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.
Looking through a thesis for a friend at Kagoro seminary I was stumped by one particular word: ‘cameliously’. The context? “The instrument used in this research was carefully, cameliously designed…” Are you any the wiser? I wasn’t and I consulted various dictionaries and asked friends. No-one had ever heard of the word. Various possibilities were suggested including things to do with chameleons. That seemed unlikely since the word didn’t really look like that. Finally I gave up and asked the student directly. Grinning, Ezekiel confessed he had actually made it up and intended it to be ‘like a chameleon’.
The Scripture Engagement department of SIL Nigeria is involved in an exciting movement that is helping people engage with mother tongue Bible translations! This video introduces Scripture Listening and Reading Groups (SLRGs) and the impact they are having in language communities. Continue reading Scripture Listening and Reading Groups→
Yes, of course USA is top nation at the moment (in terms of Olympic medals) but it’s got a large population. Wouldn’t a fairer comparison be medals per head of population, or rather, per million. Here are the results sorted that way, as of 15 August 2016:
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.
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’.
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!