little more than one hundredth of a percent or 14 parts in 100,000.

We might ask why a God of infinite power would give his chosen people such a small bit of real estate.

But that’s not all. There are an estimated 14 million Jews in the world Today, down from a peak of almost 17 million in 1939. Against the world population of almost 7 1/2 billion, that makes Jews 0.188 percent of the world’s population. We might ask why God has not caused his chosen people to grow to be more numerous.

It seems that numbers and land surface are not that important to God. What we might use to measure the prestige and value of a people or a nation are not the measures God uses. We shouldn’t be surprised. God told his prophet Isaiah exactly that:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. (Isaiah 55:8 ESV)

In Corinthians, the Apostle Paul develops this idea further:

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are (I Corinthian 1:27-28 ESV)

God often works through the small, the despised, the marginalized, those no one considers important. It is a theme throughout the Bible.

  • When God sent his son he arranged to have him born during a trip forced by the taxation order of a foreign, pagan invader. He had him born in a trough for animal fodder.
  • When God wanted to overthrow the corrupt regime of Elie and his sons Hofni and Phineas, he chose the lowliest person in the society of that day – a childless married woman. He gave her a son who became a just leader. (I Samuel 1-7).
  • Jesus illustrates God’s methods with the parable of the lost sheep where the shepherd goes looking for the lost 1% of the sheep.

Why do we translate for small languages? Because we are following our God. We are trying to be like him. Because to be valid, our mission has to reflect his heart, his mission, his values and his methods.

Small Languages: Part 2

I’m in the middle of a series of blogs on why we bother translating the Bible into smaller languages. This is an important question because the overwhelming majority of languages still without a translation of the Bible are spoken by 10,000 people or less and some are spoken by less than 1,000. In Ghana, there are 18 languages with fewer than 10,000 speakers each. The languages without translations in Ghana are mostly smaller languages. So this is a very relevant question.

If 10,000 is too few to translate, then is 50,000, or 100,000 enough? Perhaps one million should be the limit. To answer this question we need to back up and ask why we translate at all. That leads us to ask what God thinks of the fact that there are many languages in the world. Is that part of his plan? Are they a curse? Should we be trying to get rid of them? What place, if any, do these languages have in the plan of God?

Tower of BabelThese questions lead us inevitably to Genesis chapter 11 where we have the story of the Tower of Babel.

At first everyone spoke the same language, but after some of them moved from the east and settled in Babylonia, they said:

Let’s build a city with a tower that reaches to the sky! We’ll use hard bricks and tar instead of stone and mortar. We’ll become famous, and we won’t be scattered all over the world.

But when the Lord came down to look at the city and the tower, he said:

These people are working together because they all speak the same language. This is just the beginning. Soon they will be able to do anything they want. Come on! Let’s go down and confuse them by making them speak different languages—then they won’t be able to understand each other.

So the people had to stop building the city, because the Lord confused their language and scattered them all over the earth. That’s how the city of Babel got its name.
(Genesis 11:1-9 CEV)

Some read this story and come away with the idea that the multiplicity of languages is a curse. And if the diversity of languages is a curse, then maybe we should be trying to get rid of languages and return to all speaking the same language. I believe that thinking springs from a misunderstanding of God’s judgment. Jonathan Martin, author and pastor, wrote:

I do not believe God’s judgment is about retribution, but a manifestation of hard-edged mercy. Judgment is an illumination of the ugliness that lurks within us, bringing to the surface all that we would otherwise bury so that it might be acknowledged, named, repented of, and ultimately healed.

Even if we understand the Tower of Babel as judgment, that does not mean that it is punishment or a curse. Our God is all about redemption, about bringing good out of bad. If people are drifting away from God, he does not punish them to make them suffer for it. No, he does things designed to draw them back. Martin further writes:

sometimes mercy must take on a violent, apocalyptic form

This understanding of God’s judgment shows us a better way to understand the Tower of Babel – not as a curse but as redemption. Dividing mankind into pieces by causing us to speak many different languages is not punishment, but rather a way to help us, to bless us. But how on earth might the multiplicity of languages be a blessing? The Apostle Paul answers that question Acts 17:34 where he is addressing a gathering in the city of Athens. He told them (emphasis is mine):

“From one man he created all the nations throughout the whole earth. He decided beforehand when they should rise and fall, and he determined their boundaries. His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him—though he is not far from any one of us.” (Acts 34-26-27 NLT)

Remember that when Paul uses the word “nations” he does not mean countries but rather peoples. So God’s purpose in having us live as different peoples with different languages is not to thwart our efforts, but rather so that all peoples would “seek after God.”

The experience of missionaries and of churches shows over and over again that local languages and cultures are wonderful vehicles for faith and redemption. Where they have been seen as a problem – as in some mission efforts to native North Americans – missions has often had little result. Where the church has tried to promote a common language, as was the case for Latin in Europe, the result has been weak and distorted belief. Paul’s teaching that we are divided into different peoples and languages so that we would seek God works itself out in evangelism and missions every day and year after year. God s purpose, that the division of people into many peoples and languages would help them find him, is more than a theoretical bit of theology. It works in practice, on the ground, in the real world.

Why do we translate into smaller languages? Because it works. It works because God made those languages so that the people who speak them could find him through them. Can a language be too small for that to be a good thing?