Doing translation?

This is the last installment in our series of asking the questions we were most asked last time we were in the US. This week, the question is:

Are you doing translation?
What do you actually do?

Goals, activities, resultsThe simple answer is that we do whatever needs to be done to meet our goals. I know, most of you will find that is not really an answer. Don’t worry, there is an answer in the following paragraphs. But first, let me say that missionaries who define their ministry by what they do and stick to it, sometimes do not accomplish their goals. In fact, they may not even realize that they are not meeting their goals.

Sometimes, an activity that has produced good results can become meaningless when things change. When the change is dramatic, such as when a tsunami swept away villages where one couple was doing a translation, we notice them and change. Where the changes are more subtile or are the result of long-term trends, we might miss them and continue with an activity that has lost its effectiveness. Dayle and I prefer to be persistent with regard to our goals, but not with regard to our activities. We evaluate our activities to see if they are meeting the goals, then change our activities as needed.

You can read our complete goals on our prayer page. Here is a summary:

  • The churches in Ghana will have a plan to do translation in all the languages of Ghana that need it
  • The churches in Ghana will start work in all the languages, where there is no work going on, by 2016
  • Most of the people and money needed for translation will come from within Ghana by 2018

The pace of Bible translation is accelerating, largely because many more people are being mobilized to help. In fact, that is having a bigger impact on the pace than technology. We believe that the Lord led us to these goals. We do a number of things together with others in order to see those goals accomplished:

  • Michael Serchie, Gilbert Ansre and EdDevelop personal relationships with key Christian leaders
  • Listen carefully to them, putting ourselves in the role of servants to their goals
  • Supply church leaders and Christians with information about the value, impact and process of Bible translation. Identify ways Bible translation can make their ministry more effective.
  • Identify which languages still need a translation, together with church leaders
  • Work directly with interested parties – churches, Christians, local leadership – to define a plan for starting and carrying out the translation, including questions like how the linguistic work will be done to write the language, how translators will be chosen and trained, where they will work, where the money will come from, etc.
  • Work with church leaders to find and address problems.
  • Assist in the development of presentations, publications, and internet information to help the churches in Ghana understand Bible translation and possibilities it offers them.

These activities involve travel to language areas, face-to-face meetings, writing reports of those meetings, research, processing the results of meetings with people who were not there, phone calls, writing and responding to email messages, hostessing individuals and groups at receptions, etc. Or we might add an activity we have never done before, if the Lord impresses on us that it will help us meet the goals.

The Last Chapter

In the early 1980s, I was traveling in Mali. It was hot. The block house where we were to spend the night had baked in the sun all day. Well after dark, it was still like an oven inside. So when I was offered a cot to sleep outside, I did not hesitate.

I took a paperback book and a flashlight with my cot and read a little before falling asleep. During the night, I knocked the book off the cot and onto the ground where I found it on the morning. It was lying face up, and when I picked it up I found that termites had eaten the last chapter. I never did know how that novel finished.

If you liked this, you might also like The meaning of a phrase, Funny or stupid, or On the bus.

Next week, I will resume answers to the questions I was most asked in the US.

Mother tongue day 2014

Painting by Marten van Valckenborch the Elder

Painting by Marten van Valckenborch the Elder

Today is International Mother Tongue day. That is a good thing for believers to celebrate. Why do I think so? Follow this link for the answer.

How do people read?

This week, I continue my series on the questions I was most asked while in the US. This week’s question is:

How do people read the translations, because their language is unwritten?

Most of the languages without a translation are unwritten. It follows that the people do not know how to read. There is no sense printing a Bible no one can read and no sense translating one that will not be printed. Also, 1/3 of the people in the world cannot read in the language they speak most often. So this question raises a key issue.

Rural literacy in Ghana

Rural literacy in Ghana

First,  if one develops a good alphabet, one that sounds like it spells and spells like it sounds, then teaching reading is easier than for English, much easier. An adult can learn to read in a few weeks or months of evening courses, not the years it takes for English. Also, ordinary people can teach each other, eliminating the need for professional teachers. Rural literacy programs can be run with volunteers at a very low cost. Using these methods, about half a million previously illiterate people in northern Ghana have learned to read their languages, with many moving on to English. And Ghana is just one example. See the video at the end about how one young woman in Senegal turned her education around through literacy in her language.

There are many advantages to doing literacy:

  • People who learn to read have a skill that allows them to do many other things successfully, such as having a small business. One woman told of finally being able to track what she had sold on credit, to whom and how much they had paid back. Imagine trying to remember all that, and the conflicts that might cause!
  • Young school drop-outs who learn to read in their own language are much more likely to go back to school and graduate. There are thousands of Ghanaians who are teachers, pastors, even some university professors and government officials who got a re-start in school after taking a literary class. Without that, today they would be uneducated peasants.
  • Farefare 7The children of women who learn to read are twice as likely to survive infancy.
  • Women in particular, gain many advantages when they learn to read in their own language. Here are some other web articles about that:
    What literacy does for women
    Famata’s story
  • People will come to a literacy class who would not come to church. At least one successful church planting program in Ghana starts with literacy for this very reason.

But for those who do not learn to read, the Bible is recorded. People listen to it on their phones, on local FM radio stations, in listening groups sponsored by their churches and in other ways. Indeed, listening groups where people listen to the Bible in their own language and discuss it, have been shown to be one of the most effective ways to plant churches and foster spiritual maturity in believers. Some will listen so many times that they memorize long passages. In addition, local choirs write Scripture songs which people memorize, ending up with a repertoire of dozens, even hundreds of Scripture songs.

Carrying out adult literacy for minority peoples erases a question some ask – should I do/support humanitarian work or evangelism/church planting? Through literacy, your money, your efforts and your prayers can do both at once!

Which Alphabet

Here is the next of the questions we were most asked when were last in the US.

What alphabet do you use to write an unwritten language?

John 1Most of the languages of the world which do not have a translation of the Bible, have never been written. So they do not have an alphabet. One of the first tasks is to develop an alphabet for the language. But languages are written with many different kinds of alphabets. To the right you can see just three including the Latin alphabet used to write English. A kind of alphabet is called a script.

So, which script do we use? That depends. Usually it depends on the more prestigious languages found in the same place. People speaking a minority language in Thailand, for example, will usually want their language written in Thai Script. For one thing, that makes it easier from them to learn and read the official language – Thai.

John 1:1 in Thai
ในปฐมกาลพระวาทะทรงดำรงอยู่และพระวาทะทรงอยู่กับพระเจ้า และพระวาทะทรงเป็นพระเจ้า

Isa 1 NafaanraDayle and I have worked in former British and French colonies in Africa where the official language is English or French. So languages in those countries are written with a script that is like English or French. But the languages have sounds not found in English or French, so some letters are added. Here is a typical example from the Nafaanra languages of Ghana. The text is from Isaiah chapter 1.

The people who speak the language and the relevant local authorities make the decision about how to write it. It is their language after all. What is easiest and seems best to them is more important than what a missionary may think, want or find easiest. If these scripts look impossible to you, remember that for the people who use them from their childhood they look easy and natural and our alphabet looks complex and strange. Remember, the Bible was first written in two different scripts: the Old Testament in Hebrew script and the New in Greek script neither of which is the script we use for English.

Occasionally the choice of a script can be controversial. I have seen cases where the same language is written with two different scripts. Some write it with one and some with the other. In such cases, many people learn to read both.

There are dozens of scripts around the world, some are very complex. In fact, they are so complex that special computer programs had to be written before they could be displayed or edited on a computer. That work was often done by missionaries. I’ll write about that in a future blog.

Here is a map of some of the world’s major scripts. Click to enlarge it.

On this day in 1604

King James

King James

On this day in 1604, King James agreed to order a new translation of the Bible into English. It was finished in 1611. On its 400th anniversary I wrote of its impact both historic (more than many think) and current (less than some think).  Read or re-read them by following these links: