Expectations of the road

I could see cars slowing down and moving to the right about a mile ahead of me. I slowed down a bit and took stock of what vehicles were around me. Then I tried to both drive where I was and keep track of what was happening down the road. More cars were slowing and moving to the right. But nobody was stopping. When they got past whatever was causing the problem, they resumed normal driving.

It also looked like the problem was moving, almost like there was a slow vehicle driving right down the middle between the two lanes. Strange. Now I was really wary. The traffic was relatively heavy, so one wrong move by someone and we could have a pile up. I slowed a bit more and moved as far to the right as I could while staying in my lane.

The car ahead of me was now the only thing between me and the problem. That car moved to the right to reveal … an emu running down the center line at an amazing clip!

Now that was unexpected. You might think that a missionary would not be shocked by such a thing, and you would be right, except that I was somewhere north of Roseburg, Oregon on Interstate 5.

We humans need to put things in categories to understand the world and live in it. So the category “Oregon” caused me to exclude the possibility that the problem was an emu. At the same time, those categories often lead us to wrong expectations. Sometimes the result is humor. Other times we put people in negative categories they do not deserve, hurt them and make bigots of ourselves.

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If you liked this, you might also like Non-talking parrotTrash talk,  or No hard knocks.


John Daboney

John Daboney

This is John Daboney, a Ghanaian from the Nawuri language. He is holding his copy of the Nawuri New Testament at its dedication on November 23.

John was the main reviewer for the translation of the New Testament into the Nawuri language. As a  reviewer he was an unpaid volunteer and John is retired. In Ghana, that means that he has a very modest income. He lost his wife a year ago. She had a job that brought in most of their income. But rather than go out and find work or do some farming, John kept devoting all his time to review the Nawuri translation. He put in thousands of volunteer hours pouring over each verse to check that it was clearly and accurately translated. In April 2012, I stopped briefly in Kpandai, where the translation office is located. The translators told me that John’s suggestions were many and invaluable. He saw things that were not clear and had a knack for knowing how to say things more clearly and accurately. Some people just have a gift for their language. They are invaluable in the translation process.

Nawuri translation team including volunteers

Nawuri translation team including volunteers

John has a problem with his eyes for which he underwent an operation two years ago. He needed more treatment but he postponed it because of time and lack of money. For him, the translation was higher priority.

Missionaries who travel to difficult places get recognized. Books are written about some of them. But across the world and across the centuries, tens of thousands of local people play crucial roles in the missionary endeavor. They contribute with little or no pay. Sometimes, they are persecuted. I met another Ghanaian whose father was the first pastor from one of the language communities in northern Ghana. His childhood memories include that most people were against is father, considering him a traitor for leaving the traditional religion. The believed that he endangered everyone because the spirits and deities would certainly retaliate for being abandoned and everyone would suffer. But his father showed immense faith and perseverance. Now Christianity is widely accepted.

No missionary biography will be written about that pastor nor about John Daboney. When I see their contribution I think of these verses in Hebrews:

Many of these people were tortured, but they refused to be released. They were sure that they would get a better reward when the dead are raised to life. Others were made fun of and beaten with whips, and some were chained in jail. Still others were stoned to death or sawed in two or killed with swords. Some had nothing but sheep skins or goat skins to wear. They were poor, mistreated, and tortured. The world did not deserve these good people, who had to wander in deserts and on mountains and had to live in caves and holes in the ground. (Heb 11: 35-38, CEV, emphasis mine)

At the dedication of the Nawuri New Testament in November

At the dedication of the Nawuri New Testament in November

John Daboney and many others like him really are better than the world deserves, better even than we missionaries deserve. In mid February, John passed away suddenly; barely three months after the dedication of the translation to which he was so dedicated. In Ghana and in many other places more like him continue to work on the translations in their languages. Pray that God would meet their needs and that He would encourage them. But most of all, thank him for calling them and filling them with unselfish faith.

If you liked this, you might also like Counted, Not just anyone can translate, or Why nationals.

Counting English Translations

CoverBradford B. Taliaferro has published an Encyclopedia of English Language Bible Versions. According to Amazon:

This encyclopedia is the first book to identify, explain and categorize more than 1,400 versions of the English Bible!

Taliaferro’s encyclopedia boasts

  • 407 different Bibles
  • 53 Old Testaments
  • 407 New Testaments
  • more than 180 variants of the Authorized Version
  • 50 unfinished Bible versions
  • internet versions along with print versions
  • and more

There are so many versions that the author had to create “difference tables” to help differentiate between versions which are quite similar. The index includes version titles, nicknames, abbreviations, translators, dates, source texts, and more.

Alpha BibleOn his blog, the author has noted some translations did not make their way into the encyclopedia, including the new Alpha Bible, a variant of the King James Bible with the books in alphabetical order.

All this in English. Versions in other language do not find their way into Taliaferro’s massive work. It takes 553 pages to contain all the information. Not surprisingly, 692,573 books on Amazon.com sell better than this Encyclopedia. On the other hand, some of the Bible versions sell very well indeed.

So if you were bewildered by the many versions of the Bible in English, be glad you did not know the half of it – or even one tenth!

I have not begrudged that we have many translations in English. But it is a bit embarrassing that we have so many that a man can spend a good part of his life just cataloging them. It would be nice if the remaining 1900+ languages without the Bible got translations before we add enough new versions in English that Mr. Taliaferro feels the need to update his encyclopedia.

If you liked this, you might like this video entitled “Just the right Bible”  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7L_GxJmFgIo


Man from northern Ghana

Man from northern Ghana

In the vast majority of cases, languages without the Bible also do not have an alphabet. They have never been written. There are no dictionaries and no grammars. This situation is typically seen as an obstacle which requires some specialized linguistics work before getting to the real work of Bible translation. But often, for the people who speak the language, it is much more than a preliminary step.

They are very often very interested in having their language written. They are proud when their “second class” language is raised to the status of other languages by having an alphabet, a dictionary and written documents. For this reason, Bible translators often have very good relationships with traditional community leaders even when the community is apathetic toward or even opposed to the Gospel message. This leads to some odd juxtapositions. Some Bible translators have found that they were treated like royal guests at the court of the Paramount chief. Clerics of other religions many show up to support for Bible translation. One Bible translator noticed that young men would memorize their holy book and recite it publicly. So he proposed to the religious leaders that the same be done for the newly translated Gospel of Mark. They agreed! Young men memorized the book and recited it publicly with their religious leaders watching and approving.  In Mozambique, a cleric of another religion offered to promote Bible study because of a booklet describing the grammar in his language. You can read the full story here.

GILLBT Director (right) with a traditional chief in Ghana

GILLBT Director (right) with a traditional chief in Ghana

People may be opposed to the Gospel message when, in fact, they are opposed to a caricature of it based on lack of knowledge or communication in a language they did not fully understand. In some places in northern Ghana, people first believed that Christianity was for people from the southern parts of Ghana, but not for them. Then they sometimes believed that Christianity was for the educated only, not for them. But they were enthusiastic to see their language developed. Along the way, they got a new, more complete, understanding of Christianity.

In the end, developing an alphabet for an unwritten language is very often much more than a technical task. It is a way into the heart of the community. It gives the translator credibility with a community, even a resistant community, in ways that very few actions can. When missionaries and their supporters see linguistics research as nothing more than a hurdle to get over before starting the “real” task” of translation, they may be missing a prime opportunity for the Gospel, and a way to show God’s love and care.