Several weeks ago, New Tribes’ head translation consultant came to teach us a course about communication and identified ten reasons translations fail to communicate. Here’s one of them. And it’s a principle from 6th grade common core that we spent hours harping on –
One of the most overlooked reasons why a translation fails to communicate is the reader misunderstands the purpose of a text.
Reading Information text standard 6.6 “I can determine the author’s purpose in a text and explain how it is conveyed.”
My kids had better be able to say that still with honesty.
Okay. Back to present times.
Of the 7000 languages currently being spoken in the world, only 1300 of those have completed New Testaments, and of those 1300, only a fraction communicate clearly and are consistently used. The rest have long since been thrown away or are never opened.
Everything we say, no matter how small, communicates purpose. Within the first few seconds of listening to someone talk, we’ve already determined their purpose and are interpreting the information we’re hearing in light of that purpose.
As you read these, notice how your mind immediately jumps to purpose:
“A guy walks into a bar…”
“Once upon a time…”
“Sift the flour into a large bowl…”
“Dear heavenly father…”
“When I went to WalMart the other day, I saw this little boy…”
“Could I talk to you about something?…”
We don’t identify the purpose from the definition of each individual word but from our familiarity with cultural signal posts. We know that the purpose of “once upon a time” is not to give the instructions for a recipe but to begin a fairy tale. The words by themselves don’t clue us into the purpose; cultural patterns and past experience do.
Here’s another example:
Before heading out the door for work, a husband calls back to his wife: “Don’t forget; It’s Monday!” What’s the purpose of his statement? Is it a simple statement of fact that it’s Monday? A sarcastic implication that he hates his job? A reminder to put the trash on the curb soon because it’s garbage day? An expression of excitement that it’s pizza night for dinner? The wife knows his purpose because she knows their routines and schedule and her husband’s body language and voice intonation. Being able to correctly understand the intent of the comment “it’s Monday” has nothing to do with her knowing that It’s is a contraction for it is, and Monday is the word for the second day of the week. Because the wife understands the purpose of the comment, she knows what to do with the information.
“The human memory resembles a bank of remembered situations much more than it resembles a dictionary.”
When purposes of Scripture passages are misunderstood, hearers don’t know what to do with the information. Tragically, this problem plays out all over the world as good Christians with good intentions think that to be fluent in a language is the only prerequisite to translating the Scriptures. Consider how confusing it would be to read Matthew if you didn’t understand the purpose of genealogies; or you couldn’t differentiate between background text, prophecy, hyperbole, narrative, instruction, warnings and condemnations; or If you thought future events were occurring now and parables were to be taken literally. The Bible would be impossible to understand.
Across cultures, the biggest question in someone’s life is oftentimes, “What’s my purpose here?” The Bible has the clear, soul-satisfying answer to this, but for people to be able to understand their purpose and how that fits into God’s purpose, they first have to be able to figure out what’s the purpose of this sentence?
Literacy programs are foundational to the clear understanding of the gospel and its ability to be passed down through generations. I’m thankful God led me to study English in college and let me teach for a few years afterward. I’m thankful I got to do something I love, and I’m looking forward to learning a completely undocumented language in the future and combining all my loves: language, literacy and Christ.