Bibleless Peoples part 2, language myths

I recently read “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave”, Frederick Douglass’ autobiography. Douglass wrote it in 1845. It contained a number of words I did not know. Take this passage, for example.

His carriage-house contained three splendid coaches, three or four gigs, besides dearborns and barouches of the most fashionable style.

I had to look up gigs, dearborns, and barouches, having never had occasion to be around or talk about these types of horse-drawn wagons and coaches. I knew of covered wagons and stage coaches because I have seen those and heard them called by their names, but everything else was just a wagon to me.

Choir in Congo singing AIDS prevention song in their language

That brings me to bibleless peoples. They are often accused of having impoverished, substandard or unscientific languages. These accusations are bolstered by pointing out that the languages do not have words for modern things. But in Frederick Douglass’s day, even English did not have the word “microbe”. Was his language therefore impoverished? Was mine impoverished because I didn’t know barouches? Not having words for something is a silly way to judge someone’s language. Many common words today were unknown to Shakespeare and it is ridiculous to call the English he spoke and wrote impoverished or substandard. In fact, such accusations are misplaced for any language because languages adopt or invent new words for the things they encounter. Vocabulary is a function of context rather than a sign of adequacy or inadequacy. All languages can and do develop – acquiring new words as needed. Did you know that “vegan” wasn’t invented until 1944 and remained obscure for decades after that? When we were involved in translating AIDS information into Congo languages, we had to find ways to say HIV, AIDS, seropositive, virus and many other things. Those doing the translations always found good translations of all the terms and even had them approved by medical professionals.

Unfortunately, sometimes bibleless peoples believe the negative statements made about their languages. They can even believe that the lack of certain words will make it impossible to translate the Bible. Sometimes we have to convince church leaders who fear that the Bible will be degraded by translating it into “substandard” languages. It’s all part of mobilizing churches in Africa for Bible translation.

But when the translation produces the joy of salvation and the fruit of godly living, the language myths are often dispelled. Besides, dare we call any language “impoverished” in which God speaks to people?

Publications in many topics in Ghanaian languages

The Bibleless part 1 – Hidden

The United Nations has declared 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages. This prompts me to write a short series of blog posts about a related topic – the peoples around the world who still don’t have the Bible in their language – the bibleless peoples.

The bibleless peoples and their languages are almost invisible. That is, you only notice them if you look. Unlike the things in life that force themselves into our perception whether we want them or not – potholes, polluted air, loving hugs from family and friends – most of us could live our whole lives without encountering someone from a bibleless people, or not noticing if we did. In this way, the bibleless peoples are very much like the one lost sheep from among the 100 that the good shepherd took pains to locate.

Being an imitator of Jesus means more than responding with love and the gospel to the people and circumstances that we find clearly in our vision. It also means going and looking for cases we don’t readily see. That’s the point of the parable and indeed of Jesus life – he came looking for us even while we were hidden (lost), far away and not looking for him.

We owe a debt to those who have located and made known the bibleless peoples. They embody Jesus’ seeking spirit.

I remember vividly a chief of the Nawuri people expressing how hidden his people felt until they had the Bible. Raising high the newly-printed New Testament in Nawuri, and with emotion in his voice he said:

Politicians don’t know us, but now God knows us.

Jesus said of himself:

For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.” – Luke 19:10

Jesus seeks, actively searches for, the lost. He didn’t and doesn’t wait for them to find him. To be true to Jesus, our mission endeavors should also spend effort searching for those who would normally remain hidden.

Interpretation without communication

talking-head-word-cloud

Way back in 1982, I knew a missionary in Abidjan. At one time, he had just returned from a trip to another city in the country where he had preached at a church. I asked him how it went. He laughed and told me that he had preached in French and the church supplied an interpreter to translate him into the local language. After the service, the interpreter told him:

God really helped me to translate you, because I didn’t understand anything you said!

It appears to me that missionaries and African church leaders sometimes assume that as long as a person speaks both languages, he or she can be an interpreter. The business and diplomatic worlds know better.

In Africa, it is not uncommon that educated people speak their local language and the official language (French, English or Portuguese depending on the country), but have never actually read the Bible in their language. They may not know the names of the books of the Bible in their language, or how to say “Holy Spirit” or other key words in their language. They know all that in the official language, but not in their own. As most interpretation goes from the official language to the local language, you can imagine the kind of disaster than can occur if such a person is asked to translate a sermon or evangelistic message. Then there are can be other problems. The person speaking might speak too fast, or have an accent the interpreter isn’t used to.

I have sat through church services that were both well-interpreted and inadequately interpreted. Usually I understand the language of the speaker, but not the language into which the message is being interpreted. But it is still clear that the interpretation is lacking. For example, the person speaking may say something that elicits a strong response from the members of audience who speak his language, but when that is interpreted into the other language, no one reacts. Or perhaps the person speaking is telling a longish story that it is building to a climax. At the climax, the same thing happens – no audience response to the interpretation. This is more marked in churches where it is usual for listeners to verbally interact with the preacher during the sermon. When only those who understand the speaker’s language are interacting, something is wrong with the interpretation.

Few Bible schools or theological seminaries offer courses in interpretation or translation, even though their graduates will end up doing that from time to time all their lives. Their graduates will also be responsible for selecting members of their congregations to interpret, which they will do, most often without given them any instruction or training. How can they? They never got any themselves!

Fortunately, a number of Bible schools and seminaries in Africa have notice these problems and started to address them. They may require that pastoral students to study the key Bible terms in their own languages, or require them to write a synopsis of their thesis or key papers in their own language. One requires post-graduate students to give a summary of their thesis in their language at graduation when friends and family from their language are present.

Others, however, are still putting great effort into having their students understand the Bible but little helping them clearly communicate that to others. Some never even mention language to their students even in countries with many, many languages.

Transformational parnership

When I worked in Congo, we partnered with another organization to translate Luke and produce the Jesus’s Film in ten languages.

Congolese women glued to the Jesus Film in their language at the dedication ceremony

It went pretty well until we got past the recording stage and were working on planning the showing of the films. The representative of the other organization for Congo informed us that most people only view the Jesus Film once. Because of that, he said, it is very important to to make sure that there be a system to identify and counsel people who make a decision for Christ, similar to what is often organized for evangelistic campaigns. For the same reason, distribution should be tightly controlled. The representative preferred that the film be given only to trained protection teams who would travel with projection equipment from place to place. Our Congolese church partners would have to implement this phase, but they had other ideas. They thought that people would watch the film many times, so they preferred that many copies be given away for free. Besides, this approach would cost far less. The other organization strongly opposed these ideas.

So, we have a large Christian organization with decades of experience showing the film insisting on one plan, but churches with no experience wanting a very different plan. It seemed crazy to argue that we should abandon the advice of an organization with so much experience in favor of a untested idea from those with no experience. But that’s what we did.

In the end, DVDs of the film were distributed widely for free. People watched it multiple times. In fact, some watched it so often that they memorized it. We had reports of illiterate adults and even children quoting Jesus’ words verbatim in response to something happened. We had every indication that the film was getting Jesus’ teaching deeply into society and people’s minds and hearts.

In hindsight, it seems that the other organization had proposed a way to distribute the film that fit well in places where people have many films available in their language (watch it once or twice), but couldn’t predict how people would use the film when it is the only film in their language (watch it over and over). Also, the organization saw the film as having impact in evangelism, but its actual impact was in discipleship of believers. Note that none of the languages involved had a translation, so the Jesus Film, which is taken directly from the Gospel of Luke was the most available Scripture.

In the same vein, I read a report of an international evaluation undertaken by a US-based Christian ministry. One of the ministry’s overseas partners was not running their program according to norms; so much so that the ministry was about to sever relations. But the evaluation showed the program run the “wrong” way by the “faulty” partner got the better results than any other program around the world. Furthermore, the evaluator concluded that the excellent results were attributable to the supposedly incorrect methods of the partner.

From my Congo experience and others, and from reading the evaluation, I propose the following conclusions which are also challenges to Western missions and churches partnering with churches overseas.

  • If a Western mission has a partnership with church or ministry in another country, and that partnership is not transforming the Western mission, then the Westernern mission is probably not as effective as it should be. It might not be engaged in true partnership.
  • If the western agency is always doing things the way they know will work, even when partners on the ground in another country want something else, then it is probably not as effective as it should be. The western agency needs to find a way to open itself to risky new ideas, to experiment.

Counting languages

Word cloud of the languages of Ghana

Most people are surprised to learn that there are over 7,000 languages spoken in the world today. Over 800 of those are dying and another 1500 are in danger of dying in a generation. Even assuming that all those will die within a generation, that will still leave upwards of 4,700 languages spoken in this world.

The Ethnologue has a fascinating page showing where the languages are an giving other facts about them. It features a fun, interactive map where each language is represented by a dot at its geographic center. There are clusters of dots into which you can zoom to see the details. There are other facts about languages as well, like a comparison of the number of languages to the number of people who speak them, and which countries have the most languages.

Did you know that it was only in the early 1990s that the number of languages in the world and their location was known with any accuracy and that it was Bible translators who made the effort to collect the information, compile it and make it public?

That is the case in Ghana too. A couple years ago, I worked with a small group of Ghanaians to produce a definitive list of Ghanaian languages. People use it to mobilize Ghanaian churches to get involved in translation. It works; because few people know all the languages of their country, nor do they know that some Ghanaian languages don’t have a translation.

Africa loves to read and hear the Bible

A while back, a friend pointed me to an article about translating the Bible in Africa by one of Africa’s most well-known theologians – John Mbiti. Before launching into the main point of the article, Mbiti briefly assesses the impact of translations of the Bible in African languages. He writes that:

Reading the Bible in their language

Africa loves to read and hear the Bible read.

Thus, through its translation… the Bible is very present in Africa. In some ways, we find our traditional life reflected in it… It is wielding a tremendous impact on the Church and beyond… It is generating Biblical Christianity and invigorating Oral African Theology.

The Bible has found a home in Africa, and Africa has become a Biblical continent. Statistically the Bible has become very much an African book. Many African readers and hearers of the Bible spontaneously identify themselves with the Bible through its content of (ancient) Jewish culture, family traditions, farming, history, pastoral (livestock) life, persecutions, suffering, death rituals, and religiosity…

Paul Hema reads the Bible in front of his humble dwelling in Burkina Faso

Our neighbor reading the Bible in Bambara

At a deeper level, the translation from Biblical languages into local languages encourages creativity and the proliferation of oral theology. This has already been happening (in the field) spontaneously among the Christians, the laity and clergy, young and old, women and men, through their composition and use of local hymns, songs, and music, instead of, or in addition to imported Western hymns translated in Kiikamba. They sing everywhere with or mainly without instruments – in the fields, in buses, walking, fetching water, herding, at school, in Churches and market places. They say or give spontaneous prayers (at home and Church services), sermons or meditations, religious education (in schools, Sunday School and their homes), all produced in one’s mother tongue.

It is easy to visit churches in the big African cities, and even a number of the smaller ones, and conclude that Christianity in Africa is doing quite well using English or another European language. But the reality is different. Christianity in Africa has its roots in the Bible in African languages even if a number of Christians are now educated and practice much of their public worship in English or another European language. The goal of getting the Bible into all the languages of Africa is still relevant even as English spreads.

No new understanding

After the dedication of the Jamaican New Testament in Jamaica, a ceremony was organized in London to introduce it to the sizable Jamaican community there. The organizers didn’t know what kind of reaction they would get. After all, those attending would have an excellent command of English. In addition, some have been critical of doing a translation in the Jamaican language also called Patwa. Critics contend that the language is too crude and undeveloped for a translation.

As part of the ceremony in London, they read some short passages from the translation. The Jamaicans present shouted with joy. They all stood. They waved their arms and jumped some with eyes full of tears of joy.

This reaction is a bit surprising. After all, they were hearing passages they had heard in English many times. There was nothing new. They were not getting a first, new or better understanding because the passages are so well-known in English. The passages nevertheless had a dramatic, fresh effect when packaged in the heart language – their mother tongue.

That is interesting and moving, but is it important? I think so. After all, Jesus said we are to love God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind, implying that the soul and heart are as important as our understanding. Words that activate our emotions – that touch our hearts – are more likely to change our behavior and our thinking – to align our hearts with God’s. Without those effects, understanding isn’t worth much.

The Bible in the mother tongue goes so much deeper than mere understanding – just imagine those Jamaicans in London waving their arms and dancing around with eyes full of tears.

Locked up information

Nataly Kelly, the leader of Translators Without Borders, say’s that for many people around the world, “the information that they need is locked up in languages they don’t even speak”. Translators Without Borders is a translation agency. They translate all kinds of things – books, health information, and so on. They started out translating between European languages where they hired translators or took them under contract.

When they expanded into Africa, they discovered that few African languages have trained translators. There was no one to hire or take under contract. This is not just a problem for the translation agency. It means that the life-critical information is not available: how to protect against AIDS, malaria, cholera, how to treat diarrhea-induced dehydration in children (a leading cause of death in children under five). The information is there, but it is locked up in languages the people don’t speak. She says:

Ironically, the people who need that information the most – information about health, science, technology and so on – have zero access to it because of the language barrier… So the richer countries have an abundance of linguists while three billion people are starved for translators in their languages. This is a serious handicap

Failed translation of “sugar free”

If Nataly has a client who wants a pamphlet on heart-heathly diets translated from English to German, she can readily find an experienced and qualified translator. But finding a translator to translate a pamphlet on how to avoid Ebola into the Kpelle language of Liberia (where the an Ebola outbreak took place not long ago) can be a challenge. You will find people who speak both English and Kpelle, and who are willing to translate to earn a little money although they’ve never translated before, but finding one who will do an accurate and clear translation is another matter.

Sometimes people wonder why translating the Bible into a new language takes as long as it does. One of the reasons is that you have to train the translators. A professional translator will spend several years studying their craft, so the training is not something that can be done in a week or two. For the translations where we have been involved training good translators includes carefully choosing the translators, giving them a first course of minimal training (usually about 2 weeks), then having a translation expert closely follow and critique their translation so that they are learn on the job, and then setting up a system where their translations are reviewed by members of the language community. This results in such clear translation that people are often surprised. I have often heard them exclaim that the translation is “so clear”, or “sweet”, etc.

Small selection of booklets produced by Ghanaian translators

Once they have been trained, the translators can translate anything – the Bible, health pamphlets, agricultural information, even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights . And they do, unlocking life-critical information for their peoples.

Too literate

Literacy class (photo: GILLBT, Rodney Ballard)

Those of you who follow this blog know that I write frequently about the impact of adult literacy in northern Ghana. Ever since I arrived in Ghana in 2010, I have heard all sorts of Ghanaians (farmers, doctors, pastors, clerks, doctors, and more) extoll the positive impact of adult literacy in northern Ghana. It is credited with effects as diverse as the spread of the Gospel, better opportunies for women, better education outcomes for schoolchildren, less conflict, and increased income. Many people who live in places where it has had great effects have pleaded for a resumption of the widespread literacy programs which were run in the 1990s.

It was way back in the early 1800s that widespread reading revolutionized the United States. For example, by 1822, more Americans read newspapers than anyone else. There were hundreds of newspapers with the largest having a circulation of about 4,000 readers. And the number of readers kept growing. From 1832 to 1836, the circulation of daily papers in New York City exploded from 18,000 to about 60,000. At that time the city’s population was less than 300,000, so one paper was sold for every five people – probably about one per family. Americans became the most literate people not just in the world but also in history.

Young woman in literacy class in Burkina Faso

We have been so literate for so long that we have forgotten what it is like to live in a pre-literate society; where key information is only available to you by word of mouth from someone who got it the same way, where you can’t track down the original source to verify the information, where you can’t read the Bible for yourself, where there are only a few people who can tell you what the Bible says and you might not know any of them, and where you can’t jot down a piece of information you will need later. I could go on and on.

Wycliffe and other translation agencies say that it is difficult to raise money for adult literacy. That’s probably the case, at least in part, because we are so literate that we can’t imagine the lives of those who can’t read and therefore we can’t imagine the benefits.

Efficiency’s limits

Efficiency is a mark of good missions and good charities. They use their money well. In biblical terms, they are good stewards of their resources. They take pains to measure their efficiency. A homeless shelter will count the number of people who use it. A mission doing Bible translation will count the number of languages into which it translates the Bible. A single translation program will track how many verses and books have been translated.

While efficiency is good, it is not nearly enough. For example, an addiction treatment center needs to track how many of its patients recover, not just how many go through the program. It is no good for it to say that it’s program is less expensive if few of its patients stay clean. That’s a waste of money too. Efficiency is no good without effectiveness.

It is good that we translate the Bible into more and more languages. I have always tried to make translation go faster and cost less. But more translations done faster and for less money must take second place to doing things so that those translated Bibles transform the communities for whom they were done.

The biggest factor determining whether a translation will be read and have impact is also the most difficult to influence – the attitudes of the people and their leaders toward the language. One study found that if church and mission leaders support the translation effort it will have wide impact, but if not people probably won’t ever even read it. The reasons why leaders and people might not favor a translation are so many and varied that can’t list them all, so here’s one example.

People might think that the language is defective or not unholy, as some Jamaicans believe about the Jamaican language, also known as Patois. This is not as uncommon as you might think. In the 14th and 15th centuries some people believed that English was not worthy of a translation.

In any case, there is no sense doing a translation into a language people think defective unless you are willing to put time and money into an effort to change those attitudes. We have a less serious version of this issue in Ghana where some church leaders and pastors think that translation into Ghanaian languages is quaint and useless, even though people at the grassroots support it. So the Ghanaian organization I work for focuses communication showing the benefits on the leaders. It’s working.

Writing the language in a way that is easier to read makes impact more likely

In other cases, efficiency and effectiveness align. Doing a translation faster, for example, generally results in people looking on the translations with favor. I have seen translation programs advance so slowly that people started making fun of them.

In general, the Ghanaians I work with are more concerned about effectiveness than are Westerners like me. While Westerners are more focused on efficiency. This sometimes results in tensions between the Ghanaians I work with and Westerners who fund translation. The side with the money has the advantage, causing efficiency to sometimes get more attention than effectiveness.