Stories and Brotherhood: Bible Translation in Southern Africa

If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

– African Proverb

Map of Southern Africa

The ge­o­graphic re­gion of South­ern Africa in­cludes 10 coun­tries with more than 100 lan­guage com­mu­ni­ties that have no avail­able Scrip­ture in their heart lan­guage. Wars, lin­guis­tic com­plex­ity and en­vi­ron­men­tal ob­sta­cles have his­tor­i­cally been bar­ri­ers to ex­ten­sive Bible trans­la­tion work here.

To­day, God is writ­ing a new chap­ter for South­ern Africa. Bible trans­la­tion or­ga­ni­za­tions* across the re­gion are work­ing to­ward a com­mon goal: help­ing lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties trans­late God’s Word into their own languages.


A New Focus

Af­ter serv­ing in Bible trans­la­tion more than 20 years in Mozam­bique, South African lin­guist and trans­la­tion con­sul­tant Se­bas­t­ian Floor re­turned home with a new vi­sion. He wanted to help the dozens of lan­guage com­mu­ni­ties in other South­ern African na­tions that need and want ac­cess to God’s Word.

In late 2009 Se­bas­t­ian pro­posed a plan to the Board of Wycliffe South Africa, re­quest­ing that the or­ga­ni­za­tion take a more sig­nif­i­cant role in fa­cil­i­tat­ing Bible trans­la­tion for these lan­guage communities.

Since its found­ing, Wycliffe South Africa has sup­ported Bible trans­la­tion through prayer and re­cruit­ing per­son­nel, but en­gag­ing di­rectly in trans­la­tion work was out­side of its ex­pe­ri­ence. In De­cem­ber 2009, the Board agreed to the new ven­ture, but with one im­por­tant instruction:

“They wanted to see all the work be­ing done, man­aged, owned and dri­ven by the end-users of the trans­la­tion,” re­counts Se­bas­t­ian, who is now the di­rec­tor of Wycliffe South Africa’s Re­gional Trans­la­tion Services (RTS). With lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties lead­ing the work, Wycliffe could pro­vide crit­i­cally needed train­ing and sup­port from a po­si­tion of servanthood.

Se­bas­t­ian put to­gether a small team of train­ers and con­sul­tants. When they be­gan look­ing for ways to con­nect with lan­guage com­mu­ni­ties, they quickly dis­cov­ered that their African broth­ers and sis­ters were al­ready look­ing for them.

Sebastian Floor in his office.

Invitations to Partner

Within two months of RTS be­gin­ning, two re­quests came from Angola.

Tucked away on a moun­tain top, the Muk­wandu peo­ple first heard the Good News from an An­golan cou­ple trained by Youth With A Mis­sion (YWAM). Over the years of their min­istry, a church was born and flour­ished. The cou­ple tried to trans­late the Bible, writ­ing trans­lated pas­sages in an ex­er­cise book, but were soon over­whelmed. They started ask­ing around for help and Se­bas­t­ian heard about their request.

Around the same time, a Wycliffe col­league for­warded Se­bas­t­ian an ar­ti­cle about an­other YWAM cou­ple in An­gola who were work­ing with the Mukubal peo­ple. In the ar­ti­cle they re­quested help from Wycliffe. For Se­bas­t­ian, this was a dis­cov­ery not only of a new trans­la­tion need, but also a lan­guage that he didn’t know existed.

Se­bas­t­ian left for Angola as soon as he could. At the time YWAM An­gola was in­volved in eight mi­nor­ity lan­guages in the coun­try, and Wycliffe agreed to work to­gether with them on six of those. Wycliffe pro­vided train­ing and help with strate­gic plan­ning, while YWAM be­came the fa­cil­i­tat­ing or­gan­i­sa­tion for Bible trans­la­tion on the ground.

“This is a dif­fer­ent way of work­ing. It is an ex­per­i­ment in many ways,” ex­plains Sebastian.

This new model of part­ner­ship en­cour­aged other or­ga­ni­za­tions in the re­gion to part­ner with RTS in sim­i­lar ways.


Joining Resources

In 2011 Wycliffe South Africa part­nered with Seed Company, the Bible so­ci­eties ofNamibia and Botswana, Lutheran Bible Translators and var­i­ous churches to start the San Bible Partnership.

The San peo­ples live through­out the Kala­hari Desert re­gion of Botswana and Namibia. These no­madic hunter-gath­er­ers, in­dige­nous to south­ern Africa, num­ber ap­prox­i­mately 90,000 and are be­lieved to be one of the old­est eth­nic groups in the world.

Map of Southern Africa

They speak some of the most in­tri­cate liv­ing lan­guages, with up to 80 dis­tinc­tive mouth clicks. Be­cause of these com­plex­i­ties, al­pha­bet de­vel­op­ment is chal­leng­ing. San cul­tures also have a strong oral tra­di­tion, and lit­er­acy isn’t widely valued.

Re­spond­ing to the unique cul­ture of the San peo­ples, these or­ga­ni­za­tions are work­ing to­gether to trans­late and record oral Bibles that will be avail­able on au­dio de­vices. They started on nine San lan­guages and since 2015 ex­panded to 11 lan­guages so all San peo­ple will have ac­cess to God’s Word.

Durk Meijer assists a Naro speaker to use his Scripture audio player.

Brotherly Relationships

Work­ing with lo­cal part­ners means that RTS staff make build­ing strong re­la­tion­ships their first pri­or­ity. Se­bas­t­ian calls it “broth­erly relationships.”

“We aim to build the strength of re­la­tion­ships to the ex­tent that we feel we are re­ally broth­ers,” he ex­plains. “It is no good for us to just go there for two days, dis­cuss [an agree­ment], sign it and dis­ap­pear. We need to sit to­gether and laugh to­gether. It un­leashes a high level of trust.”

Se­bas­t­ian re­quires that all his con­sul­tants move be­yond only teach­ing tech­ni­cal skills and gen­uinely en­joy en­gag­ing with the peo­ple they serve.

South African Sign Language translation team

“It’s a key value that we in­sist on. I would rather that my staff get less work done but come back with a solid re­port that they had a fine time to­gether,” he says.

This is an at­ti­tude that Se­bas­t­ian de­scribes as be­ing well-re­ceived by their partners.

“We might be start­ing slower,” Se­bas­t­ian ad­mits, “but you can work so much faster later on be­cause you’ve laid a foun­da­tion of trust in the beginning.”


Starting with Stories

The RTS em­pha­sis on re­la­tion­ships also af­fects how they ad­vise part­ners to be­gin Bible trans­la­tion pro­jects. Their rec­om­men­da­tion is of­ten to start with oral Bible sto­ry­ing. Us­ing this ap­proach, a short pas­sage of Scrip­ture is trans­lated orally and then shared with oth­ers. One ad­van­tage of this method is the par­tic­i­pa­tion of the wider com­mu­nity from the out­set.

“If we bring what they can re­late to, they start to get in­ter­ested and want to learn more,” ex­plains Durk Mei­jer, an ethno-com­mu­ni­ca­tion con­sul­tant for RTS.

Durk Meijer, Ethnocommunications Consultant for Southern Africa

Durk be­lieves Bible sto­ry­ing also helps the whole com­mu­nity cre­ate a strong the­o­log­i­cal foun­da­tion together.

“Peo­ple are dis­cov­er­ing for them­selves what the Bible re­ally says,” he says.

Through oral sto­ry­telling, the com­mu­nity be­gins to iden­tify with these truths.

“They say, ‘This is mine,’” Durk ex­plains. “The sto­ries be­come a part of who they are.”


News travels fast in an oral culture

Bible sto­ry­ing taps into the lifeblood of an oral cul­ture, and the sto­ries travel sur­pris­ingly fast.

Ethno-com­mu­ni­ca­tions con­sul­tant Durk Mei­jer re­calls a man he met at a Bible sto­ry­ing work­shop from the Himba com­mu­nity in north­west­ern Namibia. “He was ed­u­cated, spoke Eng­lish and uses Face­book – he’s a mod­ern guy. He learned four Bible sto­ries im­me­di­ately to retell.”
Read more…



Relational and Process Quality

A re­la­tional em­pha­sis does not mean sac­ri­fic­ing quality.

“This is God’s Word we are deal­ing with,” says Se­bas­t­ian. “It needs to be done the best pos­si­ble way.”

How­ever Se­bas­t­ian points out that tech­ni­cal qual­ity is not the only mea­sure of an ef­fec­tive trans­la­tion. How ex­ten­sively a com­mu­nity uses trans­lated Scrip­ture is a good in­di­ca­tor of how in­volved it was in the process.

“We must have tech­ni­cal, re­la­tional and process qual­ity – the whole pack­age,” Se­bas­t­ian says.

Sebastian with Naro children

One of the San lan­guage com­mu­ni­ties in Namibia has two words for God. One word im­plies that God is dis­tant, and the other im­plies that God is ap­proach­able. The com­mu­nity is dis­cussing the terms and their use.

“That is a fas­ci­nat­ing process,” re­marks Se­bas­t­ian. He main­tains that he will of­fer con­sul­tant ad­vice, but the com­mu­nity needs to dis­cover which is the right one and why.

“Maybe it will be a com­bi­na­tion of the two,” Se­bas­t­ian re­flects. He joins them in pray­ing for God to give wis­dom to every­one involved.

To bet­ter equip com­mu­ni­ties for chal­lenges like these, RTS of­fers reg­u­lar train­ing in Bible trans­la­tion prin­ci­ples – not only to those in­volved di­rectly in trans­la­tion and Bible sto­ry­ing, but also to church and com­mu­nity leaders.

Se­bas­t­ian ad­mits, “We nor­mally just train the trans­la­tors….now we are also train­ing in­flu­en­tial church lead­ers. It is a whole new ball game.”


Together on the Long Road

Al­though these strate­gies were partly born of ne­ces­sity, the team can now see why God di­rected them this way. With only a small staff, they’ve been able to help start trans­la­tion pro­jects in a large num­ber of languages.

Cur­rently 30 Bible trans­la­tion pro­jects through­out South­ern Africa re­ceive ei­ther fi­nan­cial or tech­ni­cal sup­port through Wycliffe South Africa’s Re­gional Trans­la­tion Services (RTS), in part­ner­ship with oth­ers. Se­bas­t­ian es­ti­mates that at least an­other 70 lan­guage com­mu­ni­ties through­out South­ern Africa still need their services.

Holding up the scriptures

RTS is seek­ing the best way to be a cat­a­lyst for Bible trans­la­tion, bear­ing in mind that every sit­u­a­tion is different.

“That’s one of the biggest chal­lenges,” says Durk. “There will never be a pack­age that you can reproduce.”

Short on ca­pac­ity but re­ly­ing on God, Se­bas­t­ian, Durk and the other RTS staff ask for prayer. “There are risks,” Se­bas­t­ian says. “We need wis­dom. We are learn­ing.”

*In­clud­ing: Wycliffe South Africa, Seed Company, SIL South­ern Africa, The Word for the World, Lutheran Bible Translators and na­tional Bible so­ci­eties such as the Bible So­ci­ety of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa etc.


By Elyse Patten

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