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.

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.


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”.


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.


Photo: Marc Ewell

Photo: Marc Ewell

In 1910, a major world missions conference was held in Edinburgh. Those present held hope for evangelism among the followers of eastern religions. The well-developed philosophical positions of those religions appealed to Europeans and American academics. Not a few Westerners romanticized Hinduism as a new world religion. We all know the attraction of eastern gurus in some segments of US society.

In contrast to the appeal of eastern religions, the missions conference came to the conclusion that the “primitive” religions of Africa would prove difficult ground for Christian faith. Many Western Christians find the masks, face paints, and rituals of African religion scary, barbaric and primitive – something so different from Christian faith that it could not possibly be fertile ground for evangelism – a religion that held no redeeming qualities such as eastern religions seemed to have.

Africa’s traditional religions are called “primal” religions by theologians, and anthropologists. Those at the conference saw Africa’s primal religions as rocky ground where the seed of the Gospel would struggle to survive, while the Eastern would produce a bountiful crop. It has not turned out that way; not at all.

Chart evangelicals in AfricaIn 1910 when the missions conference was held, only 9% of Africans were Christian. Furthermore, almost all of those were in just four of the many countries in Africa: Ethiopia, South Africa, Egypt and Madagascar. Early missionary efforts had not borne fruit. But by 1970 almost 40% of Africans professed Christian faith. That number is for all kinds of “Christians”. What is more astounding is the growth of evangelical, Bible-believing faith in Africa, as you can see in the graph.

Meanwhile, evangelism among those following eastern religions has been very slow.

But this is not just an African phenomenon. In the last century Christianity has spread the fastest among peoples who follow what theologians and anthropologists call “primal” religions. This is true in Africa and around the world. It seems that people who follow the so-called “primal” religions are the best prepared by their traditional religion for Christian faith. In any case, the conclusions of that missions conference in 1910 were way off the mark.

God has a delicious way of turning the human wisdom into obvious folly. In this case, he has chosen those whose religious practices we considered primitive, vile, even barbaric, and poured out his Spirit on them. Paul wrote about things like this.

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 Cor 1:27)

Not only has Christianity flourished in Africa, churches in Africa are now sending out missionaries. Professor J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu of Trinity Theological Seminary in Ghana has written:

“It is indeed a surprise that Africa, associated in Western minds with poverty, deprivation, squalor, political instability and barbarism, should emerge in God’s purposes as a leading player in Christian mission, including missions to the West.”

I believe that the confounding of the powerful and sophisticated is in full swing. But sometimes missionaries seem to miss it. I wonder if some mission activity in Africa goes on as though a major movement of God were not happening. The kind of growth in numbers, depth and capacity we see in the church in Africa must be matched by an equally significant shift in how we do translation here. Otherwise we effectively deny by our actions the marvelous thing God is doing. Let’s not make the blunder of painting our African brothers and sisters with the same mistaken brush used in 1910. Our methods and goals need to align with and celebrate the awe-inspiring movement of God’s Spirit among people who are coming out of primal religions.

Sustainability and Language

This week, I continue with observations about the Northern Outreach Program. If you missed the introduction, you can read it here.

At least two Ghanaians and an Australian have done research into the impact of translations of the Bible into the languages of northern Ghana. One Dr. Solomon Sule-Saa wrote a doctoral thesis on the topic and another, Dr. Thomas Atta Akosah, produced several papers.

Rural church

Rural church

To understand the results of their research, we need to understand the context they studied. The peoples of northern Ghana have low levels of education. Those who do receive an education, then leave the area to find work. So rural churches in northern Ghana often have few members who have finished high school or even primary school. Where there is no translation in their language and no literacy, discipling local believers into leadership roles is a long task. Many do not know how to read. Even if they learn to read, the Bible is only in a language they do not know. Everything depends on a pastor as few others can lead a Bible study or teach a Sunday School class. The most foundational tool for Christian growth, the Bible, is inaccessible to most believers. Their context is full of information about their traditional beliefs, but it is meager in information about their new, Christian faith.

Dr. Sule-Saa research reveals that where there are translations of the Bible in the language, churches sustain themselves and even expand of their own initiative, but other churches where there is no translation in the language of the people need constant help from outside and even then they might stagnate. I have noted this result in other blog posts.

Reading the Bible in a language of northern Ghana

Reading the Bible in a language of northern Ghana

Dr. Atta Akosah’s research explains one of the reasons why this is the case. He shows that the translation of the Bible in the heart language (mother tongue) results in the emergence of effective and widely respected local church leadership; something that does not happen where there is no translation. When local people start reading the Bible in their language, some of them emerge as leaders. Applying their literacy skills and using the Bible as their textbook, they begin answering key questions – questions they ask themselves and questions being asked in their communities. They become known as sources of good advice and help.

Learning to read

Learning to read

In one area, an illiterate young man came to a Bible translator, asking to learn to read his language. So the translator taught him. He used his skill to read the Bible in his language. He went on to learn English, and become a pastor. He stayed in his home area where he started a church where he preaches in the his language. The church is composed almost entirely of converts from another world religion. He has a reputation in the community for answering the questions people have, so much so that other local pastors and even the leaders in other religions call him “the teacher”. People of all faiths come to him for answers. He even has a Bible question and answer program on a local FM radio station in his language.

The rise of empowered lay leadership also happened in the Northern Outreach Program. The emergence of this new level of lay leadership, reminds me of Jesus disciples who were called “uneducated, common men“. It is certainly a very good sign for sustaining the relatively new churches stated among the peoples of northern Ghana whether in their home areas or in the cities.

Man reading the Gospel of Mark in Krakye

Man reading the Gospel of Mark in Krakye

When I attended the celebration of 25 years of the Northern Outreach Program, I found a large hall full of representatives of churches established by the program, few educated, all with their Bibles in their languages.. When we spoke to them about the rise of local, respected lay leadership through literacy and the Scriptures in the heart language, we got a chorus of verbal affirmation, as we did when we told our observations of other results. We were not telling them anything new, just affirming what they were experiencing.

One of the reasons we are involved in Bible translation is the sustained results it achieves. That is why the byline for this blog contains the words “lasting impact.”

You did not choose me. I chose you and sent you out to produce fruit, the kind of fruit that will last. (John 15:16)

Coverdale and transformation

Coverdale Bible

Coverdale Bible

Today in 1569, Myles Coverdale died. His translation of the Bible into English was the first complete Bible in English to be printed thanks to Gutenberg’s invention. Previous translations were hand copied.

While Coverdale was known as a translator, translation was his method, not his goal. Like many reformers of the time, he wanted wholesale changes in the church, in politics and in society. It was an era were church services and Bibles were in Latin, the language of education and the elite. Politics was controlled by a few. Coverdale wanted to break down the language barrier and give the Bible and all sorts of information to ordinary people in their ordinary language, English. When that happened, he believed that change would come from the grassroots.

It took decades to see the beginning of the changes he wanted, and longer to see their full conclusion. The flight of believers to the New World is a testament that the grassroots changes were underway and that there was opposition to them from above.

One Ghanaian researcher has noted that through Bible translation, biblical interpretation ceases to be the property of professional theologians. People begin to question prevailing teachings and practices in the light of the mother-tongue Scriptures. That is exactly what Coverdale wanted for England and what eventually happened. Through translation, people cease to be pawns in their religious and political systems.

Girls reading Bibles in their languages

Girls reading their Bibles

In the end, Bible translation is not about translating the Bible. It is about creating an environment ripe for transformation – one rich in the information people need to decide for themselves, one where the Holy Spirit illuminates them individually and empowers them to produce changes. Evaluations have shown that where Bible translation and literacy has been carried out in Ghana, people take more individual initiative and start movements to undermine harmful traditional practices. In addition, church leaders have noted the emergence of a new level of local church leadership which is solidly grounded in the communities and in the cultures, but also solidly grounded in the Bible. The changes are slow, as some measure speed, but they tend to be permanent.

Woman seeing the new Bible presented

Woman seeing the new Bible presented

At the dedication of the Bible in Lelemi (Buem), as the new translation was being read. Dayle heard someone behind her exclaiming with deep emotion,

“Ooooooooooh, so sweet. (pause) So sweet!”

One speaker, Dr. Elias Kwaku Asiama, a lecturer at the University of Ghana, said:

The launch of the Buem Bible is a turning point in the history of the Buem people.

When translation is over, the sweet revolution begins! That’s why I’m in Bible translation.

Valid even here

This week I continue observations of the Northern Outreach Program which uses literacy in the heart language to carry out urban evangelism. If you missed the introduction, you can find it here.

Christians brought to faith through the Northern Outreach Program listen to the Word together in a city in southern Ghana

Christians brought to faith through the Northern Outreach Program listen to the Word together in a city in southern Ghana

Many have observed the rapid rate of urbanization in Africa and around the world. There is obviously a need for effective evangelism and mission in the urban environment. Urbanization brings together people from many languages and creates a favorable environment for the emergence of a lingua-franca, a common language which serves them all. The spread of Twi in Ghana, of Dioula in the southwest of Burkina Faso, of Bambara in Mali, of Hausa in the north of Nigeria, of Lingala in the Congo, of Swahili in east Africa and of other languages in other places, all point to the emergence of lingua-francas as important languages of communication.

Drummers from northern Ghana provide accompaniment to the worship of northern Ghanaians in a town in southern Ghana

Drummers from northern Ghana provide accompaniment to the worship of northern Ghanaians in a town in southern Ghana

The emergence of a lingua-franca is so obvious that it leads Christians, pastors, church leaders and missionaries to make the untested assumption that the heart language (people’s mother tongue) is irrelevant to the church and evangelism in cities and towns. But the Northern Outreach Program uses literacy and Scriptures in the heart language and that approach has been very successful. It is important to note that other approaches to evangelizing migrants from the north in Ghana’s cities have failed, or had only very modest success. They have not been successful in stemming the predominant trend of conversion to other religions. The significant difference between the failed approaches using a lingua-franca and the Northern Outreach Program is precisely the heart language, which the Program uses in its literacy program, in its evangelism, in its teaching and in its worship.

A woman leads a worship song in a local language during a gathering of believers from northern Ghana in a city in the south

A woman leads a worship song in a local language during a gathering of believers from northern Ghana in a city in the south

Many observers fail to notice that the urban environment is not homogenous. It is certainly homogenizing, but it is not yet homogenous. It may be on a course to become homogenous in two or three generations, but today the urban environment in Ghana, and in many other places, is made up of ethnic, religious and linguistic niches which often keep their identity in the face of the homogenizing influences of the urban environment.

The success of the Northern Outreach Program, predicated on the heart language, shows that the heart language is an effective tool for reaching those niches.

Especially as approaches based on lingua franca, the homogenizing language, have proved much less successful.