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Why don’t we have that done yet?

June 20, 2014

“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). Nsenga man

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.

Reading the Gospel of Mark 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.

Some challenges

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”)? Pastor reading a draft to a congregation

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.

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