Uncle Cam

Today (April 23) in 1982, William Cameron Townsend passed into eternity, leaving a huge temporal legacy. Not money, mind you. Rather, the man the members of Wycliffe Bible translators affectionately called Uncle Cam, left behind a translation movement which has continued to grow after his death.

William Cameron Townsend

William Cameron Townsend

I use the word “movement” on purpose. Uncle Cam did found an organization – Wycliffe Bible Translators – and for that he is best known. Wycliffe Bible Translators has spread beyond the USA. There are now hundreds of organizations worldwide affiliated with Wycliffe including the one I with with, the Ghana Institute of Linguistics, Literacy and Bible Translation. Uncle Cam did much more than found a successful Christian organization! What he started has morphed into a worldwide movement to translate the Bible into every language.

Actually, I don’t think it was Uncle Cam’s doing at all. Let me explain.

The movement to translate the Bible into all languages has its ideological roots in the reformation. “Scriptures only” was the cry of the reformers, meaning that they believed that the final authority for faith was in the Bible, not in the church. They also believed that any person could rightly interpret the Bible without the guidance of the church. They put feet on those belief by translating the Bible into the languages right where they were – English, German, French, and so on even when people thought they were crazy to abandon the world language of the time – Latin. The founding of the Bible Societies in the 1800s was another outworking of those same beliefs.

When missionaries with these beliefs spread across the world, they to acted in a manner consistent with them and they too translated the Bible into the languages where they went, native North American languages in the US and Canada, the languages of India, and I could go on and on.

Uncle Cam came from this heritage. As a young man, to put his beliefs into practice he went to Guatemala to sell Bibles in Spanish, the official language of that country. There he discovered a fact he did not know – many people in Guatemala spoke languages other than Spanish. They were not interested in a Bible in a language they did not know. Uncle Cam’s beliefs kicked in. He translated the Bible into one of the languages of Guatemala. He also started gathering information about how many languages did not have the Bible. He thought it was about 500.

Knowing that he could not do that alone, he went back to the USA and started recruiting young people. The rest, as they say, is history, except that the history is still being written. It is hard to know, but there are tens of thousands of across the world involved in translating the Bible into a language for the first time. There are millions of people supporting them in prayer, giving, advocacy and going short term. Those people come from all over. Yes, there are Americans, Canadians, Germans and other Westerners. But there are also people from Ghana, Korea, India, Indonesia, Russia, Slovakia, Mexico, Brazil and yes, even Guatemala and many others. Wycliffe is now a broad-based, international alliance.

This cannot possibly be the doing of one man.

William Cameron Townsend

William Cameron Townsend

God planted the seeds in the form of a simple idea – the Bible is for everyone in their own language. He nurtured that idea. It grew into the Bible Societies. Then as Uncle Cam made known that there were still thousands of unique languages without the Bible, others who embraced that simple idea joined him. God fanned a spark in individual hearts and turned it into a huge fire that spread out of control across the world.

The lesson of Uncle Cam’s life is simple and the conclusion I draw from it is not really mine. He engaged in something God was doing and which fit the core tenants of Christian faith. I have sometimes dealt with people who were skeptical that some group, say Africans, had what it took to be part of the movement. That skepticism goes nowhere because God is pushing the other direction. As we remember Uncle Cam today, the question for each of us is whether our passions fit the core tenants of our faith and align with what God is doing in the world. Anything else cannot have lasting impact.

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Translation of the proper nouns in the Bible is an issue that is rarely controversial and not very exciting. But, it is important. Studies show that proper nouns are the biggest hindrance to reading the Bible fluently. You don’t need a fancy study to reach that conclusion. Just hand a Bible, any translation, to someone and ask them to read out loud a passage full of names of people or places, especially the Old Testament. Almost everyone will stumble while reading the names.

So, one of the easiest ways to increase the readability of a translation of the Bible is to put a little work into the translation or transliteration of proper nouns. It is too late for English. The English spelling of names in the Bible has been set for a long time We are just going to have to keep stumbling over those strange names. But, we can make a bit of a difference when translating the Bible into a language for the first time.

So, one of the mundane but important tasks in translating the Bible for the first time into a language is to develop an approach toward proper names that will cause readers the fewest problems. A good Bible translator uses the science of linguistics to develop a solid approach which is both accurate and respects the structure of the language.

Consider proper nouns used to describe people from a specific place. English has a complicated system. Depending on the place, English adds “ers” or “ians”, as in New Yorkers and Oregonians. But how to choose? A person from the town of Kumasi in Ghana would be what? A Kumasian? A Kumasier? Then there are the irregular forms. People from Greece are Greeks, those from Japan are Japanese, and those from Bangladesh are Bangladeshis.

Dayle and I started our career in Bible translation learning the Cerma languages in southwest Burkina Faso. In comparison to English, Cerma is a model of predictability. If the name of the place ends in a consonant, add a vowel and then “taamba”, otherwise, just add “taamba”. Presto, the name for the people who live in that place. In Cerma, Oregonians are Oregonitaamba.

Cerma NT TOCA number of books of the New Testament are named after the people to whom they were first written. For example, the book written to the people in the city of Colossae is called Colossians, the one to the residents of the city of Philippi, is called Philippians. These names follow the English practice of adding “ians”. So how did the translators name these books in Cerma? Simple, they just added “taamba”.

Just take a look at the table of contents for the New Testament in the Cerma language. You can see that many of the books that would end in “ians” in English end in “taamba” in Cerma.

Not only does using taamba make it easy to read, but without being taught, even an uneducated Cerma reader will know that Galasitaamba means the people who live in a place called Galasi. A little effort put into studying the language and apply that to translation produces a translation where proper nouns are easier read and understand.

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Lake Kivu

Port of Bukavu

Port of Bukavu

In central Africa there is a chain of lakes confusingly called The Great Lakes. They stretch down the eastern border of the Democratic Republic of Congo and beyond; their waters covering the lowest parts of a tectonic rift thousands of miles long; creating seemingly endless vistas of spectacular scenery.

The 18th of February, 2005, found me on the Safina, a passenger boat plying the waters of one of those lakes – Lake Kivu. I was on my way from Bukavu to Goma. I had just finished doing a week of training in Bukavu and was on my way to Goma to encourage the translators for the Tembo language who had attended the training and were traveling with me, along with a German colleague, Bettina Gottschlich.

Our first class tickets gave us the right to sit in a very nice area below decks. But my colleague wanted to sit outside. The crew obligingly put out a couple of plastic chairs for us. Before leaving Goma, however, we were upgraded. The crew decided that it was not a good idea to put one of the items being shipped – a nice couch – in the cargo hold with hundreds of bags of cassava flour which were leaking a bit and covering everything in fine white powder. So the couch was set on the deck for us.

Lake Kivu near Bukavu

Lake Kivu near Bukavu

For the better part of the day we watched idyllic panoramas slide past from our comfortable perch. It was an abundant visual feast of God’s extravagant creation spiced by delightful conversations with my colleague, the Tembo translators, the crew and other passengers. It was one of the most relaxing days I have ever had.

Nevertheless, two disturbing thoughts kept creeping into my head. First, the Congo was suffering. The idyllic vistas were hiding the truth that the country was coming out of a war that had claimed more civilian deaths than any war since WWII – an estimated 5.4 million. That is at least 20 times as many as in Darfur. This particular area has been called the rape capital of the world due to the actions of brutal militias. As I write this eight years later, the region around the lake is still very troubled.

The other thought was for our safety. I did not see lifeboats or floatation devices. For most of the trip we traveled a narrower section of the lake where I could probably swim to shore – provided the sinking ship or some desperate passenger did not get hold of me. At least the Safina was not nearly as crowded or low in the water as some other vessels we saw.

Lake Kivu with Mount Nyiragongo in the background and Goma between the volcano and the lake

Lake Kivu with Mount Nyiragongo in the background and Goma between the volcano and the lake

Then, we saw ahead of us the ominous rise of Mount Nyiragongo, the volcano which had recently devastated parts of the city of Goma; a column of vapors still emanating from its summit. At this point, the lake widened dramatically. The steep hills and mountains rising directly from the shore were nothing but bluish darkness on the horizon. If we went down here, none of us would make it.

Next time, I’ll take water safety equipment researched and approved by JAARS. That organization has researched safe water travel for parts of the world where Bible translators regularly travel by boat. Having water safety equipment with me will please a particularly lovely part of God’s creation – my wife.

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A New Key

Dr. Solomon Sule-Saa presenting a summary of his research to September conference

Dr. Solomon Sule-Saa presenting a summary of his research to September conference

I have written before about Solomon Sule-Saa, a Ghanaian who has done extensive research on the impact of translating the Bible into the Konkomba and Bimoba languages of northern Ghana. In a summary of his research presented to a conference in September, he said of the Konkomba and Bimoba peoples:

“The Bible now provides the key to understand the world”

I have heard my share of sermons on Romans 12:2

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind”

But I do not think that I have heard a better description of one way to put that verse into practice – that the Bible should be the key through which I interpret the whole world.

Translating the Bible into new languages is often billed as effective evangelism, and it is. But it is much more than that. Beyond bringing people to Christ, these translations are transforming individuals and communities through renewing people’s minds.

Dr. Sule-Saa's doctoral thesis which explored the impact of the translation of the Bible in two languages of northern Ghana

Dr. Sule-Saa’s doctoral thesis which explored the impact of the translation of the Bible in two languages of northern Ghana

During an ethnic conflict which was so serious the Ghana army had to intervene, the Bimoba lost confidence in the neutrality and good will of the Ghana government. They saw no way forward but to continue fight for their rights. In a war council, several leaders quoted from the translated Bible, arguing that that Jesus way is the way of reconciliation. So, abandoning their own wisdom they agreed to engage in peace talks moderated by the government they no longer trusted. It worked. They got what they were seeking through negotiation. Now that is faith – following the teachings of the Bible when your life and your livelihoods are at stake. This story shows that the Bible in these languages is doing more than influencing the decisions of individuals. It is also affecting the decisions made by the chiefs for the whole group. Now that is being transformed.

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Bimoba traditional dance

Bimoba traditional dance