|Us and our friend Jean Yves who helped us talk to village leaders this week|
Before our arrival in Cameroon, if you would have asked us why we wanted to spend our lives in Africa, we would have responded, “We want to translate the Bible.” As of today, this would no longer be our response. Let me explain why…
A Previous Goal and Previous MethodologyThe Bible translators who preceded us in ages past came to the field with the same goal that Dave and I had: to translate the Bible. And, as can be expected their methodology flowed out of this goal. Therefore missionaries sought to quickly find a language partner and diligently learn the language. Some of whom were so diligent that they were known to speak the language better then the Cameroonians themselves. These missionaries then took their knowledge of the language and their training in biblical exegesis and set out to translate the Bible into the target language. After a few decades, they presented their life’s work to the community with the expectation that the church leaders would preach from it and that Christians would evangelize using it. After all, their role is fulfilled in accurately translating the Word of God and the job of the church planter / pastor is to take it to the streets, right?
What we have been told is that often times the Bible is not received by the community when this methodology is used. When people told me this before, I assumed that it was not received because the message of the Bible is offensive to unbelievers. However, what if this rejection had nothing to do with the content of the Bible? What if it was due to socio-linguistic reasons? Or political reasons? And what if these types “stumbling blocks” could have been prevented? Let me illustrate:Socio-Linguistic Considerations
As far as socio-linguistic mistakes, the Bible can be rejected because the “wrong” dialect (accent) was selected. Imagine that you moved to Africa and went to church one Sunday. While in the service you were frustrated because you could not understand the language the pastor was preaching in. Then you realize that he was speaking…English (true story). Yes, it is true that Americans speak English and so do some Cameroonians, but I assure you that we have extraordinarily different ways of speaking it.
And what if English Bible translators chose to pattern their translation after the Cameroonian dialect? Imagine that you open your English Bible and read “Jesus is the wata (instead of water) of life.” Would you think that the translators were incompetent? I would argue that one would be more offended by the word “wata” then by Jesus claiming to be God.
And this scenario happens. In every village we go to, Bakoum speakers say that they speak the real Bakoum and the others speak something else that is inferior. We have even had one village say that if we do not translate into their dialect, they will never read the Bible. So, which form of the real Bakoum do we translate into?
At the end of the day, a language dialect needs to be selected, but would it not be better to get the people to agree on which dialect to use before the Bible is translated? Why not educate the people on how to chose a dialect and then let them have their knock-down, drag-out arguments and at the end present us with the dialect that they would all accept? Then, if someone complains about the way it is written, we can point them to the fact that it was a decision made by the community.
Now imagine that you are a Baptist preacher. One day you pick up a new translation of the Bible and are horrified to see that they translated the Greek word “baptidzo” to mean “sprinkled.” What a scandal! There is no question that you would refuse to preach from this translation and likely write it off as a whole.
This is exactly what happens with church leaders. They are not necessarily rejecting the Bible because they are not orthodox Christians, but rather because the key theological terms that were selected cuts against their theology. Would a Baptist pastor really encourage his people to read a Bible that tells them to go and be “sprinkled?” Never.
So, would it not be prudent to raise these potential “problem words” with pastors before the Bible goes to print? Would it not be wise to explain exegetically why this term should be chosen above another before entire denominations reject the Bible in Bakoum? Would it not serve the Kingdom of God well if all the pastors in a community would come together, receive training in exegesis and then come up with a theological term from their language together? I imagine that this could also correct erroneous teaching in the churches even before the Bible is translated.
If pastors can be “won” to the integrity of the Bible before it is printed, then the odds of them promoting it to their church members is a hundred times higher. Would it not be prudent to do this on the front end?
A Different Goal
In light of these issues, we have a new goal. Our goal is no longer to translate the Bible, but instead to translate a Bible that the community will read.
Now when we say this, we are not saying that we want to make the message of the Bible more palatable but instead we are simply trying to eliminate all stumbling blocks except the cross of Christ. If someone rejects the Bible because they do not consider themselves to be a sinner, so be it. But if someone rejects the Bible because we, in our ignorance, chose a script that resembles that of a rival tribe, what a grievous error. In the same way, if someone rejects the Bible because they cannot tolerate the exclusivity of the Gospel, that is up to the Lord to soften their hearts. However, if they reject the Bible because we forgot to get the authorization from the mayor for our project, what a tragedy.
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:32-33 that he tried to “please everyone” in everything he did so that many would be saved. I think that this concept really expresses our deepest desires as Bible translators. We want to, for example, please the most powerful governors so that they will give us their blessing for this project. In turn, the people will not look at us with suspicion wondering if we are spies, thereby rejecting our work. We see the necessity of raising controversial issues such as which dialect to use and which theological key term to insert so that we can reach a consensus before the Bible is printed. And because of this shift in our vision, our methodology needs to change.
A Different Methodology
When we landed, we thought we would be working with a couple Cameroonians to help us learn their language for the next 3 years. Now, instead, we are spending our time going from village to village asking the people to form a “language committee” that we can work with. We are asking people to select the people who have the best mastery of the language from each village. Then, once the language committee is formed, we will ask them to furnish us with a language partner. This way we can be sure that the way that this person speaks is already agreed upon by the community as being the “standard.” We will then continue to work with the language committee to help them come to a consensus about the alphabet, type of script and so on. Theoretically, with this approach we would be systematically weeding out stumbling blocks before they are “canonized.” We assume that our meetings will be quite heated but we would rather do the messy work on the front end rather than when it is too late.
Thus, for the next several months, we plan to work to develop a language committee. After that we will spend a couple years working with them to analyze and develop the language. Once the language has been analyzed, and a system of literacy is in place we plan to then shift of our emphasis towards the churches and create a similar committee with the church leaders in the area.
This methodology is very different for us because it requires us to dialogue and persuade even before one verse of the Bible is translated. But, we are convinced that this is what it looks like to “please everyone” so that when the Bible is published, they may have no other reason to reject the Bible except for the message alone.
I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage,
but that of many, that they may be saved. - 1 Corinthians 10:32