Fighting for language

I recently read something written by an African Christian in which he wrote

“The story of my peo­ple group has been one of a com­mu­nity that fought for a long time to have the right to use its own lan­guage for…worship­ping God.”

This may seem really strange to you, but it is not at all uncommon. Actually, the writer is fortunate, his people fought to get their language used in church. Many peoples just acquiesced, abandoning the idea of using their languages to talk to God, sing his praises, or worship him. They did not dare to think that they might get the Bible in their language.

Some missions and missionaries thought that promoting one language and discouraging others would promote unity in the church. It never did work out that way.  When one of my Ghanaian colleagues talked to church leaders about translating the Bible into some of the smaller languages in their area, one responded:

“You are trying to divide the church”

We looked into it, but that didn’t seem to be a risk. We started translation in the smaller languages and it has had no negative effects on church unity, quite the opposite. In fact, one of the common effects of the process of translating the Bible is greater church unity.

CECCA/16 members

Congolese Christians praying in a regional language

Other missionaries or African church leaders just find the the number of languages daunting, or think that having church services in all of them is just too complicated. In some cases, children were punished for speaking their languages in church and missionary schools. The results of such practices has been that some African Christians have come to believe that they cannot pray to God in their own language. They may even believe that their language and ethnicity are not pleasing to God, or that he has put them under a curse.

The God of the Bible does not require that people abandon their language when entering into his presence. Neither should we.

What do we do

Alphabet chart for previously unwritten language - a step in language development

Alphabet chart for previously unwritten language – a step in language development

I work in Bible translation. I find the complexity of language and translation intriguing. I love the linguistic and cultural sleuthing required to find exactly the right word to translate biblical concepts like salvation and righteousness. But that is not my real passion. If Bible translation were only that, it would not be enough. This came home to me in while I was part of the process of recruiting a new director for the translation work in Côte d’Ivoire. Part of that process included interviews with selected candidates. One of those interviews stayed with me.

The person’s knowledge of the organization and Bible translation was impressive, even though they had not worked in Bible translation or been closely associated with it. The person described our goals and the nature of our work with a level of detail that I did not expect from someone who had not worked in the organization. This candidate talked knowledgeably about the role of language development in Bible translation, for example. He had obviously taken time to study the organization.

changeBut there was something missing. For this candidate, translation work had great value because it preserved an important part of African culture – the language. It kept languages from dying out, he said. But there was something big missing – something that came out in the interviews with the other candidates; even those who did not cite our goals in such great detail. They all talked about the transforming effect of translating the Bible into African languages. This candidate did not mention that.

Photo: Rodney Ballard

Photo: Rodney Ballard

Where the Bible has been translated into the heart languages of the people, change has followed and sometimes very big change. Churches sprang up in places were there was longstanding resistance to the preaching of missionaries; churches spang up or held on under intense persecution; believers got newfound joy, peace and fruitfulness in their lives; societal ills like drunkenness declined. In some cases translation was an important contributor to the creation of political and religious freedom.

Translation is what we do, but transformation is what we pursue … lasting, authentic, God-fashioned transformation.

PS: The candidate in question is still has the same job he had before the interview.

Ghanaian woman in literacy class. Photo Rodney Ballard

Ghanaian woman in literacy class. Photo Rodney Ballard

What is a taxi, a mechanic or a Christian?

Ranault 4

Photo of a Renault model 4 by Xalax, via Wikipedia commons

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.

Roadside mechanics in Tamale, Ghana

Roadside mechanics in Tamale, Ghana

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.

That’s for others

Langauge Map of GhanaThere 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.

Christians in the Northern Outreach Program read the Bible in their languages

Lay preachers from northern Ghana reading their Bibles at a church conference

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.

Learning to read

Learning to read

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.

The beatitudes of language

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).

Choir and the French language service

Choir and the French language service

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.

Preacher at the French-language service

Preacher at the French-language service

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.

multilingualism

Back to Ghana

Tomorrow, our temporary assignment in Côte d’Ivoire comes to an end. Those who follow our ministry will remember that it came up suddenly back in March and Ed actually started as Director in April. We were given two goals – keep things running and work with a local committee to choose a new director. Time will judge how well or poorly we kept things running, but we are very sure that the new Director is the person God has chosen and that she will do a great job.

Ed handing over to Pierrette

Ed handing over to Pierrette

She has a Master Degree in Bible translation and has been responsible for the Bible translation department of her church for the last few years. She has also been a member of the board of the national Bible Society of Côte d’Ivoire and a member of the translation committee for her language, Abure. God’s call in her life to Bible translation is clear. During the orientation period I was repeatedly impressed that God has given her the amazing wisdom and the ability to judge situations.

We have a one-hour flights to Accra tomorrow. Back in Ghana, we plan to take at least a week off. Being responsible for the translation work for a whole country is a lot of responsibility. Added to that was the fact that Ed had to start cold and catch up with all that was going on and deal with some pressing issues which were emotionally draining. Thank you for your prayers during the last few months. Through the first two weeks of November, pray that the Lord will recharge us to 100%.

This is the great staff at the translation center in Abidjan. They do a great job.

This is the great staff at the translation center in Abidjan. They do a great job.

Making the right decision

decisionAs I have written several times on this blog, we tend to think about culture as the things we see – the different clothes, houses, food, etc. But culture goes deep. In recent years I have been particularly interested in two aspects of culture. One is how different cultures view the causes of things. I’ll reserve that one for another blog. This week, I will describe my thoughts and experiences about how different cultures know what is right – specifically, how they decided if a decision is the right one or not.

Many years ago when I worked in Burkina Faso, I was with a colleague from Burkina Faso and we were working with church leaders concerning the translation of the Bible into their language. At one point, one of them asked why something in the language (his language) was written the way it was. Linguistic nerd that I am, I gave him and explanation of the linguistic reasons why the translators were writing it that way. I tried to take out the technical jargon and I gave a couple of examples. I hoped that I had explained clearly. In any case, the man who had asked the question did not look satisfied.

After I finished, my Burkina Faso colleague took on the question from a totally different perspective. He mentioned the linguist who did the research into the sounds of the language, his qualifications and the amount of time he spent. He then moved on to the translation committee including that it represented  all the churches. Then he said that it was the translation committee which made the decision on such and such a date after reviewing the recommendations of the linguist and studying options.

authorizedThe explanation given by my African colleague clearly satisfied the man asking the question whereas mine had fallen flat. The explanation that the people who made the decision were qualified and duly authorized to do so was much more powerful than my explanation of the linguistic basis.

In other words, in that culture a decision is right when the right people make it.

Dedication of translation committees for three languages in Ghana

Dedication of translation committees for three languages in Ghana. These are the right people to make decisions about the translations.

In my Western culture, it is important that I check the evidence myself and make up my own mind. So I found this idea that a decision is right if the right people made it very strange, even disconcerting. It didn’t take much thinking to realize that we often do the same in the West, just not to the same degree.

I work in a cultures were people give more credence to decisions made by “the right people”. Conversely, they distrust decisions made by “the wrong people”. The “wrong people” include those not authorized to make the decision by virtue of their position. It may also include those who don’t have expertise.

Creating something sustainable, therefore, necessarily includes getting “the right people” in on the decisions – from how to write the language to what word to use for “salvation”. This was driven home to me once when a translation of the New Testament fell quickly into disuse because key decisions about the translation were not made by “the right people”. Because of that, people distrusted it. But that’s a story for another time.

Role ending

The new director and her husband

The new director and her husband

As many of you know, I was unexpectedly asked to serve as acting director for translation work in Côte d’Ivoire and I have filled that role for the last six months. That ended on October 1 when I handed over to an Ivorian, Mrs. Pierrette Ayité (pronounced ah-yee-TAY). One of my principle responsibilities was to work with a group of Ivorian Christians to recruit a new director. It was with great thankfulness to God and a sense of satisfaction that I handed over to her because I believe that she will do a great job.

I have been reflecting on these last few months. I could say lots of things, but one reflection keeps coming back to me. I’ll get to it in a moment.

For a couple decades, our ministry has focused on helping African churches and African Christians understand the role they can play in Bible translation and perhaps receive a call from God to be involved. We did not come to Africa with that focus, not at all. Instead it flowed out of a set of personal experiences and out of seeing how God is growing his church on this continent – both in terms of numbers and in terms of depth.

My time in Côte d’Ivoire confirmed another reason why we pursue this focus. In familiarizing myself with the translation work after my arrival, I discovered a rather serious lack in some of the translation programs. The thing was, it was the Ivorians who saw the lack, not we white missionaries. As I dug into it, I came to be convinced that they were right to be concerned. At the end of September we has a meeting with church leaders where they fully confirmed that the lack was real and that it was crucial that it be dealt with. We should not be surprised that they saw the problem first. This is their country, their languages and their churches. They will understand them in ways we do not.

Ed working with Ivorian staff

Ed and other staff members preparing information for the recruitment of a new director

A very good reason to involve local people in Bible translation is that they will make it more effective because will see problems and opportunities we don’t. That is the reflection that keeps coming back to me. By the way, that reflection is confirmed by recent research showing that translation has more impact where local people are more involved in decision making. If you are interested in working in a cross-cultural team where each person and culture contributes and all are appreciated, ask God if working to produce lasting impact through Bible translation is for you.

PS: Dayle and I will stay in Abidjan for a few more weeks before returning to Ghana.

If you liked this post, you might also like Why Nationals? or Span.

 

Legible or fancy

KJV 1611 Genesis 1A change in technology changes the thing to which we apply the technology. There are lots of examples. Here’s one I love. What you see here is the first page of the first printing of the King James Bible in 1611. (enlarge). It is quite difficult to read. When Bibles were painstakingly hand copied by scribes, before the printing press, they became ornate. Each scribe was in fact a calligrapher.

Few had Bibles, few read them and those who did mostly had jobs that had them reading all day long – university professors, etc. So this system worked. Those who read learned through long practice to read the ornate letters with ease.

After the invention of the printing press, the first printers made Bibles that looked like the hand copied ones. They used the same kind of  ornate “fonts” and decorations. What else would they do? That kind of Bible was the only example they had. Printed Bibles spread more widely than he old hand-copied ones. Soon they were in the hands of lots of people who did not read all day long.

It took quite a while, but someone noticed that Bibles printed this way were difficult to read, especially for people who might only read the Bible a few times a week. People started experimenting with shapes of letters which were easier to read. The focus on the shapes of letters shifted from being fancy or ornate, to being easy to read. Eventually, educators began experiments to see which fonts were easier to read. Soon publishers were printing Bibles in easy-to-read fonts. Today, publishers consider carefully which font to use when printing a Bible and the main consideration is legibility. Get into the right circles, and there are still discussions of which fonts are best.

The technology of printing made the Bible and other documents available to more people. Those people needed something other than ornate letters, so the shapes of the characters (their font) eventually changed to match their needs. It’s one of very many examples of technology changing the thing to which it applied.

ImageTo print Bibles and other documents in local languages, we use fonts created by experts in making easily readable fonts. Those fonts contain all the characters we need, including a number not found in English. For many languages, we use letters like those we have in English, but we add some new letters to account for all the sounds in the language. Here’s an example of some of those added letters.

Capital of engFor the most part, these experts were and are missionaries supported by their churches and friends. Their work is a very important, if often unheralded, part of translating the Bible into all the languages of the world. In fact, I recently saw that Wycliffe is looking to recruit missionaries to do font development.