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.

Forced changes

I am filling in temporarily as the director for translation work in Côte d’Ivoire (also known as Ivory Coast). If things go according to plan, we’ll be back in Ghana in a few months.

Abandonned armoured vehicle in Ivory Coast. Photo courtesy of a colleague.

Abandonned armoured vehicle in Ivory Coast. Photo courtesy of a colleague.

Ivory Coast is coming out of prolonged period of conflict and civil war. During a good part of that time, many missionaries and almost all Westerners doing Bible translation left the country. That left the Ivorian translators on their own. Instead of stopping, most of them kept translating. Coming out of the conflict, we have a very different situation than we had going in. There are still outsiders involved, but like Dayle and I, most of them play limited roles.  Ivorians are the translators, they lead the translation programs, provide expert guidance, do the training and provide quality control.

But the change is more profound than than just changing the faces around the translation table. Churches here are picking up the will to do translation. They sponsor translation programs, choose translators and take care of some of the administrative details. Some have been quite active in doing adult literacy among their members. I am working with a group of Ivorian Christians who want to reformulate how Bible translation is done so that it fits their way of doing things. They think that will give the translations even more impact. I agree.

A number of years ago, the head of a successful African mission told me:

David could not use Saul’s armor. The church in Africa will not do Bible translation the way you do.

David was successful precisely because he abandoned the standard way, the “right way”, the king’s way, the way all the experts advised. King Saul told David:

 “Don’t be ridiculous!” Saul replied. “There’s no way you can fight this Philistine and possibly win! You’re only a boy, and he’s been a man of war since his youth.” (I Samuel 17:33)

Africa is considered inconsequential by many, just as Saul thought David inconsequential. Might Jesus’ church in inconsequential Africa devise a way to translate the Bible into its 1,800 languages that no translation expert would ever recommend and yet succeed by doing it their way? I believe that is exactly what will happen. The conflict in Ivory Coast forced some changes in Bible translation. Those changes are opening the door to more profound changes. I say: Be on the lookout for falling giants.

The meeting room at the translation center in Abidjan. Bullets came through this roof doing the conflict.

The meeting room at the translation center in Abidjan. Bullets came through this roof doing the conflict.

Why new translations

There are good reasons to update Bible translations and produce new ones in a language. One of the reasons to do that is that language changes. Words change meaning. When they do, the old translation ceases to communicate. Sometimes, old words can even make people laugh. Here are two examples from an English translation first printed in 1984:

‘Samson answered her, “If anyone ties me with seven fresh thongs that have not been dried, I’ll become as weak as any other man’ (Judges 16:7)

‘They destroyed all the villages around Gerar, for the terror of the LORD had fallen upon them. They plundered all these villages, since there was much booty there’ (2 Chronicles 14:14)

Thong2

Thong for sale at Nordstroms

The meaning of the words “booty” and “thong” have changed since 1984! Actually, dictionaries still list the following definition of thong:

a narrow strip of leather or other material, used especially as a fastening or as the lash of a whip

But the first definition that comes into the heads of most Americans is quite different.

So, the old translation causes giggles, which was not the intent God had when he inspired these passages. It is good to care that new translations not distort or corrupt God’s Word. We need to also be concerned that older translations don’t distort or make the Bible the subject of giggles because words have changed meanings.

A number of older translations in African languages have been revised because the language has changed. Others are in need of revision. In Ghana, we revise the translation of the New Testament just before printing it with the newly translated Old Testament.

By the way, the King James Translation has this translation of Judges 16:7:

If they bind me with seven green withs that were never dried

While the English Standard Version has:

If they bind me with seven fresh bowstrings that have not been dried

PS: These changes in the translations of Judges 16:7 and 2 Chronicles 14:14 were first pointed out by the translators in October 2015.

Interference

PastersA colleague of mine took this photo in Nairobi. The sign is obviously marking aisle 12B in a grocery store. What is not so obvious is that the label on the sign, “Pasters”, should be “Pasta”. The error comes from interference. Interference is what happens when an adult learns a new language. The mother tongue interferes with the new language, causing errors.

In this case, there is a string of errors. First, Kenya (where the photo was taken) is a former British colony. So English there is influenced by the way the British colonists spoke English. For some of them, a word that ends in “a”, like pasta, is pronounced as though it ends in r. So pasta is pronounced pah-ster. One of my dear British colleagues always said “goner” for Ghana.

In the case of the sign, a Kenyan heard the “pah-ster” pronunciation then thought that the word ended in er and so wrote it “paster”. As there are many bags of pasta and many different kinds of pasta in the aisle, the person making the sign assumed that the word needed to be plural.

And that is how pasta became pasters.

This is an example of interference for the sounds in a language. But interference can also happen for grammar and even the meaning of words. I could tell some pretty embarrassing stories of mistakes I have made when learning languages that were caused by interference. I used the word I would have used in English and people responded with shocked looks or blushes.

Interference also inhibits understanding, not just speaking. My Congolese colleagues told me of a pastor who preached on the text “He who has the Son has life”. He explained that every married couple needed to have a son to have eternal life. The problem was that he was preaching from a Bible in a language other than his own mother tongue, and his mother tongue does not have a word that corresponds exactly to “the”. So “He who has the son has life” became “He who has a son has life”.

Banns

Announcement in a church bulletin

Announcement in a church bulletin

In Ghana, some churches announce banns of marriage. Three Sundays in a row there is a public announcement of the names of the couple to be married with the planned date of their wedding. The announcer tells the congregation that if they know of any reason why the couple should not be married, they should inform the church leaders If the couple are from different churches, the banns are announced in each church.

If the church uses a projector, the name of the couple is projected and sometimes a photo. If the couple is present, they are asked to stand. At that point, it is not uncommon that people in the congregation cheer, whistle, clap their hands, trill or otherwise show their joy. There may also be laughter or giggles.

The word “banns” comes from a middle English word meaning “proclamation”. So “banns of marriage” is just an archaic way of saying “public announcement of plans to get married”. One might think that the word banns would be dropped in favor of a more up-to-date word, especially given how close “banns” is to “bans” – the spelling is different, but the pronunciation is the same.

Churches tend to be very attached to certain words, like banns. That can have an effect on translation.

©2013 GospelGifs

©2013 GospelGifs

Imagine a place where the Gospel has never been preached. Missionaries come and preach to the people through interpreters. The missionary doing the preaching uses the word “sin” and the interpreter has to find the equivalent word in the language. Very often and unfortunately, the interpreter has to find the word on the fly with no preparation. So he chooses a word. It might be a good choice and it might not. Unfortunately, few missionaries take the time to consider what words their interpreters are using for key Bible concepts. The interpreter picks words for other key ideas – salvation, savior, heaven, Holy Spirit, etc. using this same haphazard process.

It was in this hit and miss way that specific local words for key Bible concepts were “chosen” in some places. And sometimes those first choices stuck and became tradition, just like banns. In contrast, the method used to chose key terms for English was quite different. Many of them were chosen by an Oxford scholar who knew Hebrew and Greek – the languages in which the Bible was written. That scholar was William Tyndale.

Places where there are Christians, but not yet a translation of the Bible, the accidental process by which words are chosen for key Bible concepts sometimes had the result that different churches use different words than others for the same Bible concept.

Bible translators have to sort this out. Each church may be quite attached to the words it uses. It may not even have thought about the slapdash way the words were chosen nor have considered that there are better words than the ones they use. As we have seen with banns, church tradition in the use of words can be very important to people. If the translators are not careful, some people might reject at translation if it does not use the words they prefer, even when their those words do not have the right meaning. In insisting on their words, church leaders and Christians will say that they are protecting good teaching. In reality, they are protecting their tradition.

Pray for Bible translators. In the matter of key Bible terms, they not only have to find the best words, they often end up having to be negotiators and peacemakers to the get best words accepted over church tradition.

Clusters

When I talk to groups in the US about the accelerated pace of Bible translation, people often jump to the conclusion that the cause of the acceleration is technology. Technology has indeed increased the pace, but other things have increased the pace even more than technology.

One of them is clusters.

Translators from several languages in a cluster, praying during a training session.

Translators from several languages in a cluster, praying during a training session.

It used to be that the translation in every language was a stand-alone activity. A missionary-linguist moved into each language area and learned each language. Each one did research on the language to which they were assigned, trained local people and lead the translation effort. There was some cooperation between the translation efforts in different languages. It was often sporadic and informal in nature, depending on times when the missionary-translators would get together for another reason.

I’m not sure who discovered it, but a solution to a translation problem in one language can often be used in other languages. I saw it myself vividly. I was at a training course for national translators in Burkina Faso. They were all grappling with the same translation problem when one of the students – not one of the staff, mind you – came up with a solution they all could use. The solution had to do with how the passive voice is used in many of the languages. So the solution was not just for one verse, but for many of the of the times the passive voice is used in the Bible. That one solution could save days, weeks perhaps even months of work because the passive voice occurs many times.

Fabien Dapilla who leads two new clusters in Ghana

Fabien Dapilla who leads two new clusters in Ghana

From this kind of experience came the idea of clusters – doing translation with a group of languages together, all at once. It looked like that would make translation go faster and cost less. In many cases, it has. But it has done more. In projects staffed entirely by national translators in Congo, we found that clusters increased morale among the translators. Surprisingly, along with increasing morale, accountability was also increased. So we got speed increases, cost reductions, increased morale and increased accountability.

When we came to Ghana, we found that there were lots of opportunities to speed translation by starting clusters.

A word of caution. The clusters sometimes cost less in the long term and more in the short term. The cost of getting translators together on a regular basis meant that the budget for each translation for each year increased. However, the number of years needed decreased. So the cost per year went up, but the total cost for the translations went down. It is my experience that under-funded translation programs actually cost more, sometimes a lot more, in the long term even though they cost less in any given year.

Unexpected

I came to Africa with pretty well-formed ideas in my head about how my career in Bible translation would work out. It hasn’t been anything like that. And that’s a good thing. This story is about one of the people who caused my career to deviate from the path I had assumed, Marc Zalve.

Mark Zalve preparing a quality control

Mark Zalve preparing a quality control

I was overseeing translation work in a number of languages where missionary-translators were working. In one of them the missionary-translators had to return to their home country, stopping the translation in that language. A short time later I received an unannounced visit from church leaders from that language. They wanted to restart the translation. They proposed that Marc Zalve lead it in the place of missionaries. He was the Director of a Bible School and an ordained pastor.

I agreed to look into it. I had to find funding and convince others that this was a good idea. The first was easier than I thought and the later much more difficult. In the end, Marc Zalve lead the efforts to translate the Bible into his language. Since then, he has helped translators in ten other languages to produce accurate translations.

The fact that an African church was willing to let one of their key pastors leave an important role to work on translation showed me that they were serious about Bible translation. It was but one in a series of actions by churches and individual Africans that did not conform to my well-formed ideas about my career and Bible translation. It took a lot of such incidents to get me to question my ideas and even more to reshape them.

Frempong and Zalve

Frempong and Zalve

This all came back to me powerfully when I ran into Marc again at the Dedication of the Bible into Sisaala in Ghana in 2013. That translation was lead by a Ghanaian, Justin Frempong (on left in photo). Justin was the first Ghanaian to lead a translation associated with Wycliffe in Ghana. To that point, that had been the realm of missionaries. And there was Marc Zalve (on right in the photo), the first to lead a translation associated with Wycliffe in Burkina Faso. When I greeted Marc, he reminded me of the struggle we had together. Not a few opposed this new thing, and some of them had quite a bit of influence.

When I first came to Africa, I thought that I knew all my call to Bible translation. But God was not through unveiling it and I still had more to learn about it. My call shifted from doing translation myself to being involved in mobilizing Africans and their churches to do their own translations. A missionary call, I came to realize, is not a static thing, any more than our God is static or my relationship with him static.

Why the Old Testament – Part 1

Genesis 1 in the 1611 edition of the King James Bible

Genesis 1 in the 1611 edition of the King James Bible

A renewal of interest in translating the Bible into all languages started in 1800 with the creation of Bible Societies in many countries. In addition to the work of the Bible Societies, throughout the 1800s and 1900s missionaries translated the Bible into many languages for the first time. Wycliffe Bible Translators joined this movement in the 1930s with a focus on more remote and smaller languages. However, Wycliffe’s approach was to translate only the New Testament. In more recent years, they also translate some Old Testament books too. But Wycliffe has been involved in the translation of only a small number of whole Bibles. Wycliffe’s choice to give priority to the New Testament reflects the preference which Western Christians have for the New Testament.

Western Christians comprise most of Wycliffe’s staff and financial supporters. For many Western Christians the Old Testament (or at least large portions of it) seems irrelevant or not understandable. It seems to me that the face that the Old Testament is perceived as irrelevant accounts for much of the reason why Western missionary translators have tended to translate on the New Testament. Recently, there is renewed interest in translating the Old Testament. Those promoting more translation of the Old Testament in Africa often cite two reasons:

  • All Scripture is inspired by God, not just the New Testament
  • African cultures bear a lot of similarities to the Old Testament so African’s prefer it. One study of sermon texts in Nigeria found that over 80% came from the Old Testament.
Genesis 1 in the Lelemi language of Ghana

Genesis 1 in the Lelemi language of Ghana

One would think that the first argument – that all Scriptures is inspired, not just the New Testament – would be enough for translators and their financial supporters. But it has not been.

While the second reason – the cultural similarities between the Old Testament and African culture – is true, it doesn’t carry much weight, not even with me. I can like something without that being what I need.

I plan to write a series of blog posts giving other reasons why translation of the whole Old Testament, or at least significant parts of it, it crucial for the health of the church in Africa, and why it is absolutely necessary for African Christians to flourish in their faith.

I will not be treating the two reasons above because I will be assuming that they are valid, the first one especially. I will not be treating other reasons for translating the Old Testament, like:

  • It is mostly in the Old Testament that we learn about God’s character
  • Parts of the New Testament are impossible to understand without reference to parts of the Old

Those propositions are true and important, but others have written about them. So I will be limiting myself to one proposition

God has revealed himself in the Old Testament in ways that give his comfort, encouragement and instruction for many of the most burning issues facing African Christians, while the New Testament has much less to say on those burning issues.

In other words, the Old Testament is not just relevant to much of the context in Africa, it contains what God says about things which are not the common experience of Western Christians in ways that the New Testament does not. God has reached out to all his people with revelation dealing with their most pressing issues of life and faith, so that they could love and follow him in everything. We should not, therefore, translate only the parts in which God addresses our issues, but also the parts where he addresses the issue of the people for whom we are translating.

The issues to be covered are:

  • Living in conflict and war
  • Living with corruption and oppression
  • Living with ethnic strife and tensions
  • Living with poverty
  • Living surrounded by traditional religion

Incorrigible Grammar

Irregular verbs English_eI work with languages, but I hated most of my English classes in high school and beyond. The literature classes were Ok. The grammar classes on the other hand … It always seemed to me that the grammar of English was a lot more slippery and complicated than my English teachers let on. My linguistics studies confirmed me in that opinion.

One definition of grammar is: “A propriety of speech.” Someone suggested that grammar is not a property of speech but rather an impropriety of speech. It is so hard to get your hands on it. There are rules, but also so many exceptions.

A game with rules like English grammar might be considered fixed by the Gaming Commission! This is not just true of English, but of all living languages. Many African languages are not written, but they have complicated grammar all the same. Just ask the missionaries who learn them, or the translators who attempt to describe them. I asked one translator about the number of genders in the language he was working on. He said that he stopped counting at around 120.

One translator was reading a draft translation to people to see if it communicated clearly. They came to a part that said: “Don’t steal from widows”, and everybody laughed. It turned out that the way it was said implied that one should steal from other people than widows! It sounded like “Don’t steal from widows; steal from someone else instead!” To get the right meaning meant using a grammatical structure in that language called topic-comment. In topic-comment, the topic of the sentence is stated first (widows), then the thing one wants to say about the topic (don’t steal from them). In that structure, the verse read “Widows, don’t steal from them.” This communicated clearly and avoided the idea that it is okay to steal from other people.

All translators, even those translating into their own language, need an explicit knowledge of the grammar of their language, or they might not use features like topic-comment even where they are necessary to be faithful to the meaning. So even translators translating into their own language need training.