“What I like about English,” a student pastor told me at the end of one class, “is that you have so many special words for things, so that means you can think and talk about so much more than we can in our own languages.”
This sounds fairly convincing. English has a word ‘justification’ and so it’s easy to talk about it — easier than trying to talk about the same thing in a Nigerian language, at least. It’s not just religious terms but science too: how would you teach people about hydration or polymers or anatomy. This is commonly a justification for rushing kids to English in school and abandoning the foundational languages they come with. There are no words for these ideas in the home languages and we have no textbooks (and don’t intend to write any) in local languages for children to memorise. So far, so convincing, but of course that’s only part of the picture. Leaving aside the slightly questionable Sapir-Whorf exaggerations, the argument relies for its adequacy on two questionable assumptions which no-one really questions.
Education is chiefly about learning big words and regurgitating their definitions to pass tests, get a qualification and thus get a salaried position.
If we all use the same terms, then we’ll all understand the same thing. Shi ke nan! (Kinda Hausa for Slam Dunk!)
I’ll leave aside the educational philosophy issue for now and tackle the second.
“Go hand your head in shame, Apple: you’re still not doing software engineering right.”
Now, when you’re lambasting someone for doing something stupidly wrong, wouldn’t you try to make sure you don’t do the same thing yourself? Of course in true Dave Gorman fashion I turned to my live English Corpus (Twitter) to check and sure enough “Hand your head in shame” is a thing. Well, I guess if you can’t get the hand of English idioms, it’s not a handing offence is it?
(PS: In case you don’t know, it’s supposed to be Hang your head in shame. But maybe face-palming is more common these days.)
In a fascinating lecture from my alma mater (Trinity Hall, Cambridge), Professor John Clarkson talks through how he cut his teeth on engineering challenges that gave him a ‘systems approach’ to all kinds of other problems. He applies what he’s learned to a process for improving healthcare.
I think there’s something here for Bible Translators to learn from too, since often we are aware that we could and we must do things better.
One of my favourite quotes from this is around 40 minutes in: ‘Common sense is not common’. The other quote I love is ‘What could possibly go wrong?’ I think that’s often what I as a translation consultant am trying to do when translators propose a particular translation. ‘How could someone possibly misunderstand or misuse this?’
Back ‘Home’ in the UK for 9 months we face many changes while colleagues in Nigeria help the Ashɛ and Wachi and other teams prepare for a crucial training event in September.
We’ve spent the last 6 months nearly managing to finish writing a newsletter, and then getting delayed with bits and pieces of work or technical difficulties so that then what we had written seems not so fresh any more. So, I’m laying all that aside and we’ll do something of a catchup and review of the last 3.5 years in Nigeria later on, but here’s an update about what’s going on now.
We’re now in the UK!
That hopefully isn’t too much of a surprise to many, but given our lack of communication you would be forgiven for losing track that we’ve been in Nigeria since March 2016 except for the occasional brief trip back. So we are due a furlough or ‘home assignment’ and wanted to time it so that the big 3 girls can slot into school at the start of a school year. They have just entered P7, P5 and P3 in Glasgow. Rebekah was shocked as she realised that little Abigail is now a big Primary 3 — just what she was in when she left Shawlands Primary school.
In late April, four of the Ashɛ translation team were in Gardi — deep inside Ashɛ land — to greet chiefs and others, and to participate in an Ishɛ language service on the Sunday.
While Arams often complains about how things aren’t as they used to be, many children and adults swamped Moses’ house to look at the strange visitors and to listen to the Ishɛ story that we’ve studied together and which Arams told to the attentive audience.
In the mid-19th century, the renowned French/Russian entomologist Jean-Marie Syccof discovered and described the behaviour of an intriguing group of ants native to Algeria.
These days everyone knows how fiercely ants will defend their queen, but before Syccof’s time understanding of the social behaviour of ants was less clear. The queen herself hides deep in the anthill or nest producing offspring and she relies entirely on worker ants bringing food to her, since she can’t go to forage for herself. She can’t even defend herself while she’s producing more workers and so soldier ants defend her from enemy ants or other predators. You don’t want to get in the way of soldier ants, I can tell you!
On some rare occasions a queen will go rogue and will start consuming her offspring or other worker ants. This is clearly not good for the colony, but Syccof found that in certain ant colonies the soldier (defensive worker) ants will rise to defend the queen even when she is doing this. It doesn’t make sense for the colony (workers can sometimes start laying eggs if the queen dies), but Syccof theorised that the soldier ants became so used to backing and defending their queen from any and every attack that they would even help the queen fight and kill their own workers before eating them. In their unthinking defence of the queen therefore, Syccof’s soldier ants were in fact accelerating the demise of the colony. At some point distressed worker ants would disperse and attach themselves to another colony or a group would leave and a new queen would start laying. While what was good for the queen was normally good for the colony, that principle could badly backfire.
Perhaps there are lessons today even for humans. Go to the ant!
Mission ceases to be biblical when it is focused more on what humans get out of it (salvation) than on what God gets out of it (glory)… the former is anthropology the later is theology and if you do not properly order these your missiology will constantly go astray.
Just after the new year 3 families from our compound (and several singles) went on a short holiday trip to Yankari Game Reserve, about 4 hours east past Bauchi town. It was delightful! The roads to get there were surprisingly smooth, on the 40 mile drive (!) from the gates to the accommodation we spotted something antelope-like crossing the road. Warthogs (and baboons – least said about them the better) roamed around the chalets we stayed in, and as well as a fun wee safari, we spent lots of time swimming in the Wikki Warm Spring. Nestled in a grove of trees a river emerges from under a large rock wall. The water’s just a touch under body temperature the year round, and so for those of us used to a chilly shock every time we jump into an open air pool, it’s a rather pleasant surprise to jump in and get no shock – whether by day or by night. The blueish-tinged life-giving water steadily flows out from under the rock and is crystal clear, so that it was actually hard to see where the surface of the water was (at night especially). All you could see was the gleaming sand on the bottom.
Intriguingly there is a ‘royal villa’ at the game reserve which has its own private swimming pool for the State governor and his big men. But I for one couldn’t quite see why you would want a chilly and increasingly dirty artificial pool instead of the living, regenerating spring a few hundred metres away.
It reminded me of the prophet Jeremiah’s words to Israel:
“My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns,
In the course of trying to compare the style of natural storytelling in Koro Wachi language with what’s in the Bible, we looked at a seasonally appropriate passage:
“That time, angels that accepted strangers in heaven many appeared and they came with the angels.”
Luke 2:13, the Koro Wachi translation draft, as explained in English.
That’s how the Koro Wachi translator explained the current translation of Luke 2:13. I must admit I was somewhat puzzled as I asked about each word of the Koro translation in turn. It wasn’t what I was quite expecting. Suddenly the penny dropped! Of course! Who welcomes strangers but a generous “host”? And this is what the original Koro Wachi translator understood when he read Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared… in his NIV Bible. If these were heavenly hosts then they must be angels welcoming people to heaven. It all makes some kind of sense.
But of course it’s based on a tragic misunderstanding of the NIV English. Had the original translator looked at the Good News version ‘a great army of heaven’s angels’ then they may have done better, but how were they to know what to choose? Since ‘host’ (one welcoming guests) is a familiar concept and ‘heavenly host’ features in not only the NIV but in the KJV, ASV, ESV, RSV, NRSV, NASB (even the NLT!) why would a bilingual translator who considered himself to know English adequately suspect anything could be wrong?