Words, Symbols, and Pictures

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Though I’ve finished with my series on the scripture translating The Seed Company, I can’t stop thinking about the importance of translation to mission.

Early Spanish and French “explorers” (their countries refer to them as “missionaries,” others call them “conquerors”) traveled to the New World to expand kingdoms- both God’s and their kings’. Not being able to communicate verbally, the Catholic explorers used the pictures in their Bibles to share Christianity with the natives. When all you’ve got is one picture of a mother holding her child and another with her crying at his feet as he hangs on a cross, you end up with a syncretistic Virgin Mary cult.

Mission is translation. Taking the gospel from one context (the one in which you received it) and translating it into another context (that in which you find yourself) is the human aspect of mission.

Translation into written languages is a challenging enough, but translating the gospel into a culture that has no written language can be extremely difficult. The language must be learned by the translator, codified with the assistance of nationals, and then taught back to the people. The process takes a very long time and requires persistence, creativity, and skill.

Since we’re all missionaries, we’re all translators of sorts- taking the gospel from the Christianized context in which we received the message and translating it out to those around us who do not know Christ. What you may not recognize, though, is that many of the “tribes” we work and live among are post-literate.

A group is post-literate when images, or symbols becomes their primary mode of graphical communication. Post-literates may technically be able to sound out words on a page, but they understand and retain little of what they’ve “read.” They have become so used to bullet-points, excerpts, and snippets that their eyes do not track from one line to the next in large blocks of text. autocorrect has supplanted the ability to spell. Acronyms, emoticons, and avatars have replaced the written word. Reading is becoming a lost art.

In some ways, our efforts to accommodate post-literacy has perpetuated and even caused it. Everywhere you look you can find evidence of reading-attention deficit disorder. News articles became blurbs on a ticker and 140-character status updates. Restaurants traded descriptions of dishes for depictions of them. Churches replaced pew-back Bibles with Powerpoint slides. There are “universal” symbols for peace, laundry, and gay pride. We communicate concepts not with words but with symbols. No one has to write the word “recycle” because we all know that the triangle made of three arrows means “plastic, paper, and glass go here.”

The answer to post-literacy may lie in missionary strategies among the pre-literate. Where people have no written language, missionaries tell the gospel through story. Rather than spending time teaching people to read, Christians are relaying the story of God’s interaction with humanity through simple, memorable, and easily-retold stories. This, of course, is how the Torah was handed down through generations, and how the gospel was retained through the early spread of Christianity, the Dark Ages, and the the 1970s.

Will this work to effectively share the gospel among the post-literate? I think it can, but we must improve our story-telling abilities. As we leave the realm of Bible translation for a more subjective scripture storying, we begin to compete with the best tales and tellers a culture has to offer. As we’ve seen with the mainstream public’s indifference to film and audio adaptations of scriptural events, non-believers are more used to being entertained than challenged. I’m not suggesting we try to outdo Hollywood, I’m saying that we can’t depend on Charleton Heston anymore.

Any discussion of scripture translation is incomplete without addressing post-literacy. While we must preserve both the words of scripture and the ability to read them, we must also be prepared to share the gospel with those who do not and cannot read.

The Words of The Word

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I admire the work of those who translate the scriptures into different languages. Indigenous church simply isn’t possible without a version of the Bible in the local language. Groups like Wycliffe Bible Translators  and The Seed Company mobilize translators around the world to produce reliable working translations of the Bible into the languages of the “unreached.” Their work assists missionaries and local churches alike in making disciples of all nations.

Few people realize how difficult the translation process can be. Of course, the material is extremely sensitive and requires respect and care. After all, we are talking about the Bible here. Professionals labor over the text for years to produce a working translation, and, according to OneVerse, translations costs $26 USD per verse. There is also the question of interpretation. Despite what the King-James-Version-only crowd might say, there is no objective version of scripture. That’s why there are so many versions of scripture in English alone: each has its bias and perspective.

In some cases, translation is being done into languages that have no written form; translators literally start from scratch, forming an alphabet of native sounds and then working from there. In these cases, people need to be taught to read the languages they already speak.

Another challenge to scripture translation is the rapid rate of change that languages face today. Dictionaries struggle to keep up with the changing language, as illustrated by the Oxford English Dictionary‘s recent addition of the “words,” OMG” and “retweet” and exclusion of the term “cassette tape.” Accelerated by technology and social media, a language changes quickly enough to render a scripture translation obsolete before its even finished.

Many Bible translators find themselves working to translating the scriptures into dying languages. According to National Geographic’s Enduring Voices project, a minority language dies out every 14 days. The extinction of a language means the end of a cultural identity and the possible loss of that culture’s history. Scripture translation doesn’t just help with the spread of the gospel, it builds literacy; allowing one generation to tell its stories and the next generation to understand those stories and benefit from their wisdom.

As much as I appreciate the work of scripture translation organizations, I’m not sure what they’re doing is sustainable. If I were in charge of The Seed Company (and this series of posts will likely guarantee this never happens), I would change everything. Over the next few posts, I’ll explain how.

NEXT: The PR Problem