Category Archives: Minority Languages

Local language Bible studies at seminary

These days in Nigeria it seems that formal education is pretty much exclusively an English-only affair and seminaries are no exception. So the experimental elective Sociolinguistics for Pastors running in ECWA Theological Seminary Kagoro has sought to shake things up a little. And with the encouragement of Provost and Chaplain, we have tried to encourage the setting up of some local language Bible studies, to complement the existing English language Bible studies.

A survey of languages and interest in local language Bible study led to the formation of around 20 groups, some with large numbers of students, some with just a handful, and leaving others where only 1 or 2 students in the seminary reported ability in that particular language.

The bigger groups include these languages: Gbagyi, Tyap/Kataf, Jju, Koro, Jaba/Hyam, Gworog/Kagoro, Kadara/Adara, Tangale and various Hausa dialects.

There were at least some already translated materials for all of these languages except Kadara, so we connected the groups with existing translation teams where possible or helped students find translations in their languages. Bible.com and bible.is were helpful in this, though some older translations (Gbagyi and Tangale) were not available online yet.

Smaller groups included these languages: Gure/Tugbiri, Eggon, Mada, Ninzo, Nikyob and Kurama.

Some of these communities have completed New Testaments, but others (Tugbiri, Nikyob) have only early work in progress or none at all (Kurama).

As we launched the idea of local language Bible studies, we recognised there were likely to be some difficulties, and so we developed the following guide for non-English Bible Study Groups.

Instructions for non-English Bible Study Groups

And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?”

Why?

The most important reason to study in the vernacular is…

to help each other understand and be changed by the Bible in all areas of our life.

and the second is like it…

to prepare yourself for mission in areas (of life, of the country) where that language is used.

There may be other reasons, but please focus on these two reasons first.

What will we study first?

Luke 22-24 in preparation for Easter and because most communities begin translating Luke.
Then each group is free to choose something interesting to study. It may be more fruitful to choose a book or a large section of a book to study rather than attempting a topical study. This helps you to hear the Bible as it was intended to be heard.

What do we need?

  1. Written or audio recorded translations of Luke 22-24.
  2. The Basic questions below.

The Basic questions

After reading/hearing a large section, ask the big question:

  • What seems most important or most striking about what we just heard?
    Are there any surprises?

Then decide how best to divide the passage into sections.

For each section, ask:

  • What does it say?

    • (Check that you all share an understanding of what is written in the Bible. Don’t assume everyone understands or agrees.)
  • What does that mean?
  • How should that affect our thinking and our living?

    • (What do we learn about God? What is it wise for us to do or think?)

Some suggestions

  1. Keep discussion in the language of the group as much as possible. Use other languages only when needed to communicate clearly, not to impress each other or to pretend you understand.
  2. Read longer sections than you normally study. This helps you to hear everything in proper context and is a good discipline.
  3. Focus on the meaning of the Bible, rather than debating which translation is better.
  4. Use all translations to help you understand the Bible better, but not to impress or boast in front of others.

What if…

…I don’t speak/hear my vernacular/mother tongue:

You might benefit more from joining another language group if you hear that better, including perhaps the Pidgin or Common Hausa groups.

…I don’t read the language well:

You can listen to a recording or make sure a fluent reader reads the passage aloud clearly. Try to follow the printed text.

…our language has no Bible translation

You can refer to other language translations and to biblical languages if that helps you to understand things better, but keep discussion in the group language. Perhaps you might want to think about how to put it in your group’s language.

…the translation seems to have problems or is an early draft

You can refer to other language translations and to biblical languages if that helps you to understand things better, but keep discussion in the group language. If you want to help the translation team improve their work, make a note of possible improvements and an explanation.

Where can we get written or audio translations?

bible.is for languages that already have a published New Testament, including Tyap, Jju, Hausa (audio only), Eggon, Mada, Ninzo, Pidgin.

Other languages will need to contact local Bible translation teams to get the translation, whether a finished product, a trial edition or an early draft. If a team shares a trial edition or an early draft of their work with you, it is good if you pass on any questions or suggestions for improvement that arise.

 

A time to plant or a time to kill?

Several people balancing on each other to form a very precarious looking human tower at the Gworog traditional festival 2014
Human tower at the Gworog traditional festival 2014: Writing Gworog can be rather precarious too!

It’s been a while since I wrote anything about the Gworog project. That’s largely because the project has faced personnel management issues and then a funding crisis, and then technical problems and they just haven’t had much for me to work on. I’ve also been pretty busy. But yesterday I had a (nother) meeting with the Gworog translation coordinator and 3 other linguists and literacy people to help come up with a plan for a really necessary meeting.

Perhaps to you “Community Orthography Consensus Meeting” doesn’t necessarily sound like the world’s most exciting knees-up but it could really be a matter of life and death.

Let me back up and explain a couple of things about the Gworog language. Continue reading A time to plant or a time to kill?

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

Making dictionaries serve translation

My paper Making Dictionaries Serve [Bible] Translation is here on Academia.edu open for comments. Below is the abstract and introduction.

Making dictionaries serve translation

David Rowbory, Translation Consultant in Training, SIL Nigeria

A paper presented at the 2015 Bible Translation Conference hosted by GIAL Dallas, Texas, 16-20 October relating to the sub-themes Technology and other Tools, Theory & Practice and Translator Training.

Abstract

John Roberts has lamented the tendency of Bible translators to ignore lexicography until after a New Testament has been completed and printed. The consequence is that while the translation process necessarily reveals much of the lexical richness of a language, few dictionaries are ever finished and little of the effort of creating such a dictionary ends up benefitting the translation itself. It does tend to be a peculiar minority of people who attack the task of lexicography with relish, but I want to outline the many ways that a working dictionary can and should support better writing. Recent developments have eroded many of the difficulties which have hindered the development and use of dictionaries. There is no need to typeset a full dictionary before it is used; software-based dictionaries can be useful even when incomplete. Rather than throwing knowledge away, every translator or pioneer writer should see the dictionary as a place to store the riches of their language and conserve the fruit of their wrestling with the language. Mother-tongue translators need dictionaries too. Where a diverse range of community members contribute their knowledge of the language to make a good, growing, living dictionary it can provide consultants, reviewers and translators alike with a wider evidence base for their decisions than mere individual opinion. I survey recent developments that make dictionary development more achievable than ever before, and propose procedures for Bible translators to use and maintain a dictionary with examples from projects that have done this.

Continue reading Making dictionaries serve translation

A little plug for Wycliffe in Nigeria, from a British MP

A search on the internet often throws up surprising results and one was the mention of the work of Wycliffe Bible Translators in Nigeria, by Lib Dem MP Mark Williams, MP for Ceredigion.

In talking about why it’s important for Christians and governments to engage in international aid, page 59, he mentions “Wycliffe Bible Translators teaching literacy, helping to grow local cultures and educating people in their native language.”

I’m intrigued to know how he found out about it since it’s fairly quiet and long-term work.

Liberal Democrats Do God book cover
Liberal Democrats Do God

 

Research in progress: Making dictionaries serve translation

Here’s an abstract that has been approved for presentation at a Bible Translation conference:

Making dictionaries serve translation

John Roberts has lamented the tendency of Bible translators to ignore lexicography until after a New Testament has been completed and printed. The consequence is that while the translation process necessarily reveals much of the lexical richness of a language, few dictionaries are ever finished and little of the effort of creating such a dictionary ends up benefitting the translation itself. It does tend to be a peculiar minority of people who attack the task of lexicography with relish, but I want to outline the many ways that a working dictionary can and should support better writing. Recent developments have eroded many of the difficulties which have hindered the development and use of dictionaries. There is no need to typeset a full dictionary before it is used; software-based dictionaries can be useful even when incomplete. Rather than throwing knowledge away, every translator or pioneer writer should see the dictionary as a place to store the riches of their language and conserve the fruit of their wrestling with the language. Mother-tongue translators need dictionaries too. Where a diverse range of community members contribute their knowledge of the language to make a good, growing, living dictionary it can provide consultants, reviewers and translators alike with a wider evidence base for their decisions than mere individual opinion. I survey recent developments that make dictionary development more achievable than ever before, and propose procedures for Bible translators to use and maintain a dictionary with examples from projects that have done this.

I thought I’d share some of my rough research and open up some questions and loose ends here in public while I’m preparing the paper.

Current Status of work: Literature & research review

I’m investigating times in the distant past right up to recently where dictionaries have made a contribution to Bible translation, whether positive or negative.

Some interesting stories so far

From translation consultants and translators.

What can we sing about?

In recent conversation with friends we were considering why it seems to us somewhat odd to sing (in church, or I guess anywhere) about “God of concrete, God of steel, \ God of piston and of wheel,” etc. Here’s my working theory:

Romantic ideology or worldview still exerts an influence on what Western people consider things to sing about. That gives us nature, love and war and the full range of emotion turmoil as topics to work with. The church is not immune from cultural influence and so our hymns and songs are likely to be constrained by these limited aspects of life. So “when through the woods and forest glades I wander” fits our expectations of something to sing about rather than the starkly modern “when through the Facebook posts and blogs I browse…” or “when in the office juggling meetings and politics…” Perhaps this also explains our difficulties when it comes to singing some Psalms.

But let me back up a bit:

What and not just how we sing is an interesting part of culture, and it’s very easy to assume (erroneously) that all cultures will sing about the same things, even if their singing style is different. This is one reason why translating books of hymns and songs from one language to another may not be a particularly great basis for a new church’s song-life. The very topics contained in the songs may be awkward, embarrassing, boring or just odd for the target culture. (However, using a few translated songs from another culture may well address our own cultural blind-spots.)

I’ve already said that my guess is that we today inherit a list of singable topics from European 18th Century Romanticism, which just happened to coincide with some significant church growth and mission efforts. What I really should do, is to gather up older hymns and compare with ‘Romantic period’ hymnody and modern songs to try to gauge how well my theory is evidenced in reality.

Is there a problem? Romanticism was essentially escapist and a reaction against the urbanising, industrialising forces at work in Europe at the time. Are we in danger of yoking a significant part of church life to an escapist ideology if we limit ourselves to just the Romantic topics? Certainly the gospel can be powerfully expressed within the confines of Romanticism, but we need to be aware of some distorting influences that might slip through unnoticed. If Romanticism had a focus not just on escapism but extreme emotion, then it is quite possible that our singing may end up with a bias in that direction. And then since Romanticism excludes gritty, ordinary, working-class and modern aspects of life, is it possible that in our singing in church we may unwittingly reinforce the notion that the Christian gospel is primarily for the middle-classes? (They have the leisure to muse on higher things.) Might we end up excluding the impact of the gospel on everyday matters from our song-speech together?

Anyway, this is really just observation at the moment and so I’d find insights from others interesting.

Languages I have been working with

As we’ve talked about our work in Nigeria, several have asked about the language(s) I work with. One quick way to find out some basic information about any language in the world is to look it up on the SIL Ethnologue. So roughly in order of more – less involvement on my part here are a few languages:

  • Gworok (just starting their work)

    • If you look at the page linked, you’ll see that Gworok is officially listed as a dialect of Tyap, which already has been developed fairly significantly, and has a Bible translation project well under way for some years.
    • At first sight it seems that there are some fairly significant differences between Gworok and Tyap, though some Gworok speakers can just about follow the Tyap Bible. But there seems to be substantial interest in having a Gworok translation.
    • Gworok is sometimes known as Kagoro, which is the town at the centre of the language area. Often outsiders refer to a language by the name of the most significant town in the area.
    • I really don’t know the number of speakers of Gworok. I’d hazard a guess at 50,000+.
    • Similar in some ways to neighbouring languages Ninkyob (who are still struggling to start) and Irigwe/Miango (whose New Testament was just launched).
  • Maya (started 2008, but still a fragile project)
  • Duya (started around 2010)
  • Koro Waci (started 2011)
  • Nyankpa

Those with good memories may remember I thought I might have involvement with the Tal Bible translation project. I’ve had some chats with the Nigerian missionaries involved in church planting there but there’s not been anything in particular for me to help with yet.

I think I’ll SayMore

Why can millions of people can happily speak languages that they can’t easily write? How do pioneer writers develop a natural written style for their language? How can mother-tongue speakers take responsibility for recording and carefully archiving some of the precious songs, stories, speeches, teachings and other communication from their languages? How do we transcribe texts in the post-cassette age? SayMore is here to help. Continue reading I think I’ll SayMore