Ten Thousand

A Bible translation organization in the US, The Seed Company, has launched a new initiative called The Least of These, for smaller languages. About 500 of the languages of the world have the whole Bible, many more have the New Testament. But 340 million people speaking 2,000 languages do not have even one verse of Scripture in their language. More than 70 percent of the people groups without the Bible have fewer than 10,000 speakers. Amazingly, 600 are spoken by fewer than 1,000 people.

Wait! Translate the Bible for only 10,000 people?! Isn’t that a waste of resources?

Traditional dwelling

Traditional dwelling in northern Ghana

That is certainly a fair and important question. Especially as you may have heard that many languages are dying out. Why translate the Bible into a language which shortly will not be spoken any more? But having only a few speakers does not necessarily mean that a language is dying out. Some languages stay alive and vibrant even with few people speaking them.

I might not do a translation in a language with 50,000 speakers that was dying, but I might do one for a language of 10,000 that was growing in numbers. So, the question is not about dying languages, but rather about small but alive languages.

So, back to our question. Translate the Bible for only 10,000 people?! Isn’t that a waste of resources? I will let you answer by asking you two questions.

  • If a pastoral couple moved into a town of 10,000 near you without a church, spent 20 years there, and planted a vibrant and growing church, would you say that they wasted their time on a small community?
  • If you lived in a town of 10,000 and the only church had no pastor, would you consider it a waste of resources to call a pastor to that church? Even if the church only has 100 believers in it?

If it is legitimate for at least one pastoral couple to serve a town of 10,000 then dedicating one missionary translator couple to serve an ethnic groups of the same size must also be legitimate. Besides, many towns with populations of 10,000 or less in North America have more than one church and one pastor. In addition, the translator would serve in the language group for a limited time, but a town of 10,000 will need a pastor forever.

One of the implications of the Golden Rule is that we should not wish for others what we would not want for ourselves. So, if you would want a full-time pastor if you lived in a town of 10,000, then don’t say of a people group of 10,000 that they don’t need to have someone translate the Bible for them.

If you liked this, you might also like Patois or Heart Language.

Trash talk

Any translation is difficult. Translating a book written for one culture into a very different culture; doubly so, and translating an ancient book; quadruply difficult. So translating the Bible is not an easy task. Sometimes people ask, “What is the most accurate translation?” There is no answer to that question because there are different kinds of accuracy.

That thought came home to me a few weeks ago when I read a passage in the book of Numbers. Here it is in the English Standard Version:

6 And Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephunneh, who were among those who had spied out the land, tore their clothes 7 and said to all the congregation of the people of Israel, “The land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceedingly good land. 8 If the Lord delights in us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. 9 Only do not rebel against the Lord. And do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for us. Their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them.” (Numbers 14:6-9 ESV, emphasis mine)

The phrase that jumped out at me was: “for they are bread for us”. Let’s remember the events transpiring when Joshua and Kaleb said, “they will be food for us”. The Israelites had left Egypt and trekked to the land god had promised them. Just outside that land, they sent in spies. The spies came back with a discouraging report – while the land was good, the cities were well defended and the inhabitants were “giants”. The spies recommended against invading – all except Joshua and Kaleb. They do not deny the facts, but argue that God will help them overcome the difficulties. In effect, they make a motivation speech; trying to change the prevailing opinion. They start by tearing their clothes –  a sign of great distress.

The phrase “they will be food for us” stuck me because I had just read a news article about the book by Jan Brewer, the governor of Arizona, Scorpions for Breakfast. The title comes from a Chuck Norris blog about Brewer where he said that she “is so tough she eats scorpions for breakfast and flosses with barbed wire”.

The translation “they are bread for us” is accurate in terms of meaning. That is exactly what the original text says. But, is it accurate in terms of its purpose and impact? In the passage, Joshua and Caleb are giving a motivational speech. They use all their rhetorical powers to turn the tide. But no modern English-speaking politician or motivational speaker would say “they will be bread for us” in the hopes of getting the audience to do something scary and difficult. Is a translation accurate when a phrase that was obviously intended to be motivational comes out flat in the translation?

On the other hand, “We’ll eat them for breakfast” or “We’ll have them for lunch” are exactly the kind of phrase that would be said in such circumstances. Interestingly, Eugene Peterson translates the phrase ” Why, we’ll have them for lunch!”. If Joshua and Caleb had written a book, maybe they would have entitled it “Giants for Breakfast”.

Pray for Bible translators. They need to digest exotic languages for breakfast.

If you liked this, you might also like No Hard Knocks or Translating Obsolete Measures.


The Nawuri traditional Chief had traveled a long and difficult road from northern Ghana with his entourage to attend the celebration of GILLBT‘s 50th anniversary, where he was presented with the first copy of the New Testament in the Nawuri language. He took the stage in his traditional dress. He intended to celebrate, because he wore black and white – the colors of celebration in Ghana.

After a few remarks about what a great occasion is was and how thankful he was, with his voice and face full of emotion, cried,

“We have now been counted among God’s people!”

Probably without knowing it, and certainly without being a theologian, the Nawuri Chief had touched a neglected bit of Bible truth. You see, we in the West see God’s plan as something for us personally. One of The Four Spiritual Laws™ says that “God has a wonderful plan for your life”. Indeed, the Bible affirms that salvation is offered to each individual.

For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:13 ESV)

But the Bible is also full of God talking about his plan for the “nations”. Of Abraham, God said:

Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him (Genesis 18:18, ESV)

The Old Testament prophets and the book of Revelation are full of talk about the “nations”. In fact, that word is used hundreds of time in the Old Testament and numerous times in the book of Revelation. The word does not just mean “country”. It also refers to ethnic identity. Our Western culture is individualistic. So we read the Bible through individualistic eyes. The stuff about the nations either does not make sense to us, or we don’t see it at all.

Traditionally, each people group in Africa had its own set of beliefs which were considered “true” for them, but not for their neighbors. We see the same thing in the Old Testament: the Jews had their God, the Philistines another, the Egyptians their religion, and so on. Most times, everyone was willing to leave everyone else to his and her religion, considering that each one had their own truth. (Is this starting to sound like something you hear from people today? Well, it’s not as new as they might think.) Some would even exclude others from their religion, as Jonah wanted to do with the people of Nineveh.

In saying, “We have now been counted among God’s people!”, the Nawuri Paramount Chief sees that the translation of the New Testament into the Nawuri language confirms that the promises given to Abraham and fulfilled in Jesus Christ are also for them. He sees the Nawuri as one of the “nations” receiving God’s blessings through Abraham. In addition, he is turning his back on the idea that the Nawuri should have their own private religion.

The reaction of the Nawuri chief is echoed at New Testament dedications across the world. Those of us from majority cultures can’t understand what it is like to live feeling like we speak a language that has no value and that our identity is ignored by the larger world. When I say that I am an American, everyone, but everyone knows what that means. But before reading this, what if someone told you he was Nawuri? You might not even be able to find Ghana on a map, much less the Nawuri people group found there. The unpleasant truth is that, in the grand scheme of things in world economics and politics, the Nawuri really don’t matter and they are not known.

And so the Paramount Chief also said,

“When we go to politicians we are not known. But when we go to God we are known!”

Having your identity known to the most powerful person in the universe overcomes the fact that no one else knows you, that no one else cares. The Bible in one’s language, is proof of that God cares and that he knows.

Some learned people have mistakenly assumed that missions and the translation of the Bible devalues people or destroys their cultures. Yale professor of history, Dr. Lamin Sanneh, has debunked that theory in a number of his writings. For example, he reports that:

When a local Christian held in his hands a copy of the gospels for the first time, he declared: ‘Here is a document which proves that we also are human beings – the first and only book in our language.’ He was echoed by the testimony of another Christian in Angola who celebrated holding the Gospels in his hands for the first time, declaring jubilantly, ‘Now we see that our friends in the foreign country regard us as people worth while.’ (Bible Translation and Human Dignity, Anvil Journal 27-3, 2012)

The Nawuri Paramount chief knows in his heart what Dr. Sanneh’s research has uncovered. Bible translation, it turns out, brings to many peoples a profound sense of self-worth, of value and heightens their sense of purpose in this world – a purpose given by God. When the Nawuri paramount chief stood and made his moving declarations, I saw before my eyes one more case of the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham that he would be a blessing to all nations, and that is not just my opinion. It is the stated conclusion of the Nawuri chief and of many, if not all, of his subjects.

If you liked this, you might also like, Feeling the Gospel in our Bones or Before Missionaries, There was God.

The first box of Nawuri New Testaments on the stage, from which the Paramount Chief received the first copy

Advice from Ghana Taxi Windows

Ghanaians love to put interesting sayings on their vehicles and shops. Often they are quotes from the Bible and, almost as often, quotes of traditional sayings, some of which sound like they might come from the Bible, like “God’s time is best”.

A number offer advice to the reader. These are often found on taxi windows. Another feature of Ghana is that Ghanaians are not embarrassed to write the signs in their own languages. Taxi windows are as likely to carry words in the Twi or Ewe (pronounced Aye-Vay) languages as they are to display English. Most of the advice is pretty good.

We’ll start on the main road from Kumasi to Accra, where I found this taxi offering advice in the Twi language. Literally it means “Think about yourself”. The meaning is something like “Don’t put your nose in other peoples’ business”, “Mind your own business” or “Don’t Meddle”.
My next example comes from the streets of Accra. This taxi driver is also offering advice in the Twi language. We are told to “Let it go”, meaning that when someone does something bad to you, then let it go. In other words, forgive them. “Let it go” is an interesting idiom for the concept of forgiveness. It is important that we do not assume that the English and Twi idioms have exactly the same meaning. That considered, the hard part of forgiveness is often to “let it go”, that is, not keep dwelling on the matter, running it over and over in our heads.

Next we have a taxi on a road in the beautiful highlands of Eastern region. This time we have advice in English. Apparently, gossiping is not something confined to any one culture or age. We are warned about it in parts of the Bible written 2,000 years ago. This taxi driver seems to think that the advice is as relevant for contemporary Ghanaian society as it was then.

One day, I walked out the gate and found this taxi beside the road. The driver was grabbing a bite to eat from the roadside food stand. I commented on his advice. He brightened up. According to him, we need to be humble because even Jesus Christ was humble. I suppose that he had read the second chapter of the book of Philippians. About an hour later, he came driving past me as I was finishing my walk. He leaned out the window, smiled and yelled, “Be humble!”

These photos were originally posted on my Facebook feed. If you liked this, you might also like Festooned with Signs, God’s Time is Best. or Shame.


Who would have guessed?

Short wave radio was how I got most of my world news in the 1980s when I lived in Burkina Faso. BBC broadcasted a 5-minute summary of world news on the hour. I would turn on my compact shortwave radio and listen to the 5-minute summary at 7 AM. If some of the headlines were interesting, then I would listen to more of the broadcast. But most days, I just listened to the summary. Events in 1989 changed that.

Massive political changes were happening in the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe. So massive, in fact, that every day I would listen to the full news broadcast from 7 to 8 AM. Not only that, the news was so amazing that I would sometimes listen to exactly the same news again from 8 to 9. I remember thinking that I would have to explain the cold war to my children. The defining feature of world politics since the end of World War II was going silent before my incredulous but listening ears. It is hard to overestimate the magnitude of influence of the cold war on those of us who had lived our entire lives aware that it could easily go hot. I’m talking 10,000 degrees nuclear hot.

Years earlier, the founder of the organization I serve with, William Cameron Townsend, wanted so see Bible translation being done everywhere, including the Soviet Union. Never mind that the country was officially atheist and was seeking to rid the world of US-style government. US citizen and Bible translator, Townsend got himself an invitation, made an extended visit to Russia with his wife, and later wrote a book about the experience. Of course, we all heard about this trip. Frankly, I thought that it was a lark. I mean, what could ever come of it?

Well, actually…

Tomáš PrištiakIn recent years, Russian, Romanian, and Slovak Christians have been telling their churches about the many peoples in the world who do not have the Bible in their language. They have opened Wycliffe offices in their countries. Now, most of those coming  to Ghana for Bible translation come from Russia, Romania and Slovakia.

Oksana-Lena-AlexanderIf a prophet had told me this 30 years ago, would I have had the faith to believe? Unfortunately, I think not.

I just celebrated my 60th birthday. Maybe that is why I think that a person needs a 20-year perspective to see God’s biggest wonders. Listening to historian Professor Andrew Walls in September, I wondered if one really needs a 100-year perspective. It is said that those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it. Perhaps those who do not know history are also condemned to not see some of God’s more marvelous deeds. Maybe that is why God commanded his people:

Think about past generations.
Ask your parents
or any of your elders.
They will tell you (Deuteronomy 32:7 CEV)

So, when I see one of my Russian, Romanian or Slovak colleagues, I think back on the days when I sat in rapt attention to scratchy short wave broadcasts announcing the end of the geopolitical order. Today, Dayle and I represent the past, when missionaries only came from the West. Together with our Russian, Romanian, Slovak and Ghanaian colleagues, we all represent the new global mission workforce that God is putting together from unexpected places.

The Lord has done this,
and it is amazing to us. (Psalm 118:23 CEV)

If you liked this, you might also like Don’t forget the heroes, Why nationals? or John Agama.