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.

Getting to know the “other”

One of the most commonly proposed solutions for prejudice and bigotry is getting to know “the other”. This solution presupposes that we are suspicious of those we don’t know, or that false ideas about others will be dispelled by getting to know them. There is no doubt that this works for individuals. I have heard people say that their fear or concern about people of a different race or religion was dispelled when they got to know someone personally.

As well as this seems to work in individual cases, it fails with whole populations. There are many examples. The genocide in Rwanda was perpetrated by Hutus on Tutsis. But the Hutus and Tutsis live side by side. They speak the same language and are mostly indistinguishable. In many cases, Hutus killed their Tutsi neighbors they had known well for decades.

Furthermore, this is not an anomaly nor is in confined to Africa. In most of the cases of violent conflict between groups of people in Africa with which I am aware, are characterized by close contact and mutual knowledge. The book Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz by Omer Bartov documents a case in Europe. Bartov is a professor of history at Brown University. He notes that the close relations between two groups can actually be part of the problem.

“You can take a society in which people had lived together for centuries, and that very proximity, that very relationship between neighbors can have a dynamic of violence and self-justification,”

Knowing the other is sometimes the problem. Just ask couples going through an acrimonious divorce. So getting to know the other is a naive bromide, perhaps even snake oil.

But there is something that works, at least in Ghana. In the southern parts of Ghana, the north has a somewhat deserved reputation as a place of conflict between its many peoples, of which there are about 30. In some cases those conflicts have turned deadly. In recent years, some of those peoples have received the first ever Bible in their languages. Dr Solomon Sule-Saa has done research into the effects of those translations. He found that people who read the Bible in their language are much more likely to promote non-violent solutions to conflicts over land or other resources. The result is less conflict. Where close contact generates conflict, the Bible is helping to calm it.

By the way, there is a widespread belief in Africa that if everyone spoke the same language there would be less conflict. That belief is also contradicted by the facts.

Ghana statement

The Ghanaian organization I work with recently issued the following statement:

We believe mother tongue literacy and the word of God in our mother tongue is the most effective way to build vibrant churches and transform our societies.

Because I work with organization, I thought it would be good to unpack it. After all, my work (like that of all the staff) is predicated on this belief and contributes toward accomplishing the things it implies.

The statement is important because some Ghanaians think that their languages are of little importance or use. Some even think that their languages only serve to promote the backward practices of the past. Those with that opinion mostly live in the cities and haven’t seen the impact of translation and literacy in the rest of the country. It is a sad thing, but a number of Africans believe that their languages and traditions have nothing to contribute to the Gospel or the good of their continent. They believe this to their detriment. This is especially sad when pastors insist on preaching and teaching in a language not adequately mastered by their congregations. So there is a need to help them understand things differently. I used to be a lot more involved in communicating this message but it is now in capable Ghanaian hands.

Note also that the statement includes both spiritual (vibrant churches) and temporal (transform our societies) elements. I believe that these are stated as two elements because in English there aren’t words to combine them. The Ghanaians I work with see both as one inseparable process. If the church is vibrant, society is being transformed. They both grow from the same root. The light of a vibrant church cannot be hidden. But the light of a church using a language people don’t master is usually dim, not vibrant.

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
Matthew 5:14-16

Note also that the statement sees two things as fundamental to transformation:

  • The Bible in the mother tongue
  • Literacy in the mother tongue

My Ghanaian colleagues like to say that literacy is the key that unlocks the Bible. Without it, translations have limited impact. Fortunately, running adult literacy classes in the mother tongue is relatively easy and cost-effective.

Finally, note the idea of transformation. All Africans I have met want their continent to change. They are dissatisfied with how it is, all while most are proud to be African. My Ghanaian colleagues see this happening as transformation (build on what is good, carefully replace what is not), not as revolution (throwing out the old and replacing it with entirely new things).

It’s like one of my favorite jokes.

A man was lost driving in New England. He stopped at a small store to get directions. When he said where he was going, there was a pause and then the proprietor said: “Well, if I were going there, I wouldn’t start here.”

Just like you have to start a trip somewhere, so a community can only move toward Christ from the place it finds itself. When that move starts with something fundamental to the community (their mother tongue), and enabled by helpful imports (literacy and the Bible) good things happen.

Staying

A recent survey in Africa found that more than 1/3rd of Africans have considered emigrating. I was not surprised. I spent most of my adult life in Africa. During that time I have seen many Africa’s leave, including from among my acquaintances and friends. I have heard many others talk about it. Some have even asked me to help them go to the United States. Many of my African friends have family in North America or Europe. But the number of Africans considering leaving rises to more than half among young adults and the well educated. In one country, seven percent are actively making plans to leave. That’s one in 14.

In my experience, there is at least one demographic that is different. Even though they are younger and well educated, very few have any interest in leaving. Instead, they are dedicated to their communities and their countries. They stay in order to make a difference even though that means facing challenging or even dangerous situations.

Translators and volunteers for the Nawuri language

They are African Bible translators. Just prior to writing this, I sat with a group of them. They spoke passionately about their work. When obstacles came up in the conversation, they always talked about how to overcome them. Fleeing or leaving never arose. In fact, a couple of them recently lived through a very dangerous situation requiring that the army be deployed, yet they only talked about how to continue although they admitted that the situation was “serious”. Their faith in God who called them is, for them, a better refuge than leaving for a peaceful and prosperous country.

The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my savior; my God is my rock, in whom I find protection. He is my shield, the power that saves me, and my place of safety. – Psalm 18:2

Literacy and social mobility

Korle-Bu teaching hospital and medical school, Ghana

Some time ago, I had an interesting conversation with a Ghanaian Christian doctor. He told me about a young doctor he met. When he learned that the young doctor was from the Upper West Region, he asked him if his parents were literate. He asked because Upper West Region has significant poverty rates and low education levels. A young person from that Region only becomes a doctor or other professional is he or she comes from educated parents.

The young doctor said that his parents were not literate. This was was surprising, so he pressed the young Doctor further. He learned that although the young man’s parents had never been to school they did read the Bible in their language. They had attended an adult literacy class run by the Ghanaian organisation I work for.

What this shows, my acquaintance told me, is social mobility through the Gospel. Uneducated parents who have learned to read in their own languages send their children to school and can help them succeed. I know other cases like this. So we are now seeing young professionals in unprecedented numbers from the most disadvantaged parts of Ghana and, unexpectedly, from families where the parents themselves never received an education.

Photo: GILLBT, Rodney Ballard

My acquaintance and the young doctor are both faithful Christians. For the young doctor, this is due on no small part to his parents becoming Christians through reading the Bible in their own language. For my acquaintance, this shows the power of the Gospel at work. He believes that the development of his country does not come through building things, but rather through creating faithful, servant-hearted citizens through the power of the Gospel. That’s why he volunteers his time to help translate the Bible into all Ghana’s langauges.

“If you follow my decrees and are careful to obey my commands, I will send you the seasonal rains. The land will then yield its crops, and the trees of the field will produce their fruit. Your threshing season will overlap with the grape harvest, and your grape harvest will overlap with the season of planting grain. You will eat your fill and live securely in your own land. – Leviticus 26:3-5

As good as translation

Alphabet chart in a previously unwritten language – the Lika language of the Congo

Sometime ago we asked people in various parts of Ghana what they liked about the Bible translation program going on in their language. As you can imagine, many responded that they like having the Bible in their language. One person called it an “eye opener”.

Surprisingly, many people felt that something else was as important as the translation. That is being able to read and write their language. Here are the top three answers to the question of what they liked about the translation work being done in their languages, they gave:
#1 Having an alphabet
#2 Having the Bible in my language
#3 Literacy

They love it that their language has an alphabet. They feel that brings their language into the modern era and gives it respect. They see the many benefits that being able to read and write their language brings them in daily life.

Man readying the Bible in his language. Photo GILLBT, Rodney Ballard

We tend to see the development of a writing system for a language as a hurdle to overcome before getting to translation. For us the writing of the language is a kind of beneficial side effect. But the communities where we work see it as a very good thing all by itself. Having grown up with writing all around us, I think we have forgotten how magical it is; whereas they are experiencing it for the very first time.

It’s kind of nice – producing something people love and need as a by-product.

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.

Knock-on effects

When we think of the effects of war on civilians, we think mostly of deaths and injured caused by bullets and bombs. But those are often a relatively small part of the negative effects. Usually, many more people die in the weeks, months or even years after the bullets and bombs stop.

When an event or situation has a knock-on effect, it causes other events or situations, but not directly:

Say a bomb knocks out a bridge, preventing people on the “wrong” side of a river from getting to a hospital. When someone who lives on the wrong side come down with appendicitis several months later, has to take a much longer route to the hospital because the bridge is out, and then dies before getting to the hospital, that death may be attributed to the war, at least indirectly.

Of course counting such deaths is not an exact science. Perhaps the person would have died even if the bridge was still intact and the operation could have been done quicker. That difficulty is why a Harvard study pegged hurricane Maria’s death toll in Haiti in an astounding 10-fold range – between 800 to 8,500.

Displaced person camp in Congo where we used to work. Photo: MONUC

The fact that it is difficult to get exact numbers should not detract from the fact that failing to take knock-on effects into account leaves us with a very wrong idea of the real impact of a disaster or armed conflict.

Right now in Burkina Faso, about 150,000 children are out of school. Armed conflict in parts of the country has closed over 1,000 schools. It is too dangerous to go to school. It looks like quite a number of schools will be closed for a while. This is a big personal blow to the children and their families, and a blow to a poor country in need of a more educated citizenry.

The same forces are slowing and displacing translation efforts and other Christian ministry. Burkina Faso Christians are braving the dangers just like Africans in other places. Knock-on effects usually don’t make the news, but they do make life and ministry difficult or even dangerous. They are having a significant negative impact in three countries where I have worked, and I personally know national translators who are affected including some for whom knock-on effects have resulted in personal tragedies. Those translators are on the cutting edge of advancing the Gospel, even though the knock-on effects aren’t making the news.

I saw under the altar the souls of all who had been martyred for the word of God and for being faithful in their testimony. They shouted to the Lord and said, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you judge the people who belong to this world and avenge our blood for what they have done to us?” – Revelation 6:9-10

Alien Schooling

Sign at school in Ghana

For many children in northern Ghana school is a baffling experience. Because English is Ghana’s official language, that is the language used in school. But the children don’t speak English. Neither do their parents or friends. For many, the only place they hear English is in school. Furthermore, the teacher probably doesn’t know their language, so he or she can’t explain. Because parents don’t know English, they can’t help their children with homework. It’s sink or swim. Some schools even ban students from speaking their languages.

Somehow, this alien experience has come to be considered normal. So normal that students and their parents may be blamed for the poor results. And poor results proliferate – huge numbers fail and repeat grades, many drop out. For many parents, school is a lottery. You send all your kids hoping one will by chance succeed, get a good job, and benefit the whole family. That’s a load of heavy expectations to put on a first grader!

There’s hope. The Ghanaian organization I work for, GILLBT, (link) is leveraging its experience and expertise in translation and literacy in Ghana languages to change all this. It is working with schools to teach students in their own languages for the first three years then transition to English. In fact, when I was in Ghana in July, GILLBT’s training center was overflowing with teams of Ghanaians each preparing teaching materials in their language.

The preliminary results are impressive. The number of second graders reading at the required level went from 15 to over 70 percent. Because you only learn to read once, the transition to English will go quickly. In pilot projects in other countries, children starting in their own languages spoke better English by grade six than those who started in English.

Besides, all those students will become adults who can read the Bible in their languages instead of the illiterate dropouts they would have become.

Children curious about me