Obvious first

If your car keys are missing, it’s more likely that they’re on your dresser than in another state. We look in the obvious places first. It makes sense. We solve problems the same way – by looking for the obvious solutions first. When the translation of the Bible into a language fails to progress well, we looked for the most obvious problems first. Were the translators well-trained? Did they have adequate resources? How’s their morale?

But things change when dealing with a perennial problem – one that’s been around for a while. In such cases, all the obvious solutions have already been tried. That doesn’t keep us from trying them again, however. I remember the moment that it dawned on me that we were trying the usual solutions on a translation program that had been under-performing for two decades. Church leaders were saying that something had to change but we were just trying again what had been tried several times before. The obvious was obviously not a solution.

The solution had to be in something untried, something different, something not obvious at all. The problem was that anything untried is also untested. We don’t know if it will work. But is that really a problem when all the tried and tested solutions have failed? Isn’t what might not work better than what has already failed?

I got some inspiration idfor this blog from Seth Godin Obvious. Places First

Process and results

Tunesia (courtesy NASA)

Bible translators are very concerned about method and process, and rightfully so. Long experience tells us that following a rigorous process yields a good translation most of the time. Whereas ignoring process almost always results in a poor translation. One of the quickest ways to improve an under-performing translation effort is to examine the translators’ process and make changes to bring it in line with best practice.

Because a healthy obsession with process works so well, translators can be tempted to try the same process approach in other areas. One of those is the use and impact of the finished translation. This is fueled by research into what causes some translations to be widely used while others to pile up in storerooms. While that research is helpful, it’s easy to turn that research into a process and then believe that rigidly following it will guarantee that the translation will be enthusiastically received by slavish adherence to the right process and then bring spiritual revival.

But the research tells us that what creates impact and transformation varies. It also seems to tell us what is necessary to promote acceptance and use, but not what will guarantee those desired results. If I don’t put gas in my car, it will stop. But if I do put gas in it, it will stop anyway if something breaks. Gas is necessary but not sufficient.

Jesus said:

The wind blows wherever it wants. Just as you can hear the wind but can’t tell where it comes from or where it is going, so you can’t explain how people are born of the Spirit.” – John 3:8

In my understanding, this verse means that there will never be a sure-fire process for results in missions. There are no magic bullets. We shouldn’t say “If we do this, then we will see results” like a some kind of strange combination of social science and Harry Potter incantation.

Chile / South America (courtesy NASA)

There’s a great illustration of this where deserts meet the ocean. One would think that it would be impossible to have a desert next to a large body of water, but it happens with some frequency in places as diverse as Chile, Mauretania, Namibia and the Arabian Peninsula. Likewise, We can bring the water of our well-studied ministry process next to people and still end up with a fruitless desert.

Effective ministry requires listening for the Spirit speaking into, even sometimes breaking into and disrupting, our well-engineered processes. On occasion, I have sometimes seen amazing results when the experts’ processes were intentionally dropped in favor of a process proposed by people who had no experience at all in translation but who knew their context.

Arabian Peninsula (courtesy NASA)

The curse of knowledge

In his excellent YouTube video on good writing, Harvard professor Steven Pinker points out that the central problem of writing is “the curse of knowledge”. Here’s my favorite explanation of this curse:

The curse of knowledge means that the more familiar you are with something, the harder it is to put yourself in the shoes of someone who’s not familiar with that thing
A writer knows something that he wants to write down. Because he knows it he finds it very difficult to put himself in the place of his readers who don’t. That may lead him to leave out information his readers need because he wrongly assumes that they know it because he does.

The same thing happens with something called church language. It is quite common that Christians develop understandings of certain words in church. Then we speak them with the church understanding and hear them the same way. Some Christians will forget that people outside the church understand the words differently. Those Christians are suffering from the curse of knowledge.

I experienced this first hand in Burkina Faso. We were translating the story of John the Baptist. So I asked a local pastor how one said baptize in the language. He responded “bateezeng”. That is obviously just and adaptation of the English word. Aware of the problem of church language, I asked several people who did not attend church about ” bateezeng”. They all told me the same thing. It means to give a newborn its name on the 8th day. Of course, we can use “baptize” for naming in English too. I went back to the pastor and told him of the responses I got. He agreed that was what everyone understands by the word. We eventually found another word for baptize that communicated much better than bateezeng.

The curse of knowledge is one of the reasons why we have a step in the translation process called community testing. When a translator translates a passage, he does so knowing what he meant to say. He then finds it very hard to forget what he meant and read his translation for what is actually says. It helps to let the translation sit a while then come back to it, but a surer solution is community testing. The translators go out into the community and read each passage asking people what they heard. Because the people don’t suffer from the curse of knowledge, they will tell the translator what the translation really wrote, just like those people in Burkina Faso who told me that bateezeng meant giving a child a name.

Ensuring quality

It is very important that translations of the Bible be accurate. So how do we do that for translations in smaller languages? Well, that’s not as simple as doing just one thing.

  • The first step is to select the translators with care. If done well, that is a multi-step process in itself.
  • Then we train the translators in seminars and on the job.
  • Then the translators get helps and specialized software. Today, most of the helps are computer based.
  • It is crucial to train at least two Translators and have them work as a team, confirming each other’s work and working through difficult translation problems together.
  • For thorny problems, the translators should be exposed to the solutions found in nearby languages. So they should have the opportunity to work together with other translators, especially those with experience.
  • Next, the translators meet with groups of local people and read the translation with them, asking what the people understand.
  • Finally, a translation expert goes over the translation with them verse by verse. This is as much for training and for improving the translation as it is for giving approval for printing.

These steps are repeated over and over. Each book of the Bible goes through this process. For longer books, just part of it might go through this process then the rest later. Because the translators learn through the process and their translations get better and go faster, it is better to run through the complete process with smaller portions of translation, especially at the beginning. I have seen cases where translators took the whole New Testament though only first few steps. Then when they got to the next steps, they learned things that caused them to go back and revise all they had done. What’s a waste of time and money.

These days, people are experimenting with changes to this process with a view to making translation go faster and cost less. I think that’s great, as long as accuracy doesn’t suffer.

Translation consultant Matthieu Ouattara training translators in Abidjan

The Cute and the Informative

I’ll start with the cute. NewsOK, a Oklahoma on-line news site, has a great article entitled Who Wrote the Bible. It’s not what you might think. Instead of a dry theological treatise, the author gets the answer from children from ages 8 to 10. Smart kids. You’ll enjoy it.

Also in the fun and informative category is Wycliffe’s new website – Road to Transformation. It opens with a nice infographic and you can stay there or dig into more details. Believe me, the process is exactly like we do it.