Are you wonky?

A wonk is a person who is preoccupied with arcane details or procedures in a specialized field. It is often used in politics in the phrase “policy wonk” to refer to a person who knows fine details of government law and policy.

Jesus had to deal with wonks among the religious leaders of his day. He said to them:

“You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! Yet you refuse to come to me to receive this life. – John 5:39-40

They were Bible experts who missed the main point. They knew the arcane details in the Bible but missed its heart. They were Bible wonks; fascinated by Bible details and facts, but without affection for the person speaking through the text – God.

Working in another culture can make a person a wonk – someone who finds the other culture fascinating but has no real affection for the people.

Translating the Bible requires mastering the details of the Bible, of the language, and of the culture. It can make you into an wonk – a very competent technician lacking a heart for those who speak the language.

The search for justice also creates wonks – people who expertly manage their public stance by knowing and saying the right words and phrases, and being quick to criticize when others aren’t as fastidious. Their justice consists of wonk-approved incantations.

Whatever you to do, don’t do it like a wonk.

Revitalized

I have written several times that translation committees are key to the success of translation in Africa. Have good translators is also important, of course. A translation committee is a group of carefully selected volunteers from the language community who oversee the work of the translators including setting goals, raising funds, creating awareness and organizing the sale and distribution of the translation. How well the committee does its job can affect how well the translation is accepted and how widely it is distributed and read. If it does not work well, some churches might just refuse to use translation, sticking with English or a regional language.

Siwu committee with regional translation coordinator

The translation into the Siwu language in Ghana’s Volta Region had a very dynamic and well-known translator who raised a lot of awareness for the translation and promoted it. When he fell ill and passed away, the translation committee knew that it would have to pick up the slack. Michael Serchie, the regional translation coordinator (center front) helped the community update the committee and revitalize it.

Michael is serving translation programs in more than a dozen languages. But even his wise and dynamic leadership is not enough if the language communities themselves are not interested enough to get involved. Sometimes, it takes a dramatic turn of events to get things moving. Michael saw that was happening and jumped in.

Pray for the translation in Siwu, and for the committee that they would work hard to see it widely used and distributed.

It’s all there

Because I’m a Bible translator, so I do strange things. For example, I actually read the prefaces to Bible translations. The preface usually addresses how and why the translation was done The original preface to the King James Version deals mostly with criticisms and objections. For example, the King James translators tackle the perennial question “Why on earth are you guys doing yet another translation? Of course, the question was phrased more eloquently in that day.

I’m interested in a different question – is a translation the Word of God? Purists say that they are not: that in order to truly read the Word of God one has to read the Bible in the languages in which it was first written. The King James translators reject that point of view. They wrote:

… we affirm and avow, that the very meanest translation of the Bible in English set forth by men of our profession containeth the word of God, nay, is the word of God: as the King’s speech which he uttered in Parliament, being translated into French, Dutch, Italian, and Latin, is still the King’s speech, though it be not interpreted by every translator with the like grace, nor peradventure so fitly for phrase, nor so expressly for sense, every where.

So they maintained that every English translation is the Word of God even if it is not a particularly good translation. (I’m sure that they would not have included fraudulent translations.)

A colleague of mine addressed a similar question:

A common assumption about reading the Bible in the original languages is that by “reading the Greek” we’re actually finding out information that isn’t available to people who are reading a translation.

He rejects this idea. He points out that a person needs a very deep knowledge of Greek to get more out of it. In fact, a doctoral level is needed. Those translating the Bible into English have spent their lives studying the original languages. Unless we are willing to put in that same investment, we’re better off piggybacking on their knowledge by reading their translations.

If you are reading any of the major Bible translation, you are reading the Word of God. You are not missing out. God is not hindered in any way in guiding, instructing, or encouraging you through that translation.

Page from first printing of the King James Version of the Bible

Crottin de chèvre

Crottin de chèvre

There’s a French goat cheese called crottin de chèvre which often served as a starter in France. But you probably wouldn’t order it on your next trip to France if you were using Google Translate to help you decipher the menu. Because if you put in “crottin de chèvre”, Google will tell you it means goat dung!

Computer translation can be very useful. In fact, humor is one of the things it produces. Seriously, computers help speed all kinds of translation including Bible translation. But they need strict supervision. In fact, the best use of a computer in translation is as an assistant to a human translator. It can tell the human translators how they translated a word or phrase last time, or link them to articles discussing the translation of difficult words and phrases, for example.

I predict that computer translation will do very well at translating literal documents like user manuals and scientific papers. It will be great for travel where mistakes are corrected in face-to-face communication, gestures and pointing. But when it comes to translating things like literature, poetry and philosophy, computers will struggle for a long time. The Bible, of course, is full of literature, poetry and philosophy. I predict that no publisher will use computer translation for its best sellers in any of our lifetimes.

In our day, it would be silly to do a translation of the Bible without a computer, even in a very remote area. But it would be even sillier to think that a computer can replace a properly-trained flesh-and-blood translator.

Life is fragile

In 2016, I took a short assignment in Cote d’Ivoire. Because Dayle had to stay in the US I was alone for several weeks before she joined me. The time difference meant that I would get up in the morning and look at the videos of my grandchildren that had arrived during the night. Then I would go to work.

So it was that one morning after enjoying my grandchildren’s antics, I went to my office and opened an email from one of our national translators. It informed me that he had lost one of his grandchildren after a short but severe illness. My buoyant mood was shattered.

Unfortunately, I have experienced this far too often. Endemic tropical diseases and weak healthcare systems leave children (and adults but especially children) at risk. The translator in question had chosen to live in a rural area because that is where the translation is happening. He is an educated man and many Africans with his level of education would not live in remote rural areas precisely because they lack good services such as health care.

Taking the Bible everywhere has risks. Are the risks too high? Let me answer the question this way. This man was living with exactly the same risks as the people he was serving. They live with those same dangers day after day, year in and year out. For many bibleless peoples, life where they live is fragile and they regularly experience that in very painful ways. The only way to be certain to avoid their risks is to cease to minister to them.

Church service in rural Ghana

The multitudes

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

The whole church broke out in laughter.

Jesus feeding the multitudes

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

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

Beyond mere understanding

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

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

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

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

Process and results

Tunesia (courtesy NASA)

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

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

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

Jesus said:

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

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

Chile / South America (courtesy NASA)

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

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

Arabian Peninsula (courtesy NASA)

Black Elijah

harris-book-cover

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

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

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

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

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

Harrist church hear Abidjan

Harrist church hear Abidjan

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

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

Made for leaving

I think I always knew it, but my friend and the person who has overseen most of my work in Ghana, Paul Opoku-Mensah, clarified it for me:

Missionaries are temporary

Or as I like to say, missionaries are made for leaving. By that, I do not mean that they are forced to leave. Rather, I mean that missionaries are temporary by design. Leaving is what we are built for. We see this clearly in Jesus ministry which lasted roughly three years. We see it in the Apostle Paul’s missionary journies during which he went many places, stayed some time, then moved on. But when I say that missionaries are made to leave, I am not speaking primarily about the length of their ministry, but more about the conditions that end it. A missionary might move to an area to translate the Bible into the language there, then move on or return home when the translation is complete. That might take quite a long time, but it is still destined to end if and when the missionary succeeds. A mission that has not ended is, therefore, one which has not yet succeeded.

There’s an irony in the fact that a mission which succeeds creates the conditions for its own demise. But it goes further than that. A mission that does not end stifles new life.

Paul Opoku-Mensah taught me that it is good and natural that missionaries have different ideas than those who come to faith through their ministry. The missionary who founded The Church of Pentecost in Ghana, James McKoewn, only did evangelism and discipleship, but he was pleased when, after his retirement, the very successful church he planted branched out into medical work, schools and more. He saw these changes as a sign of his success. But many missionaries resist changes to ministries they start. I remember a person highly respected among his people telling us that a particular missionary had to go. The missionary had not done anything wrong except keep control too long.

If a missionary translates the Bible for people, those people may develop their own vision for what comes next. They will want to make sure that the translation is reprinted and on sale for the next generations. They might want to have their language used in the first few years of primary school to help their children get better grades. They may want lots of literacy classes. Or maybe they will want to translate their church’s liturgy. There’s no telling what things they will want to do to that the missionary didn’t do.

In order for this to happen well, the missionary must leave, or at least relinquish his or her hold on the ministry, so others can take it new directions.

To really succeed, a missionary must create the conditions that bring an end to his or her ministry.