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.

Tired of the Bible

One day back when we lived and worked in Burkina Faso, I found myself traveling through a town where the Bible was being translated into the local language. The translation was being done by another organization, but I knew the translators – a  great team of local men. So I stopped to see them and perhaps encourage them. I found them busy in their translation office. It was great to spend a few minutes with them finding out how they were and how the translation was going.

imageWhen I asked what book they were translating, the said Job. When I asked how that was going, they looked completely fatigued, their shoulders drooped, they hung their heads and one of them mumbled in the feeble voice of an old man. “We are so tired of the philosophy of Job’s friends.”

I get it. When reading Job I’m tempted to read the first two chapters then skip the next 39 to finish with chapter 42. If reading chapters 3 through 41 can be tiresome, can you imagine translating sentences like this day after day?

For with sons of the field is thy covenant (Job 5:23 YLT)

The by-word of American culture these days appears to be “exciting”. Everything is supposed to be exciting. Exciting is good. Boring is bad. Tiring is, well, tiring. But, I think that those Bible translators from Burkina Faso were on to something. Maybe fatigue is an appropriate response to the unbroken flow of mistaken opinions from Job’s friends. After all, they made God angry:

The Lord said to Eliphaz: What my servant Job has said about me is true, but I am angry at you and your two friends for not telling the truth. (Job 42:7 CEV)

God has emotions. When God speaks to us through his Word, that can cause an emotional response. Let’s not think that only certain emotions are allowed – that we have to have only “holy” emotions. I find it instructive that those translators found the opinions of Job’s friends to be tiring. God wants our honest reactions to his Word.

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.

Dominion

Some time ago, I had a meal with a man from Ivory Coast who told quite an unusual story about his salvation. When he started his professional life as a professor of law at a university, he was not a believer. One of his students kept bugging him to attend her church. He really was not interested so he kept putting her off, but she persisted. One day, she invited him to a church convention. He thought: “I am not going to get rid of this girl until I go to her church, so I’ll go and get it over with.” And he went.

He was intrigued by the message, especially about an all-powerful God. Then the preacher said that after God created man, he gave him dominion, citing Genesis 1:26-28:

Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us. They will reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the wild animals on the earth, and the small animals that scurry along the ground.” So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Then God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground.”

dominionWhen the preacher said that God gave human beings dominion, the man was amazed. He thought: “This means that God took some of his authority and confided it in us!” This idea of dominion kept going around in his head. It caused him to think of a traditional practice he and his wife followed in their family. It was the practice of a totem or taboo.

crocodile-tabooTotems or taboos are part of the traditional practices of many African peoples. They often take the form of a prohibition to eat certain foods because they are associated with a person’s clan or family. So members of the crocodile clan can’t eat crocodile meat, for example. Depending on how these taboos or totems are distributed, there can be members of the same family who have different taboos or totems – some not eating crocodile, others not eating monkey, and so on. It is believed that if a person eats a taboo food, the spirit of the totem will harm, even kill, them.

One of this man’s daughters had a taboo against a certain food. But this dominion idea got him thinking: “If God gave me dominion over things, how could it be that a taboo spirit could have dominion over me?” He fasted and prayed for three days, and then had his wife cook the taboo food and they all ate it with no ill effects. He gave his life to Christ and has been a stalwart in the church ever since. He gives legal advice to those of us doing Bible translation and to other organizations.

scrollIt struck me as the man was telling this story that all of the concepts and Bible texts that lead him to salvation are from the Old Testament. The idea that God is all powerful is present in the New Testament, but it is in the Old Testament that it is fully present and developed. The story of creation and God giving human beings dominion over creation is obviously an Old Testament story.

I have never heard a salvation message in the US on Genesis chapter one. I doubt that it would be effective. But it was powerfully effective for this man. Plus, the preacher was using that text, so he must have thought that it was relevant and appropriate for his audience. Here have a highly educated African man coming to Christ through Genesis chapter one.

Why do I think that we need to translate the Old Testament into more African languages? Because, among other good reasons, it’s teaching resonates in ways that change peoples lives and bring them to salvation.

Power Encounters

broken-chainDuring my last weeks in Côte d’Ivoire, two Ivorians friends told me about the experiences of their parents who were some of the first believers in their areas. Their parents had told them of numerous power encounters – events where God intervened by his power to validate and protect them as they evangelized. The story of Elijah on Mount Carmel tells of a power encounter.

My friends’ parents told of going to villages on evangelism trips. They ate when people offered them food, but unbeknown to them, the people had poisoned the food. However, they ate it with no ill effects. After they ate, the people who had offered the food thought that it must be okay, so they ate the rest. But they became very ill and some died. My friends said that their parents told them lots of such stories when they were growing up.

This story came up because one of my friends is helping with conflict resolution in an area of the country where there is a conflict over religion. Those who follow traditional religious practices are insisting that others, including Christians, also respect those practices. Christians who don’t are being harassed and even attacked. He is working with others to resolve the conflict before it escalates, but they’re not having a lot of success.

gye-nyame

The Ghanaian symbol for God the exceptional – Gye Nyame

My Ivorian friends are seeing the return if some religious practices they thought had disappeared with their parents and grandparents generation. This matches my observations in Ghana where traditional religion is making a bit of a comeback. A survey in Ghana showed that a higher percentage of educated people believe that sorcery has real power. And this is at a time when more Ghanaians have more education than ever before. It seems that education is not the answer. But then, we knew that.

Things have changed

i-zAt the end of my time as Director for Côte d’Ivoire, I was moving from files for the incoming Director. That meant labeling a file drawer. The drawer was previously labeled “Members “I-Z”. That meant that when that label was made, it took two file drawers to contain the personnel files for the members (meaning missionaries from the West) who worked in Ivory Coast and this drawer contained those whose last name started with a letter from I to Z.

I was amused. It took me back to the time when Bible translation was lead and motivated by missionaries coming from the United States, Great Britain, Switzerland and other western countries. In fact, that situation lasted for the first 20 years I was in Africa. This simple file drawer label took me back to that time.

Handing over to the new Director

Handing over to the new Director

Dayle and I were in Ivory Coast temporarily and I had just handed over to an Ivorian Director. There was one another American couple here and they were temporary too. Besides the four of us, there were no western missionaries residing in the country doing Bible translation. It only took a few hanging folders occupying a small part of one file drawer to contain all their paperwork. But there are translations ongoing in 19 languages and those files are voluminous.

One of the big changes in Bible translation in Africa over the last two decades is the ascendancy of national translators and related personnel and the steep decline in the number of western missionaries working directly or indirectly in translation. This change was foreseeable from the early 1990s. It began happening in the mid 1990s and accelerated after the year 2000.

change-is-bad-goodI have met a number of missionaries working in Bible translation who found these changes troubling. They ask what we are doing wrong, or what the church back home is doing wrong. Once, when I described the changes, a fellow missionary told me “You do nothing but discourage me.” This was in spite of the fact that we had a number of highly trained Africans ready to fill the gap; some with more training and experience than some missionaries.

The Bible has some interesting stories about people living in what they considered very bad situations but God said that the situations were good. One of my favorites is in Jeremiah 24 which starts like this:

The Lord spoke to me in a vision after King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia had come to Judah and taken King Jehoiachin, his officials, and all the skilled workers back to Babylonia. In this vision I saw two baskets of figs in front of the Lord’s temple. One basket was full of very good figs that ripened early, and the other was full of rotten figs that were not fit to eat.
“Jeremiah,” the Lord asked, “what do you see?”
“Figs,” I said. “Some are very good, but the others are too rotten to eat.” (Jeremiah 24:1-3 CEV)

Dried figs: Photo courtesy of Mburnat via Wikipedia commons

Dried figs. Photo courtesy of Mburnat via Wikipedia commons

You will agree with me that those who had been forcibly removed form their homes and taken to a foreign country were unfortunate while those who were left in their county were fortunate. But God goes on to say the opposite – that those who were taken away from the country and their homes by force are the fortunate ones; but those who remained in their country and their homes are unfortunate; the bad figs are really the good figs and vice versa. God has a radically different interpretation of the events and his interpretation was confirmed over coming decades.

When we experience disappointment or other negatives, we need to ask God to give us his view of the events.

One of the challenges in missions is for missionaries to seek God’s view of the trends that are happening rather than relying on our gut instinct. I have come to the conclusion that shrinking missionary workforce and the increased number of nationals is not someone’s mistake. It is God’s doing. If we try to fix it we are actually working against God.

Now this does not mean that there is no room in Bible translation for Western missionaries. Quite the contrary. God calls who he calls without regard to nationality, race, gender or anything else. The question is not whether there is a place in Bible translation for Westerners, but rather whether God has called you and whether as a missionary you will work to promote the directions God is taking Bible translation or work against them.

A workshop where translators from five languages perfected their translation of the book of Romans.

A workshop where translators from five languages perfected their translation of the book of Romans.

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.