God-Pods: making the bible accessible

Making the Bible Accessible
by Tabitha Plueddemann
9 January 2012

If only 100,000 people spoke a language, would it be worth the effort to translate the Bible into their language? What about 50,000? Just 10,000? 5,000? For Dave and Ginny Long, 4000 speakers of a language called !Xoon is not too meager a population to warrant earnest and accurate translation.

!Xoon in Botswana
!Xoon people in Ukhwi, Botswana

The !Xoon people live in Botswana and Namibia and although their language is dying, linguists Dave and Ginny desire to translate portions of the Bible for distribution in audio form, mostly as MP3 files.

Yet even a task as seemingly straightforward as translating the Lord’s Prayer presents thorny challenges. “The !Xoon have been hunter-gatherers with no fixed property and no government,” says Dave. “Therefore a word such as ‘kingdom’ does not exist. In fact, the !Xoon have no words denoting one person’s authority over another. Authority, reign, rule, judge—anything having to do with courts and jurisprudence—is absent.” Should linguists borrow a word? A Setswana word may be familiar in Botswana, but not for !Xoon speakers in Namibia.

Thus, making the Bible accessible to groups that have flourished far from ancient Greek and Hebrew cultures is hardly a matter of writing “cat” for chat for and “dog” for chien. Translating a passage may introduce concepts and categories hitherto unknown in a culture. This is no safe, formulaic work, but an altogether radical and at times disruptive undertaking.

Despite the perils of translation, SIM remains deeply committed to providing every church that it has helped to plant with access to the Bible in its mother tongue, followed by literacy work to enable people to read. SIM has 30 Bible translations underway and historically has helped to complete dozens more.

Dancing Presbyterians

The Quran and the Arabic in which it is written are inseparable, rendering the book, for spiritual purposes, untranslatable. Seyyed Hossein Nasr in Ideals and Realities of Islam writes, “The form of the Quran is the Arabic language… Arabic is sacred in the sense that it is an integral part of the Quranic revelation whose very sounds and utterances play a role in the ritual acts of Islam.” (p 44-45)

Such a view, held by some of our Christian forebears about Latin, shoves vernacular languages into second place in the daily living out of faith and worship. Yet Christianity today diverges considerably from this, thanks to men such as John Wycliffe (1328-1384) who declared that even a common plough boy should have access to Scripture. When he began translating the Bible into English, the church leaders were outraged at their loss of authority as sole guardians of Scripture. To this Wycliffe replied, “Englishmen learn Christ’s law best in English. Moses heard God’s law in his own tongue; so did Christ’s apostles.”

Unlike Wycliffe who translated from the Latin Vulgate, William Tyndale (1494-1536) drew directly from the Greek and Hebrew. Tyndale’s acts of translation were so onerous to the powerful church that he was tried for heresy and killed. When scholars assembled to draft the King James Bible 75 years later, they drew heavily on Tyndale’s work.

From SIM’s Archives come repeated examples of the primacy of Bible translation in mission history. In The Missionary Witness 1906:

“We know of no higher ambition, no nobler calling, nothing to bring more permanent joy, than the privilege of giving to a whole nation the Word of God in their own tongue. We do not wonder that the saintly Dr. Paton danced around the office when he pulled off the press the first pages of his translation of the Scriptures in the language of the Tannese. It was enough to make a Presbyterian dance.” (p 142)

The audacious belief fueling translation work is that even the most extraordinary spiritual truths can be made accessible in common speech. Neither Jesus Christ nor his gospel message are too grand to be conveyed in the limited vessel of human language—any language.

What Does it Take?

From the time a missionary linguist first begins to live among a people until the time of a completed translation of the Bible, can take a linguist’s lifetime, or at least a couple of decades of it. Initially linguists must live among a people and learn the language by sheer trial and error, slowly becoming fluent. Then they codify its sounds into an alphabet and its grammar into systems. Finally, using the original Greek and Hebrew, they translate Scripture.

SIM missionary linguist Carolyn Ford has served in remote Ethiopia for four decades helping to codify the languages of the Mursi, Gurage, Banna and Aari. Here is a glimpse of the painstakingly meticulous processes involved:

After we have a rough draft, the translators (native Banna speakers) make changes so it sounds more idiomatic. We also analyze “natural” text, such as Banna fables and life stories, to help us see how people put sentences and stories together. My colleague works with the translators to train, advise, and encourage, and she also checks for exegetical accuracy. After many revisions, a certified translation consultant from outside the translation team comes to verify its accuracy.Once a specific New Testament book passes consultant scrutiny, we print it informally to be used for literacy and Bible study purposes, even though several years may elapse before the entire New Testament is published and distributed.

The Message and the Medium

The word “Bible” originally referred to the medium it was printed on, literally “papyrus” or “scroll”. Yet today, the Scriptures are not limited to ink on a page. Our team in rural Paraguay has prepared 100,000 small, durable MP3 players uploading the Guarani Scriptures. The Guarani people are non-literate, oral learners who prefer listening even after they learn to read.

Our team in South Sudan now uses palm-sized, solar-powered MegaVoice MP3 players known as “God-Pods”. When a megaphone is held up to the God-Pod, the Scripture can easily be heard by a large group.

Guarani Bible MP3
The Guarani Bible on MP3

In the Philippines, a text message-based Bible project will soon make it possible for people to receive the entire Bible on their phones in a text message of less than one megabyte. Karaoke is very popular in the Philippines and so our SIM team is designing karaoke programs in minority dialects. The songs will increase basic Bible knowledge among people groups who are targeted for soon-to-be-released translations.

Oral Bibles such as those on MP3 players, radio broadcasts and CDs are marvelous mediums because they bypass the need for literacy, lend themselves to group listening, and can be heard in the privacy of a home in places that are hostile to Christianity.

Yet the most accessible medium for the gospel is neither ink nor iPods, neither Twitter nor texts, but a baby swaddled in skin. God’s ultimate self-disclosure is not confined to any one of the splendid symphony of human languages, but is revealed in the living person of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh who came and lived among us! Through eyes of faith, we see a day when every tongue on earth will joyfully confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. And on that day the !Xoon will stand too, and they will know the dignity of confessing his name in their own tongue.

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