Michael Serchie, Gilbert Ansre and Ed

Michael Serchie, Gilbert Ansre and Ed

One of my great joys in Ghana is working with Gilbert Ansre (pronounced like haunts-ray without the h). I had heard about him years ago when we worked in Burkina Faso. Now he is one of those people who are supposedly retired, but is always involved in something. And so we persuaded him to lend a hand in developing a plan to finish translations in all the languages of Ghana.

He is over-qualified. His past includes:

  • Setting up and heading the first department of linguistics at the University of Ghana
  • Being an ordained minister in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Ghana, for more than 50 years
  • Working on the translation of the Bible into 13 languages in West Africa, including his own language, Ewe (pronounced eh-vay)

There are few people who can bring high level theological and linguistic expertise to the task of Bible translation. Ansre is one of those. Missionary translators often work in remote areas. Their sacrifices for marginalized peoples are laudable. But their focus on remote areas can also cause them to overlook nationals who might champion their work or even contribute to it, such as Gilbert Ansre.

In a way, there are two Africas:

  • A rural one which can be difficult to access because of poor roads, suffering from poor schools and other problems
  • An urban one where political power resides and where most educated people live.
Prof Ansre speaking

Prof Ansre speaking

An idea has emerged in planning to finish the translations in Ghana which I had not expected – join those two worlds together. It turns out that they have a lot to offer each other. The urban environment has expertise, such as Gilbert Ansre, that the rural one needs. But the rural people have important things to offer too. For example, when they read the Bible in their own languages, they develop truly African theologies. By that, I mean theologies that answer their most burning questions. For example, tribal conflict is a problem in some parts of Africa. But Western commentaries and theologies rarely deal with it and never at any length, even though the Old Testament is full of tribal conflict. It turns out that rural African Christians seek answers in the Bible that can enhance the teaching of theology in the urban seminaries. In fact, Gilbert Ansre teaches two such courses.

By linking the urban and the rural worlds, we can enrich both and provide a platform for sustaining the use and impact of Bible translation in African languages, all while driving theology where it needs to go – into answering the questions rural and urban Africans really have today.


English is a world language. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that English is a whole bunch of national and regional languages which all have the same name and have a lot of similarity to each other. I have lived in two countries in Africa whose official language is English – Kenya and Ghana. In both cases I was confronted with English words used in ways I found strange. Sometimes I found that the “strange” way was right — at least according to the British. (Both countries were once British colonies.) But my favorites are the strange (to me) English words and phrases which are part of the everyday vocabulary of Kenyans and Ghanaians. These kenyaisms and ghanaisms are adaptations of standard English to local conditions and thinking.

My favorite kenyaism is “carpet the road”  or ” re-carpet the road” meaning to pave or re-pave it.

Here are a few ghanaisms I have collected.

  • Shop - God's Favor Spot spot n. = grocery shop, especially a small or roadside shop selling packaged and canned goods as well as beverages.
  • land v.  = to say something directly without beating around the bush
  • book long a. = educated
  • rubber n. = plastic bag
  • slate and cutter n.= long skirt with matching blouse
  • meat n. = beef – example: “Do you want chicken, fish or meat”
  • off v. = turn on – example “off the lights”
  • on v. = turn on – example “on the lights’
  • one time adv. = all at once – example: “Bring the tools one time”
  • Ghana n. = cedis, the local currency. In response to asking for the price of something, I get the reply “50 Ghana”.
  • glass n. = window  – example while sitting in a car with the ac running: ” Your glass is not up”
  • lights n. = electricity/power – example: “The lights are off” means “The electricity is out”. A sign in a village without electricity announced “No Light, No Vote”. In other words, the people of the village will not vote for the incumbent until the village has electricity.
  • top v. = fill up, – example, I would say “top it up”, but the “up” is omitted.
  • small adv. = a little – example, “Top it small”, meaning “add a little (air to a tire)”

Shop - Don't mind your wife chop barOne of my favorite ghanaisms is “chop”. It can be used as a verb meaning “eat” or a noun meaning “food”. One sees “chop bars” – informal restaurants serving local food, along the road. In many African languages the verb “to eat” is used with various figurative meanings. And so “chop” is also used figuratively. It often corresponds to “eat up” in standard English, as in, “car repairs are eating up all my money”. So, if someone “chops money” he or she is wasting it. A few months ago there was a popular song by a young man saying that his girl friend was chopping his money, but he did not mind because she was so beautiful. By the end of the song, however, he was changing his mind. The song was entitled “Chop My Money” and that phrase was repeated often in the chorus.

Shop - Jesus is the Answer SpotIn Ghanaian English, “chop” is extremely versatile. The phrase “chop money” refers to money set aside for food and household expenses. Also, “chopping money” refers to corruption. So someone might say that money for this or that project was “chopped”.

And with that, I think that I have chopped enough of your time for today.

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The day tribal ended

Tomorrow, people around the world will celebrate a very unusual happening on a Jewish festival some 2000 years ago. Read the account here.

But let’s back up a bit. One can read the Old Testament as the story of a tribal religion. By “tribal” I mean proprietary – belonging to a specific group of people. The religion of the descendants of Abraham came to them in their language, it is full of their stories about their God.

There are many tribal religions which also belong to people of a common ancestry, who share the same customs and usually the same language. Most tribal religions respect other peoples who have their own gods and religious practices.

A careful reading of the Old Testament shows that God had universal ambitions when he choose to start with Abraham and his descendants. Which brings us to the first festival of Pentecost after Jesus was crucified. Something happened there which shook to the core the idea that Jesus had come to fulfill the aspirations of only a limited group of people – everyone started hearing about the glory of God proclaimed in their own language. Tribal religions are almost always locked up in one language. Here was something different.

From that day, Christianity has been a religion which is not tied to one culture or one language. Instead, it permeated Roman society and the Greek language, breaking free from any tribal identity. Other events, such as those Peter experienced with Cornelius came along to confirm and seal the breakout. The Apostle Paul wrote against those who wanted to tie Christianity to tribal roots. Occasionally some try again to make Christianity a tribal religion – attempting to tie it to a particular language, nation and/or customs. But it never lasts.

There are two ways to be a universal religion. One is to assimilate everyone into your tribe. In this method, everyone will eventually have the same customs, perhaps speak the same language, have the same religious practices, and believe the same religious teachings. The other is the path God has taken Christianity where the person at the heart of the religion, Jesus, comes into languages and cultures and they develop an allegiance to Him while continuing to speak their languages and practice their culture – building houses as they did, singing the same kind of music they always did, being proud of their people’s history and achievements, and so on. Christianity does not seek to assimilate all cultures, even if some of its proponents sometimes mistakenly try to do that. Christianity translates itself into the languages and cultural forms of people.

Christianity does not erase culture, but weaves itself into the culture to create a rich tapestry – Rev. Prof. J D Ekem

If God had hired the most successful advertising agency to put on an event to illustrate that faith him is not a tribal thing, that agency could not have come up with a more convincing and significant event than the one described in Acts chapter 2. All those people, who had been assimilated into Judaism and had come to the center of that faith, Jerusalem, to worship each heard in their own languages – languages hitherto reserved for their tribal religions. Amazing.

If you liked this, you might also like Worse than you thought, Linguistic diversity or Weak things.

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You might think that every word has a meaning. But open a dictionary and you will see that most words have several meanings and some have such a wide range of meanings that one might wonder how they can be useful at all.

I was reminded about this by an exchange among friends on Facebook. (edited a bit to remove personal details)

Status update by friend 1: Home after a wonderful weekend. Attended a wedding on Saturday and visited with old friends.
Comment #1: didn’t know we were considered old
Comment #2: ancient

I am sure that these comments were made in good fun. But the exchange does show two of the meanings of “old”. The “old” friends are not ancient, but rather people who have been friends for a long time, or perhaps friends which one had not seen for a long time.

This past football season, I  noticed that football announcers say of a good receiver that he has “soft hands”. This means that the receiver catches the ball very well. I suppose that the ball would bounce off something “hard” but “stick” to something soft. This is quite a different meaning than when an advertisement says that a certain cream or soap will give a woman soft hands.

We use context to sort out which meaning of a word or phrase is intended. There is no confusion, it is clear when the “soft hands” means one thing and when it means the other. After all, football announcers would not be commenting on the luxurious qualities of the skin on the hands of a macho receiver!

The fact that every word has a range of meaning must be taken into account in a good translation. In one sense, Bible translation is not the same as interpretation. When Revelation says “Then I saw a black horse, and its rider had a balance scale in one hand”, the translator should just translate. It is then up to the preachers and theologians to interpret the meaning of the black horse and the scale. But in another sense, one cannot translate even one word or phrase without interpreting it. Here is an example from Psalm 24 where “soft hands” are not mentioned, but “clean hands” are:

“Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart… He will receive blessing from the Lord and vindication from God his Savior.”

In some cultures, dirty hands indicate a hard worker. To say that some one has clean hands is to say that they are lazy. (Source: From the Wycliffe UK magazine, Words for Life, November 2012)

In such a case, it would be foolish to translate the words “clean hands” literally. It would mean that God approves lazy people. So the words “clean hands” (or rather the Hebrew words so translated into English) have to be interpreted, and then the translators finds words in the other language that match that interpretation. Something like “He whose hands are not soiled with evil deeds” might work, but the exact solution will vary from language to language.

Languages are amongst the richest and most complex systems humankind has ever produced.

Antoine Lefeuvre

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Mercator’s wrong impressions

Mercator’s projection is a way of making a map – of answering the question of how a surface of a sphere – the earth – can be represented in two dimensions. It has big advantages for navigation, but it gives the wrong impression when it comes to how big places really are because it makes places nearer the equator look smaller and placer nearer the poles look larger. The thing is, my primary school classrooms had maps made using Mercator’s projection. So that image of the world is stuck in my head. In high school I learned of the limitations of such maps, but that fact did not replace the image stuck in my head. I still had Mercator’s view of the world. The animation below shows how wrong I was about the size of Africa compared to the US.

Africa size map - for animation

That changed when I actually came to Africa. Living a reality that was obviously and radically different started replacing the Mercator’s image of the world in my head. So the map above tells something about my personal journey to understand Africa, and the world, on its own terms rather through the lenses supplied by my recollections of my primary school education.

Makes me wonder how many other distorted views of the world I developed when I was a child that I have not yet corrected.

Here are some facts about Africa you might find interesting:

  • The Sahara Desert is almost as large as the continental United States
  • There are over 1,800 languages spoken in Africa. That is more than 25% of all the languages spoken in the world
  • Almost 1/3rd of the countries in the world are in Africa
  • The official language of most African countries is either English or French although in many countries most of the population does not speak either of those languages.

Mercators Projection World Map

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