Leverage

Old Presbyterian church in Abetifi

About two centuries ago, German church leaders, business people and others seized an opportunity. They sent missionaries to evangelize and translate the Bible into the languages of the Gold Coast, now called Ghana. Some came with their coffins in tow and a number died while carrying out their work. Some lost children. But they bent German economic-industrial and theological prowess to the task. They trained select Gold Coast citizens in the world’s best seminaries of the day – German seminaries – under the best theologians of the day – again German. They did language development, translation, literacy education and evangelism in the languages of the Gold Coast using some of the best linguistics training of the day from German universities. They created dictionaries and grammars of Ghanaian languages which are still highly regarded, even definitive. They produced world-class Bible translations in the languages of the southern half of Ghana. As the translations were completed, they were forced to leave because of World War I. At that point, their evangelistic efforts had only yielded modest fruit as the Gold Coast was then less than 5% Christian.

During the first half of the twentieth century, Christianity expanded rapidly, but only where there were translations. Where they existed, mother tongue translations enabled Christianity to penetrate all classes of society. Men with minimal education but who read the Bible in their mother tongues became church leaders, pastors, and evangelists. With their mother tongue Bibles they grew the church in a relatively hostile environment. Some of those churches now have millions of members and thousands, even tens of thousands, of congregations. Schools founded by the missionaries trained the people who went on to militate for and then gain Ghana’s independence and lead its businesses and industries.

Meanwhile, the transformation did not take place in areas where there was no translation. Ghana was decisively transformed where German missionaries translated the Bible, and left untouched elsewhere. Let us remember that their efforts were initiated, organized and financed by German churches and that those churches were being empowered by their members who were both creating and benefiting from 19th century Germany’s emergence as a world theological, industrial and economic power. When church members stand behind missions, amazing things happen.

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.

What speeds up translation?

Translators correct translation on computerWhen I am in the US, people often ask how much technology is speeding up Bible translation. I don’t know of any formal assessment, but I have seen translations done before computers and now with them. My own personal estimate is that the computer shaves 1-2 years off a translation project. Furthermore, the time is saves was mostly spent doing tedious and uncreative tasks like checking spelling and consistency.

Bible translation for minority peoples is progressing at 2-3 times the pace it was two decades ago. What is producing that increased pace? Well, technology accounts for a small part of the increase. But the biggest increase is coming from elsewhere.

In an article entitled “The Vernacular Treasure” in The International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Dr. Harriet Hill of the American Bible Society says this about the increased speed.

Translation organizations are working more intentionally with partners, recruiting and training translators from all nations of the world, and working with clusters of related languages rather than with one language at a time.

So, she sees three changes that are increasing the pace of Bible translation.

  • working more intentionally with partners
  • recruiting and training translators from all nations of the world
  • working with clusters of related languages

Michael Serchie, Gilbert Ansre and EdI concur with her assessment that these are real causes for the increased pace. Technology is important. But it is the human connections (working intentionally with partners) and the building up of God’s people (training translators from all nations) that reflect God’s kingdom. We should not be surprised, therefore, that increases in the pace of translation come mostly from doing those things.

That is why our goals and activities, are built around partnering in a new way with the churches in Ghana and training their people to accelerate the translation of the Bible for all the peoples of Ghana and beyond.

Missionaries destroy culture?

The claim that missionaries destroy culture has been around for a while. There are a lot of answers to the claim, not the least is the work of Yale Historian Lamin Sanneh and sociologist Robert Woodberry. But let me add another perspective.

Afaka script

Afaka script

Language and culture are intricately linked. A person’s language expresses their culture. It contains the concepts that pass the culture from generation to generation. So work which enhances the reach or use of that language necessarily protects and promotes the culture. Some languages have very complex scripts. Think of a script as an alphabet and the rules that govern its use. For example, in English we have an alphabet with two cases – upper case and lower case, or capital and ordinary letters. We have rules that govern when we use upper case and when we use lower case. iGnOrE tHoSe RuLeS aNd ReAdInG gEtS dIfFiCuLt, and writing too. Just try typing that! Some scripts have more than two cases. I have heard of four. And there are several other kinds of complexity used in writing systems around the world.

Devanagari script

Devanagari script

This kind of complexity poses issues for keyboarding the language on a computer. Here is a link to an interesting short slide show showing even more complex scripts. When you get to the page, click on the map to launch the slide show. You have to manually advance the slide show from one section to the next.
http://scripts.sil.org/cms/scripts/page.php?site_id=nrsi&id=

Tifinagh script

Tifinagh script

Some highly skilled people have put in a LOT of work so that all these scripts can be used on a computer; so that people who speak those languages can send email to each other, or post in their language on Facebook, or have web sites for their organizations, government offices, and businesses. They did this with little backing from computer companies. Who were they? Well, they were missionaries. They wanted to be able to keyboard these languages in order to translate the Bible, teach people to read and produce Christian literature. But their work can be used much more widely.

Tai Viet script

Tai Viet script

When they finished, what did they do? Did they archive the systems they created? Did they hide them? No, they spent even more time and money to make the technology available to everyone, using a widely accepted standard called Open Source, then they did more work to make it available on a website, free for anyone, none of which they needed to do for their own purposes. They did it so that the people who speak those languages, whether they are Christians or not, will benefit from the tools they developed.

A pretty strange way to disrespect and destroy cultures, I think.

Writing Systems of the World

Writing Systems of the World

Ringtones

I have written before that mobile phones are the first technology to be more quickly adopted in the developing world than in the places we usually associate with technology. There are lots of reasons for that, including that owning and operating one is not expensive and saves a person time and money. But that is not my story.

Dayle and I each have a phone here in Ghana with a network called MTN. We have a prepaid account, do not pay for incoming calls, and probably spend about $10 each per month on the phone, often less. Each mobile network has its own color and they each paint houses and buildings along the road in their color as advertisement.

Buidings painted in the colors of mobile phone networks

Buidings painted in the colors of mobile phone networks

To make a little money on the side, MTN sells custom ringtones. So, when I am making a call, instead of hearing a dialing tone (which would be wasted time, right?) I hear an advertisement for a ringtone with the option to push a certain key to download it for a small fee. Free enterprise at work, no story there. It is the ringtones themselves that caught my attention, even though have I not purchased one. The most frequent offerings are recorded songs by Ghanaian Gospel artists. They have a clear Christian message. So, while waiting for my call to connect, I am often treated to a few lines of song like

  • These are the days of Elijah, or
  • I pledge allegiance to the Lamb

And now you know what kind of songs and message MTN thinks its Ghanaian customers want. I’ll bet that they are right.

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Two SIM phone

Over 70% of Ghanaians have a mobile phone. There are 17 million mobile phones in this country of 24 million. That means that the only big group without a phone is young children.

In late August, I had just finished 3 1/2 days of communications strategy. But Kwame, a cab driver I met, was teaching me the real marketing lessons. When I rode with him, he took my number and he calls every few days to say hi and remind me that he is available when I might need him. And, if you had not heard, mobile banking is big in Africa, and it is not being led by the banks, but by the mobile phone companies. And they did not plan for it. Africans generated the idea at the grassroots. Some think that it will result in increased access to financial services for the poor and thus help reduce poverty.

Two-sim phone

Nokia phone with back off showing places for two SIM chips

Because some places are covered by one network and different places by another, a number of people started carrying two phones. No more. Here is a phone I bought for about $50 and which can be on two networks at once because it has two SIM chips.  The back is off and you can see the two shiny doors for each SIM chip. Like most people here I have a prepaid account, no contract and the cost is VERY reasonable.

So, why is a a guy involved in Bible translation going on and on and one about mobile phones? Well, I do like technology. I also try to understand the place where I work. But there is more! It is possible to put the Bible on many mobile phones.

Bible Is offers the Bible on iPhone and Android. They already have the New Testament available in hundreds of languages and plan to have it in 2,000 by the year 2020! Can Africans afford expensive iPhone and Android phones? They don’t have to. There is a China-made Android phone selling in Ghana for $80 – with no contract to sign! But Scripture can be put on some phones that cost as little as $40.

There is work to do on the details, but I think that in five years there will be more copies of the Bible in Ghanaian languages on mobile phones than are printed. Because there is no printing, the cost will plummet. The plan I am helping with will definitely include getting all the Bibles in all the languages of Ghana on mobile phones.

If you like this, you might also like my blog about mobile phones making Ghana more colorful?

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Cell phones and colors

On Saturday the 12th while in Ghana, I traveled from Accra to Tamale by road.  In keeping with the rainy season, the sky was laden with low-hanging grey clouds that pressed their gloom down on us.  To keep us from falling into depression, we were treated to a visual shock treatment in the form of the colors of the cell phone companies.

As advertisement, each cell company offers to paint your house or business in its color for free, provided you let it add its logo.  MTN’s color is yellow. Vodacom’s is red.  Tigo’s is blue and Zain’s are purple and green.

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It seemed that every other building beside the road was painted Vodacom’s neurotransmitter red or MTN’s smiley yellow with a few of Zain’s mood-enhancing greens or purples for variety.  It seems that Tigo’ s painting program is a lot less active.  Perhaps it is just as well.  We did not need more “blue”.

Sometimes the Vodacom, MTN and Zain colors would be right next to each (see one of the photos on the right)  as if we needed to be on two or three anti-depressants at once.  In one rural village, the yellow and red buildings were contrastively interspersed between the earth browns of traditional mud-walled houses.

As an adjunct treatment, taxis are required to have each of their four fenders painted a deep yellow.  There were quite a few taxis in most towns; often awaiting clients in front of a building painted in cheery MTN yellow or wake-up Vodacom red.

In Congo the same thing is happening to the point that it seems that there is a race on to see which company can paint more of the buildings in town its colors.

In addition, cell phone towers are everywhere.  So many that the Ghana government suspended cell phone tower construction temporarily while it studied the matter.  In one place one tower rose out of a little papaya orchard, like a misplaced tree of the wrong species.

The dreary day was dealt a deadly blow.  I arrived in Tamale in great spirits.  My apologies to the makers of Prozac.

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