Dante and the heart language

The history of language is full of odd stories. In the Middle Ages in Europe, almost all poetry was written in Latin. By this fact, it was only available to the very affluent and the very educated. In about 1300, an Italian poet started writing his poetry in Italian instead. He was an advocate for writing books in Italian, including writing a book extolling the virtues of writing in everyday language entitled “On Eloquence in the Vernacular”.

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Dante in a painting by Domenico di Michelino, 1465.

One of his poems became one of the landmark works in Western literature and the greatest work of literature ever written in Italian – The Divine Comedy. His name was Dante and almost all of my readers will know the phrase “Dante’s Inferno” which refers to the first part of the The Divine Comedy.

There is a great irony in all of this because those who promoted the use of Latin thought that writing in other languages – Italian, French, German, and English, among others – was a useless endeavor.

They thought that no one of importance could or would read those languages, whereas everyone of importance could read Latin. So they thought that a writer could not become well-known or well-read if he wrote in any language but Latin. Yet Dante wrote in Italian and he became one of the most well-known poets in all of history. His name is still known world-wide, but only academics know the names of poets who wrote in Latin.

Official_Languages_-_Africa_HL colorsThere’s something similar happening today in parts of Africa. The languages of the colonial powers – English, French and Portuguese – have stayed long after the colonial period ended. Some Africans think that these languages represent the future of their countries, and their churches. Only a few writers write in African languages. The reason given is essentially the same as in Dante’s day: few read in those languages and no one of any importance, so a writer cannot not become well-known or well-read if he writes in an African language.

These kind of ideas seep into the church, causing some African Christians to think that the translation of the Bible into African languages is of little or no value because those languages only have local influence – as though the only things that matter are those that have international influence. Jesus was born into a minority people under the rule of a foreign power. God chose Abraham and made his descendants into his people, even though they have always been one of the world’s smaller peoples and their language never has had worldwide influence.

Besides, staying with the language of international influence isn’t always the road to fame, as history teaches us through Dante and his world famous poem.

Process and results

Tunesia (courtesy NASA)

Bible translators are very concerned about method and process, and rightfully so. Long experience tells us that following a rigorous process yields a good translation most of the time. Whereas ignoring process almost always results in a poor translation. One of the quickest ways to improve an under-performing translation effort is to examine the translators’ process and make changes to bring it in line with best practice.

Because a healthy obsession with process works so well, translators can be tempted to try the same process approach in other areas. One of those is the use and impact of the finished translation. This is fueled by research into what causes some translations to be widely used while others to pile up in storerooms. While that research is helpful, it’s easy to turn that research into a process and then believe that rigidly following it will guarantee that the translation will be enthusiastically received by slavish adherence to the right process and then bring spiritual revival.

But the research tells us that what creates impact and transformation varies. It also seems to tell us what is necessary to promote acceptance and use, but not what will guarantee those desired results. If I don’t put gas in my car, it will stop. But if I do put gas in it, it will stop anyway if something breaks. Gas is necessary but not sufficient.

Jesus said:

The wind blows wherever it wants. Just as you can hear the wind but can’t tell where it comes from or where it is going, so you can’t explain how people are born of the Spirit.” – John 3:8

In my understanding, this verse means that there will never be a sure-fire process for results in missions. There are no magic bullets. We shouldn’t say “If we do this, then we will see results” like a some kind of strange combination of social science and Harry Potter incantation.

Chile / South America (courtesy NASA)

There’s a great illustration of this where deserts meet the ocean. One would think that it would be impossible to have a desert next to a large body of water, but it happens with some frequency in places as diverse as Chile, Mauretania, Namibia and the Arabian Peninsula. Likewise, We can bring the water of our well-studied ministry process next to people and still end up with a fruitless desert.

Effective ministry requires listening for the Spirit speaking into, even sometimes breaking into and disrupting, our well-engineered processes. On occasion, I have sometimes seen amazing results when the experts’ processes were intentionally dropped in favor of a process proposed by people who had no experience at all in translation but who knew their context.

Arabian Peninsula (courtesy NASA)

For granted

Title page of first Twi Bible

The Bible was first translated into the most widely spoken language of Ghana, Twi, in 1871. So when I arrived in Ghana in 2011, those people already had the Bible for 140 years. Children growing up in Christian families just found the Bible. Hardly anyone wondered how they came to have the Bible in their language. No one ever preached on the history of the Twi Bible. So it was just an unquestioned feature of their lives.

Not only that, most Twi Christians assumed without evidence that other languages in Ghana had the Bible too. All this makes Ghanaian like many American Christians who read their Bible without wondering where it came from or if it has been translated into other languages.

Meeting with pastor after presenting Bible translation to his church

When we began presenting Bible translation to Ghanaian churches, people were astonished. We frequently heard surprised voices realizing that they had never wondered how they got their Bible. They were even more surprised to learn that a number of languages in their country did not have the Bible. Knowing the role the Bible in their language played in their personal lives and their churches, they were dismayed that some of their compatriots lacked that same blessing.

On hearing the facts, church leaders sometimes committed their churches on the spot. They just needed to hear facts they didn’t know and to be challenged about things they had assumed or taken for granted. Besides, those who value the Bible in their own lives make the most ardent supporters of Bible translation.

Systematically putting out the facts to the right churches and church leaders is a key way to include them in the worldwide Bible translation movement. Growing that movement is speeding translation dramatically, outpacing even the speed increase from technology

Personal loan

I have written before that culture is not just the outward stuff – food and clothing. Nor is it just the art – dance, music, carving, etc. Culture governs human relationships. Anyone working in a culture not their own is wise to learn and continue learning about that culture.

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Let’s imagine a situation where I give someone a small personal loan. But that person never comes to me to repay it. After a long while, I get frustrated and confront the person that the loan is long overdue. my debtor is offended and our relationship is now strained. If this imaginary scenario took place in some places I have worked, I as the creditor would be responsible for the bad outcome. The reason for this is one small but crucial difference between my culture and the local culture when it comes to personal loans.

In some places where I have worked, the person who receives the loan is not expected to spontaneously repay it. Instead, it is expected that the person who gave the loan will go to the other person and ask for repayment. In fact, if the person giving the loan does not ask take the initiative to ask for repayment, the person who got the loan will probably assume that the loan has been forgiven.

So in the story above, my debtor probably assumed that the loan had been long forgiven, and was then shocked to learn that I considered it long overdue. He feels badly treated. He feels that if I were polite and respectful, I would have come and asked for repayment when I expected or needed it instead of waiting till I felt it was overdue. For him, my behavior is unpredictable, and lacking ordinary human courtesy.

I now have strained or broken a relationship because I gave out a personal loan without taking the time to understand how personal loans work in the culture. This is just one of the ways that studying culture helps a missionary be a good person as defined locally.

Emmanuel

Christmas is about God being with us.

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). – Matthew 1:23

Then the New Year is about going into the unknown, which seems an odd thing to celebrate, when you think about it. But with Immanuel, it all works.

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:

“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”

And he replied:

“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.

That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. (Excerpt of “God Knows” by Minnie Louise Haskins)

When we first went to live in rural Africa, some thought that was imprudent. We have always believed that going where God leads with him is safer than than going somewhere that seems safer without him.

How does Jesus sound?

I want you to consider a strange question. If Jesus came down from heaven and spoke to you today, what would he sound like?

  • A hillbilly?
  • British royalty?
  • Someone from the deep South?

Would his speech have a particular affect?

  • Highbrow?
  • Brainy?
  • Sophisticated?
  • Polished?
  • Uncultured?
  • Uneducated?
  • Archaic?
  • Mystical / religious?

Why do you think that?

The Bible records many times when God spoke to people, including the many instances of Jesus speaking that are recorded in the Gospels. On a few occasions, the Bible records the reaction of those who were listening. None of those reactions indicate that Jesus spoke with an accent or an affect. On the other hand, we have several comments about the content of Jesus words.

Everyone was amazed at his teaching. He taught with authority, and not like the teachers of the Law of Moses. – Mark 1:22 http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark1:22&version=CEV

The people didn’t comment that Jesus’s words were complicated, deep, mysterious, mystical, or religious. (Perhaps the “teachers of the law” spoke like that.) Rather, Jesus’s words carried authority. So, we are left to conclude that Jesus spoke in a very normal way but said extraordinary things. In fact, the idea that God speaks in some special, religious way is the very rare exception in the Bible. It also clashes with Christmas which celebrates God becoming an ordinary baby. The incarnation is a really big indicator that when God interacts with us, he usually does it in ordinary ways. C. S. Lewis wrote:

… the Incarnation itself ought to shock us. The same divine humility which decreed that God should become a baby at a peasant-woman’s breast, and later an arrested field-preacher in the hands of the Roman police, decreed also that He should be preaching in a [common], prosaic and unliterary language.

I remember a group of village elders and their chief telling us how “genuine” and “real” are the words in the translation into their language. That’s a good translation because it puts the focus on the things said.

I think that if Jesus came and spoke to me, I would be captivated by what he said but not even notice how he said it because that would be so completely ordinary. That’s Christmas – a most extraordinary message in the most ordinary form. That’s also what we strive for in translation – God’s extraordinary message in ordinary, everyday words.

First Heart Transplant

It probably seems strange to feature a heart transplant on this blog about Bible translation in Africa. Unlikely as it may seem, there are two links between the two; the first being Africa the second being an African language.

Groote Schuur Hospital

Those of you old enough to remember the first heart transplant may have forgotten that it took place in Africa, South Africa to be precise. It was performed by Dr. Christiaan Neethling Barnard at the Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town in December 1967.

The second link is language; in this case Afrikaans. That language was created with the influx of a large number of Dutch settlers beginning in 1652. They spoke Dutch, of course. Because they were influential, people around them started learning and speaking Dutch, albeit imprefectly. Plus, the settlers encountered plants and animals for which there was no Dutch name, so their names were borrowed from native languages. These forces eventually simplified and changed the Dutch spoken by the settlers creating a new language, Afrikaans, which is now spoken about 10 million people and is one of the official languages of South Africa.

Dr. Barnard grew up speaking Afrikaans at home and school. In fact, he did all his primary and secondary schooling in Africaans, only learning English once he got to university. So the first heart transplant was done in Africa by a man whose mother tongue was a language of Africa and who did much of his schooling in that language.

In light of this, it is rather silly to think that Africans would be better off to abandon their languages and speak English. Instead, I predict that they will do like Dr. Barnard and speak both – one for matters of family, community and the heart, and the other for work and their professional life. In fact, I know many Africans who do exactly that. And like Dr. Barnard and my African friends, that won’t hurt their professional achievements, not even one little bit.

So Bible translations in African languages will be continue to be widely used including by those who master English perfectly in their professional lives. In other words, they won’t undergo a language transplant.

Bibleless Peoples part 4 – Cut off

Children in Ghana

This is the forth in my series on the bibleless peoples. Because the bibleless peoples are so varied, what I write about them in not true for all of them. It may also be true of peoples who are not bibleless.

Nevertheless, most bibleless peoples are cut off. For example, they tend to be among the poorest of the poor. Their children struggle in school. They have more health problems and shorter life spans. Because they speak languages which are mostly unwritten, they are cut off from information, including the revelation in the Bible. They have no way to find out about something, or to verify what they hear. No courses are offered in the languages they speak and there may be no TV or radio programs.

I vividly remember interviewing pastors and learners in a literacy program for churches in Burkina Faso. When I asked one rural pastor why he enrolled his church in the program, he excitedly said that the members of his congregation who could not read were limited to attending and listening, while those who learned to read could help with children’s Sunday School or visit the sick and read the Bible to them. In other words, those who have no Bible or who can’t read it are cut of from even the most basic forms of lay ministry.

Ladies enrolled in the literacy classes excitedly reported that they could now read the Bible to their children. They were visibly thrilled.

Ghanaian woman reading Bible, Photo GILLBT, Rodney Ballard

A Ghanaian researcher reports that Christians who have the Bible in their language are much more likely to witness to their neighbors.

So we see that bibleless Christians, and those with a Bible who can’t read, are cut off from empowerment, including empowerment to carry out even the simplest forms of Christian ministry even when that is their heart’s desire.

Bibleless Peoples part 3 – Controversy

This is part three of a series on the bibleless peoples. In this part, I want to look at the political controversy that often surrounds the languages they speak.
Fear of disunity and conflict is one of the main drivers of political controversy over language. Some people worry that having different communities speaking different languages will result in tensions between those communities that will eventually create enough conflict to tear a country apart. That is the view from the national level. People with this view will sometimes propose that everyone in the country speak the same language.

The view from within a small language community in a nation is very different. They often hear the proposals that there be only one language as a threat – not to their language but to their very identity and existence. So they often react with opposition to the proposals.

Ironically, proposals that there be only one language often create the very political tensions they are designed to end. Recently this exact scenario was played out in India when a prominent person proposed that all India should speak one language. Opposition from those whose mother tongue is another language was strong and swift. Even when they already spoke the proposed language! They said it was an attempt to enslave them and “a war cry” against them. The controversy continued even after the proposal was backtracked. So a proposal made to create unity created tensions instead. Something similar happened over omitting a language on a plaque.

To understand the political reaction against one-language proposals, we need to move away from understanding language as simply a means of communication. Instead, ethnic groups often use the individual threads of their language, their culture, their history, and their religion into weave a cloth that constitutes their identity. They perceive that they cannot lose any one thread, say language, without unraveling the whole cloth. So their language is not just their means of communication, but rather an integral and cherished part of who they are. For this reason, bibleless peoples often feel that their identity is threatened when their language is threatened.

Professor B Y Quarshie says:

Local languages are not morphology and syntax, they are a people’s identity

And Professor Lamin Sanneh wrote:

Language [is] not merely a tool fashioned to achieve limited and temporary goals. It [is] also a dynamic cultural resource, reflecting the spirit of the people and illuminating their sense of values.

And a recent article in a Nigerian newspaper stated:

Language is more than spoken words. It is the bedrock of any cultural and traditional society. Take away the language, and the core spirit of heritage and history is lost.

Ghanaian with his Bible

People’s attachment to their language showed up recently in South Africa when the daughter of TV stars would only speak English and not her parents’ African language. Many South Africans criticized her for abandoning her true identity. They were fine with her speaking English, but thought she should speak her African language too. I could continue with unending examples of the fierce attachment people have to their language because it is part of their identity.

Language will probably always be a hot political issue given the competing demands of national unity and local identity. But the attachment people have to their language makes it a great medium for transmitting the Gospel. Those announcing the Gospel do themselves a great disfavor if they see language as divisive, or as only a utilitarian issue of communication rather than as a God-given door to peoples’ hearts.

We take the latter approach, and so we call this blog Heart Language.

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