It’s good to look back on what we hoped to do when we first went to Nigeria in 2011 and assess our progress. My hope had been that I’d go with my English, knowledge of Bible and theology and Biblical languages, and meet translators who spoke some English, as well as their language and rather than me learning to speak their languages (badly), I’d just help them in whatever ways they struggled to understand the Bible, point them in the right direction and check their work before publication.
That still is my goal in many ways, and it’s what many of the translators expect but we’ve come to recognise 2 major flaws in that approach:
- Frequently translators (especially younger ones) don’t really understand the Bible at all well, so this way of working is infuriating and just not adequate. Translators need to take much more time to understand how their own languages work, and they need a lot more help to understand what the Bible means. Actually this is encouraging in a perverse way; more and more we can see how essential it is to translate the Bible into everyday language rather than just hoping that people might somehow grasp it. It’s going to take much longer than anyone expected but it’s clearly more necessary than people tend to believe.
- We had easily assumed that for the many Bibleless but Christianised groups of Nigeria, the local church would be the missionaries to their people, and they would use the Bibles. But we now find that doesn’t happen, because sadly people have got used to the Bible being waved around and used as a magic book of charms to mean whatever anyone wants… Tying good Bible handling skills to English locks it away in a fusty semi-coherent world of academia. So alongside the local professing church, we urgently need mission-minded people who have been brought up to know and handle the Bible well, who will help the churches use the scriptures well, rather than just getting annoyed when they don’t.
If that sounds like we’re asking for more missionaries to come and help, you’d be right. We do need more missionaries.
But with all our inadequacies, looking back over the last 8 years, I think we’ve seen God at work with us. I’ve helped check NT and a little OT translation for nearly ten languages — many in their very earliest stages of work. I’ve taught a load of translation students — some are now teaching at TCNN and many are working with translation projects around Nigeria. Others, like Richard, Pelumi, Plangtong, Aku and Malgwi are now colleagues having joined us and are raising support as missionaries within Nigeria. That is exciting, but also rather daunting, because we see that mission does require money and a lot of the time Nigerian churches are more concerned with big new buildings, or planting more churches to grow their influence and their franchise. Bible translation doesn’t necessarily fit into that. Bible translation won’t necessarily lead to bigger offerings or making a name for yourself. But that kind of mission — where we are investing strategically in building God’s kingdom and fame and not our own kingdoms and fame — is actually the most healthy for the church I think. For now our colleagues are struggling somewhat to make ends meet and a number have got discouraged and had to find something else to do to feed their families.