Premature Mango Harvest

One morning there was suddenly a huge crashing noise just outside the homeschool room; one of our mango trees had over-reached itself in enthusiasm for producing hefty fruit and a large branch crashed to the ground. Green, unripe (but rather large) mangos were scattered all over the place. We picked up a massive basket load which provided a great opportunity for practising estimation. Around 100 mangos were then cooked into a very convincing “apple sauce” to the surprise and interest of our gardener Samuel who had never considered cooking mangos, let alone unripe ones.

Fallen branch from our mango tree
Fallen branch from our mango tree
A basket of about 100 large unripe mangos from the fallen branch
A basket of about 100 large unripe mangos from the fallen branch

Is translation easy or impossible?

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.

Homeschool resuming

Tea break in our school room

Homeschool started again for Rebekah and Elizabeth a few days after we arrived back in Nigeria. Rebekah was back to her familiar pink desk, and Elizabeth chose purple for an identical desk that our carpenter Weze made for her. Abigail is keen not to be left out, but she also lost no time in forming a strong friendship with 2 year-old David who moved to next door while we were away in the UK. Auntie Sarah has been helping to look after Helen while working on the morning chores so that Julie has a bit of peace to teach the big girls. They’ve been getting going by 8 and finishing up around noon.

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’.

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

Spelling and Grammar: revealing the insidious occult influence lurking within even Christian curricula

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!

International Money Transfer: reliable options

Transferring money internationally used to be risky and expensive, but in the last few years that has all changed. Here are some online options great for people wanting to send money between common major currencies and also to more far-flung places such as Nigeria (where we live). Many people in countries like Nigeria are sent regular support from relatives working in Europe or North America. These services allow bank transfers – and in some cases, mobile phone topup and cash pickup locally, with vastly reduced charges. (However, they typically don’t work for getting money flowing the other way, say from Nigerian Naira to British pounds.)

Best rates (above mid-market rate) for Nigeria, Feb 2016: Azimo.

  • Sign up first to Azimo via to get a nice chunk of cash back on your first transaction.

Others which are good, but give only the mid market rate to Nigeria:

  • Transferwise: Low fees, has worked well for me with > 10 transactions.
  • Not personally used this myself.
  • Again not used it, but it gets a good press. Offers a prepaid Mastercard.

Please note that I get some referral fees for some of the links above.

Sickness and Immigration, Revenge and Xenophobia

Based on 2 real people I have had contact with, but with names changed. Have a read and a think. Comment if you like below.


Back to Sender - Version 2Joseph was suffering from some leg pain without any particularly obvious cause. Clearly someone with a grudge against him or envious of him in some way must have caused that pain. Getting medical help won’t deal with the underlying problem, and he’s understandably not very confident that the clinic will do anything much for him. The only real way to deal with it is to visit the traditional healer who can help suggest who might be to blame, and then try to do whatever it takes to send the sickness ‘back to sender’. Surely that’s quite understandable? Continue reading Sickness and Immigration, Revenge and Xenophobia

Making dictionaries serve translation

My paper Making Dictionaries Serve [Bible] Translation is here on 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.


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

Letting go the familiar words and holding onto the real meaning

[This was first drafted in July – well before the C of E cinema ad controversy blew up. Still, perhaps it may inform a little and provoke some more worthy thought.]

Our Father who is in heaven…

What’s the first request of the Lord’s prayer? Can you express it in everyday language that you might genuinely use ordinarily with your 4-year-old?

I’m sure many can, but it’s not something I found all that easy. Still, I think it’s an important exercise. Give me a moment to say why. Continue reading Letting go the familiar words and holding onto the real meaning