One of Wycliffe’s pioneers and leaders, George Cowan, passed into glory a few days ago at the age of 100. Here’s short video in which he talked about why we should translate even for small language groups.
Some time ago, I was at a training event where an African was praying in her language. In the middle of the prayer came a rapid, staccato “dedede” (pronounced day day day). The person was using very common kind of word in African languages – an ideophone. When linguists first encountered these words in African languages they said that the words were “painting with sound”. And that’s how they came to be called idea-sounds, which is what ideophones means. (Not to be confused with idiophones which is a class of musical instruments. If you remember onomatopoeia from your English classes in school, you may wonder if ideophones are just onomatopoeia. Actually, ideophone is a broader term. Onomatopoeia are a kind of ideophone.)
Cock-a-doodle-doo is an ideophone. While English has ideophones, there are not nearly as many as there are in African languages, nor are they used as frequently. In English, they are limited mostly to sounds made by animals and machines. In African languages ideophones are used for many other things such as the way something moves, its shape, or its position. One of my favorites means “gigantic, unwieldy blob of a thing”
In African languages, ideophones have the same sounds (consonants and vowels) as other words in the language, but they put them together in ways other words do not. They are also different because they don’t take prefixes or suffixes.
We can say that the rooster was cock-a-doodle-dooing, or that he cock-a-doodle-dooed, but African ideophones can’t add things like “ing” and “ed” the way we do in English. These features make ideophones a separate class of words in African languages.
But the most important thing about ideophones is that they paint mental images that stir up feelings, visual memories, or sensations. Their use in a prayer is a sign that the the person praying is saying something straight from their heart. In fact, the person is saying something that would require a whole phrase or sentence to say without the ideophone. An ideophone is a like a very compact, and therefore powerful, dose of images.
But ideophones are somewhat in danger. Many educated Africans don’t say them often. Perhaps they have been influenced by the official language, English or French, they learned in school. Or, they may mistakenly consider them primitive. So when an educated African Christian uses an ideophone in prayer in front of other educated people, that person is showing an attachment to and respect for their language that goes beyond the ordinary. It also shows that they are conveying to God thoughts and emotions that come straight from their heart.
We work in Bible translation, but our concern is wider than that. Through translation, we want people to know that they can use all of their language to connect to God, so that they will connect to him from the deepest part of their being. The person praying was doing just that. – Woo woo woo woo woo!!!
Some time ago, I had a meal with a man from Ivory Coast who told quite an unusual story about his salvation. When he started his professional life as a professor of law at a university, he was not a believer. One of his students kept bugging him to attend her church. He really was not interested so he kept putting her off, but she persisted. One day, she invited him to a church convention. He thought: “I am not going to get rid of this girl until I go to her church, so I’ll go and get it over with.” And he went.
He was intrigued by the message, especially about an all-powerful God. Then the preacher said that after God created man, he gave him dominion, citing Genesis 1:26-28:
Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us. They will reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the wild animals on the earth, and the small animals that scurry along the ground.” So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Then God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground.”
When the preacher said that God gave human beings dominion, the man was amazed. He thought: “This means that God took some of his authority and confided it in us!” This idea of dominion kept going around in his head. It caused him to think of a traditional practice he and his wife followed in their family. It was the practice of a totem or taboo.
Totems or taboos are part of the traditional practices of many African peoples. They often take the form of a prohibition to eat certain foods because they are associated with a person’s clan or family. So members of the crocodile clan can’t eat crocodile meat, for example. Depending on how these taboos or totems are distributed, there can be members of the same family who have different taboos or totems – some not eating crocodile, others not eating monkey, and so on. It is believed that if a person eats a taboo food, the spirit of the totem will harm, even kill, them.
One of this man’s daughters had a taboo against a certain food. But this dominion idea got him thinking: “If God gave me dominion over things, how could it be that a taboo spirit could have dominion over me?” He fasted and prayed for three days, and then had his wife cook the taboo food and they all ate it with no ill effects. He gave his life to Christ and has been a stalwart in the church ever since. He gives legal advice to those of us doing Bible translation and to other organizations.
It struck me as the man was telling this story that all of the concepts and Bible texts that lead him to salvation are from the Old Testament. The idea that God is all powerful is present in the New Testament, but it is in the Old Testament that it is fully present and developed. The story of creation and God giving human beings dominion over creation is obviously an Old Testament story.
I have never heard a salvation message in the US on Genesis chapter one. I doubt that it would be effective. But it was powerfully effective for this man. Plus, the preacher was using that text, so he must have thought that it was relevant and appropriate for his audience. Here have a highly educated African man coming to Christ through Genesis chapter one.
Why do I think that we need to translate the Old Testament into more African languages? Because, among other good reasons, it’s teaching resonates in ways that change peoples lives and bring them to salvation.
During my last weeks in Côte d’Ivoire, two Ivorians friends told me about the experiences of their parents who were some of the first believers in their areas. Their parents had told them of numerous power encounters – events where God intervened by his power to validate and protect them as they evangelized. The story of Elijah on Mount Carmel tells of a power encounter.
My friends’ parents told of going to villages on evangelism trips. They ate when people offered them food, but unbeknown to them, the people had poisoned the food. However, they ate it with no ill effects. After they ate, the people who had offered the food thought that it must be okay, so they ate the rest. But they became very ill and some died. My friends said that their parents told them lots of such stories when they were growing up.
This story came up because one of my friends is helping with conflict resolution in an area of the country where there is a conflict over religion. Those who follow traditional religious practices are insisting that others, including Christians, also respect those practices. Christians who don’t are being harassed and even attacked. He is working with others to resolve the conflict before it escalates, but they’re not having a lot of success.
My Ivorian friends are seeing the return if some religious practices they thought had disappeared with their parents and grandparents generation. This matches my observations in Ghana where traditional religion is making a bit of a comeback. A survey in Ghana showed that a higher percentage of educated people believe that sorcery has real power. And this is at a time when more Ghanaians have more education than ever before. It seems that education is not the answer. But then, we knew that.
One of my favorite bloggers is Seth Godin. I don’t think that he is a believer and his blog is about business. But it has two great qualities. First, it’s very short. Second, it gets down to human nature and the nature of things.
Early in 2016 he wrote a blog about tidal waves being overrated. Here’s an except:
Yes, it can lead to wholesale destruction, but it’s the incessant (but much smaller) daily tidal force that moves all boats, worldwide.
And far more powerful than either is the incredible impact of seepage, of moisture, of the liquid that makes things grow.
We can definitely spend time worrying about/building the tsunami, but it’s the drip, drip, drip that will change everything in the long run.
Translating the Bible works this way. Plus the translation stays around so its drip, drip, drip goes on and on; certainly long after the missionary leaves. Besides, Jesus already said the same thing, but this way.
Jesus told them another story: The kingdom of heaven is like what happens when a farmer plants a mustard seed in a field. Although it is the smallest of all seeds, it grows larger than any garden plant and becomes a tree. Birds even come and nest on its branches. (Matthew 13:31-32 ESV)
Are we trying to live a tidal wave story about the Gospel – big crusades, large numbers of conversions, fantastic stories? Or are we living the story of God’s rule coming on this earth by small things that eventually have big impact? We Americans prefer bigger and faster. So we like big evangelistic events with thousands, tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands in attendance. But in my experience, those events often don’t produce long term impact and change. We should go with the mustard seed, with the drip, drip, drip. Evaluations of impact where a Bible translation has been done show that the big impacts often start ten years or more after the translation is finished.
By the way, that’s often when no one is around to report it.
Do you believe that your personal faithfulness and love has an impact, or would you prefer to be part of something “big”? For which story do you live? Give your money? Pray? For the sensational breakthrough? The big event? Or the drip-drip-drip the will erode the most hardened stone, the planted mustard seed that will grow bigger than others? Which story of the growth of God’s kingdom on earth engages our hearts and our vision, then our actions?
Drip, drip, drip.
You might also like Mr. Godin’s post on the Myth of the Quick Fix.
For a time when our boys were young and we lived in Ouagadougou, we did not have a car. I had a scooter and when we went out as a family, we went by taxi. At the time, most taxis in Ouagadougou were the Renault model R4 and they were in terrible condition. I got in one that filled with blue exhaust when the motor started. I jumped out and got into the next R4 in the taxi line. When that one started off, it rattled, banged and shook side-to-side. The driver, having seen what happened to me in the first R4 said: “That guy’s taxi is rotten!”. My jaw dropped. I asked him: “And yours?”. “Oh, it’s rotten too!”, he said, “They’re all rotten”.
Some time later, we were planning a vacation in neighboring Côte d’Ivoire. We were to fly to Abidjan and spend one night there. Before leaving, Matthew asked me how we were going to get from the airport to where we were staying. I told him that we would take a taxi. After arriving in Abidjan, we got a taxi and started smoothly off. Matthew said: “Dad, you said that we were going to take a taxi!”. I responded that we were in a taxi. Matthew retorted, “No, a taxi goes …” and he made all sorts of clanking and grinding noises while wiggling his body violently.
A friend from West Africa told me a story of her first trip to South Africa. She was traveling around by car and it broke down. Going to a place people told her was a mechanic she found a nice, clean shop and a man in a relatively clean uniform approached her. She said that she was looking for a mechanic. The man told her that he was a mechanic. “No! You’re way too clean to be a mechanic!, she retorted” In West Africa, many mechanics work in the open by the road, do not wear uniforms and are generally covered with grease and grime. For her, this man in a recently laundered uniform in a well-kept shop did not fit the picture.
When we lived and worked in Burkina Faso there were some parts of the country where there were very few Christians. Burkina Faso is a former French colony, so the only kind of Christianity some people had seen was the Catholic variety. Many of the educated and civil servants were marginal Catholics. It was considered the religion of the educated. This resulted in a situation where the only supposed Christians some people had ever known were civil servants who were corrupt, drank and womanized. They also attended mass occasionally and claimed to be Christians. One young man told me that when he told his family he had become a Christian, his father, a practitioner of another religion, cried saying that he would know become a drunk, corrupt womanizer. In such contexts, I avoided calling myself a Christian.
Matthew understood taxis according to his experience of them. My West African friend understood mechanics by her experience of them. Some in Burkina Faso understand “Christian” by their experience of the only people they know who call themselves Christians.
When I avoided calling myself a Christian, I was not appeasing someone. I just wanted people to know Who and what I really stand for. I am quite suspicious of the accusations I see in Christian publications and websites that some Christians are “appeasing” others when they don’t use certain words. In some cases, I know that those accusations are false. The accused are just trying to be clear in places where those words have other meanings.
At the end of my time as Director for Côte d’Ivoire, I was moving from files for the incoming Director. That meant labeling a file drawer. The drawer was previously labeled “Members “I-Z”. That meant that when that label was made, it took two file drawers to contain the personnel files for the members (meaning missionaries from the West) who worked in Ivory Coast and this drawer contained those whose last name started with a letter from I to Z.
I was amused. It took me back to the time when Bible translation was lead and motivated by missionaries coming from the United States, Great Britain, Switzerland and other western countries. In fact, that situation lasted for the first 20 years I was in Africa. This simple file drawer label took me back to that time.
Dayle and I were in Ivory Coast temporarily and I had just handed over to an Ivorian Director. There was one another American couple here and they were temporary too. Besides the four of us, there were no western missionaries residing in the country doing Bible translation. It only took a few hanging folders occupying a small part of one file drawer to contain all their paperwork. But there are translations ongoing in 19 languages and those files are voluminous.
One of the big changes in Bible translation in Africa over the last two decades is the ascendancy of national translators and related personnel and the steep decline in the number of western missionaries working directly or indirectly in translation. This change was foreseeable from the early 1990s. It began happening in the mid 1990s and accelerated after the year 2000.
I have met a number of missionaries working in Bible translation who found these changes troubling. They ask what we are doing wrong, or what the church back home is doing wrong. Once, when I described the changes, a fellow missionary told me “You do nothing but discourage me.” This was in spite of the fact that we had a number of highly trained Africans ready to fill the gap; some with more training and experience than some missionaries.
The Bible has some interesting stories about people living in what they considered very bad situations but God said that the situations were good. One of my favorites is in Jeremiah 24 which starts like this:
The Lord spoke to me in a vision after King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia had come to Judah and taken King Jehoiachin, his officials, and all the skilled workers back to Babylonia. In this vision I saw two baskets of figs in front of the Lord’s temple. One basket was full of very good figs that ripened early, and the other was full of rotten figs that were not fit to eat.
“Jeremiah,” the Lord asked, “what do you see?”
“Figs,” I said. “Some are very good, but the others are too rotten to eat.” (Jeremiah 24:1-3 CEV)
You will agree with me that those who had been forcibly removed form their homes and taken to a foreign country were unfortunate while those who were left in their county were fortunate. But God goes on to say the opposite – that those who were taken away from the country and their homes by force are the fortunate ones; but those who remained in their country and their homes are unfortunate; the bad figs are really the good figs and vice versa. God has a radically different interpretation of the events and his interpretation was confirmed over coming decades.
When we experience disappointment or other negatives, we need to ask God to give us his view of the events.
One of the challenges in missions is for missionaries to seek God’s view of the trends that are happening rather than relying on our gut instinct. I have come to the conclusion that shrinking missionary workforce and the increased number of nationals is not someone’s mistake. It is God’s doing. If we try to fix it we are actually working against God.
Now this does not mean that there is no room in Bible translation for Western missionaries. Quite the contrary. God calls who he calls without regard to nationality, race, gender or anything else. The question is not whether there is a place in Bible translation for Westerners, but rather whether God has called you and whether as a missionary you will work to promote the directions God is taking Bible translation or work against them.
There are some large, unreached people groups in the north of Ghana. They have been resistant to various attempts by missionaries and churches to reach them with the Gospel. In recent years however, small congregations have started springing up here and there. These people groups have low education and literacy rates coupled with high poverty, which is quite a contrast to the southern parts of Ghana.
A number of Ghanaian churches have outreach in the north. They have have had modest success in evangelism and church planting. As Bibles were translated into the languages, some of them began literacy programs for members of their churches so that the Bibles could be used.
They funneled money from their churches in the south for to support the literacy effort. Literacy has had effects no one really expected, and those effects have been so big that two of the churches have changed their strategy for growing their churches in the north.
Keep in mind that most of the rural Christians were poor, subsistence farmers with little or no education. Prior to learning to read, their only participation in church was to sit and listen. Neither they nor church leaders thought that they had any role to play. When church leaders organized literacy classes, their hope was that these believers would be able to grow in faith through reading their Bibles. That happened, but much, much more.
Some of the Christians who attended literacy classes started seriously reading the Bibles in their languages. I’m not talking about reading a few verses a day. One man told me how he read the New Testament clear through 5 or 6 times in the month following the dedication. Where the whole Bible has been translated, some of those previously uneducated and illiterate peasant farmers used their newly acquired literacy skills to read their Bibles through multiple times in short order and then to continue reading it through every few months. They became known in their communities as Bible experts.
Literacy took them way beyond being able to grow in their personal faith – they became a faith resource for others. People came to them asking questions about the Bible and about Christianity. They started teaching Bible and Sunday school classes in their language. Some became lay preachers in their churches. A few have weekly FM radio broadcasts in which they explain the Bible or have a call-in segment where listeners can ask questions. In some cases, clerics from other religions come and ask them questions.
Not that long ago, these local Bible experts were simple pew sitters. Churches have realized that they need to recognize these lay preachers and include them in their pastoral staff, both because that seemed reasonable and because they are more effective than the more educated pastors sent to the north from other parts of Ghana who have to learn the languages. But these newly-literate lay preachers have provoked yet another change that goes way beyond the church to affect their whole community. Before, many people from northern Ghana considered that Christianity was not a religion them.
They thought that Christianity was the religion for the more educated peoples of the south of Ghana. But now the local lay preacher is from a family that has lived in the community since before anyone can remember, is widely respected, and preaches and teaches in the language of the community. Faced with that, people change their mind about his religion being only for people from somewhere else.
Bible translation and literacy for believers is radically altering the perceptions about Christianity, they are changing it from being generally considered a foreign import to something that is becoming an accepted part of the community – an understandable and acceptable choice. This hasn’t happened everywhere yet. There are still communities where the churches have not organized literacy classes. There, Christianity remains a religion for others.
On one of my trips into Congo, I found myself in the city of Kisangani over a weekend. One of the church leaders I was working with suggested that I attend the French language worship service at his church. (French is the official language of Congo, spoken by under 15% of the people. Everyone speaks one of the 220 African languages native to the country.) It is quite common for churches in Africa to have multiple services on Sunday in different languages with one of them being in the official languages of the country (French, English or Portuguese).
I was disappointed. Instead of finding a vibrant congregation of government officials and others with good education, the congregation was composed of 20 or 30 high school and university students. They were not in a French language service because French was their preferred language for prayer and worship. Instead, they were in a French language church service because French is prestigious and they wanted to display that they were part of the educated elite. The thing is, they didn’t master French that well, so they had the opposite effect on me, although they were certainly impressing themselves.
It is easy to think that language is about communication and so in every circumstance where there is a choice between languages, people will choose the language most likely to communicate. Sociolinguists will tell you that this is not so. Living in a places where many languages are spoken has made me acutely aware that language choice is often not about communication. The young students in Kisangani that Sunday did not choose French because it communicated best, or because it helped them express their thoughts and emotions best. No, they choose French because of its prestige. Communication, if it was a consideration, came a distant second.
I have seen young pastors returning from Bible School or seminary preach to people in their own village in the official language even though they know that few understand it. Why? Because preaching in the official language shows that they are well-educated.
People choose one language over another to help them accomplish their goals. If their goal is to communicate, they will choose the language that communicates best. If their goal is to lift up, encourage and empower others, they will choose the language that does that.
But, if their goal is to sound educated, enhance their prestige or establish their authority, they will choose the language that does that. Where I have lived in Africa, language choice is a great humility gauge and a very accurate detector of the intentions of the heart. Part of doing Bible translation in Africa is helping churches and pastors rethink some of their attitudes toward language. The Beatitudes give guidance for language choice in multilingual environments:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
In many contexts English (or whichever language is the official language) is the power choice, not the meek choice. It is the choice lacking compassion for the listeners, not the merciful choice. It is the choice of those wealthy in spirit.
In Ouagadougou, there are oranges for sale by the roadside. They are piled on small tables and the seller is there with a knife. The knife is to cut a hole in the one end of the orange which is consumed as juice by squeezing while putting your mouth over the hole. This is because the membranes in the oranges are tough like those in a grapefruit. They can’t be chewed. On a really hot day, it is refreshing to buy an orange and drink the relatively tart juice.
But the tough membrane is not the only difference between oranges in the US and those grown in Burkina Faso. When our boys were young, we came back to the US from Burkina Faso and enrolled them in school. Before too long, we were contacted by Matthew’s teacher who thought that we should have him checked for color blindness because he said that oranges were green. We laughed. You see, all the oranges in those piles beside the streets in Ouagadougou are green. They’re ripe, but their color is green. Matthew was not color blind, he just had very different experiences. In fact, green is the natural color of oranges. It is when they are exposed to cold that they turn orange, so in Africa and other warm places oranges stay green.
Now, imagine Matthew’s situation in reverse. Say some well-meaning American sends color charts to a grade school in Burkina Faso. On the charts, each color is represented by an object that color. The color orange is represented by an orange. Oops.
The color chart needs to be contextualized – in order to be accurate, it needs to be changed to fit the context. Some people react to the idea of contextualization of the Gospel by thinking that it weakens or changes the Gospel. In reality, it is not contextualizing that changes the Gospel. Changing the object on the color chart that represents the color orange keeps the truth about the color orange.