When a pear is not a pear

Dayle in the hospital in Ghana, with fresh coconut

When Dayle was hospitalized in Ghana, a Ghanaian friend called to say he was coming to visit and wanted to bring something Dayle wanted. She told him she would like an avocado, but she used the local word for avocado that she uses at local vegetable stands: pear. When he came, he brought actual pears which are hard to find and expensive. It sure was sweet of him but we were embarrassed to have inadvertently caused him the trouble and expense.

When two people in a cross-cultural situation each adapt to the other, the result can be a miss-step like this one. In general, we don’t expect Ghanaians to adapt to us. We are the ones temporarily in a country not our own, so we should be the ones to adapt, even if we don’t always succeed. But Ghanaians are hospitable, so they try to adapt to us. The result can be like ships passing in the night.

When thst happens, intentions matter. When they are taken into account, we end up appreciating each other rather than becoming irritated, disappointed or angry, but we still laugh.

Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. – 1 Peter 4:8

Understand

I was working with my Ghanaian colleagues on some communication pieces (brochures, web pages, etc.) to help Ghanaians understand Bible translation. In a very good piece by one of my colleagues, he included this statement:

The Bible is a meaningful book with a message that is meant to be understood. When it was first written, it was written in the everyday language that the people of the time spoke.

Communication always starts from some assumptions about what people believe about the subject. So, those writing about AIDS might include the fact that it is not transmitted through casual contact such as shaking hands. Why write that? Well, because some people might believe that it can be. So let’s look again at what my Ghanaian colleague wrote.

The Bible is a meaningful book with a message that is meant to be understood. When it was first written, it was written in the everyday language that the people of the time spoke.

Why would he write that? He is assuming that some people think that the Bible might be a book which was not meant to be understood. Maybe they think that it is a mystical book which can only be understood by religious experts. Maybe they think that even when it was first written people did not understand it – more like a set of magical chants than meaningful words.

Translators and volunteers who shaped the transaltion of the New Testament in the Nawuri language of Ghana, assuring that it was both acurate and clear

Translators and volunteers who shaped the translation of the New Testament in the Nawuri language of Ghana, assuring that it was both accurate and clear

The thing is, his assumptions are correct. Many Africans have the mistaken notion that the Bible is not meant to be understood. Some of this comes from their traditional religions in which knowledge of the religion resides only in experts such as shamans and diviners, not in the ordinary person. It is not that the shamans and diviners explain. Not at all! On the contrary, they keep as much information to themselves as possible just like companies try to keep some things secret, such as the recipe for Coca-Cola. That way their clients always have to return to them, thus supplying a steady stream of income.

The belief that the Bible is not a book to understand is also reinforced by experience. Many Africans hear it preached in languages they do not understand, or do not fully understand, sometimes from stilted or archaic translations that do not convey meaning. The combination of coming from a religion in which they rely on experts to understand for them and hearing the Bible in language they do not fully understand can lead to an unfortunate assumption – that the Bible is not meant to be understood.

Congoelse women leaning in to watch the Jesus Film

Congoelse women leaning in to watch the Jesus Film

I was part of producing the Jesus Film in a few languages in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo. We dedicated the films in four of the languages in the town of Bunia. As part of the dedication, we played some of the Jesus Film in each language. I could hear excited whispering as the showing started. I asked a local person what they were saying.

We can understand everything!
It is so clear!

Why the surprise? Well, they did not expect to understand. Their experience of church was one of not understanding. This is not just true in Africa, In Papua New Guinea a speaker of the Tokples languages said of the new translation in that language:

Before, the Bible has always seemed hard to understand. But as we have read from the Tokples Bible … everything has been perfectly clear. (Read more here)

But God loves to communicate. One of the speakers at the National Conference on Evangelism held recently in Ghana said:

God is a speaking God. We love God’s Word because in his Word we hear him speaking to us. We see him coming to us.

Translating the Bible is not about producing a book. It is about God speaking today; about knowing Jesus, who himself said:

The Scriptures tell about me (John 5:39 CEV)