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David Ker on literacy vs. Bible translation

March 8, 2013

David Ker, of Lingamish, Future Bible, Kanyimbe, and Red Zebra fame, apparently has had a bit of a change of heart.

While David previously was with Wycliffe Bible Translators and an unabashed supporter of Bible translations, even into languages with relatively few readers, now he is focused on improving literacy and getting a broad variety of books into the hands of readers.

In a recent newspaper profile, David accurately diagnoses the problem with the now almost mechanical process of translating the Bible into languages where there are almost no readers: 

“I thought it [Wycliffe Bible translation] was a pretty clear process,” Ker said. “I work with Mozambicans to translate the Bible, and then when we’re finished anyone who wants one can have a Bible of their own.”

Now, he knows that’s not usually how the process works. The Bibles get translated, but then the Bible agencies can take years to get them printed, and usually in small numbers. Once they are printed, the Bibles aren’t always distributed in the area where the language is spoken.

Or people get a copy of the Bible, but do not know how to read it,” Ker said.

Though he still respects what Wycliffe Bible Translators does and considers it to be a great organization, he felt his talents could be used elsewhere.

“As [Ker’s wife] Hilary and I considered how we might best serve in Africa in the coming years, we’ve become convinced that we have a contribution to make in the area of literacy,” Ker said.

[empahsis added]

I’m very supportive of this recent change of heart of David Ker’s – and I absolutely agree that efforts to translate the Bible into small minority languages – where most people are not even literate – simply do not make sense.  Instead, I would rather see an effort to build up general and education literacy rates.  It simply makes no sense to make more systemized efforts to make mediocre translations of the Bible into language where there are few readers.

As of 2011, the Bible had reportedly been translated into 2,527 languages, with that year seeing only 10 new languages seeing a full translation and 27 seeing a partial translation.  Wycliffe rakes in the money big time:   although it is just one of several Bible translation organizations, it reports $146 million/year in contributions and $111 million/year in contributions (putting it into the stratosphere of the top 100 US charities) – and yet even if it were responsible for all new Bible translation, it would at best only be able to claim ten full new translations.  

This amount of money, with such limited results, raises natural questions.

In Mozambique, the country in which David worked in Bible translation, teacher salaries range from $72 – $243 each month and it has a super-low literacy rate of 56%.  Likely most of those 56% percent are among the 50.4% who speak Portuguese – a language with numerous Bible translations. Efforts to translate the Bible into minority languages – where there are almost no readers – are bound to be of dubious value.

Congratulations to David on refocusing his efforts on the big problem:  literacy.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. March 8, 2013 4:10 pm

    I strongly suspect that you have misunderstood my friend David Ker’s new direction. It is certainly not towards literacy in Portuguese. Rather, his new project’s “main goal is to distribute scripture and children’s books in African languages.” Literacy, in mother tongues, has long been a major focus of Wycliffe Bible Translators’ work, because the organization has long recognized that there is no point in producing written Bible translations for people who can’t read.

    You are certainly misrepresenting what David said in your claim that according to him “efforts to translate the Bible into small minority languages … simply do not make sense”. There is no suggestion in the article, nor in any of David’s newsletters which I receive regularly, that he has any major disagreements with Wycliffe’s translation efforts. I suspect that his real reasons for leaving Wycliffe are frustrations with organizational bureaucracy, but maybe he would like to comment further.

    Why did you tag the Bakkers here? What point are you trying to make?

  2. March 8, 2013 4:27 pm

    I do understand that David is working on literacy in African (minority) languages. That’s makes sense– literacy in at least one language is prerequisite for reading a Bible. I do suspect that opportunities for a Mozambican who can read the country’s official language, Portuguese, (or even another major language) are greater than the opportunities for those who cannot.

    The newspaper article included this quote:

    Now, he knows that’s not usually how the process works. The Bibles get translated, but then the Bible agencies can take years to get them printed, and usually in small numbers. Once they are printed, the Bibles aren’t always distributed in the area where the language is spoken.

    “Or people get a copy of the Bible, but do not know how to read it,” Ker said.

    Now, perhaps David was misquoted, but what he says makes sense and is compatible with my view that we should question whether Wycliffe, an exceptionally large charity, is using its resources or wisely or succeeding in its stated mission.

    David is very polite (“he still respects what Wycliffe Bible Translators does and considers it to be a great organization”); but I’d love to hear his frank views. Meanwhile the article speaks for itself.

    Thanks for pointing out the “Bakkers” tags. That was left over from an earlier draft; I forgot to remove the tags when I made the post.

  3. March 8, 2013 4:55 pm

    Thanks for clarification re the Bakkers tags. I see two possible implicit criticisms of Wycliffe:

    1. Some people who receive Bibles cannot read them. When I studied with Wycliffe/SIL 20 years ago this was a well known problem and strong efforts were being made to address it. David writes of it as a problem in the present tense because there is still an issue when these efforts are neglected, as perhaps in some projects, or inadequately funded. His new project is fundamentally a way to help Wycliffe with these efforts and to find funding for them.

    2. Distribution of the Bibles may be inadequate or misdirected. This can indeed be a problem. Again, funding is the major issue here, as it limits print runs. Speakers of minority languages in their homelands often cannot afford to by a Bible at cost price. There may be others who buy one because they can afford it but don’t need it or use it. Again, this issue has long been well known and addressed by Wycliffe. Again, the Red Zebra Project is aiming to help Wycliffe with these efforts by developing distribution channels, as well as by fundraising.

    When someone appeals for funds for relieving some disaster, would you read that as a criticism of other disaster relief agencies for failing to 100% relieve the disaster themselves? But that is what you seem to be doing here: reading an effort which you should applaud as criticism of others for not doing it.

  4. March 8, 2013 4:56 pm

    Theophrastus, thank you for bringing attention to this topic. I certainly am very polite about Wycliffe because I continue to feel that it’s a great organization performing an important mission. My move into literacy has really come about because I’ve seen the broader picture (being a big picture guy as you know) and wanting to address some of the urgent needs in the area of vernacular literature production and literacy. A Bible is one part of a larger group of publications that should be accessible in every language. And here I refer to minority languages. Literacy has to happen in local or mother-tongues because that is the best way that education and literacy may be assured including future success in the language of wider communication. My graduate research (currently on hold) is based on my time sitting in a classroom and watching kids forced to do school in Portuguese. They fail, the teachers fail and there is general misery all around. So, partly inspired by that, I am starting pilot projects with Red Zebra in which we do mashups of exisiting literature in local languages with professional illustrations and even in some cases photos from the Wikimedia foundation in order to fill a gap in reading resources for the youngest learners. It is perhaps a quixotic quest but I think the technology, grassroots desire, and international aid exist to provide a mini-library of books to the most vulnerable communities that continue to be marginalized because hegemonic forces use national languages to exclude the majority from access to advancement, educational and otherwise by the insistence that former colonial tongues be used in African schools even though it has been shown over decades now that such a practice harms children and hampers development.

    I’m intrigued by the blog and the author list of some of my favorite bloggers. Definitely subscribing. Shalom.

  5. March 8, 2013 6:53 pm

    Peter, I think that is a fair summary of the concerns, and I am happy to hear that they are recognized by Wycliffe. You reach a different conclusion than I do, but regardless our our perceptions, I suspect that we will agree that any project that improves literacy is a worthwhile effort.

    David, great to hear from you! I’m so happy to hear about your new project, and it sounds great. Best of luck with the project — and congratulations on your graduate work. Thanks also for your kind words on this blog.

  6. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    March 9, 2013 10:05 pm

    I am so happy to see you all here and join you for this discussion! I also did my MA thesis on this topic.

    In Northern Quebec, the major traditional church was Anglican, English-based, and many Cree wanted to integrate into the English rather than the French speaking economy. Some Cree learned English and some French as a Language of Wider Communication. So Cree was buoyed up by this as the common language of their community.

    The funds were available, lots of money from a hydro project. The bible was translated, actually retranslated as there was an older version in a neighbouring dialect that had been used for many years. There was funding for literature for children and Cree was integrated into the curriculum. You would think that everything was in place.

    However, the children did not learn it. The new standardized spelling was different from what their grandparents had used. Nobody wanted to use a standardized spelling of any kind at all. They all insisted that they should write phonetically as they spoke and not follow the rules. But, on the other hand, they did not want to be less scientific, less civilized than us English, so they did want the lexicon. Some did, and some didn’t. The books for children had to be republished for every village. Still this literacy was not established. The chair of the school board sent his kids to English boarding school where they would get a good education. All adults, and they could all speak Cree, ran meetings in Cree, and kept all written documents in English and read the documents out loud in Cree translating as they went in the meetings.

    There was no domain for written Cree. The adults didn’t have one, and the children didn’t have one.

    But what about the church? Why couldn’t the church as an institution, be sequestered
    for Cree literacy and provide a domain for Cree literacy? Why not? That is how biliteracy survives, by institutional support.

    And why not? In the past, many Cree had trained as ministers but none had become bishop. They had gone to Toronto for university training. And one in particular, Redfern Loutit, was wonderful man, loved by many. When the bishop at that time retired, a new bishop was chosen. He was English. The diocese by that time had some English parishes and so the bishop had to be English.

    After that time, no Cree person ever trained as a minister again. At the retirement party for Redfern Loutit, the man who addressed him said “We always thought that you would be the next bishop.”

    And then I knew that it was entirely useless. Cree would not be used as the predominant literacy of the church, since that diocese was under English control and leadership. It was a dead end.

    Even now the literacy there struggles. A difficult orthography, no domain which is restricted to Cree literacy – what can you do?

    Later I even helped plan a curriculum for Cree adults to study theology part time, while they worked, to work towards a degree. But they would never be ordained without an M. Div, and this is hard to get while working to support your family. I wish I knew the answer.

  7. March 10, 2013 4:07 pm

    Very interesting report, Suzanne — thanks.

  8. Ellie Showalter permalink
    March 16, 2016 6:54 pm

    Hi David,
    You were baptized in my arms many years ago …..your mom Jaet was my best
    Friend .
    So proud of what you have become….


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