“The motorbike fell, and my computer was crushed and it was wonderful,” said a Nigerian friend.
Now there’s nothing unusual in that statement for a Nigerian, but I think most British folk would be surprised. For Brits and Americans, Wonderful is just another way of saying ‘very good’. But in Nigerian English it means something surprising or shocking. And quite likely something wonderful is not going to be very good!
Now, I know this distinction in my head, but can I actually discipline myself to use the word Nigerianly?! That’s another thing. I’m sure I’ve baffled many by describing something merely good as particularly shocking.
Every week I drive past Peculiar International College and a shop titled Peculiar Cuts/Drycleaning. There’s a school bus (above) emblazoned with Peculiar Child. Why do I find this odd?
In Nigeria Peculiar means something/someone special, or precious to someone else. That’s what it used to mean in British English too, as you can see in the King James Version of the Bible where Christians are described as being a peculiar people. But languages don’t stand still, and so today peculiar has changed its meaning, from being a delightful epithet of worth to marking something strange or unusual.
Thus my friend Princeton had been perplexed to read in a novel about a ‘peculiar sight: a cat reading a notice board’. That just doesn’t make sense with the Nigerian (old) English meaning of the word, but does with the modern use.
I had an interesting chat over the summer with someone wrestling with how to communicate ‘in Christ‘ in his location/language. This is an ongoing and troubling translation issue, because clearly ‘in Christ’ is an important topic in Paul’s writing and yet a little difficult to talk about clearly because it’s actually rather odd English.
‘In Christ’ is a somewhat literal rendering of the original Greek ἐν Χριστῳ and quite possibly a Hebrew/Aramaic original concept may underlie it.
Most people around the world speak more than one language.
That shouldn’t be news, but in the English-speaking monolingual world, we may need to remind ourselves of this fact.
One language may be used at home and informally, but in a multilingual world, it’s useful to be able to communicate with people who speak different languages. People with different home languages might share a common language or a ‘trade language’ (especially for the marketplace). These are known as ‘languages of wider communication’. English is obviously one, and so is Hausa (used in northern Nigeria), Mandarin Chinese (for China), Spanish etc. Unfortunately while I can greet people and buy my tomatoes using Hausa, when I try to go much deeper in the language I come up against a problem. Any Language of Wider Communication is also frequently a Language of Wilder Confusion.
Just under 2 weeks ago we were shocked by the news of a colleague’s sudden death.
Naboth Musa was only 23 years old, but had been a tremendous answer to prayer for the venerable Duya Bible Translation project. Most recently I had helped get him and his colleagues set up to record several books of the New Testament in Duya language ahead of a month of community testing, and he took to it surprisingly quickly.
Please, #pray for the family, friends, and colleagues of Naboth Musa, a member of the Duya translation team in #Nigeria, who died a few days ago. (In the attached photo he is wearing the checked shirt). He had only recently recorded Matthew, Galatians & Colossians on audio, pic.twitter.com/8qTP1gDKw9
Sorry about the delay. I was about to send this out the week before Christmas but then — along with half of Jos — I got a bad cold that I’ve only just thrown off, which wiped me out. David.
A visit to Ashe land
On a Monday in the middle of December, I (David) travelled about 3 hours out to the Ashe Bible Translation office in a small town called Kurmin Jibrin which is past Kagoro and on the way to Abuja. (Many of our colleagues know it as Banana Junction, because there are always ladies with trays of bananas on their heads waiting to sell them to passing travellers.)
Apart from overseeing some adjustments to doors and locks for our colleague Kathleen, the main thing I went there for was to join her and the translators as they work their way through studying some natural Ashe stories. Patiently and methodically, Kathleen is leading the translators on a journey of discovery about how their language fits together.
Studying Ashe tales
As they start this work, they are using a true story told by Gideon — one of the translators — about an incident that happened about a year ago when a python attacked a flock of sheep near his village. It was recorded originally in the Ashe language, then transcribed using software called SayMore and given a rough translation into English to help outsiders understand the story. Kathleen helped direct them to divide the story up into clauses. Then the translators identified actions/descriptions and participants: who is doing what, and who gets affected by the actions. Then clause by clause the translators took turns to see how all these ingredients fitted together.
Some of the most significant learning moments come when the translators realise they can’t quite explain why a certain word should have been used, but in some ways it makes it ‘sweeter’ that way. These are the expressions that don’t immediately match up with English, but which may be vital for making a story clear and interesting. They help the hearer follow with ease rather than getting hopelessly confused. But these vital expressions and patterns are in grave danger of being overlooked or clumsily abused when translating something from another language, simply because they are just the kind of thing that varies considerably from one language to another.
Once we have learned a little from some Ashe language texts we’ll have a fresh look at Luke’s gospel which we have already translated and checked as thoroughly as we could. While we did our best to check all the right ingredients were there for the translation, I knew that without serious study of how stories are told by Ashe people, we wouldn’t be able to check these ingredients were being mixed together properly. We’ll let you know how things work out.
New story books
Talking of story-telling, Julie’s become quite aware that there’s a lack of (interesting) reading materials for Nigerian children, whether in English, Hausa or local languages. And while we’ve got quite a library of books for various ages of children, most of them are somewhat western in their setting. Even if such books are interesting enough, we’d really like to help children (and adults) enjoy learning through reading without the implication that everywhere should become Western or that the only good stories are Western ones. So Julie has had an idea to try to make some nice books of stories which actually come from a recognisable Nigerian setting — like the python and the sheep. We’re hoping we get time to organise that and find some illustrators who can make them engaging and recognisable. I’m hoping that our work on studying the structure of the stories will actually enable us to make more interesting translations of the stories into English. Otherwise translations tend to end up rather stodgy and boring, or else run the risk of distorting the stories and missing the point.
Just before Christmas Julie’s grandfather Eddie was hospitalised and very seriously ill so much so that we were trying to work out whether Julie should travel back — not easy around Christmas — but in a great answer to many prayers he has against all hope recovered surprisingly well. It’s hard being far from family at such times.
Quite a few presents arrived in time for Christmas, from friends, family and churches in the UK, so we felt very loved. Some more have trickled through afterwards too. We enjoyed having several friends staying with us around Christmas, and we even had a Boxing Day cricket match, joined with a bunch of Indian friends. Then just before New Year we were sad to say goodbye to the Mort family who have been staying on our compound for the last 5 months. They’re going back to their village location a long day’s drive away West and we’ll all miss them.
Sisters Sarah and Blessing who work in our house sadly lost a relative over Christmas. Blessing is expecting number 2 and has been on bed rest for quite a while — much to her frustration — but Julie’s looking forward to Sarah coming back to work this week after the Christmas break.
Julie restarted home school this week, with Rebekah, Elizabeth and Abigail genuinely champing at the bit for it. Do pray for Julie as she gets everything organised.
Many thanks for your prayers and support as we serve in Nigeria. Love from us all,
Rebekah, Elizabeth, Abigail & Helen
ps. This newsletter has been delayed so long that I actually went off to Banana Junction again last Monday (8th) for a couple more days of work on the Ashe stories. Possibly next week they will start comparing the Ashe translation of Luke’s gospel to what they’ve discovered about the language of their stories.
Why do we so often struggle to start and maintain Bible translation projects and encourage the use of completed scriptures? Is it possible that we’re offering a solution to a problem that few really recognise?
And some followup questions:
If it’s not obvious to pastors and people that translating the Bible is a Good Thing™ then should we launch into it anyway? If we can only encourage a nibble of interest by dangling the carrot of ‘language preservation’ or ‘raising language status’ is it then a good idea to set a Bible translation in motion? What’s the point of taking years to build a lifeboat that no-one sees the need of? Build it and they will come? Really?
Increasingly often I seem to be learning that the more you know, the more you realise you don’t understand. There’s a particular kind of things I’m learning at the moment – English as a Language of Wider Confusion. Words that I’ve been using turn out to mean different things to my hearers than I intend and I keep realising that I’ve probably been misleading people completely unwittingly.
So far BUSH and JARGON have fallen. The latest victim is CONTEXT.