Equipping National Men and Women in East Africa

In going through some newsletters from colleagues of mine in Pioneer Bible Translators, I came across one written two years ago by a couple who are helping to equip national men and women in East Africa to also become Bible translators.  Their story stirred up some good memories for me as I was also involved in this national training program in the past.  I will interweave their story (in Italics) along with my thoughts in this article.

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One Sows and Another Reaps

“In John 4:35-38 Jesus says that the fields are ripe for harvest. The passage ends with, “I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.” This describes our situation in East Africa. We were blessed to come to a field where translation projects were already in full swing. We have already been able to taste some fruit of our labors and it tastes good!

Most Bible translators have to spend years on the field laying linguistic ground work before translation can be started. Because the East Africa branch of PBT has existed for many years and is using the cluster method, we have already been part of things like handing out Scripture portions, hearing testimonies of lives changed through Bible translation, and have even attended dedications.”

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One of the great breakthroughs for Bible translation has come through this concept called the “Cluster Approach”.  This approach is significantly different from what we could call the “Traditional Approach”.  Let me explain the two different approaches so you can appreciate the benefit that comes by using the Cluster Approach.  And you will also see why I am excited about it.

Traditionally, for almost 100 years since the sudden burst of activity in Bible translation projects, the typical way to do translation was to send one missionary team (single or married) to go live among one distinct group of people to learn their language and culture and then translate the Scriptures into that language.

The missionary team would prepare themselves for a number of years by getting theological and linguistic training, and then they would spend their first few years doing language learning in the new culture.  When you add in the extra time (usually 1-2 years) for them to go out and raise their financial support from churches and individuals so they can live and work overseas, it ends up that it could be about 10 years before a missionary Bible translator finally gets to actually do any translating.

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After all that, because we as missionaries will never become truly fluent speakers of the language, even with help from nationals, it could take another 15 to 20 years just to translate the New Testament.  It doesn’t take much thinking to realize that by using just the Traditional Approach, it would take an enormously long time to do a translation for the 2000 or so languages that still need a language project started.

In light of this, the leadership of most of the key Bible translation organizations started to dream and strategize as to how we could get the job done faster and more proficiently.  One idea that came out of this was the Cluster Approach.  It has long been realized that getting the national people involved in the programs would greatly improve the speed and quality of a translation seeing as they already know the language and the culture for that group.

It has also been recognized that languages are never found in total isolation from other languages.  In many cases, there are so many languages in close proximity to each other that they will share a high degree of similarities which could be useful to multiplying our work efforts and results.

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Add to all this the key strategy that is now becoming the norm, and that is that we need to put a strong emphasis on equipping the national people through training programs.  The Cluster Approach then recognized pockets of closely related language groups and recruited gifted speakers of those languages to come to a central location to be trained all at the same time and release them to start their own translations.

We found that after only one summer of linguistic training, many of the nationals were able to jump right in and start doing Bible translation for their own people.  We saw that when these students came together for training, or if they worked in close proximity to each other, they often would cross fertilize each others’ translation ideas.

One more thing that we see is a possibility is that when one language group finishes their translation of one book, then that could potentially be a base source from which the second group starts, and then the focus is more on revision translation instead of rough drafting or starting from scratch to do their translation.

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This new approach has been going on for 8 years now.  I had the honor and the privilege to help teach part of this national training program right when it started, in 2004.  And then again I taught classes in 2006.  Remember how I said that the Traditional Approach could take a missionary up to 20 years of more to get a translation done.  Well, guess what?  This Cluster Approach in East Africa is going so well, that the first cluster of 10 language groups are all getting very close to completing the New Testament.

Can you believe it?  Instead of only getting half of one translation done in ten years, we are looking at publishing 10 New Testaments in 10 years.  Is that good?  No, that’s fantastic news.  And for all of this, we give thanks and praise to God.