Translation, Church Growth, Ghana

It was in the late 1800s and early 1900s that missionaries working with local people completed the first translations of the Bible into the languages of southern and central Ghana. At the time, less than five percent of Ghanaians were Christians. The German Presbyterian missionaries saw their churches grow slowly but steadily.

Then two things happened no one expected.

The first was World War I. At the time, Ghana was then The Gold Coast and it was a British colony. As you can imagine, Germans were not welcome when Britain entered WWI, not even missionaries. The authorities expelled the German missionaries. The church they had started had to stand on its own. It did, and it grew, using the Scriptures and liturgy in local languages.

The second unexpected event was the arrival of Pentecostalism. A layman named Peter Newman Anim left a church founded by missionaries, encountered some pentecostal theology coming out of Portland, Oregon and founded the Christ Apostolic Church. Those who ministered with him were uneducated farmers, laborers, fishermen and even hunters. So they didn’t know English. The Bibles in Ghanaian languages became their only source of faith and truth. They worshiped, read, taught and evangelized in those languages. In the first half of the 20th century, Pentecostalism reached deeply into the uneducated who were most Ghanaians at the time. They learned to read in church, their songs were full of Scripture and they took the Bible as the Word of God. The results were astounding. Over the first five decades of the 20th century, the percentage of Ghanaians professing Christian faith grew from a paltry 5% to at least 50% (it stands at 60% today). But only where the Bible had been translated. Elsewhere, other religions made headway.

It was quite a combination: the Scriptures in the mother tongue and a church that took both the mother tongue and the Scriptures seriously. They had no doubts whatsoever that God speaks through his Word. Nor did they wonder if their language was up to the task of conveying Bible truth.

Some of my colleagues recently went to visit the head of the church Anim founded. On hearing that they are involved in translation into Ghanaian languages, he spontaneously launched into a historic and theological rationale for the use of the heart language (including the translation of the Bible) to create vibrant churches. He should know; his church has grown to have several million members and although it has many educated members, the backbone is still preaching, singing, worship and reading the Bible in the heart language.

The modern religious map of Africa reveals in a striking way the close connection between the growth of Christianity and the widespread employment of the vernacular. The converse also seems to hold: Christian growth has been slightest in areas where vernacular languages are weak—that is, where a lingua franca such as English, French, Portuguese, Arabic or Swahili has succeeded in suppressing mother tongues. -Lamin Sanneh in Christian Missions and the Western Guilt Complex

The translation of the Bible in Ghana stopped after the German missionaries left. No new translations were started for 50 years.  In the 1960s, a new wave of Bible translation, this one initiated by Wycliffe Bible Translators, started in the north. By the 1970s New Testaments were being dedicated here and there in the North. More recently, and 100 years after it happened in the south, a number of whole Bibles have been dedicated. Just as happened in the south 100 years ago, churches based on the Scriptures in the heart languages of the people are taking hold. But, there was a short stoppage again from 1990 through 2010. We are working to have the third wave of translation in Ghana be the last and be the one designed, implemented and resourced by churches and Christians in Ghana.

Nations

member-states-of-the-unThe Bible is full of references to the nations. In the English Standard Version of the Bible, the word “nations” appears 469 times with 431 of those being in the Old Testament. The singular “nation” occurs 594 times with 529 of those being in the Old Testament. So we find well over 1,000 references to nations in the Bible. It’s a major theme that is not developed much by preachers or theologians.

Nations are not what they used to be. What we call a “nation” today did not exist before the year 1500. In fact, about 80% of modern nations have been created since the year 1900 and before that their territories were governed in ways that were different from the modern nation. That means, of course, that the idea of the modern nation did not exist when the Bible was written. So it would be a mistake to assume that when we find the word nation or nations in the Bible, it means what we mean today. But what did it mean?

We get our first clue from the Bible itself. Books of the Bible like I Samuel are full of references to the Philistines. But their country (or nation) Philistia is not mentioned. In fact, it is impossible to figure out from what the Bible says where it was. This is true for other nations mentioned in the Bible. The repeated references to “the Philistines” and the lack of references to “Philistia” make it clear that the focus was on the people, not the territory or the government. In the Bible, nations are defined by their people. An objective reading of the Old Testament leads us to the conclusion that a nation was a group of people with a common ancestry, history, beliefs and language. They had territory, but that was not in focus. In fact, territory was flexible; it could be expanded by war or shrink in war. Historians have confirmed this conclusion.

Akan chief being carred to a funeral in Kumasi, Ghana

Akan chief being carred to a funeral in Kumasi, Ghana

But today we would not call a group of people who share a common ancestry, history, beliefs and language a nation. We would call them an ethnic group. We do say things like “Cherokee nation”. In Canada, native peoples are called “First nations”. But in general, when we say nation we mean country and that is not at all what was meant in the Bible. Almost all countries are composed of peoples with different ancestors, beliefs and languages. Switzerland is mostly composed of peoples of Germanic, Italian and French descent, culture and languages. India, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Nigeria and many other countries are composed of dozens or even hundreds of peoples with different ancestors, cultures and beliefs. Clearly what is called a nation in the Bible is not what we call a country today.

This is confirmed by the word the New Testament uses for nation – the Greek word ethnos. Of course, our word ethnic comes form the Greek ethnos.

Why is a Bible translator writing about this obscure piece of Bible information?

Well, understanding this changes how we understand parts of the Bible. Let’s take a look at a well-known verse:

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, … ” (Matthew 28:16-17, ESV, emphasis mine)

For starters, there are a few less than 200 countries in the world, but here are over 7,000 languages. The Joshua Project lists 9,832 people groups. Going and making disciples of all of them is quite different than going to the relatively small number of modern nations. Second, the focus of Jesus’ command is not geographic, but ethnic and cultural. There are many churches in Ivory Coast and Ghana, for example, but there are peoples (“nations” as the word was used in Jesus’ time) in those countries where the Gospel is virtually absent. A country with lots of churches can have places it in where there are peoples where the church is absent – where we have yet to put into action Jesus command to “make disciples of all nations”.

If you liked this, you might also like: The Guy who Obliterated Geography

Tired of the Bible

One day back when we lived and worked in Burkina Faso, I found myself traveling through a town where the Bible was being translated into the local language. The translation was being done by another organization, but I knew the translators – a  great team of local men. So I stopped to see them and perhaps encourage them. I found them busy in their translation office. It was great to spend a few minutes with them finding out how they were and how the translation was going.

imageWhen I asked what book they were translating, the said Job. When I asked how that was going, they looked completely fatigued, their shoulders drooped, they hung their heads and one of them mumbled in the feeble voice of an old man. “We are so tired of the philosophy of Job’s friends.”

I get it. When reading Job I’m tempted to read the first two chapters then skip the next 39 to finish with chapter 42. If reading chapters 3 through 41 can be tiresome, can you imagine translating sentences like this day after day?

For with sons of the field is thy covenant (Job 5:23 YLT)

The by-word of American culture these days appears to be “exciting”. Everything is supposed to be exciting. Exciting is good. Boring is bad. Tiring is, well, tiring. But, I think that those Bible translators from Burkina Faso were on to something. Maybe fatigue is an appropriate response to the unbroken flow of mistaken opinions from Job’s friends. After all, they made God angry:

The Lord said to Eliphaz: What my servant Job has said about me is true, but I am angry at you and your two friends for not telling the truth. (Job 42:7 CEV)

God has emotions. When God speaks to us through his Word, that can cause an emotional response. Let’s not think that only certain emotions are allowed – that we have to have only “holy” emotions. I find it instructive that those translators found the opinions of Job’s friends to be tiring. God wants our honest reactions to his Word.

What makes me foreign

flagglobeAs a white person living and working in Sub-Saharan Africa, I am immediately identified as a foreigner by the color of my skin. When I first came to Africa, the organization I world for was staffed almost exclusively by white people coming from North America and Europe. We hired some local staff for low-level jobs, but all the missionaries were white. It was very obvious that the organization itself was foreign. Over the years the situation has changed radically. Most of the staff in the offices, on the translation centers and in the translation projects are Africans.

But it’s still a foreign organization.

I’ll illustrate this with an example. Let’s say that a foreign government sets up an office in Washington DC to lobby for its interests. It hires an American lobbyist and sets him up with other American staff – a receptionist and so on. The lobbying office is still a foreign thing even though all the staff are Americans. What makes it foreign is who it represents, and where it gets its orders.

image

Image courtesy of Superyoyo

What continues to make Bible translation foreign in Africa is no longer that it is staffed with foreigners. It is that the shots are still called somewhere else. One of my African friends likens what is happening to a conveyor belt. Money, people and ideas about Bible translation are put on a conveyor belt in the West and conveyed to Africa where offices staffed by Africans receive the ideas, add little by way of African ideas or resources then deliver the packages throughout the continent in the form of translation programs guided and resourced by the ideas and money put on the conveyor belt somewhere else.

As long as this situation persists, Bible translation will stop when those in the West stop putting their ideas and money on the conveyor belt, it will be reduced they they reduce what they put on – just like a delivery office (such as Fedex) can only deliver the packages it receives. It will go bankrupt if no one sends packages. The real work of making Bible translation less foreign is more radical and more difficult than changing the staffing of the delivery office. Someone will have to change the delivery service into a factory producing its own product to deliver. The next step in removing the foreignness of translation in Africa is having churches and Christians in Africa owning and shaping translation to fit their reality.

By the way, in this scenario Westerners still have a role to play because the issue is not where the staff comes from but rather who defines the vision and calls the shots. I see my primary focus, whatever my role, in facilitating a process where Africans and their churches design and implement their own translation programs.

I am fascinated to watch how this is starting to happen – here and there, slowly at first, picking up speed.

Old Testament Gap

ekem-and-ansre

Participants talk in between sessions

Last month in Accra, I attended a consultation on accelerating Old Testament translation. It was attended by people with wide-ranging interests: Bible agencies, organizations training people in biblical and modern Hebrew in Isreal, and church leaders. One of the topics was the Old Testament gap; that is, the gap between the number of languages which have a translation of just the New Testament and those that have the whole Bible. There are 1,442 languages in the world with a translation of only the New Testament. Of those, 1,188 have no active translation work on the Old Testament. Of those, approximately 300 are in Africa and about 90 have more than 500,000 speakers. Some languages have had the New Testament for many decades and still have no translation of the Bible and none in progress.

The gap is due to several factors. One is training. Many translators and consultants who work on New Testament translation lack the skills to be involved in Old Testament translation, especially the Hebrew language. One of the saddest parts of the gap is that when the translation of the New Testament in a language was completed and the missionaries left, the churches were often left without anyone qualified to translate the Old Testament even if they wanted to continue on their own.

The biggest gap, in my opinion is the transformation gap. Most sermons in African churches are based on Old Testament texts. The Old Testament deals with issues which most Africans face every day. I call this is impact or transformational gap – the gap between the transformation which could be happening with a translation of the whole Bible and the lesser impact that is happening now. Did you know that during the Reformation, there was a major push for more just and democratic government and that a lot of the ideas that created that movement came from the Old Testament? You can even download the Geneva Bible which preceded the King James translation and see the footnotes on fair and just government it contains.  A few weeks ago I wrote about how a sermon on the first chapter of Genesis brought a lawyer to faith.

The consultation called for a number of actions to remedy the situation. Some of them, like training more people to help with Old Testament translation, started not long after the consultation closed.

John Paton

John Paton

John Paton

John Paton died this coming Saturday (January 28) in 1907. His story is the kind of dramatic and terrifying tale that makes for a great missionary biography.

In 1858, he arrived on Tanna Island in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu). What makes that dramatic is that he set sail for Tanna Island a mere 14 days after his wedding, and the first Christian missionaries to the islands had been killed and cannibalized minutes after their arrival. Back home, people had told Paton he was a fool for going to such a place, especially with his new bride. Then his story gets worse. His first child was born during his first year on Tanna Island. Baby and mother died days of the birth. He buried them with his own hands. For four more years, he struggled on seeing little results for his sacrifice, until the people of the island drove him off.

He returned to Scotland where inspired many to become missionaries and go to the New Hebrides. I have to wonder what he said, because he had nothing but misery to show for his own missionary endeavors.

vanuatu-mapHe remarried and returned to the New Hebrides, this time to Aniwa island. There he lost four more children in early childhood. He was often in poor health and the people of that island threatened him. Under these conditions and for 41 years, he preached and translated the New Testament into one of the many local languages.

It is not until near the end of his life that results started to appear, and even then only slowly. At his death in 1907, there were missionaries on 25 of the 30 islands. Today, Vanuatu today is estimated to be 90% Christian, but that took many decades after Paton’s death. The translation of the New Testament he worked on is still in use.

Those of you who follow this blog will have noted a recurring theme in my blog posts – Bible translation is a mission endeavor that takes time to produce results, but when the results come they also last. This is reflected in the by-line for this blog – Connecting at the deepest level for lasting impact. The story of Paton’s perseverance and suffering in the face of ill health and hostility is challenging. But let’s not let that great story hide the story of the extraordinary spread of Christianity that took place after his sufferings were long over.

flag_of_vanuatu

Adapted from a blog posted by Wycliffe Bible Translators UK.

An expert who asks for advice

tamil-english-dictionary-coverThis coming Sunday (January 22) in 1711, Johann Phillip Fabricius was born in Germany. After studying law and theology, he became a missionary to Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka, at the age of 29. He lived in Madras, now known as Chennai, where he was pastor to a small congregation. But he devoted great energy to his study of the Tamil language, the most widely spoken language of Ceylon. He mastered the language to the extent that he began writing hymns in Tamil, eventually publishing a Tamil to English dictionary that is still for sale on Amazon.

Another missionary was translating the Bible into Tamil. Johann added his efforts, translating some books of the Bible while the other missionary translated other books. Others quickly recognized that Johann’s translations were superior. His in-depth study of Tamil was paying off.  Eventually he redid the books translated by the other missionary and the Tamil Bible was all his. He was diligent in reading his draft translations to others to get their feedback. This step, now used in all serious translation programs, was one of the secrets to the quality of his translation.

tamil-language-map-hl-colorsNot everyone who becomes an expert still consults others. Yet Johann Fabricius became an expert in the Tamil language and yet read his translations to ordinary people seeking their feedback. Even today, this unusual combination – the expert who consults others and takes their opinion seriously – is a key step in the best Bible translations. Martin Luther did the same as he translated the Bible into German. He said that Bible translators need to go into the streets and “look into the mouths of women and children”.

Pray for us and for GILLBT as we seek to start translations in the remaining languages of Ghana; that we would find translators who will become experts and have the humility to actively seek and take seriously the input of others.

Genesis chapter 1 in Tamil

Genesis chapter 1 in Tamil

Fighting for language

I recently read something written by an African Christian in which he wrote

“The story of my peo­ple group has been one of a com­mu­nity that fought for a long time to have the right to use its own lan­guage for…worship­ping God.”

This may seem really strange to you, but it is not at all uncommon. Actually, the writer is fortunate, his people fought to get their language used in church. Many peoples just acquiesced, abandoning the idea of using their languages to talk to God, sing his praises, or worship him. They did not dare to think that they might get the Bible in their language.

Some missions and missionaries thought that promoting one language and discouraging others would promote unity in the church. It never did work out that way.  When one of my Ghanaian colleagues talked to church leaders about translating the Bible into some of the smaller languages in their area, one responded:

“You are trying to divide the church”

We looked into it, but that didn’t seem to be a risk. We started translation in the smaller languages and it has had no negative effects on church unity, quite the opposite. In fact, one of the common effects of the process of translating the Bible is greater church unity.

CECCA/16 members

Congolese Christians praying in a regional language

Other missionaries or African church leaders just find the the number of languages daunting, or think that having church services in all of them is just too complicated. In some cases, children were punished for speaking their languages in church and missionary schools. The results of such practices has been that some African Christians have come to believe that they cannot pray to God in their own language. They may even believe that their language and ethnicity are not pleasing to God, or that he has put them under a curse.

The God of the Bible does not require that people abandon their language when entering into his presence. Neither should we.

Throwers of Cowries

newspaper-articleA newspaper headline in Côte d’Ivoire read:

Les pasteurs sont devenus des jeteurs de cauris

Here’s an accurate literal translation of that sentence from Google Translate:

Pastors have become throwers of cowries.

The newspaper article was in French, the official language of Côte d’Ivoire. It was quoting an Ivorian church leader who was criticizing the actions of certain pastors. I thought that this newspaper headline would be an interesting way to show some of the issues that a translator faces.

Many of you won’t know what the church leader meant. So what if pastors throw cowries? Why would a pastor throw cowries? Is that good or bad? What are cowries anyway?

Photo: Sodabottle (Wikimedia Commons)

Photo: Sodabottle
(Wikimedia Commons)

Cowries are small sea shells used widely in Africa and other places. They used to be used as money. In this photo, cowries are being used as dice in a game. Now you know what cowries are, but what does it mean to throw them? People from West Africa will know immediately what the church leader was saying. Throwing cowrie shells is a common tool of diviners – what we in the US call “psychics” or fortune tellers – people who tell the future, give advice or reveal secrets by interpretation of omens, by “reading” you, or by supernatural powers. Throwing cowrie shells is the functional equivalent of reading you, your palm, Tarot cards or tea leaves.

The church leader was decrying that some so-called pastors have abandoned the true Gospel and engage in fortune-telling calling it prophesy under the guise of Christianity. They call themselves prophets, make predictions of all kinds including political. They collect money from people, just like fortune tellers or psychics, in exchange for their revelations. Some make a very good living plying their trade.

The phrase “Les pasteurs sont devenus des jeteurs de cauris” evokes all of that. But for most of my readers, the literal translation “Pastors have become throwers of cowries” doesn’t. It is not a very informative translation. What might we do to improve it?

At a minimum, I suggest that we replace “cowries” with “cowrie shells”. While cowries can be found in the dictionary as the plural of cowrie,  the word is not that well known. For people who don’t know what cowries are, the translation “cowrie shells” tells them generally what they are – shells. The reader still might not know what shape, color or size cowrie shells have, but the reader will at least know they they are a kind of shell. We have not changed the meaning at all. “Cowrie shells” is a very good translation of the French word “cauris”. So our first improvement in the translation is

Pastors have become throwers of cowrie shells.

Next, we need to recognize that we are dealing with a relatively common translation challenge – translating an action whose meaning was clear in the language and context where the phrase was spoken or written, but which is not clear to the people for whom it is being translated. We are dealing with translating an unknown action. One of the techniques for translating an unknown action is to include the purpose or meaning of the action. So, if we want to make the translation more transparent, we can make explicit the purpose of throwing cowrie shells. We can do this in subtle or obvious ways. Here’s a subtle option:

Pastors have become readers of cowrie shells.

What we have done with this translation is translate the action “throw” by a word that tells the purpose of throwing. When the church leader said the sentence, he knew that he was talking about divination and he knew that his Ivorian audience would understand that. So, by translating the meaning of the action we are adding nothing to what he actually communicated at the time when he said the sentence.

The literal translation “throwers of cowries” has a stylistic problem as does “readers of cowrie shells”. We generally don’t phrase things that way. We would never say of a young lady who just got her driver’s license: “She has become a driver of cars”. That just sounds weird. We would not say or write “he has become a reader of books” or “she has become a player of golf” but rather “he now reads books” and “she has started playing golf”. The translation “have become readers of cowrie shells” has this same un-English awkwardness. If we repackage the same information in a sentence that sounds like normal English we get:

Pastors now read cowrie shells.

But not everyone will understand the idea behind reading cowrie shells. Some will get get the connection to “reading” Tarot cards or tea leaves, but others won’t. Besides, the church leader did not literally mean that pastors throw cowrie shells. He was using throwing cowries to mean divination in general. He was including so-called prophets who never actually throw cowrie shells. So if we were to take the translation a step further, we could translate the purpose of throwing cowries even more explicitly with a translations like:

Pastors have become fortune tellers.
Pastors are now fortune tellers.

Or we could split the difference and keep the throwing of cowries and make the purpose explicit with a translation like:

Pastors have become cowrie-throwing fortune tellers.

We have choices for “fortune tellers”. We have the more technical but less well-known term “diviners” or the broader term “psychics”. I think that “fortune tellers” is more exact than “psychics” and better known than “diviners”. Besides, “fortune tellers” has a bit of a negative connotation which fits the pastor’s critique.

How far can we go in making the meaning clear? The following translations are very clear, but they are not acceptable:

Pastors have started reading tea leaves
Pastors become readers of tarot cards

These translations explain the meaning, but they introduce factual inaccuracies. Tea leaves and tarot cards are not widely known arts of divination in Ivory Coast. This translation implies that they are. The church leader was referring to a specific common practice, we can’t substitute and another practice that is not common as though it were. We have made the pastor’s meaning explicit, but at the expense of a factual problem. If the sentence we were translating were telling of a person throwing actually cowrie shells, we would be more constrained in our translation for the same reason. But in this case, the pastor was not recounting an actual incident of someone throwing cowrie shells. Instead he was comparing some pastors to the general category of people who are “throwers of cowries”.

A consideration in the translation is the fact that the church leader used a comparison. He could have said “Pastors have become diviners”, but he didn’t . He said something more evocative, something more poetic when he compared them to the practitioners of a long-established and traditional method of divination. Perhaps our translation should reflect that. Here’s a translation that tries to do that:

Pastors have reverted to being old-fashioned, cowrie-throwing fortune tellers.

This translation captures the fact that by saying “throwers of cowries” the church leader was saying that there has been a regression to old practices. For me, this translation is the best at evoking the mental image the church leader intended and it also captures his disdain. But it takes us quite a ways from the original text. It is more of a commentary or an explanation than a translation. My preferred translation would stick closer to the text :

Pastors have become fortune tellers.

But this is only my preferred translation if the translated sentence appears in a daily newspaper in the US. If I were translating it for a daily newspaper in Ghana where the official language is English, I would use the literal Google translation because the Ghanaians who read the newspaper will understand all that was meant by the phrase “throwers of cowries”. If I were translating this phrase for a professional journal for anthropologists, I would use the literal translation because they have the academic background to know what it means. In fact, in such a case I might put the original French in the text and the English translation in a footnote. If I were translating it for a paper for a college class, I would use the literal translation and explain its meaning in a footnote. That doesn’t work in newspapers because they don’t have footnotes. If I were translating the phrase for a Christian magazine in the US, I would use “Pastors have become fortune tellers” and include the literal “throwers of cowries” in a footnote or in parenthesis if the editor allowed. So my choice of translation would depend on the knowledge of the most likely readers of the publication in which it would appear and what the editor of the publication allows.

So, what is the “best” translation? Well, it depends. The best translation is one that respects the original, that the  intended audience is most likely to understand they way the church leader meant it and which fits in the style of the publication where it will appear.