Only 500 of the world’s nearly 7,000 languages have a complete Bible translation. Nearly 1,500 Bible translation projects are in progress right now, according to Wycliffe Bible translators. One of these projects is currently being worked on in Zambia, Africa.
“The Bible is central, of course. It should be made available to everyone in the world in their own language,” said Thomas Kuster, the director of Christ in Media Institute. “New believers need these materials in their own languages so that they can grow in their faith.”
Africa has a completely different culture than that of America. Chris Pluger said, “‘Hi’ is not a greeting in Zambia. ‘Good morning! How are you? How is your family? Is everything at home fine?’ is a much more typical greeting.”
Most Americans study different languages that are part of the Indo-European family tree. Nsenga, along with most of the other African languages, is part of the Bantu family tree. These languages are completely different from English.
“Nesenga verbs tend to pile up their prefixes and suffixes like adding cars to a train,” said Pluger. The word sitikakupikishilani is made up of a stem, four prefixes and four suffixes (si- ti- ka- ku- pik -ish -il -a -ni with “pik,” the main verb meaning “to cook”). Removing the suffix -il changes the meaning from “we will not cause something to be cooked for you” to “we will not cause you to be cooked.”
Nsenga also has noun classes like German and Spanish have genders. “However, in Nsenga, there are about 16 different noun classes instead of two or three genders,” said Pluger.
The Bible translation begins with three Mother-Tongue Translators (MTT) who work through various English translations and commentaries and translate them into Nsenga. Pluger then goes through these translations with the MTT and compares them with the original Greek and adjustments are made as needed.
They read through the Nsenga verse by verse to check for spelling, punctuation and fluidity. It is at this stage that many kinks are worked out.
“Being a landlocked, inland tribe, the Nsengas don’t have an extensive fishing vocabulary,” said Pluger. “We struggled with ‘fishers of men.’ In Nsenga, you ‘catch fish,’ but if you ‘catch people,’ you are a slave trader or policeman. We had to say, ‘get people and bring them into the kingdom of God.’”
Sometimes, there are no Nsenga words to convey an intended meaning. The Nsenga word for “doctor” kept being read as “witch doctor,” so a word was borrowed from Chewa, another widely used African language, that means “medical doctor.” These substitutions are avoided when possible, but sometimes a clear meaning is more important.
After the kinks are worked out, a local storyteller, who is known for his clear and beautiful Nsenga, goes through the translation and makes some changes.
The clarified translation is then taken to different villages and read to people who are asked comprehension questions. It is one thing for educated readers to understand something and quite another for uneducated people to arrive at the same meaning.
They give this next draft to Translation Consultant Dr. Misheck Nyirenda to be finalized.
(the full translation process is outlined here)
“It is tough where we live. There is limited shopping and frequent power cutoffs, but the payoff, I think, is worth it,” said Pluger. “There is lots of time together as a family, a completely unique experience, and the chance to help an entire language group hear God speaking to them in their own mother tongue.”
“Beyond the Bible, there is also a huge need for translating other Christian materials, such as catechisms, commentaries and many other things that we take for granted in English.” said Kuster. “Such translations are even more important now that Christians are using mass media to reach out around the world with the Gospel.”
Pluger maintains a blog at theplugers.wordpress.com with updates about “the African experience” from progress on the translation process to other adventures such as taxi drivers going on strike because of new laws.
“We should be finished drafting and checking the New Testament by the end of 2014,” said Pluger. “Final checking, typesetting and printing will take at least another six months. We are praying to have a nice, officially-published, modern-language Nsenga New Testament widely available by the end of 2015.”