Psalm 23: A Reason to Fire God?

“Whoops! There’s no word for it”

Those of you who are fluent in more than one language have no doubt experienced this when you translate from one language and culture into another. The more different the languages and cultures, the more often it happens.

As a Bible translator for the Canela people in Brazil, I constantly ran into this problem. Jesus taught, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.” John 12:24.

Since wheat is unknown among the Canela, their language had no word for it. This was an easy one to solve. We simply substituted “wheat” with “rice” since a grain of rice in the shell looks and acts the same as a grain of wheat. It was a simple case of using “cultural equivalence instead of lexical equivalence” which is linguist-speak for “if there is no word for the thing, find something that acts the same in the culture.”

It sounds easy. Sometimes it is, but usually it’s not.

Long ago an explorer traveled to the icy shores of the Canadian north. He may have been a Christian because he left behind a translation of the Shepherd’s Psalm (23) in the local indigenous language. The indigenous people memorized the lines and passed them on to their children. Unfortunately, he had depended on an interpreter to translate for him.

A generation or two later a missionary linguist/translator arrived, settled among these people, and learned the language. When, after some years, he began to translate the Bible his indigenous language helper told him, “We already have some of God’s Book”, and to prove it recited some verses of the well known and much loved Psalm 23.

The missionary was aghast. Obviously the interpreter had tried to use some cultural equivalents but with disastrous results. Here are the first two verses, with some explanations: 

The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want

goatThe interpreter substituted “sheep” with “wild mountain goats”. The closest translation for “herding” was “doing something with animals” which in the case of wild goats was to hunt them. The word “my” carried the meaning “one who works for me.”

The first verse of the Psalm went like this:

God is my goat hunter,
I don’t want him!

The second verse didn’t fare much better.

He makes me lie down in green pastures,
He leads me beside still waters.

The part “he makes me” was interpreted as, “he forces me to do something against my will”. The only green grass is found on the sun-facing-sides of mountains. “To lead” is to pull an animal along by a rope around the neck. The only “still water” is the sea.

The first two verses, therefore, went:

God is my goat hunter,
I don’t want him!
For He flings me down on the mountainside,
and drags me down to the sea.

How do translators avoid this kind of disaster?

Obviously, they need to understand the meaning of the passage. They also need to know the language and culture. But beyond those two basics, translators need to know the translation principles to obey and the techniques to use. This requires intensive training and continuing study.

That’s why I am glad a wealth of how-to-translate-the-Bible material is being made available to indigenous translators via computer based training programs. Hundreds of trained Christian men and women are now engaged in translating God’s Word into their own languages, using proven techniques and principles of Bible translation.

Without this training the translator risks turning God, our loving Shepherd, into an abusive goat hunter who well deserves to be fired.

Can You Explain These Coincidences Without Getting Theological?

imagesIn 1983, thirty-three years ago, a group of 40,000 Sudanese people called the Tira did not have a single word of the Bible translated into their language. Today, and for the past fifteen years, thousands of Tira people are reading the Bible in their own language and have turned to follow God.

How did that happen?

  • In November of 1983, David and Ray, two American students signed up to pray for the Tira with Wycliffe’s Bibleless Peoples Prayer Project.
  • In May of 1986, Jerry and Jan promised to pray for this group.
  • In March 1990, Jane and Margeanne committed themselves to pray.

In August 1990, a report came to the Prayer Project organizers that Avajani—a young Christian Tira man—was studying linguistics and Bible translation techniques. The organizers wrote to encourage him with the news that three teams were praying for his Tira people. They gave the names and the dates when they began to pray. Avajani’s response was astonishing! Here’s what he wrote:

  • I became a Christian in November 1983, the same month that David and Ray began to pray.
  • I was accepted for theological studies in May 1986, the same month that Jerry and Jan started to pray.
  • I heard about courses in Bible translation and was accepted as a student in March 1990, the same month that Jane and Margeanne started to pray.

After his training, he began translating and a number of portions of the Bible were published during 1999-2001.

An atheist reading this sort of astounding coincidence might well mutter to himself, “Hmm, if I didn’t know any better, I’d think that God was involved.”

God is definitely at work on planet Earth, and He invites us to join Him by praying. God has limited Himself to work on earth only in response to the prayers of His people. That is why every work of God is preceded by prayer. He moves some to pray, and some to work with their hands and minds. At rock bottom, He wants every person on earth to hear about Him in the language they know best.

Here are some links to help us join God in His work:
www.wycliffe.org/prayer
www.ethnologue.com/world

Note: I published this story five years ago as part of The Mandate blog series. 

An Amazing Letter

This week as I was sorting and culling some papers I came across an amazing letter we had received many years ago from one of our financial partners.

For all of the past 50 years that Jo and I have been members of Wycliffe Bible Translators, God has supplied our financial needs through the gifts of family and friends. We thank God for these ministry partners, we pray for them, and we thank them frequently for their faithfulness in sharing their finances with us.

The letter was from Tracy, an old friend who had been a member of the congregation I pastored before we joined Wycliffe. It was a general letter written to all the missionaries he was supporting.

“Dear Partners in the Gospel Ministry, I apologize for not sending you any financial support checks for the past four months.”

He then explained that he had been in the hospital to treat a bleeding ulcer. Shortly afterwards he had a massive heart attack. While recovering from quadruple bypass surgery, his ailing wife died. A week after returning home he got pneumonia and was again admitted to the hospital. He concluded his letter with these words,

“I have not worked for four months, so have received no paycheck. I may not work again. But I will try to keep sending half of what I used to send before all this happened. God bless you in the continuance of your work. I’m sure the Lord will supply. I have been greatly blessed of the Lord.”

This financial partner was 82 years old! He had been exercising his faith by sending his check to Wycliffe for our support every month for 35 years without a miss until then!

Through his gifts, Tracy was part of our team when we translated the Scriptures for the Canela people of Brazil and planted Christ’s Church there. He was a part of our team when I was president of Wycliffe Canada, and later of Wycliffe Caribbean. After that he continued to partner with us in our speaking and writing ministry.

Finally, at nearly 90 years old, he went Home to enjoy fellowship with the Lord he loved throughout his life, and to hear Him say, “Well done, you good and faithful servant.”

Holding Red Canela BibleAs Bible translating missionaries Jo and I have the privilege of standing up in front of churches and, as we wave the red Canela Bible, to tell stories of how God used us to translate His Word for the Canelas over the course of more than 20 years. Often people will thank us for the pioneer work we did.

Yeah, but we didn’t do it alone! We couldn’t have done it without people like Tracy exercising their faith in God and sharing their finances with us and praying for us.

As another financial partner told me, “You know, Jack, when I see you holding up that red Canela Bible, I think, ‘That book is partly mine!’” And he is absolutely right.

If you give to missions, pray for missionaries, and in other ways support cross-cultural missions, you have a large share in the final result of world evangelization. God will not forget the sacrifices you made. His “Well done,” is waiting for you.

In Praise of Single Women Missionaries

Because this Sunday is International Women’s Day, my first impulse was to write a long and personally satisfying blog post on the missionary woman who was most important to the Canela Bible translation program: my sweet wife, Jo. But since I reserve my Valentine’s day blog posts for eulogizing her, I will write this one instead:

In Praise of Single Women Missionaries

“We believe you would be a superb missionary, and we would be happy to send you out to represent our denomination on the mission field in Africa, except for two things: you are a woman, and you are not married.”

Johanna, a godly and capable woman who passionately loved her Lord and wanted to advance His Kingdom in the needy places of the world, was disappointed at the board’s decision.

Fortunately for her, for the Kingdom of God, and for tens of thousands of souls in Sudan and Nigeria, a number of individuals in her local church sponsored her ministry privately. They prayed, sent funds, and encouraged her during her years of ministry in Africa. The churches she planted continued to grow so much in strength and number that, seven years after her death in Africa, the denomination’s mission board formally adopted Nigeria as one of their mission fields.

The history of worldwide missions is replete with stories of how God used single women in astonishing ways to grow His Kingdom. Gladys, for instance, evangelized in China and cared for hundreds of orphans before and during the Second World War. Her book, The Little Woman was also made into a movie, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness.

A generation before, Mary lived and worked in Africa. Her story is the subject of two books; one of which is titled The White Queen of the Cannibals. She astounded Christians back home with matter-of-fact accounts of her death-defying dealings with native peoples.

My wife Jo and I hold single women missionaries in high respect. I remember with joy the gifted single women, though relatively anonymous, who helped us succeed in our linguistic and translation work. We absolutely could not have done it without them.

Patricia, a translator in a related language, calmed our fears that we had made a mistake in identifying seventeen phonemic vowels in the Canela language—there seemed to be far too many. She explained that the language she worked in had sixteen. She helped us to choose letters for the Canela alphabet and write up a clear description of each letter’s sound.

Eunice patiently walked me through the process of sorting out, and writing down, all the knowledge of the Canela grammar system I had swirling around in my head to make it understandable to others linguists.

Margery, after completing her own Bible translation project, painstakingly checked all our translation work, and happily reported that, although she tried, she had not been able to find a single nasty “collocational clash” in Acts. That was twenty-five years ago and although I have now forgotten what a “collocational clash” is, at the time I was enormously encouraged to hear that we did not have any.

Eight year-old Cheryl coaching a Canela adult through the learn-to-read booklet.

Eight year-old Cheryl coaching a Canela adult through the learn-to-read booklet.

Gloria’s knowledge and experience in developing “self-teaching” learn-to-read booklets was invaluable. With her help we made up highly effective illustrated reading primers. Students needed teaching only for the first dozen pages, then they picked up clues about the meaning of the new words and the shape of the new letters from the illustrations to finish the rest of the lessons practically without further help.

Isobel’s enthusiasm and encouragement helped us to produce a series of reading booklets of ever increasing complexity that prepared new readers to read the Scriptures.

Ruth’s commitment to the people group with whom she worked, and her willingness to live with them for months out in the bush without even a hut to call home, rebuked my love of comfort and challenged me to greater personal sacrifice.

Jane tripled my effectiveness when I suddenly found myself as the temporary executive director of the linguistic and translation organization in Brazil. She knew where to get the information I needed to make good decisions. She knew everything and everyone and had the experience I lacked.

A single woman’s life in a foreign land and culture is not easy. Indigenous societies often look down on single women. Naturally, many young women would prefer to marry and have a family. And yet, although they know that it is highly unlikely that they will find a suitable marriage partner on the mission field, they go, impelled by love for God and for His Kingdom.

I praise these women. So does God.