It’s been a long time since the last update, but we hope you haven’t forgotten about us. The whole family is now settled (temporarily) back in the USA. For our furlough, which should run through Spring 2015, we will be based in Fairborn, Ohio. Right now, though, Chris is in Dallas, Texas at the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics, putting the finishing touches on work toward his Master’s Degree.
Catch up on our latest news, including back-to-school updates and a lot of “quirky” Nsenga proverbs in our latest newsletter: Plugers’ Fall Newsletter. Also, stay tuned for a detailed report on Chris’ MA thesis and our upcoming speaking schedule. We hope to see many of you very soon!
In one week, I will be getting on an airplane for the first time in three years and leaving Zambia for my first furlough.
On the one hand, I’m totally ready for it. First of all, Janine and Sean have been gone for four weeks, and I’m really looking forward to seeing them waiting for me as I come out of security at Dayton International Airport next Tuesday. Also ice cream.
On the other hand, I’m really not. Everyone says that the “reverse culture shock” is much harder than the regular culture shock. I really like my life and work in Zambia, especially the seemingly-slower pace of things, and I’m not looking forward to every aspect of American life. There are some things I’m not looking forward to getting used to again – things that I don’t really want to get used to.
All in all, of course, it will be great. Friends and family and English-language church services and restaurant food that’s actually fast and air conditioners and snow and ice cream and root beer and this “high-speed” internet that I keep hearing so much about…
Some people have asked if we still need financial support while we’re on furlough. The short answer is, “Yes!”
First of all, though we will be getting some R&R, furlough is not “vacation.” I will be working hard to finish my Master’s Degree, and we will also be doing a lot of traveling to connect with churches and supporters around the country who have made possible all of our work these last three years, all in the hope of returning to Zambia as soon as possible to continue the translation work.
Secondly, living in the US is (probably no surprise to anyone) actually more expensive than living and working in Zambia (even though gas is $7.50 a gallon here, and a stick of deodorant costs $10), especially when you include those much-anticipated plane tickets back to the US. So we actually need slightly more money while we’re on furlough than we do when we’re on the field.
To those who support us and our work in Zambia – thank you! To those who are interested in becoming a part of the effort to translate the Word of God into the Nsenga language for the first time – click around on this website for more info. To everyone who is interested in our work – see you soon!
In the meanwhile, enjoy our Summer Newsletter, containing amusing anecdotes, some details on our financial need, and a bit of shameless self-promotion!
Today is my fortieth birthday. Perhaps more significantly, it’s the tenth anniversary of my thirtieth birthday. I’m not just saying that so I can avoid talking too much about being 40, although there is a bit of weirdness associated with being as old as I remember my dad being when I was a little kid.
So what was so special about my thirtieth birthday? Well, 30 June 2004 was the day we had our final party for the Mexico mission trip – you know, that “one last” time you all get together to swap pictures and stories, tell the inside jokes again, play “remember that time?” eat some culturally-appropriate food, and commiserate a bit about how weird it is to be back at home.
Even though I’ve traveled outside the country with other people’s kids ten times as a group leader/chaperone, there’s (still) something special about the 2004 Mexico trip. That was the first time Karen let me lead a group all on my own. And although I fell far short of being the mature, responsible chaperone I should have been, no one was very seriously injured (sorry, Meredith), everyone made it back home (much to their chagrin), and the Good News was preached to the poor. It was, to say the least, a very special experience.
And the MEX04 party just happened to fall on my 30th birthday.
I use a trite, cliché phrase like “very special experience,” but I should really just call it what it was: life-changing. That trip was the thing that really made me start seriously thinking, “How can I make the other 50 weeks of my year more like the two weeks when I’m dong stuff like that?”
Coincidentally, the other trip I went on that same summer gave me the answer to that question, but I didn’t quite put two and two together right away. That August, I also went to Peru with another six high school students, teaching Bible Stories in Spanish at rural congregations in the mountains. It, too, was an unforgettable experience, one that solidified everything I had begun to suspect about myself during MEX04. One of the places we stayed in Peru was a compound owned by Wycliffe Bible Translators – did you hear that? Bible Translators – but my first reaction was “Wow. That’s cool. But there can’t be too many languages left without Bibles. They must be nearly done…”
It took me another year to figure out that no, “they” don’t really have that almost done yet, and there are still thousands of languages without even a single verse of Scripture. And another fair bit of time to get myself in a position to be able to do something about it.
But the seed had been planted. The MEX04 trip had changed my life – or at least, it had changed me – and now, exactly ten years after that party, with the peanut butter tortillas, endless quotes, remembrances, stories, a soundtrack, commemorative t-shirts, and a silly powerpoint presentation, here I am in Zambia, serving full-time as the exegete and translation advisor for a project to translate the Bible into a brand-new language for the first time. Wow.
Sometimes the Lord works in mysterious ways. Sometimes, he chooses to use completely ordinary ones. Today, as I celebrate 40 years of God’s amazing grace and mercy, I’m just happy he chose to use me for some of His awesome plans.
Thanks to all of you who have been a part of my journey all of these years.
“When I was in church last Sunday, there was so much Bemba being sung, and so much Chewa being preached, and so much English being prayed – I just wanted to get up and leave. Why can’t we worship God in our own Nsenga language?”
So complained a man to me recently. I tried explaining to him that we’re working as fast as we can. I enlisted his help to read some of our Nsenga drafts to look for errors and offer advice. I gave him a copy of the Gospel of Mark in Nsenga, to ask his priest if that could be read in church some Sunday – or at least, so the man could follow along in the pew.
But, for all of that, the man raises a valid point. Why can’t all people worship God in their own mother-tongue? Why can’t we all pray to God in the language of our hearts? Why can’t everyone talk to God in the same language that they talk to their parents and children? When we’re talking about the work of Bible translation – a major prerequisite for serious missionary endeavor – the question that many people are right to ask is this: “Why don’t we have that done yet?”
The Ultimate Translation
In the first verses of John’s Gospel, Jesus is identified as “the Word.” John doesn’t merely call Jesus “the Word of God” – he says that the Word is God: he was together with God in the beginning, active in creating all things, the true light that gives light to all people. Then, in perhaps one of the most jaw-dropping verses in Scripture, John declares with simple majesty: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). Wow. What a “translation!” I think it’s tough to change Greek into English and Nsenga, but God managed to put “all the fullness of the Deity… in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9).
The incarnation of Jesus Christ is the ultimate act of translation. “Being in very nature God… [he] made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant” (Philippians 2:6-7). Not just a disguise of human skin – Jesus, while remaining God, truly became a human being. He did it to reach and identify with – and thereby save – human beings, as the writer to the Hebrews explains:
“Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death… He had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that… he might make atonement for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:14-17).
Jesus is the ultimate “translation,” already finished and perfected for us. Jesus is the Word, God, translated into human form. In a very real sense, the main work of translation has already been done – but not by us, for without Jesus’ coming to earth there would be nothing worth translating. So then, in our translation of the Bible, we seek to connect believers to God through the word of the Gospel, even as God first connected himself to humanity through the Word, Jesus Christ made flesh.
All of this theology gives us some small insight into the challenge of Bible translation. “Why don’t we have that done yet?” – because in many ways, the work of translation will never be done until the last believer comes to faith. The work of God’s saving interaction with people began even before time itself, and continues anew each time the Holy Spirit brings another soul to faith through the means of grace, the gospel in Word and Sacrament.
The challenge of Bible translation is not only to try to grasp what God has revealed about himself in the Bible for ourselves, but also to bring that in a meaningful way to other people whose culture, language, and life experiences are vastly different from both our own, and that of the original Scripture writers.
Saying what we mean
A friend was leaving on a trip, and, since travel by road is pretty hazardous in Zambia, he asked some members of his congregation to pray for him. So, when he was about to leave, some friends came over to pray for him. They were very enthusiastically praying, putting their hands on his vehicle, raising their voices to God, and one of them cried, “We put the blood of Jesus on this car!”
After they were finished, my friend asked that man what he meant by “put the blood of Jesus” on the car. The man told him, “I was asking God to protect you on your journey.” My friend asked him, “Then why didn’t you just say that?”
Sometimes, we get very caught up in the fancy, traditional, “church-y” way of saying something, and we forget to just say what we mean. Sometimes when we translate the Bible, too, or use God’s Word to talk to people, we just say what we’ve always said, the way we’ve always said it, and don’t just say what we mean. “For God so loved the world…” – beautiful words, to be sure. But why not, “God loved the world so much…?”
We always want to emphasize communication of the message of Scripture, rather than a literal adherence to the grammatical or traditional form of the words. It’s not an accurate rendering of a Greek hoti-clause that brings eternal life. It’s not a slavish devotion to a cherished traditional rendering of our own favorite Bible passage which brings a person to faith in Jesus as Savior (like the man who once asked me if we were “translating the King James” into Nsenga). On the day of Pentecost, we see, instead, the Holy Spirit working through words that can be easily understood by their intended audience.
We don’t require a certain grade-level of reading ability. We don’t insist that people learn to read Greek, or English – or even their own language – to hear God’s word read to them in a normal, everyday style. Yes, the Bible has some difficult concepts. Yes, deep things need to be carefully explained so that they are clearly understood (and just as importantly, not misunderstood!) But, without becoming a commentary on the Bible text, we want our translation to simply say what the Bible means.
I say “simply,” but this is not an easy task. If we were just re-presenting the Greek structure, syntax, and vocabulary in Nsenga – like an interlinear or hyper-literal translation that didn’t care so much about comprehensibility – we’d be done in no time. But one of the main reasons “why we don’t have that done yet” is because we want to get it right – and by “right,” we mean to make it well-understood by normal, everyday people.
One challenge that we face is vocabulary. Greek and Nsenga have precious little overlap in meaning of a lot of key terms. A multi-faceted word like charis (‘grace’) gets translated into Nsenga in several different ways, depending on how it’s being used in the passage. Most distinctive are chisomo, referring to the underserved love God has in his heart for us, and chawanzi, the free gifts that God gives us because of that love. There is no one Nsenga word that accurately covers everything a Greek-speaking person meant by charis.
An expression like “the Day of the Lord” can cause problems – are we talking about Judgment Day, or just “the Lord’s Day,” Sunday? Of course, the context will tell, but usually we clarify “the Day of the Lord” into “they Day when Jesus will return” or “the Day when the Lord will judge all people.” Complicating this issue is the Nsenga word for Sunday, which is Sabata. Of course, that’s “Sabbath” – the day you go to church. But in the Bible, the Sabbath was Saturday. So, to make sure people know which Sabbath is being talked about, we say Sabata ya Ayuda, ‘the Jewish Sabbath.’
In several places, the Bible talks about “inheritance,” and says that believers are God’s “heirs” (see especially Romans 8:17). However, Nsenga doesn’t really have a similar practice of “inheriting” in this way. The closest word we have is chikolo, which actually refers to property which changes hands between families when two people get married. The translators felt that word didn’t work in the “inheritance” context, so now we say that an “heir of God” is “a person who receives the blessings God promised.”
Another challenge, as we try to say what we mean in Nsenga, is with the word(s) for the evil spirits that Jesus is always casting out of people. Nsenga has a well-developed vocabulary for different kinds of “spirits” – ancestor spirits, evil spirits, neutral spirit-beings, spirits which cause certain kinds of sickness, or give a person certain powers. So, we had a long discussion of what kinds of spirits might possess people, and what an Nsenga person would call the “spirits” we find in the Gospels, how such spirits would be dealt with, and so on. Then we picked a word. Then we changed our minds. We’ve changed our word for “evil spirit” three times already, and I’ll be very surprised if the word we have now is what we end up publishing.
Even a traditional, familiar concept like “daily bread” might not communicate the message of the Scripture as well as we think it would. The staple food among the Nsengas isn’t bread, it’s nshima, a thick cornmeal porridge eaten with the hands. But we can’t say, “give us this day our daily nshima,” either, since people know that in Bible times people didn’t eat nshima. However, “daily bread” requires a bit of mental effort to process, since bread is fancy Christmas food for many people. Better, perhaps, to say, “Please give us the food we need for this day” – and say what the Scripture means.
Sentence structure can sometimes present a problem too. When Jesus comes down from the mount of transfiguration, he meets a boy possessed by an evil spirit. The text says, “When the demon saw Jesus, he threw him to the ground” (Mark 9:20). Wait – who is throwing whom to the ground? If you know the context, you know that it’s the spirit throwing the boy. But if you’re not careful with your pronouns, your translation can make it look like Jesus is throwing people around, or worse – that the demon threw Jesus down!
A similar bit of pronoun reference brought a smile to everyone’s face as we were proofreading the Christmas story. When the shepherds arrived, they found Mary and Joseph and the baby lying in a feeding box – all three of them together in the manger! Instead of just the baby, our word for “lying” applied to all three people! It was a “small” mistake, but how easy to introduce a misunderstanding.
Almost every day, we run into a question about how to communicate a certain concept clearly in Nsenga. Jesus can be a “friend” of Lazarus, but is the Nsenga word chiuza appropriate for that relationship? In the book of Hebrews, does the word “perfect” mean “sinless,” or “brought to completion” – and what Nsenga word works best? Is the “Gospel” of Jesus the “Good words” or the “Good story” or the “Good report” – or is it OK to borrow the Chewa word that closely means “Good news,” even though it’s from another language? When we’re talking about “sin” in the generic sense (“sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin”), should we use chimo (singular), machimo (plural) or uchimo (abstract; like “sinfulness”)?
These linguistic issues are but one facet of the challenges facing a Bible translation project in Africa. Not only what word for “evil spirit” – but the effects that those very real spirits have on people, families and churches who are fighting a spiritual battle against the forces of darkness. Not merely how to translate “denarius” – but how to raise enough money to support full-time translators, and how to support the project from abroad without fostering a culture of dependency. Not simply typing words on a computer and printing them in books – but how to get the message out of the books and into the hearts of God’s people, so that their lives are changed for Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
All of these challenges cause us to do three things, two of them good and one of them not-so-good. The not-so-good thing is that it causes us to slow down, delaying the day when that man and his million-plus fellow Nsengas will be able to read and pray and hear God’s Word in their own language. But the two good things are much more important. First, the challenges drive us deeper into Scripture, so that we understand clearly what God is telling us in a particular verse. The other is that it causes us to look again at Nsenga language and culture, so that we can speak as clearly as possible to the Nsenga people of today, in their own language and forms of expression, to make God’s Word come alive in their hearts.
One of our Nsenga reviewers returned an early draft of Mark with a bunch of penciled corrections and suggestions. But she also included this message for the team: “It is so encouraging. The books are well translated and well understood. We can meet Jesus face-to-face in the Bible.”
“Meet Jesus face-to-face.” What a powerful idea. Of course, I wouldn’t think to picture a Bible reading as meeting Jesus “face-to-face.” I’m sort of waiting for heaven to have that experience.
But think about it from this woman’s perspective. All her life, she’s been hearing about Jesus in a foreign language, Chewa or English. There has always been a veil, or a gap, or an obstacle in between her and her Savior. Most of her religious experience has been like what English teachers call “indirect discourse” – someone reporting secondhand the words of another: “God told me to tell you that he loves you and takes care of you.” Not very convincing.
But imagine Jesus himself coming to you in your own mother-tongue and saying:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
That’s as close to “face-to-face” as we’re going to get this side of heaven!
It is our goal and prayer at the Nsenga Bible Translation Project that God would use the fruits of our labors to communicate directly with his Nsenga-speaking children, and that pastors and teachers and evangelists who minister among the Nsenga would have a powerful tool with which to do their work. Meanwhile, we work and pray and do our best to explain “why we don’t have that done yet,” so that many others around the world will join us, and the hundreds of other ongoing Bible translation efforts, in bringing the Word of God to the heart-language of people who are still waiting for it.
This article first appeared in the May/June 2014 issue of Connections magazine. It is reprinted here with permission.
With apologies for being a bit too quiet on the communication front lately, I have to say that this has been a really great week.
We FINALLY got mosquito-proof screens on every window of our house. They’re beautiful, with nice wood frames that open and close easily so we can access the glass windows. Already our ankles are noticing a difference in the evenings!
I got a major chunk of my thesis research accomplished, working with the Nsenga translators to craft “proverb-sounding” translations of about 40 “proverb-like” sayings in the New Testament. I’m trying to help our translations of many of Jesus’ short-and-sharp sayings to have the same rhetorical punch in Nsenga that they seemed to have in the original. With a lot of help from the team, I now have some great examples of these translations to work with.
On Tuesday I found out that I won the Thalassa Prize, a photography-and-writing award from my college alma mater. So that was pretty cool.
In the office, we have just finished checking Matthew and are making good progress to be ready for our big Reviewer Workshop at the end of the month.
Sean and Janine are getting really excited – in ten days they will be on a plane back to the States for furlough! Sean in particular is carefully deciding on all the things he wants to do and places he wants to go (restaurants mostly, it seems) as soon as he’s back in America. Janine is very busy with packing for the trip and organizing the house for our long absence.
And tomorrow, we’ll be in Chipata to celebrate the birthday and homecoming of a dear friend of ours who has been out of the country for six months. It will be great to see her and her family again.
All of this comes on the heels of a great visit from some friends of ours, cooler weather, and many other blessings.
We hope things are going well for you also, and we look forward to seeing many of you soon!
As we mentioned in our latest newsletter, it’s almost time for us to come back to the USA on furlough. Janine and Sean have plane tickets for 15 June; Chris will come about a month later after an important workshop and some field research for his MA Thesis project.
(If you want to brush up on your geography, our connections take us from Lusaka to Johannesburg to London to Chicago to Dayton, Ohio – about 22+ hours of flying time, plus layovers and time changes.)
What happens on a furlough?
Furlough is a time for a lot of things. Sean already has quite a list of things he wants to do and eat in the USA. Chris will spend about two months at GIAL finishing his MA in Applied Linguistics. We’re all looking forward to some R&R with family and friends. Sean will attend 7th grade at Bethlehem Lutheran School in Fairborn OH. We’ll get medical and dental checkups, new glasses prescriptions, and debriefings from our home office. We’ll get to touch base with individuals and churches around the country who have supported us the past 3+ years, thank them for their gifts and prayers, and ask them to partner with us again for our next term of service in Zambia. We’re also particularly excited about a special family vacation we’ll get to take over Sean’s birthday in April 2015.
How long will we stay?
Right now the plan is to stay in the US for about 9-10 months. This will give us time to do what we need, get some needed rest, and make sure Sean’s school year is smooth and uninterrupted. If everything works out, Sean will also be confirmed before we return to Zambia. Chris will probably come back to Zambia in mid-May of 2015, and Janine and Sean will follow after the school year is over in June.
One more thing…
Being in the US is a bit more expensive than being in Africa. In addition to our plane tickets from Zambia to the US in 2014 and the return trip in 2015, there are just extra expenses associated with being on furlough. In addition to that, Sean’s schooling could likely change dramatically in 8th grade (Fall 2015), which will impact our budget as well.
All of which is to say that we still rely on the generous contributions of our many faithful supporters while on furlough, and will be making contacts to try to develop more partnerships that will allow our work to continue through the publication of the Nsenga NT and on to whatever happens next.
If you already contribute financially to our work in Zambia – THANK YOU! If you would like to become one of our supporters, click the big red “Donate Now” button on the sidebar. A single gift is a great blessing, and an ongoing monthly donation helps to keep us in the field for the long-term duration of the project.
Our new Partnership Development goal is $21 per month, per day. That is, if a person gives $21 a month toward our project, at the end of a year that person will have supported one day of our work with the Nsenga Bible Translation Project that year. Whatever successes (or setbacks) we have enjoyed that day, you will have partnered with us in that. We’ll even ask which day you want to choose, so we can fill our calendar with supporters’ names and dates, and remember to pray for you especially on that day. Then, when we get 365 people supporting us at $21 per month (or fewer people giving bigger gifts), we will be fully-funded for our return and long-term stay in Zambia, helping to bring God’s Word to the heart language of the Nsenga people.
God’s blessings – and SEE YOU SOON!
Chris, Janine, and Sean