A Kisi Alphabet

December 29, 2015 in Wycliffe, Mark, Africa, Bible translation, Front, Language, Tanzania

Last year I had the opportunity to visit a village in the Kisi community on the eastern shore of Lake Nyasa in southwest Tanzania. Although to be honest there is not much of a shore to the lake on that side – for mile after mile the towering Livingstone mountains drop straight into the lake, with just room for one or two houses at the water’s edge. Travelling to the Kisi from Mbeya town requires a 3-5 hour journey by car, followed by 8-12 hours in a wooden boat with an outboard motor, praying for good weather and a calm lake.
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Mbeya Planning Meetings

March 4, 2014 in Wycliffe, Mark, Africa, Bible translation, Front, Language, Tanzania

After spending a week in Dar es Salaam and a week in Dodoma, we flew to Mbeya for planning and review meetings with the team serving 13 language communities throughout Mbeya, Iringa and Njombe regions. This project, with the potential to impact 2.5 million speakers of the 13 languages, was started in 2003 and currently has around 70 staff working both in Mbeya town and in the surrounding communities.

Several of the translation teams are moving forward fast and approaching the completion of the New Testament in their languages, hopefully in the next 3 years. At the same time, some of the other languages have recently begun the process of developing writing systems, and are hoping to start translating the first Scripture portions in the next year or two. Read the rest of this entry →

Creating alphabets for the Bende and Pimbwe languages

September 17, 2012 in Wycliffe, Africa, Bible translation, Culture, Front, Language, Mission, Tanzania

“People will believe that God knows them if their language has Scripture in it… they will be very happy!” This was the opinion of Stephen, a speaker of the Bende language in Tanzania’s Katavi Region. But in order for parts of the Bible to be written in a language, there must first be an alphabet that is easy and intuitive for speakers of the language to read. Read the rest of this entry →

When “Son of God” doesn’t mean “Son of God”

May 13, 2011 in Wycliffe, Mark, Bible translation, Culture, Language

There has been a lot of debate in recent years about how the biblical phrase “Son of God” should be translated into languages where the majority of speakers are from a Muslim background. One side of the debate says that the phrase often used for “Son of God” is a huge stumbling block to Muslims engaging with the Bible, as it has connotations of biological sonship, implying that God had a physical son, and so a different phrase should be used. The other side argues that however the phrase is perceived the biblical message shouldn’t be compromised in order to make it more palatable.

Much has been written about this, with Christianity Today attempting to write a summary. Eddie Arthur, Executive Director of Wycliffe UK, has written on the issue here and here, and led a session for my MA course at Redcliffe College yesterday where we discussed the issue, where he also pointed to this helpful article.

To me the final article is significant as it makes the vital point that it is impossible to have this discussion in English!

[The Christianity Today] article talks about the attempt to use “spiritual Son of God” in a translation. But strictly speaking “spiritual Son of God” is an English expression. No translator is using it in a translation. What it proposed for a translation is an expression in the target language. That expression does not really match the English expression “spiritual Son of God” in all respects. Rather, it has its own nuances. And, as a whole, those nuances may be very close to what “Son of God” means in English. Similarly, “beloved Son who comes from God,” another expression given in the article, does not literally appear in any translation. It is an English expression. It is trying to represent in English some things about the precise wording in the target language. But it does not represent them with complete accuracy in English, even grammatically, because “who,” “of,” as well as the other words simply do not match the target language. The article talks about Muslims misunderstanding “the phrase ‘Son of God.'” But strictly speaking, they are not misunderstanding “Son of God,” but rather an expression in their native language. Read more.

This to me is the crux of the issue. The question is not should “Son of God” be translated as it is or changed to make it less offensive. If we were translating from English to English I would say “Son of God” should definitely be translated “Son of God” and not changed to a more acceptable version. But rather the relevant question is: What words should be used in the target language to represent as closely as possible the meaning of the Greek words ho huios tou theou?

I don’t think any phrase in the Bible should be changed in order to make it less offensive or more acceptable to people – we are not at liberty to change the biblical message. But we need to realise that translation isn’t as simple as exchanging each word in the source text for an equivalent one in the target language, and that seeking to provide a “word for word” translation (if this is indeed possible) can in fact lead to a less accurate translation if these words are understood in a way that is not intended in the text.

In this case the question the translators need to be asking is what phrase in the target language will bring to mind the same understanding and connotations for a speaker of that language as the phrase ho huios tou theou would have done to a first-century speaker of Koine Greek? If a particular phrase in the target language brings the immediate reaction that God had sex with Mary and had a physical son, I would suggest that maybe the words being used are not communicating the same meaning as the Greek words were to Greek speakers, and maybe the phrase should be modified! Simply substituting in apparently equivalent words has led to a primary meaning that is definitely not in the source text.

A more fundamental point that we briefly discussed yesterday was the underlying assumption of the Christianity Today article that English speakers can and should decide what phrases to use in a Bible translation into another language, without any knowledge of that language or culture. The attitude that we as outsiders understand all the complex linguistic and cultural issues, and can make hard and fast rules about what people should and shouldn’t do, is simply modern-day colonialism. Translation depends on an intimate knowledge of the complexities of both the source text and the target language, with all the connotations and nuances of various words and phrases.

At the end of the day the decision has to be made by the local community in consultation with experts in biblical languages, as the community are the only ones who can really know how the words are understood in their language. Let’s pray for translators and consultants in hundreds of languages around the world as they continue with the difficult job of coming up with words that communicate as accurately and fully as possible the meaning of the original biblical texts.

[Edit: Having posted this I’ve just remembered an excellent post from Wycliffe International about exactly this issue, which I meant to share instead of trying to say the same thing in a less eloquent way… if you’re still interested in reading more I’d definitely recommend reading it]

Bible and Translators

Language Assessment in Zambia

May 20, 2010 in Prayer, Wycliffe

On Sunday 23rd May I’ll be heading to Zambia for a couple of weeks, to work alongside an organisation called Worldwide Mission, as they seek to reach out to communities in Western Zambia that don’t yet have access to the Bible in their languages.

As ever, the first stage in any translation project is for the various partners to assess in what language and form communities are most likely to engage with the Bible, and to think through how and where projects should be started. I’ll be spending a week with the team of Zambian and South African missionaries in the town of Mongu, helping them to think through how to help the communities decide on the best way forward for any language project.

We’ll be discussing things like:

  • Planning the research trip, to make sure that we’re asking the right questions
  • What languages people use in their daily lives, and which of these they would be most likely to engage with Scripture in
  • Which communities would benefit from Bible translation projects into their previously unwritten languages
  • Which communities could use the same written materials, and which require separate translations
  • Within a language area, which dialect is best to use for the Bible and other materials
  • Who potential partners are in a language project
  • What the language situation is likely to be like in the coming generations

During the second week I’ll be accompanying the team on a trip to some of these communities as we begin to research some of these questions. The aim is that by the end of the time they will feel confident to continue the research in the rest of western Zambia – a large area about the size of England – working alongside many ethnic groups.

Please pray for the time – that it would be profitable for all involved. I haven’t had much time to prepare the workshop as I’m still working in recruitment for Wycliffe UK at the moment, but my hope is that together we can work through the basic principles of the research and that the team will understand the situation sufficiently to be able to continue on their own over the next few months.

I’d appreciate prayer for safe travel too – both internationally and within Zambia – and for safe non-volcano-interrupted flights each way! Laura will be on here own at home for the first time while I’m away, but has several friends around to make sure she survives!

If you’d like to follow my trip, I’m hoping to be able to continue sending updates on twitter whilst in Zambia, which you can find here.

An estimate of the languages spoken in Zambia from ethnologue.com