My sisters refrigerator makes ice. Two kinds of ice, no less. The display panel offers cubed or crushed. I chose cubed. This is what I got. I don’t know if this three-dimensional shape has a name, but if it does, it’s not a cube. Yet this is an ice cube. And I was not at all surprised, disappointed or indignate when I selected “cubed” and got this. I didn’t feel mislead or duped. I’m perfectly happy with my ice cubes that aren’t cubes at all. The ice cube trays (There’s that word again!) of my youth produced ice in the shape of cubes, roughly speaking. I suppose that’s how chunks of ice made for human use came to be called cubes.

How did it happen that we are happy to call something a cube that’s not at all a cube? Well, “ice cube” ceased to be a combination of two words each with its own meaning and instead developed one meaning. We still write it like two words, and we can take it apart into two words, but the two words together have one meaning. We recognize ice cubes that are not even remotely shaped like cubes proving that “cube” has lost its independent meaning when found in the combination “ice cube”. There are lots of such cases, like “the White House”. It’s still white, but it’s quite unlike most houses.

The correctness of considering ice cube as one word is shown by the fact that in other languages it is one word. In German it’s a compound word (like icecube), but in French it is one word (glaçon) that is not composed of two parts. Glaçon is derived from the word for ice but it has nothing to do with cubes.

When translating or interpreting the Bible, we can’t pull phrases like “ice cube” apart to determine their meaning. In fact, we should be a bit sceptical when preachers make a big deal of subjecting words and phrases to great scutiny especially when the result is a novel interpretation. God spoke to us in ordinary language which is subject to ordinary understanding. So don’t think you need deep scrutiny of words to understand. Or you might be like someone convinced by fancy reasoning that my sister’s refrigerator doesn’t make ice cubes. Or that a quarantine is not a real quarantine unless it last 40 days.

New Meanings

A few months ago I was aghast at a sacrilege committed on Facebook. Someone had posted a photo that was too good to be true. A lady asked the question: “Has it been shopped?”

For those of you who do not know, Photoshop is a popular photo editing program. To say that a photo has been “photoshopped” is to say that it has been altered. But this woman had reduced “photoshopped” to “shopped”.

Perhaps the retail world is still reeling from the shock of having a woman used the verb “shop” with the wrong meaning! I mean, what is this world coming to? Ladies everywhere should be rising up in protest or protect the purity of that word!

The thing is, words change meaning all the time, sometimes quite radically and occasionally in a short space of time. Will “shopped” become standard for altering photos? Is it slang that is here to stay? In spite of all the effort that our brave English teachers put into nailing English down, it just keeps slipping around. But they are not to blame. It is in the nature of language to change. Every language changes.

So new translations of the Bible are needed. It was completely understandable in the days of King James to talk about “the quick and the dead”, whereas now that phrase conjures images of the success and failure of pedestrians dealing with streets busy with cars.

Just about the time the beleaguered translator thinks he is done, the people speaking the language go and change the meanings of some of the words. Here in Ghana, the Bible Society has just published revisions of two translations first done in the mid 1800s, in the Twi and the Ewe languages. At least one of them had been revised at least once before.

If you liked this, you might also like No Hard Knocks, Stools and Skins or Teach them English.


I was working with my Ghanaian colleagues on some communication pieces (brochures, web pages, etc.) to help Ghanaians understand Bible translation. In a very good piece by one of my colleagues, he included this statement:

The Bible is a meaningful book with a message that is meant to be understood. When it was first written, it was written in the everyday language that the people of the time spoke.

Communication always starts from some assumptions about what people believe about the subject. So, those writing about AIDS might include the fact that it is not transmitted through casual contact such as shaking hands. Why write that? Well, because some people might believe that it can be. So let’s look again at what my Ghanaian colleague wrote.

The Bible is a meaningful book with a message that is meant to be understood. When it was first written, it was written in the everyday language that the people of the time spoke.

Why would he write that? He is assuming that some people think that the Bible might be a book which was not meant to be understood. Maybe they think that it is a mystical book which can only be understood by religious experts. Maybe they think that even when it was first written people did not understand it – more like a set of magical chants than meaningful words.

Translators and volunteers who shaped the transaltion of the New Testament in the Nawuri language of Ghana, assuring that it was both acurate and clear

Translators and volunteers who shaped the translation of the New Testament in the Nawuri language of Ghana, assuring that it was both accurate and clear

The thing is, his assumptions are correct. Many Africans have the mistaken notion that the Bible is not meant to be understood. Some of this comes from their traditional religions in which knowledge of the religion resides only in experts such as shamans and diviners, not in the ordinary person. It is not that the shamans and diviners explain. Not at all! On the contrary, they keep as much information to themselves as possible just like companies try to keep some things secret, such as the recipe for Coca-Cola. That way their clients always have to return to them, thus supplying a steady stream of income.

The belief that the Bible is not a book to understand is also reinforced by experience. Many Africans hear it preached in languages they do not understand, or do not fully understand, sometimes from stilted or archaic translations that do not convey meaning. The combination of coming from a religion in which they rely on experts to understand for them and hearing the Bible in language they do not fully understand can lead to an unfortunate assumption – that the Bible is not meant to be understood.

Congoelse women leaning in to watch the Jesus Film

Congoelse women leaning in to watch the Jesus Film

I was part of producing the Jesus Film in a few languages in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo. We dedicated the films in four of the languages in the town of Bunia. As part of the dedication, we played some of the Jesus Film in each language. I could hear excited whispering as the showing started. I asked a local person what they were saying.

We can understand everything!
It is so clear!

Why the surprise? Well, they did not expect to understand. Their experience of church was one of not understanding. This is not just true in Africa, In Papua New Guinea a speaker of the Tokples languages said of the new translation in that language:

Before, the Bible has always seemed hard to understand. But as we have read from the Tokples Bible … everything has been perfectly clear. (Read more here)

But God loves to communicate. One of the speakers at the National Conference on Evangelism held recently in Ghana said:

God is a speaking God. We love God’s Word because in his Word we hear him speaking to us. We see him coming to us.

Translating the Bible is not about producing a book. It is about God speaking today; about knowing Jesus, who himself said:

The Scriptures tell about me (John 5:39 CEV)