Bottlenecks & translation systems analysis (Nigeria)

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How the workflow feels at the moment for many Bible translation projects:

A diagram of the workflow as it currently seems to beAnalysis of current dysfunction

  • Teams rapidly draft, creating a slight backlog of drafts needing team check.
  • Team check is fairly quick and not thorough enough to catch all the problems that should be found BEFORE a back translation for consultant check. Drafts then pile up waiting for back translation.
  • Back translation is painful. Often the quickest and easiest way to do it is for a translator to give it. Sometimes back translators make it easier by copying out (consciously or not) an English translation they are familiar with. So consultants may still require interaction with translators or another community member to ascertain what the text is saying and how it is saying that. (cf Mark Gaddis 2013: Expediting the Translation Process)
  • Consultant time is at a premium so team-checked drafts pile up (discouraging the teams). But with the back translations being unreliable, consultant preparation is difficult and face-to-face time is spent fixing many smaller issues that should have been fixed at team check. This forces consultants to choose between a superficial check or thorough but slow progress (exacerbating the checking backlog).

Note: % are of translator/team time spent doing this translation work, given the observation that many teams appear to take about half the time to team check as draft, and double the time to consultant check than draft, and back translating often takes longer than drafting. They mean nothing in absolute terms, but are mainly to help us compare with the next page.

How to mitigate the backlog?

A better workflow

  • Improve team checks: more thorough — checklist + coaching by intern or consultant?
  • Improve back translation: interactive to clarify uncertainties — taken by intern?
  • Essentially we must push the work back up the chain, rather than expecting too much correction/improvement to happen at the consultant check point. Teams may need more coaching on team checking and here interns could cut their teeth for a time, but stepping back as soon as possible to coach other teams (unlike ‘advisors’ who would stay long-term with a team). Intern pre-checking should include collecting helpful oral back translations.

Note: Parallel pre-checking may be more fruitful than trying to do a final check in parallel (cf Mark’s experiment with Nyankpa and Duya).
Note 2: What if there is no team? Or if the ‘team’ consists of one ‘rock-star’ translator and then others who are considered much less able? Teamwork dynamics may need work before team checking is fruitful.

Finally, I actually think that a ‘spiral’ development path is more likely to be helpful:

A spiral translation workflow
Implementing such a system would take some careful thought and a change in approach since much of our current methodology is based on the idea of a waterfall or ladder, leading one step at a time to the target and never returning to earlier stages:

(from some Luke Partnership materials used in Nigeria)
(from some Luke Partnership materials used in Nigeria)

A spiral sees us iterate through the stages much more quickly, so that the first prototype (draft) is not a candidate for publishing, but just a suggestion that gets gradually refined as we go forward. This concept comes from software development, where practitioners have gradually realised that the ladder approach usually leads to unsatisfactory projects being delivered late.

At each iteration we may need to learn to live with a certain degree of uncertainty or incompleteness, knowing that we will complete those areas later. These might be areas, such as:

  • Writing the language (we may do a first draft orally)
  • Key biblical terms (we may use ‘safe’ or placeholder biblical terms on early iterations)
  • Discourse (!)
  • Dialect choice and language development issues

It may sound a little dangerous, but I’m not sure it’s worse than current practice.

A basket of about 100 large unripe mangos from the fallen branch

Premature Mango Harvest

One morning there was suddenly a huge crashing noise just outside the homeschool room; one of our mango trees had over-reached itself in enthusiasm for producing hefty fruit and a large branch crashed to the ground. Green, unripe (but rather large) mangos were scattered all over the place. We picked up a massive basket load which provided a great opportunity for practising estimation. Around 100 mangos were then cooked into a very convincing “apple sauce” to the surprise and interest of our gardener Samuel who had never considered cooking mangos, let alone unripe ones.

Fallen branch from our mango tree
Fallen branch from our mango tree
A basket of about 100 large unripe mangos from the fallen branch
A basket of about 100 large unripe mangos from the fallen branch

Is translation easy or impossible?

For centuries – probably millenia – people have argued about whether translation is actually possible, whilst doing it and relying on it all the time. Some treat it as a mechanical – obvious – process, just switching words around. But most people who have been involved in meaningful translation realise that it’s a lot harder than that. So what perspective is true?

It’s occurred to me, as someone who struggles with learning languages, that translation maybe is only as hard as learning a language well. What do you think?

That means it’s tough, but not impossible. The hardest bit is probably learning to discard the assumptions and patterns from language A when learning and using language B.

Homeschool resuming

Tea break in our school room

Homeschool started again for Rebekah and Elizabeth a few days after we arrived back in Nigeria. Rebekah was back to her familiar pink desk, and Elizabeth chose purple for an identical desk that our carpenter Weze made for her. Abigail is keen not to be left out, but she also lost no time in forming a strong friendship with 2 year-old David who moved to next door while we were away in the UK. Auntie Sarah has been helping to look after Helen while working on the morning chores so that Julie has a bit of peace to teach the big girls. They’ve been getting going by 8 and finishing up around noon.

It’s a little unfortunate that the ‘th’ sound in English is comparatively rarely used in other languages. And so it would be far too easy to mis-hear Nigerian colleagues talking about “fate” rather than “faith”. There is a rather important difference of course. Sometimes the context or expectation makes things clear, but other times it doesn’t.

It reminds me of the time in 2001 I set out to buy ‘paint thinner’ in the town of Zuru, in NW Nigeria. I was entirely unsuccessful, but did eventually manage to describe what I was looking for and purchase ‘paint sinner’.

Languages of Wilder Confusion: hidden dangers for international collaboration

I’ve appreciated the numerous short, thought-provoking articles Jim Harries has written (and also here) on topics of cross-cultural communication. One that got my attention recently was Building Castles in the Sky: A case for the use of indigenous languages and resources in Western mission-partnerships to Africa, particularly in the light of 2 realities which are close to home for me:

  1. For my work as a Bible translation consultant (in training) I am reliant on using languages of wider communication (mostly English, with little bits of Hausa) to discuss the meaning of parts of the Bible and help translators check and improve their work. I am very aware of the dangers and pitfalls that this entails.
    1. (Why is this a reality for me? I’m rather slow and poor at learning to speak languages, and work with far too many languages to attempt it.)
  2. There is a real push amongst some Americans who want to “accelerate Bible translation” to resource and partner directly with local churches around the world and to cut out the missionary middle man, as it were. This is possible because more and more non-Western partners are able to communicate in Western languages of wider communication(English, Spanish, French).

Jim warns that great danger lurks here.   Continue reading Languages of Wilder Confusion: hidden dangers for international collaboration

Spelling and Grammar: revealing the insidious occult influence lurking within even Christian curricula

How many well-meaning parents have encouraged their offspring to compete in a spelling bee? How many have insisted on children spending hours learning and practising their spelling? “What is the harm in that?” we may ask.

Would we send our children to a witch to learn sorcery and magical incantations? It may be shocking to learn that the very same ‘spelling’ practised daily in our schools has its origins in the old Germanic word ‘spel’ meaning an enchantment or magical charm. Look in the Oxford English Dictionary and you will have to admit this is clear for all to see. The origin of the word proves that in exposing our dear little ones to ‘spelling’ we are inducing them to experiment with witchcraft.

As if this state of affairs was not bad enough, children then proceed to lessons in ‘grammar’. The word ‘grammar’ has a late Middle English root from Old French gramaire, via Latin from Greek grammatikē (tekhnē) ‘(art) of letters’. This sounds innocent enough were it not for the fact that the word was attested in Scots from early 18th century as ‘glamour’ meaning ‘enchantment, magic’ coming from a lesser-known, but sinister sense of ‘grammar’ meaning the kind of scholarship and learning “including the occult practices popularly associated with learning”. (Again this is all found in the OED.)

So in both these ways we can see that our modern ways of language instruction and literacy are rooted in menacing pagan magic. Whether you recognise it or not, every time you ‘spell something out’, you are invoking shadowy spirits.

So down with spelling and grammar! Let us send them back to their foul, fiendish founders!

International Money Transfer: reliable options

Transferring money internationally used to be risky and expensive, but in the last few years that has all changed. Here are some online options great for people wanting to send money between common major currencies and also to more far-flung places such as Nigeria (where we live). Many people in countries like Nigeria are sent regular support from relatives working in Europe or North America. These services allow bank transfers – and in some cases, mobile phone topup and cash pickup locally, with vastly reduced charges. (However, they typically don’t work for getting money flowing the other way, say from Nigerian Naira to British pounds.)

Best rates (above mid-market rate) for Nigeria, Feb 2016: Azimo.

  • Sign up first to Azimo via to get a nice chunk of cash back on your first transaction.

Others which are good, but give only the mid market rate to Nigeria:

  • Transferwise: Low fees, has worked well for me with > 10 transactions.
  • Not personally used this myself.
  • Again not used it, but it gets a good press. Offers a prepaid Mastercard.

Please note that I get some referral fees for some of the links above.