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

Can’t pray

Some time ago I talked to a man from the South West of Ghana who speaks the Anyii language. Even though it is a larger language group churches do not hold services in the Anyii language. Instead, they use English and more dominant Ghanaian languages. These practices have led to unintended and regrettable effects on many Anyii Christians.

The man told me that he was in a group of four Anyii men having a conversation in Anyii. They decided to pray. But none of them prayed in Anyii. They all switched to another language. It was clear that they thought other languages are more suited to prayer. It was as though, of all the languages of the world, the only language God doesn’t understand is Anyii. The man said:

We enter church with our tongue clipped.

If this were just an oddity, I wouldn’t be concerned. But history shows that where Christian faith bypasses the language of the people, it doesn’t go deep, and it often becomes superstitious and corrupt, as it did when it stuck to Latin in Europe.

No more activists

In February 2018 I flew from Accra in southern Ghana to the north of the country. In the waiting area at the Accra airport and then on the plane I sat next to a friendly Ghanaian woman with her adorable, six-week-old baby daughter. Once she got seated on the plane, she started breastfeeding her baby in the matter-of-fact way I have seen so many times on this sensible continent. No complexes. No hint of embarrassment. No effort to be extremely discrete.

None of the other passengers, almost all Ghanaian and overwhelmingly male, paid her action the slightest attention. To say that the passengers approved would be to attribute to them far more agency in the matter than they actually exercised. When you drive your car do you consciously approve that the wheels go round and round?

Having spent most of my adult life in a place where breastfeeding in public is an unremarkable and assumed part of life, I am amused when it makes the news and has vocal advocates in the West.

It struck me that the best end point for true advocacy is not repeated  (let alone shrill or virtue-signaling) statements in favor of the advocated change. It is not everyone standing up and agreeing. Instead it’s the blasé acceptance manifested by the passengers on that plane.

It also caused me to reflect that just as advocacy for public breastfeeding is irrelevant in Africa, so there won’t be advocates or activists clamoring for our attention in the new heavens and the new earth. Won’t that be refreshing!

Missions and curiosity

Village in northern Ghana. Photo GILLBT, Rodney Ballard

Working as a cross-cultural missionary requires that I understand the Gospel and the culture where I am ministering. If I understand only the gospel I will end up misconstruing it because I will communicate it in ways the culture will misunderstand. So I have to be curious about the culture in which I am serving and clear about the Gospel I am presenting.

My favorite biblical example of curiosity by a missionary is found in Acts 17 where the Apostle Paul studies the idols of Athens and quotes an Athenian poet in order to explain the Gospel.

My favorite statement about curiosity comes from blogger Seth Godin who wrote:
“You can’t be curious and angry at the same time”

True curiosity about other people comes from love. When I love, I want to understand you. This is very different from idle curiosity – the kind that turns people into curiosities – things we are interested in only because they are different or exotic. If I’m truly curious about people not like me, I can’t be angry, distant, gruff, or dismissive; even when I disagree with what I find. Some mistakenly call this approach appeasement. Appeasement exists, but seeking to truly understand is not it.

God fully understands everyone and seeks out each of us where we are. So we should not be afraid to fully understand those to whom we are ministering. We should avoid using straw-man tactics and instead use steel-manning to avoid superficial understandings and convenient stereotypes.

When we do that, we imitate God’s approach to us. Plus, our presentation of the Gospel becomes clearer as do our translations of the Bible.

Barrier to bridge

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

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

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

Langauge Map of Ghana

Langauge Map of Ghana

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

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

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

Literacy, school, poverty

Literacy class. Photo: GILLBT, Rodney Ballard

For many years, the Ghanaian organization I work for, GILLBT, has done adult literacy in the various Ghanaian languages. Among the many benefits is the fact that it helps to children succeed in school. The benefit works two ways. First parents who attend a literacy class and read the Bible in their language are much more likely to put their children in school and keep them there. This is true even in parts of Ghana where some children never attend school even though it is obligatory.

Second children who fail and drop out of school often then attend an adult literacy class in their language. They return to school with their improved reading skills and succeed. This is in spite of the fact that the literacy class was in their language and school is in English.

In fact, this path to success in school has been so successful that it has been formalized in a government program known as Complementary Basic Education (CBE). Children who fail in school and drop out then attend a few months of instruction in reading and other subjects in their mother tongue then returned to the regular school system; not infrequently skipping grades after returning. GILLBT partners with the government in implementing CBE.

GILLBT does adult literacy so that people can read the Bible. As I have reported in this blog (links) , that has been wildly successful in both spiritual and practical terms.

Today, there are tens of thousands of Ghanaian teachers, nurses, pastors and others who initially failed school, but then succeeded after learning to read in their mother tongue in a GILLBT literacy class. I even know of one university lecturer. They and their families were lifted out of a life of poverty through literacy and the Bible in their language. This is all the more impressive because it is happening in the poorest parts of Ghana; places where the poverty rate reaches as high as 90% and half of those live in extreme poverty.