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? 

All bad, all good, or

There are three approaches that missionaries take to traditional religion:

  • It’s all wrong
  • It’s all good
  • There’s truth in failure

Many missionaries to Africa took the first approach. Mission documents show the widespread belief that African traditional religion was all wrong. Some held that the religious practices came from Satan himself. Some even condemned all African customs – religious or not.

The second – that it’s all good – is relatively new. It’s part of total cultural relativity. I remember a group of French academics warning us Bible translators against telling people to destroy their idols. For them, idols were good and should be retained. The people doing wrong were missionaries who taught otherwise.

The third approach – that there’s light in the darkness – says that Jesus Christ is the only way, truth and life; that no one gets to God except by him. So all other religions fail in their primary purpose. People following them may sincerely try, but their religion cannot do what religion is supposed to do. Nevertheless God puts slivers of truth in their failed religious beliefs which validate the Gospel when it comes. Don Richardson’s books The Peace Child and Eternity in their Hearts present dramatic cases of this approach.

Depending on the place, it has been decades or even centuries since missionaries came with their approach that African traditional religion was all wrong. That has given plenty of time for African pastors and theologians to evaluate the missionaries’ efforts. First, they almost always commend the selfless work of missionaries. But they also go on to propose ways it could have been better. I just read an article showing some of the mistakes missionaries made in Ghana including how they misunderstood traditional religion. It shows the inaccuracy of the it’s-all-wrong approach; but more importantly, it shows how that approach limited Gospel impact and missionary effectiveness. For the author, it hindered dealing effectively with the issue of ancestors and other spiritual powers (the Abosom).

That mirrors a book a read by an African church leader in which he states that the missionaries’ wholesale attribution of traditional religious practices to Satan actually strengthened witchcraft and sorcery, making it more difficult for the church to deal with and leading to a situation today where some church members continue to dabble in it and many more fear it.

One would think that the it’s-all-wrong approach would be the safest. It does feel like an uncompromising stand for the truth. In its effects, however, it can be counterproductive. Besides, the Apostle Paul took the truth-in-failure approach in dealing with idolaters in Athens, (Acts 17:16-31) taking time to study their different idols. He obviously thought that it was good to learn about their religion even though idolatry is condemned by the first two of the Ten Commandments and the idolatry of Athens troubled him greatly. Then he made the claim that one of their forgotten deities is the true and living God. Today, many Africans Christians take the truth-in-failure model in dealing with their traditional religion. One leading theological seminary in Ghana has even taken as its motto a traditional Akan sayiing: Nsem Nyinaa Ne Nyame (God is the primary reality in all things).

If you have friends or acquaintances who follow another religion, I suggest you try the truth-in-failure approach in witnessing to them. We promote Bible translation that takes seriously the culture and language of the people; seeking the expressions and word-images that are the slivers of truth God has placed there so that people can understand and believe.

Vowel symmetry

This is a cross-section of the human articulatory apparatus. It consists of your mouth, nasal cavity and parts of your throat. All sounds in human languages are made by manipulating this apparatus in specific ways. They have all be studied in detail by linguistics and phoneticians. I learned studying linguistics that there is amazing symmetry in the sounds in human language. The symmetry is striking when we look at the place in the mouth where vowels are produced. Different vowels are produced by varying the position of the tongue in two principle ways – the height of the tongue and how far forward or back it goes. If we make a chart using those two axes and then we plot the principal vowels we find in human language on that chart, we get a V.

Not only do we get a V, it is almost always symmetrically filled. That is, if the language has i (the ee sound) it will have a u – the sound of oo in boot. If it has only five vowels, they can’t be just any five; they have to fill the V in a regular way. So Spanish has i, e, a, o and u, making a perfectly balanced V. If I am studying a previously unwritten and unstudied language and I find the sound ɛ (like the e in get), then I know that I have too look for ɔ (like the ough in sought) because if there is a vowel on the front of the V in the language, it will have its corresponding vowel in the back of the V at the same height and vice versa. There are similar symmetries with consonants. This makes the job of a Bible translator working on an unstudied language a lot easier because we know in advance that the language will not contain just any random selection of sounds.

There are explanations for this symmetry that don’t involve God and there is much more to vowels than I have presented here. Nevertheless, I find it a big leap of faith to conclude that human language with such symmetry was created solely by a long accumulation of random events.

Outsider churches

I used to think that the meaning of “missions” was clear. I have learned that different people mean different things – very different things. Some months back, I asked someone who teaches missions in several Bible schools and a seminary in Africa, what new students thought of missions when they started the course. The answer did not surprise me even though it dismayed me. Those from one particular denomination often think that missions means going to a place where there is no church of that denomination but to which people who grew up in that denomination have moved, and starting a church of that denomination by gathering them together.

imageLet’s back up a bit. Some churches have been limited to some parts of some countries. The Southern Baptist Convention is a good example in the USA. The same thing happens in Africa, but there it causes something else. Africa has at least 1,800 languages and ethnic groups. So if a church is found only in one part of a country, it will necessarily be associated with the ethnic group(s) in that part of the country.

Let’s say that church CH has become associated with ethnic group EG because that church was started by CH missionaries in the EG area. It has church services in the EG’s language and its pastors necessarily come from EG. Now lets say that some people who are members of church CH and who are also part of the EG move out of the area. Perhaps they are government officials or teachers and they are assigned to another part of the country. Or maybe they move to another part of the country because of economic opportunities. Anyway several move to the same town where there are no Christians and no church. So, they ask church CH to send a pastor. The church does, and of course the pastor is from the EG. He unites the displaced members of EG into a CH church with services in the EG language.

This new congregation has been established by outsiders to resemble the churches in the place the outsiders came from. Services are conducted in the language of the outsiders. The church and its members have very little connection with local people. This kind of church has very little hope of bringing Christ to the community around it. It is quite good, on the other hand, at giving people from EG living far from family and friends a taste of home every Sunday.

exclusiveNaturally, this new congregation becomes known in the community as something for people from another ethnic group. After all, only people from ethnic group EG are members and the services are conducted in their language. If this situation is repeated in several towns in one part of the country, and no churches are established that reach out to local people or use the local language, local people will eventually conclude that church and therefore Christianity are not for them.

Once that happens, it is very hard to reverse. The people have been inoculated against Christianity by a church that effectively excludes them. This the challenge of some places in Ghana. By translating the Bible into the language and working with national church offices wanting to plant churches that are part of the community, we are starting to see a breakdown in the misconception that Christianity is only for others.

Hidden peoples

When I speak in churches in the US, some people are often surprised that there are 7000 languages in the world and that some of them do not have the Bible. One of the reasons for this is that the people who speak those languages are hidden. Here’s one small illustration. This is a map of the percentage of people in Mexico who speak an indigenous language. Note that the percentages are quite low (under 5%) along the US border. In fact the rate is less than 1% in the parts of Mexico adjoining Texas.

The road to Baglo, Ghana

So if an American crosses the border by land everyone will seem to speak Spanish. The 0-5% who speak other languages will be hidden. Because they don’t speak Spanish, they can’t get a job dealing with customers, so of course all service people, cashiers, waitresses, etc you meet will speak Spanish. If a business does have an employee who does not speak Spanish, they will be in a role that does not come into contact with customers such as a dishwasher, nor night janitor. So the 1-5% are hidden to most people. You might have to travel to a rural area and even then you might have to be invited into a private home to meet them. You would never know that Mexico has 326 languages of which 133 are in danger of dying out, leaving 193 vibrant languages communities.

I find that many Ghanaians are surprised when they learn how many languages there are in their country. When I mention the name of a language, it is not unusual for people to say they have never heard of it. And this is their country! They often ask if it is really a Ghana language, if the source of my information is reliable, and so on. It may surprise you to learn that many Ghanaian government officials, even highly placed, do now know of all the languages in their country.

Nawuri chief

This obscurity is felt by the hidden peoples themselves. In 2012, I was there when chief of the Nawuri people stood before a crowd and was presented the newly-translated Nawuri New Testament. His response:

“We have now been counted among the people of God.”
“Politicians don’t know us, but God knows us.”

That last comment reflects the disconnect his people feel. They are hidden even from the people who are officially their representatives.

This Sunday is the International Day for the Unreached. It’s a good day to remember that you can’t find the people on the margins of our society – hidden peoples, bibleless peoples, peoples without the Gospel – without explicitly looking for them.

For the Son of Man came to find and restore the lost. (Luke 19:10)

Prayer for the start of translation in three smaller languages in Ghana’s Volta Region

Culture is not cute

It used to be the case that unmarried people working in Bible translation were assigned to languages in pairs. Quite a number of Bible translation programs have been done by two singles, especially by two single ladies. On occasion, one of the singles would leave – for health, to get married, etc. In such cases, we would assign another, usually one who had just arrived.

Local people would treat the first as senior and the newcomer as junior. The newcomer might be the older of the two, but in the local culture the one who had been there the longest had seniority. They would address all questions to the single with seniority, in some cases even refusing to discuss issues when the senior single person was absent. If the junior of the two offered an answer, opinion or suggestion, people would not accept it or act on it until it was confirmed by the senior. As you can imagine, some singles in the junior position found such situations very frustrating or even demeaning.

power-distance-index-graphThese situations were real culture clashes – a high-power-distance-culture meeting an egalitarian (or low-power-distance) culture. Local people are used to playing their role in the culture. In fact, they don’t know how to act any other way. They perceive their actions as polite and respectful while the junior person finds them belittling.

In my recent role in Côte d’Ivoire, I found myself having to constantly adjust to the high-power-distance culture. My natural reactions were often wrong. Even when I knew that I had to adjust and tried, I sometimes failed.

Some Africans have described a major difference between their culture and Western culture like this :

Western : I think, therefore I am.
African : We are, therefore I am.

They are expressing the idea that their value as individuals comes from their belonging to a group – family, clan, village or people. We Westerners, on the other hand, derive our value from being our own person with our own ideas. We may perceive belonging to a group as a threat to our individuality. Africans tend to believe that being part of a group enhances their individual existence.

flagglobe2The great irony in the situation described above is that local people are giving the newcomer a place in their structure thereby affirming that he or she is included. They are treating them exactly like a member of the community. But the junior person experiences this inclusion as exclusion. The harsh reality is that the newcomer cannot hang on to being a western-style individual in that context and at the same time fit into the local culture. Working across cultures is hard. It most certainly has its joyful periods, but if it is never hard, uncomfortable, painful, frustrating or confusing, then we’re not doing it right.

The experiences of US churches which are being intentionally multicultural bear this out. It ain’t easy. The picture some paint of joyful and easy multiculturalism is very misleading.

But we can’t follow our God by withdrawing into our own comfortable cultural space either, tempting as that is. Our God sent his only Son across a huge divide into pain, suffering, misunderstanding, rejection and finally death. The Son made the journey willingly and he invites us to follow him into the lives of people different from ourselves, down the street or around the world.

If you liked this , you might also like Right Decision.

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.

I was born there!

citzenshipIt may appear at first glance that missions is a last-minute add-on to the Gospel – something Jesus announced at the last minute in Matthew 28: 18-20 as a kind of “Oh, by the way”. But it only takes a little looking in the Old Testament to find the idea that the respect and love the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob will spread all over and that peoples from all over will be included in those called God’s people. Psalm 87 is a rather striking example of the inclusive vision of the Old Testament.

Zion was built by the Lord
     on the holy mountain,
and he loves that city
    more than any other place
    in all of Israel.
Zion, you are the city of God,
    and wonderful things
    are told about you.
Egypt, Babylonia, Philistia,
    Phoenicia, and Ethiopia
are some of those nations
    that know you,
    and their people all say,
    “I was born in Zion.”
God Most High will strengthen
    the city of Zion.
    Then everyone will say,
    “We were born here too.”
The Lord records as he registers the peoples,
    “This one was born there.”
All who sing or dance will say,
    “I too am from Zion.”
Jerusalem panorama, photo: Malkalior at English Wikipedia

Jerusalem panorama, photo: Malkalior at English Wikipedia

It is obvious that the people of Egypt, Babylon, and the other places mentioned were not born in Jerusalem (called Zion in this Psalm). Yet they are claiming “I was born in Zion”, “We were born here too” and “I too am from Zion”. These people want to be identified with the God of Jerusalem – the God of the Bible.

But this is more than just a wild claim. God himself will put in his record book that they were indeed born in Jerusalem.

The Lord records as he registers the peoples,
“This one was born there.”

God writes the official record so that it shows that their birthplace is in Jerusalem.

Here we have the precursor to what the Apostle Paul was to write centuries later:

This makes Abraham the father of all who are acceptable to God because of their faith (Romans 4:11 CEV)
That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, (Romans 4:16 CEV)

In Romans Paul says that those who are not biological descendants of Abraham, the man God chose to be the father of his people, are nevertheless counted as his descendants. That is very parallel to Psalm 87 which says that those not born in Jerusalem will nevertheless be able to claim it as their birthplace and God will write the birth records to reflect that.

i-am-a-citizenThe Old Testament casts an inclusive, worldwide vision for people knowing and honoring the God. That implies some kind of action (which we call missions) to make that a reality. When we all engage in missions by whatever means (praying, giving, going, encouraging….) we are not fulfilling some obscure command of Jesus, but fulfilling God’s vision for the world found throughout the Bible. I myself am a result of the Old Testament’s inclusive vision. I am not a descendant of Abraham nor is Jerusalem my birthplace, but I can sing, dance and say, “I too am a citizen”, plus I can invite others to become citizens too!

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.