Learning going the wrong way

Dedication of representative translation committees for three Ghana languages, 2014

Launching translations in three small languages in Ghana’s Volta Region that no on ever learns, although the people who speak these languages almost always learn the regional language.

In Africa, people who speak small languages learn larger languages, but the reverse does not usually happen.

When a missionary whose language is English learns a small language, that speaks volumes. Not only has the missionary learned the language, he or she has done something counter their own interests. Learning the smaller language is a step down the social ladder. When Africans learn smaller languages to minister to people, that also speaks volumes about humility and service. I have written about a specific example.

An African translator told me how a church leader mocked him for volunteering to help in literacy in his “little language”. The person told him that such activities have no value because his language is so small.

But the things that are growing the church in rural areas in northern Ghana and northern Côte d’Ivoire are translations and literacy in those “worthless” languages that no one will bother to learn. It’s another delicious example of God’s subversion from below:

Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. (I Corinthians 1:27)

It turns out that the things people readily dismiss as useless provide the real leverage for transforming communities and bringing Gospel life.

Dead-End Translation

Presbyterian Bible translator

Last week, this blog was about how Bible translations done in Ghana in the late 1800s contributed to dramatic church growth in the first half of the 1900s. I also noted that after a first wave of translations carried out by German Presbyterian missionaries, there were no translations started in other Ghanaian languages for 50 years. The churches that grew on the basis of those translations, who used them widely and enthusiastically did not take up the task of translating the Bible for their fellow Ghanaians who still did not have the Bible in their languages.

This situation is not unusual. The Bible was translated into the Ge’ez language (also called Ethiopic) of Ethiopia sometime in the 5th, 6th, and 7th centuries. It was one of the first translations of the Bible coming just after Jerome did his translation, the Vulgate, into Latin.

It was also followed by a time when no more translations were done, but the stoppage in Africa lasted over 1000 years! Having been blessed with a translation in their own language, Ethiopian Christians did not start other translations. Exactly the opposite! Even when the Ge’ez language died out sometime before the year 1300, the church and Christians in Ethiopia continued to use and revere the Ge’ez translation that no one understood except a few academics. Not only did they fail to translate the Bible into the Amharic language which became the most widely spoken language in Ethiopia, they insisted that the incomprehensible Ge’ez translation was the only real Word of God.

Ge’ez translation

History shows that it is the usual pattern that people who receive a translation of the Bible from missionaries and use it enthusiastically, do not then decide to translate the Bible for others. In fact, they might insist that others use the Bible in their language, even when that translation becomes archaic or the language even disappears. In this sense, translating the Bible is often a dead-end task. Oh, it bears fruit in terms of faith and the growth of the church where that language is spoken. In that way it is anything but a dead-end.

But translating is most often a dead-end in terms of prompting the beneficiaries to do a translation for a language next door or in the next country. There are probably many American Christians who are deeply blessed by the Bible in English but who have not thought about making sure those who speak other languages have the same blessing.

Our role in Ghana is to work with Ghanaians to show the churches here the dead-end sign they have erected without thinking about it so that the Holy Spirit might prompt them to take it down and build a continuation of the road missionaries started by translating the Bible into the Ghanaian languages that still don’t have it, and then continue beyond Ghana’s borders.

Translation, Church Growth, Ghana

It was in the late 1800s and early 1900s that missionaries working with local people completed the first translations of the Bible into the languages of southern and central Ghana. At the time, less than five percent of Ghanaians were Christians. The German Presbyterian missionaries saw their churches grow slowly but steadily.

Then two things happened no one expected.

The first was World War I. At the time, Ghana was then The Gold Coast and it was a British colony. As you can imagine, Germans were not welcome when Britain entered WWI, not even missionaries. The authorities expelled the German missionaries. The church they had started had to stand on its own. It did, and it grew, using the Scriptures and liturgy in local languages.

The second unexpected event was the arrival of Pentecostalism. A layman named Peter Newman Anim left a church founded by missionaries, encountered some pentecostal theology coming out of Portland, Oregon and founded the Christ Apostolic Church. Those who ministered with him were uneducated farmers, laborers, fishermen and even hunters. So they didn’t know English. The Bibles in Ghanaian languages became their only source of faith and truth. They worshiped, read, taught and evangelized in those languages. In the first half of the 20th century, Pentecostalism reached deeply into the uneducated who were most Ghanaians at the time. They learned to read in church, their songs were full of Scripture and they took the Bible as the Word of God. The results were astounding. Over the first five decades of the 20th century, the percentage of Ghanaians professing Christian faith grew from a paltry 5% to at least 50% (it stands at 60% today). But only where the Bible had been translated. Elsewhere, other religions made headway.

It was quite a combination: the Scriptures in the mother tongue and a church that took both the mother tongue and the Scriptures seriously. They had no doubts whatsoever that God speaks through his Word. Nor did they wonder if their language was up to the task of conveying Bible truth.

Some of my colleagues recently went to visit the head of the church Anim founded. On hearing that they are involved in translation into Ghanaian languages, he spontaneously launched into a historic and theological rationale for the use of the heart language (including the translation of the Bible) to create vibrant churches. He should know; his church has grown to have several million members and although it has many educated members, the backbone is still preaching, singing, worship and reading the Bible in the heart language.

The modern religious map of Africa reveals in a striking way the close connection between the growth of Christianity and the widespread employment of the vernacular. The converse also seems to hold: Christian growth has been slightest in areas where vernacular languages are weak—that is, where a lingua franca such as English, French, Portuguese, Arabic or Swahili has succeeded in suppressing mother tongues. -Lamin Sanneh in Christian Missions and the Western Guilt Complex

The translation of the Bible in Ghana stopped after the German missionaries left. No new translations were started for 50 years.  In the 1960s, a new wave of Bible translation, this one initiated by Wycliffe Bible Translators, started in the north. By the 1970s New Testaments were being dedicated here and there in the North. More recently, and 100 years after it happened in the south, a number of whole Bibles have been dedicated. Just as happened in the south 100 years ago, churches based on the Scriptures in the heart languages of the people are taking hold. But, there was a short stoppage again from 1990 through 2010. We are working to have the third wave of translation in Ghana be the last and be the one designed, implemented and resourced by churches and Christians in Ghana.

Comfortable in ambiguity

Village in Burkina Faso near Banfora

Village in Burkina Faso near the town of Banfora

Not long after arriving in Africa, I was visiting people in the rural area where I was living. I came across a group of men eating. They invited me to eat with them. I hesitated. Should I accept. I wasn’t hungry. I made a quick decision. After more experience I realized that my decision was probably not the right one.

At first, living and working in a culture not one’s own is an exercise in making decisions without enough information. It is living in uncertainty.

In all cultures people give off clues about what behavior they expect or don’t expect. If you aren’t from the culture and so you don’t know the clues… People say things to be polite that they don’t expect you to act on. Or they say things to which an outsider does not know the correct response. I remember several times understanding every word someone said to me and not having the foggiest idea what to say or do in response. (To be fair, I’m like that in my own culture sometimes too.)

The thing is, missionaries love people. We want to understand them. We don’t want to offend them. So walking around in uncertainty in a culture we don’t know can leave us in fear of making a big cultural blooper. That fear can hang over our heads threatening to jump in and ruin our relationships and our ministry. While it is good to be aware and to learn, we give that fear more power than it really has. I’ve seen missionaries completely stressed out over it. That’s a real source of culture stress.

Ed learning language, 1978

Ed learning language, 1978

People on short term missions trips might not be savvy enough to have the fear, or they might not stay long enough to encounter it. Tourists don’t usually have this fear because they don’t care or aren’t as invested in the outcome because shortly they’ll be gone.

A top coping skill for a cross-cultural missionary is being comfortable with ambiguous situations, not stressing about missing information, and being willing to go through the hard, ambiguous phase until they get a better handle on things, even if that handle is never really perfect.

Deep and wide

Ed addressing the workshop

Ed addressing a regional workshop

A few months back, I attended a few sessions of a training event for African church leaders. The topic was the use of African languages in the ministry of the church. That includes translations of the Bible in African languages, of course. The focus of the training was on getting faith deep into hearts and minds so that influences all of life. Some have remarked that Christianity in Africa is a mile wide and an inch deep. It is common for Christians and churches to split along ethnic lines during ethnic conflicts.

mandela-his-languageI know of cases where Christians have tried to harm, even kill, other members of their own church who were from the “enemy” ethnic group. Corruption is rampant in parts of African where there are many Christians. Serious Christians and church leaders are asking what is wrong and how to fix it. What is lacking in the preaching of the Gospel? What are churches not doing or doing wrong? How does faith get to the level of changing a person’s values, actions and allegiances? I have heard African Christians and their church leaders ask discuss these questions. The leaders of the workshop, themselves Africans, were proposing that deep faith that changes a person often involves the person’s mother tongue, even if it involves other languages as well.

At the end of the workshop, one of the participants, the leader of a large church in the country, told the group that he realized during the workshop that:

We win lots of souls, but we don’t give them what they need to grow in their new faith.

After the event, he asked for help planning a literacy effort for the Christians in his churches so that they could read the Bible in their own languages. We sent him a literacy specialist to help him get started. In Great Commission it is obvious that Jesus was giving instructions to do much more than “win lots of souls”. Jesus said to teach people “to observe all that I have commanded”. So we commend the church leader who wants to see the people in his churches grow in their faith.

We are doing Bible translation so that Christianity in Africa will be as deep as it is wide.

Heart language and human rights

UN Peace Keepers in Côte d'Ivoire

UN Peace Keepers in Côte d’Ivoire

In the past decade, Côte d’Ivoire has gone through two civil wars. The United Nations sent a peacekeeping force to separate the warring factions and bring peace. One of the tasks undertaken by the UN forces was giving out information about Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The idea was to help people at the grassroots be aware of their rights rather than take whatever treatment given them by armed groups and others.

This is where Dayle and I took a temporary, six-month assignment in 2016. One of the Ivorian linguists I worked with was present in a rural area when peacekeepers came through and gave out information on human rights. He could see that it wasn’t going well. Some of the people were even sleeping. One of the reasons was clear – language. There are over 70 languages spoken in Ivory Coast but the peacekeepers were not using the local language. They were speaking in French and an interpreter was interpreting on the fly. That is an impossible job. Just translating “human rights” into the languages is a challenge. It’s not an impossible challenge, but if you give an interpreter 10 seconds to think about it (while he’s interpreting something else), that is impossible. Your going to get a bad translation.

udhr_booklet_en_web_011The linguist decided to translate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into his language, the one in the area where he had witnessed the failed communication. He had training in Bible translation which includes training in translating unknown concepts. There are techniques and options for translating “snow”, for example, into a language in a tropical region that does not have a word for snow. He applied those techniques to words and phrases like “human rights” in the Declaration. He then printed a few copies and distributed them to literacy classes in that language. People in the classes read and discussed the Declaration. The results were immediate.

The next time the peacekeepers came through, an uneducated farmer asked them if they really believed in human rights. He then went on to cite specific parts of the Declaration and specific incidents where the peacekeepers themselves were in violation! In several villages, previously illiterate peasant farmers formed human rights committees which reported abuses of human rights to the peacekeepers and to the authorities. A number of these were acted on. Their situation improved.

Eleanor Roosevelt and the UDHR

Eleanor Roosevelt and the UDHR

God gave us each our heart language for a reason – it reaches into the core of our being. It can motivate us to action where the same information in other languages just goes in one ear and out the other. Our mother tongues (which I call our heart languages) are a vehicle for lasting transformation at the grassroots that touches the lives of everyday people. Development workers, humanitarians and missionaries who neglect it weaken their efforts, sometimes fatally.

On the other hand, the Gospel and the heart language make a potent combination.

(The illustrations come from a fun publication for children on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.)

Ideophones and prayer

Some time ago, I was at a training event where an African was praying in her language. In the middle of the prayer came a rapid, staccato “dedede” (pronounced day day day). The person was using very common kind of word in African languages – an ideophone. When linguists first encountered these words in African languages they said that the words were “painting with sound”. And that’s how they came to be called idea-sounds, which is what ideophones means. (Not to be confused with idiophones which is a class of musical instruments. If you remember onomatopoeia from your English classes in school, you may wonder if ideophones are just onomatopoeia. Actually, ideophone is a broader term. Onomatopoeia are a kind of ideophone.)

Information about this ideophone from "The Structure of Ideophones in African and Asian Languages: The Case of Dagaare and Cantonese", Adams Bodomo, The University of Hong Kong

Information about this ideophone from “The Structure of Ideophones in African and Asian Languages: The Case of Dagaare and Cantonese”, Adams Bodomo, The University of Hong Kong

Cock-a-doodle-doo is an ideophone. While English has ideophones, there are not nearly as many as there are in African languages, nor are they used as frequently. In English, they are limited mostly to sounds made by animals and machines. In African languages ideophones are used for many other things such as the way something moves, its shape, or its position. One of my favorites means “gigantic, unwieldy blob of a thing”

In African languages, ideophones have the same sounds (consonants and vowels) as other words in the language, but they put them together in ways other words do not. They are also different because they don’t take prefixes or suffixes.

We can say that the rooster was cock-a-doodle-dooing, or that he cock-a-doodle-dooed, but African ideophones can’t add things like “ing” and “ed” the way we do in English. These features make ideophones a separate class of words in African languages.

But the most important thing about ideophones is that they paint mental images that stir up feelings, visual memories, or sensations. Their use in a prayer is a sign that the the person praying is saying something straight from their heart. In fact, the person is saying something that would require a whole phrase or sentence to say without the ideophone. An ideophone is a like a very compact, and therefore powerful, dose of images.

Praying 1

Prayer in a church in Congo

But ideophones are somewhat in danger. Many educated Africans don’t say them often. Perhaps they have been influenced by the official language, English or French, they learned in school. Or, they may mistakenly consider them primitive. So when an educated African Christian uses an ideophone in prayer in front of other educated people, that person is showing an attachment to and respect for their language that goes beyond the ordinary. It also shows that they are conveying to God thoughts and emotions that come straight from their heart.

We work in Bible translation, but our concern is wider than that. Through translation, we want people to know that they can use all of their language to connect to God, so that they will connect to him from the deepest part of their being. The person praying was doing just that. – Woo woo woo woo woo!!!

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