Posts Tagged ‘linguistics’

… translating the Bible for the Sabaot people of Kenya No.1

Sabaot Bible dedication

Reading Peter Brassington’s blog on the subject of linguistic false friends has prompted me to blog. In the era of fake news and alternative truth (yes, Peter does mention Donald Trump in passing) it is crucial that everyone, from politicians and journalists and pundits to linguists involved in Bible translation, communicates the truth clearly.

Years ago I was part of a multi mission agency tour of N. Ireland university Christian Unions. Our theme for that year was Bible translation. The Sabaot project in Kenya was a very interesting one and inspired me to write a dialogue encapsulating the dangers of assuming that people understood what others thought they understood… if you see what I mean.

Read on..

To be performed by two readers…
ONE: Okay, so what the verse actually said was “Jesus ordered his disciples to enter the boat.”
TWO: … but on Mount Elgon in Kenya there are no boats.
ONE: And because of this…
TWO: (and other linguistic difficulties)
ONE: …most people thought it meant:
TWO: “Jesus Ordered His Teachers To Plant Milk”
ONE: …which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and probably didn’t encourage them to read the rest of the story.
TWO: That was one of the discoveries made in a survey to find out how well the Sabaot people of northern Kenya understood the Swahili New Testament.
ONE: “And we thought that our people knew Swahili well!”
TWO: said a local headmaster involved in the survey.
ONE: Testing a second passage,
TWO: the team realised that the people had no understanding at all of the Swahili words for biblical concepts such as mercy or grace.
ONE: They did know market Swahili,
TWO: but just because you know how to buy a goat using another language
ONE: doesn’t mean you understand sanctification or justification!
TWO: Until there was a written form of Sabaot,
ONE: God only seemed to speak in someone else’s language.
TWO: This made the meaning hard to understand and also raised uncomfortable questions for the Sabaots.
ONE: Was theirs not an important language?
TWO: It was neither a language of education nor of the church.
ONE: Were they an important people?
TWO: Could God understand them when they prayed in Sabaot?
ONE: Did God even listen?

But there’s a good outcome to this story…
Francis Kiboi says, “Before the Scriptures came to my people, Jesus seemed to be distant and foreign. But now that we have the Scriptures in the language, he is walking with us on this mountain. God is with us, and he is Sabaot!”

… and an even better one in a part 2 blog to come!

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Why might you like this cartoon?

  1. You might be a Charles Dickens fan
  2. You just like the drawing
  3. It’s kind of quirky…

    Bible translation stats Oct 2016

    Bible translation stats Oct 2016


Is it because you appreciate the linguistic humour?

If you do like it, you might also like to do what Wycliffe Bible Translators do ie linguistics – at least some of us do.

Take a closer look at linguistics with Wycliffe


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Sometimes we get a sentence back to front and we have difficulty understanding it, never mind the person listening to us or reading our e-mail. Sometimes however, a sentence needs to be translated back to front to enable the readers / hearers of the receptor language to understand.

Translation puzzle

And that’s exactly what my colleague Ed Lauber is saying in his post Put the most important last a week or so ago.

Consider these two sentences:

Why she married him I really don’t know.
I really don’t know why she married him.

The first carries a lot more emotional content than the second. If the person speaking wanted to make clear their complete disagreement with the woman’s choice, the first sentence works better. It puts “why she married him”at the front whereas it would normally come at the end – something grammarians call fronting.

But not all languages use fronting for emphasis. Languages here do the opposite. My boss in Ghana and the Director of the national organization we work for, GILLBT, says that the organization has a three-fold heritage – language development, literacy and Bible translation. On more than one occasion I have heard him mention to other Ghanaians that it is important to put Bible translation last because it is the most important. That’s because in Ghana, the most important words come last. It was the same way in Congo – the most important words came at the end.

Recently, I sat in for part of a workshop on the translation of the book of Romans. A translation consultant was giving instructions to translators from five languages. One piece of advice he gave concerned the following verse:

Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves (Romans 14:22)

He asked the translators to think about how to translate this verse, specifically where they would put the word “blessed”. They indicated that they would put it at the end, something like:

The one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves; he is blessed

Why? Because the important bit needs to come at the end in the languages here. The consultant warned them not to weaken the verse or make the translation awkward by keeping the word “blessed” at the front. He mentioned that the same thing applies when translating the beatitudes.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
(and so on) (Matthew 5:2-12)

Blessed with emphasis are the first words in English. In the languages of Ivory Coast, the last words are the ones so blessed.

Seems like having the last word last is important!

Could you find linguistic puzzles like this interesting? Have a look here.

Or what about a wee taster First Steps at venues throughout the UK. The N. Ireland one will be 25 February 2017 at Ballyhenry Presbyterian Church – and someone has signed up already!!!

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Mary Steele MBE at Buckingham Palace with some colourful friends

Mary Steele MBE at Buckingham Palace

In a recent blog about the impact of the translated Bible on the Bimoba people group in Ghana, I referred to Mary Steele who was involved in the translation of the Bible into the Bimoba language.

Mary is planning to spend her summer back home in N. Ireland but is currently consultant checking the Book of Acts in the Avatime language. A few days ago she sent me a request for prayer for this work imbedded in a touching story about the Avatime people’s wait for the Scriptures in their heart language…

Steele, Mary Apr 10

They have been Christians for a hundred years but still have no Bible in their language. The Avatime people live in the Volta region of Ghana, in the southeast of the country. The majority of them profess to be Christians, but as yet they do not have a Bible or even a New Testament in their language. The Gospels have been translated and we are now checking the book of Acts.

There is a feeling of spiritual opposition to the work of Scripture translation in this language, and it seems to go with difficulty. Please pray for spiritual victory, and that the Word will be a blessing to the team, Divine, Jacob and Gershon, and myself, as we work just now on checking the book of Acts in the Avatime language (pronounced Avateemee – but the Lord will know who you mean no matter how you pronounce it.)

Also please pray that the work of translating and publishing the New Testament, and eventually the whole Bible, in this language, will go ahead smoothly and quickly. A hundred years is a long time to wait.

Thank you for helping to bring the Bible to the Avatime people, by your prayers.
Mary Steele

If you Google Avatime, you can read things like this on Wikipedia

Avatime is a tonal language with three tones, has vowel harmony, and has been claimed to have doubly articulated fricatives.

Avatime has nine vowels, /i ɪ e ɛ a ɔ o ʊ u/. It is not clear if the difference between /i e o u/ and /ɪ ɛ ɔ ʊ/ is one of advanced and retracted tongue root (laryngeal contraction), as in so many languages of Ghana, or of vowel height: different phonetic parameters support different analyses.

Avatime has vowel harmony. A root may not mix vowels of the relaxed /i e o u/ and contracted /ɪ ɛ a ɔ ʊ/ sets, and prefixes change vowels to harmonize with the vowels of the root. For example, the human singular gender prefix is /ɔ ~ o/, and the human plural is /a ~ e/: /o-ze/ “thief”, /ɔ-ka/ “father”; /be-ze/ “thieves”, /ba-ka/ “fathers”; also /o-bu/ “bee” but /ɔ-bʊ/ “god”.

… all of which gives some insight into the work of a linguist translator like Mary!

If linguistics turns you on – read more. Whether it does or not, please pray for the Avatime team in their work right now.

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For many years in Wycliffe Bible Translators UK, we have a used an exercise involving six volunteers to demonstrate what translating the Bible involves – and what it isn’t!

Personally I’ve lost count how many times I’ve used it around Ireland with churches and youth groups and seniors groups and children – and one year at our STEP programme in the south of France, we used it in French in Anduze Methodist Church.

move over love 2

Move Over Love in French in Anduze 2002

move over love 3

Ashley & Anya’s work experience blog quoted Move Over Love in the blog title.

Now there is Move Over Love online


It’s obviously not as interactive as the live version with six slightly nervous volunteer translators and audience participation, but here’s hoping it will bring this simple but excellent insight into Bible translation to a wider audience.

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The first time we met was when she volunteered to help with the Wycliffe stand at an event at the end of August 2012. She was not long home after having spent her language year abroad with a Wycliffe family in Mozambique. Soon after she returned for her final year at university.

Unlocking the secrets of an unwritten language

Then we began to correspond by Facebook message…

9 October 2012

Hi John! Hope you’re well. Thank you for prayers. Let me tell you how the Lord’s been working, and how he has answered my prayers. I’ve been thinking and praying so much about the MA course [MA in Field Linguistics with Wycliffe]. And talking to a lot of mature Christians, who I look up to and whose words I take seriously. The Lord has been doing wonders in my life in the last month, since being back in Oxford. So much to praise him for.

Most of all for the revelation of something of the size of his love, that my heart cannot even hold the weight of it…  he has filled me up to the absolute brim with the knowledge of his love, and how unfailing, never-ending, completely satisfying it is. And the reality of that is something I haven’t known before – to that intensity anyway.

I have been loving what I’m studying too, which is awesome. My research project is so exciting, and I don’t struggle to find motivation. I know it’s only the start of term but things are so busy, and could get overwhelming, but I’m helped to keep focus.

That’s a bit of where I’m at. Wanted to let you know I’ve not forgotten about next year. I’m more and more excited about it.
God bless…

10 October 2012

Lovely to hear from you and even more to hear how God is speaking to you. So we are here ready and waiting for your decision!

God bless, John

16 October

I’d like to start the application process, John!

I don’t know what the first steps are for that… I imagine paper work?!

God bless…

16 October 201

Praise the Lord! OK, where to start…

Have you officially talked to your church? Who should we contact? Guess you should send us a name and contact details.

Looking forward to hearing back from you.

PS Wycliffe enquirer form attached

17 October 2012

I’m going to ‘officially’ chat with [my minister] on Saturday, although I already talked a bit about it with him over the summer. So yeah, after that I guess you can go ahead and get in touch with him.

20 October 2012

Hi John,
Just spoke to [my minister]. He said he is very happy for you to get in touch, and to meet up and talk!
Talk soon,
p/s  Let me know what I need to do next after you’ve had a good chat with [my minister].

22 October

I’ve arranged to talk to [your minister]on Thursday morning.

25 October

“Excited: today a minister agreed to commend one of his members to apply to Wycliffe Bible Translators as a linguist – the first from N. Ireland for a looooong time!”

Just couldn’t resist posting this on Facebook!

Had a great chat with [your minister]. We’re now working towards you getting online access to the application papers. But enough of admin! I’m happy that we’ve got this far

God bless, John

25 October 2012

Hi John!

Very much looking forward to starting the application papers. Let me know about that.

Today I’ve been working on the Introduction section of my research paper! These are the opening two sentences:-

“This linguistic study came about because of a passion for Bible translation, a curiosity about how texts hold together and the opportunity to do practical field work observing the Makonde language in use, over a period of 10 months in Mueda, Cabo Delgado Province, Mozambique. The research for the study was carried out in the context of an SIL language development programme involving the translation of the New Testament, started in 1992, and works closely with two portions of their translated scripture, namely the Healing of the Paralytic (Mark 2:1-12) and the Parable of the Lost Son (Luke 15:11-32).”

How cool is that? To be able to write a paper which will contribute to my final mark and for this to be what is is about!
Be in touch.
Love in Christ,

28 October 2012

And so it begins!
I see that [my colleague] has e-mailed you the link for accessing the application papers.
God bless you as you get into the process.

Wycliffe Bible Translators UK is keen to talk to people like this girl in the blog – and not just linguists – see here

Interested in finding out more about studying linguistics with Wycliffe Bible Translators? Take a look at this.

[All above written with permission from the applicant]

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