Long tail phenomenon

The long tail phenomenon was first described by Chris Anderson who has written a book about it. It’s gets its name from the shape of the graph that is created when you chart certain kinds of data. Mr. Anderson uses it to describe and predict how products sell online. But it turns out that lots of things have long tails, including the languages of the world. If we chart languages by the number of people who speak them, we get a long tail.

This is because there are a very few languages which are the mother tongue of lots of people. They form the spike on the left of the chart. Then there are lots of smaller languages. With just 10 languages, you can reach over 75 percent of internet users. The remaining 25 percent use the Internet in thousands of languages.

There are 7,097 languages spoken in the world. Just 23 of them are the heart language (mother tongue) of half the world’s population! They form the spike on the left. The other half of the population speak 7,074 languages. At the end of the tail are 467 languages spoken by a total of 12,758 people. That’s 27 people per language on average. These are mostly dying languages spoken only by a few older people. In fact, the tail gets so thin that I had to exaggerate its thickness in the graph to get it to show at all.

It’s the languages in the middle that come into focus for Bible translation. The biggest languages already have a translation and dying languages don’t need one. But about 1 billion people speak languages that are not dying and which do not have the Bible. The average size of their languages is 220, 000. A very few are large but many are smaller precisely because of the long tail phenomenon.

Several passages in the Bible, including the parable of the lost sheep, tell us that God cares for those in the long tail.

The Lord did not set his heart on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other nations, for you were the smallest of all nations! (Deuteronomy 7:7 NLT)

What did I learn?

I recently traveled to Ghana for three weeks. Before I left, several people asked me what I would do there. It’s a great question. My top priority question is a bit different – what will I learn? That might be something new, or it might be something old that is confirmed or given a new twist.

So what did I learn during my trip?

Committee members and translator meeting with a regional coordinator

I learned that the initiative we set up to make language committees more effective is progressing slowly and we don’t know all the reasons why. These committees of volunteers are key to the success and impact of the Bible translations in their communities. We thought that some encouragement and clarification would make them more active, but that’s only happening for some. We don’t understand why. I think that we need to dialog with them to figure out what needs to be done. (link to more about committees)

I learned that it’s difficult to predict and plan. We restarted a number of stalled Old Testament translation programs. We knew that they each had draft translations of a few Old Testament books they had done in their spare time over the years. So we planned to take those drafts quickly through the remaining quality controls and distribute them. But the translators said that the translations needed to be reviewed first. They felt that the quality and accuracy of the translations had suffered from the slow and haphazard translation process. It will be interesting to see if they are right. We’ll know if they make significant changes. If they are right, we may have found a weaknesses with translation done by part-time volunteers. Then the question will then be cost effectiveness – does it take so much time to review the translations that one might as well start over, or will the review go quickly making the part-time translations cost and time effective?

I learned that it is worthwhile to occasionally and politely make a point in which I firmly believe. I have been making one such point once or twice a year since I came to Ghana in 2011. There was little interest. But now I find changes happening that match my suggestion. That might not have happened if I had given up or started denouncing the leadership publicly or behind the scenes. Besides, I can see that now is actually an excellent time to implement the idea, better than when I proposed it.

I learned that there is a phrase for common sense in the Akan language. I saw it on the back of a tro-tro (a van used as public transport). The words literally mean “home wisdom” (efie nyansa). A Ghanaian colleague explained to me the that it refers to a kind of wisdom one doesn’t get from school and which highly educated people sometimes lack. Sounds like common sense to me. People from very different races, cultures and nationalities share certain ideas, like common sense, something postmodern race theory appears to overlook or greatly minimize.

Easter dancing at church

I was reminded again of the frustration felt by Africans when programs which have enormous positive impact in their communities loose their funding from foreign sources. At the same time, I understand the rational of the foreign sources for moving on to something else. It appears that some frustrations don’t have answers, at least none anyone has discovered yet.

I was also reminded that part of the Easter celebration is dancing before the Lord (and the whole congregation) after church, even at a Baptist church.

Lastly, I was reminded that many Ghanaians are like some of my American friends – they complain about the poor quality of government work, like roads, all while wanting the government to do more.

Ghanaian mustard tree

In Matthew chapter 13, Jesus gives a series of parables about his Kingdom. We might consider them an window into God’s action in this world. Here are two of them.
Then Jesus said, “What is the Kingdom of God like? How can I illustrate it? It is like a tiny mustard seed that a man planted in a garden; it grows and becomes a tree, and the birds make nests in its branches.” He also asked, “What else is the Kingdom of God like? It is like the yeast a woman used in making bread. Even though she put only a little yeast in three measures of flour, it permeated every part of the dough.” – Luke 13:18-21

These parables present God’s action in the world as something that starts small and grows big, and as something that starts small and then permeates everything. This contrasts to the idea that God’s action in this world consists of big spectacular events. Big spectacular events are like tsunamis; they create lots of change. But even more change is created by the slow ebb and flow of water that causes erosion, digs riverbeds, carves gullies and canyons, and builds deltas. The tsunami seems more powerful only because it happens fast. .

Religious map of Ghana: Green is most Christian, red is least

Missionaries first came to Ghana in the early 19th century. They struggled. Not many Ghanaians were receptive to their message. But the missionaries learned the languages, translated the Bible, and trained the few that responded. They published the Bible in the Ga language in 1866, followed by the Twi Bible in 1874, and the Ewe Bible in 1914. By that time they had been in Ghana for about 80 years and still few had responded to the Gospel. Things begin to change in the early 20th century. And change they did. From 1900 to 1960 Ghana went from 5% to 60% Christian. The percentage is much higher still in the areas where the Bible had been translated.

The process looked nothing like a tsunami. The day-to-day changes were almost imperceptible. Certainly the hour-to-hour changes were. Nevertheless, the mustard seed has grown into a very large tree and the yeast has permeated the whole loaf, just as Jesus explained.

Barrier to bridge

For many people, most perhaps, the fact that there are 7,000 languages spoken in the world today is a problem. Wouldn’t everything be a lot easier if everyone spoke the same Language?

Missionaries and churches have sometimes taken the approach that languages are a barrier, refusing to use them for worship or evangelism. Instead they use a regional, dominant, or official language. Dr. Harriet Hill and Dr. Lamin Sanneh have pointed out that this often leads to stagnation of the Christian faith.

It has become more and more common for missionaries to see languages as a bridge rather than as a barrier. In fact, seeing languages as a bridge has become so common that we can speak of a paradigm shift in missions. One very large international mission agency even shifted all of its work away from dominant languages to local languages when the saw the success of the latter approach.

Langauge Map of Ghana

Langauge Map of Ghana

Unfortunately churches lag behind missions in this paradigm shift. Their members may have a vested political economic, educational, tribal, or other interest in maintaining the dominant language. Also they are generally not aware of the successes of ministry based on the idea that every language is a bridge between the people and the Gospel.

In Ghanaian churches we sometimes encounter skepticism of the value of translating the Bible into the lesser known languages of the country. If the problem is that they lack information, they quickly change their minds once they are informed. On the other hand, things are more difficult if they have a vested interest in maintaining the dominant language. Language is often highly political.

So, our goal of mobilizing the churches in Ghana for translation addresses both the need for information and the need to moderate some political positions.

Naaman and healing in Africa

In July 2018, I attended a conference on the topic of the Old Testament in Africa. One speaker, Professor Kpobi, gave examples of how the Old Testament brings helpful corrections to some problems and excesses that are arising in Christianity in Africa. Among the examples he gave was the story of the healing of Naaman.

In African traditional culture, the person wanting healing would have to go through an ordeal. The purpose of the ordeal is to show that they are serious. So the healer might ask the person to bring the tongue of lion, or some other very difficult thing. The ordeal might also involve the person drinking something dangerous. But the story of Naaman shows that the prophet demands no ordeal at all. Dipping in the Jordan river is not an ordeal. In fact, it is so much the anti-ordeal that Naaman balks. African Christian healers who demand ordeals may not realize it, but they are borrowing from their African traditional religion and not from the Scriptures.

Professor David Kpobi of Trinity Seminary, Accra, giving his presentation

In South Africa, some people became very ill after a Christian healer told them that they must drink gasoline. The Old Testament stories of healing bring correction to such practices.

Liturgy and translation

I grew up in a non-liturgical church. I was an adult before I attended in service in a liturgical church. When I got to Africa I found that there are quite a few liturgical churches here.

Presbyterian church in southern Ghana

For any of you haven’t experienced a liturgical church, one of their features is that they read a lot of Scripture during the service. In fact, many liturgical churches have a fixed set of readings that take them through much of the bible every couple years. Every Sunday, they read several different types of scriptures. For example, they might read a passage each from the Old Testament , Psalms , an Epistle , and the Gospels. Not long ago, I attended a liturgical church in rural Ghana. In the course of the service, five longish passages were read, first in a regional language, then in the language of the congregation. In another church service, the reading went on for 20 minutes.

This kind of worship is very well adapted to places where many of those attending church do not know how to read. For them, the liturgy is the only time during the week that they hear the Scriptures. In contrast, those attending a non liturgical church may hear only a few verses each Sunday, and they may get no overview of Scripture in spite of attending church for years.

In places where the Bible has not yet been translated, liturgical churches read the Bible in another language which sometimes is not well understood by the congregation. These churches are often the most ardent supporters the translation effort

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The curse of knowledge

In his excellent YouTube video on good writing, Harvard professor Steven Pinker points out that the central problem of writing is “the curse of knowledge”. Here’s my favorite explanation of this curse:

The curse of knowledge means that the more familiar you are with something, the harder it is to put yourself in the shoes of someone who’s not familiar with that thing
A writer knows something that he wants to write down. Because he knows it he finds it very difficult to put himself in the place of his readers who don’t. That may lead him to leave out information his readers need because he wrongly assumes that they know it because he does.

The same thing happens with something called church language. It is quite common that Christians develop understandings of certain words in church. Then we speak them with the church understanding and hear them the same way. Some Christians will forget that people outside the church understand the words differently. Those Christians are suffering from the curse of knowledge.

I experienced this first hand in Burkina Faso. We were translating the story of John the Baptist. So I asked a local pastor how one said baptize in the language. He responded “bateezeng”. That is obviously just and adaptation of the English word. Aware of the problem of church language, I asked several people who did not attend church about ” bateezeng”. They all told me the same thing. It means to give a newborn its name on the 8th day. Of course, we can use “baptize” for naming in English too. I went back to the pastor and told him of the responses I got. He agreed that was what everyone understands by the word. We eventually found another word for baptize that communicated much better than bateezeng.

The curse of knowledge is one of the reasons why we have a step in the translation process called community testing. When a translator translates a passage, he does so knowing what he meant to say. He then finds it very hard to forget what he meant and read his translation for what is actually says. It helps to let the translation sit a while then come back to it, but a surer solution is community testing. The translators go out into the community and read each passage asking people what they heard. Because the people don’t suffer from the curse of knowledge, they will tell the translator what the translation really wrote, just like those people in Burkina Faso who told me that bateezeng meant giving a child a name.

What to count

If we ask how many languages have a translation of the Bible we get one number. But if we ask how many people have the Bible in their language we get a very different number.

Of the 7 billion people on our planet 6 billion have the Bible in their heart language, which is 86 percent. But only 9 percent of the world’s languages have the whole Bible. That’s about 650 out of 7,000 languages. Another 23 percent of languages have the NT. So close to 1/3 of languages worldwide have at least the NT.

The situation in Ghana is similar. 87 percent of Ghanaians have the Bible in their language; very close to the 86 percent worldwide. But that’s only about a third of Ghana’s languages.

The large differences between the percentage of languages and the percentages of people are due, of course, to the fact that there are big languages and small. All of the biggest languages in Africa, for example, have the Bible.

Although there are still some larger languages without the whole Bible, translating the Bible into more languages is mostly about the smaller and often marginalized peoples – “the least of these”. Each new translation is not so much an attempt to change the world, but rather to create in-depth and lasting transformation in one place – to connect at the deepest level for lasting impact. It is also about including those not yet included in God’s kingdom.

Language size. Source: Wikipedia

Language and Christmas

Two stories typify Christmas. One the the story of the Shepherds and the other the story of the wise men. In both stories angels spoke, giving the wise men and shepherds information and instructions. We know that there were many languages spoken in the Middle East at the time, as there are today. So, in what languages did the angels speak? We can safely assume that they spoke in the language(s) of the shepherds and wise men because they intended to be understood.

It is almost certain that the Angels spoke to the shepherds in Aramaic as that was the language of most people.

For the wise men, it’s more complicated. The Bible says only that they came from “The east”. Without a location, it’s difficult to say what languages they spoke. But it’s more complicated than that. At that time people spoke different languages depending on their status in society. (Even today, that’s common in many places.) In any case, it is highly unlikely that God spoke to the wise men in Aramaic.

The Bible prophesies about the birth of Christ were written in Hebrew – a language the Angels did not use to speak to the shepherds or nor God to warn the wise men.

So, the first Christmas happened through translation.

On Christmas day this year, the story of Christmas will be told and celebrated in thousands of languages because of translation. Better, that number continues to grow. That transforms. One of my African friends tells of how his people first adopted a form of Christmas celebration from Western culture. Christmas was a time of wild, drunken parties. When the New Testament was translated into the language and people read it, the celebrations were radically transformed.

Through a glass darkly

For now we see through a glass, darkly –1 Corinthians 13:12
What does it mean to “see through a glass, darkly”? If we consult a newer translation we find that “glass” actually means mirror.

For now we see in a mirror dimly

1 Corinthians 13:12 (ESV)

It’s not that the King James translators got it wrong, not all. But the word has changed meaning since 1611. Even so, it is not clear why someone would see dimly when looking in a mirror. Reversed, yes. But dim?

The passage is obscure because mirrors have changed a LOT. For most of human history mirrors were both expensive and poor quality. A wealthy woman’s prized possession was sometimes an ornate mirror that would not be as good as a cheapie bought today. Mirrors were often polished metal. The surface would be uneven, and the reflective quality low. And that’s before the metal started tarnishing or corroding. And that was an expensive mirror most people would never see. So when the people of that time looked in a mirror they saw a dim and distorted reflection. When the author penned his words, he was reflecting his experience and that of everyone else when it came the mirrors of his day.

Many teanslators keep the mirror. A few do more polishing. They change the mirror to something that most readers will readily understand.
We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist.- 1 Corinthians 13:12
These different translation approaches are rooted in a philosophical question. What is the translator’s job? Is he or she venturing onto terrain that should be reserved for preachers and Bible teachers? In other words, has the translator left translation and moved on to interpretation? Many would say yes.

The other side worries that making a translation that can’t be understood without a knowledge of ancient times causes people to think that they can’t understand the Bible on their own, and so it harmfully elevates pastors and Bible interpreters while dimming the priesthood of all believers.

They also say that a translation today should be as clear as the original was in its day. When the Apostle Paul’s audience read “through a glass darkly” the phrase was perfectly clear. Therefore the translation should be equally transparent, rather than being like looking through a glass darkly or peering through a fog. You choose.

Greek mirror about 450 BC