Sunday, March 8, 2015

I am a linguist

A question I (Terrill) often get asked is “How is translation going?” It’s a fair question because we work for Wycliffe and Wycliffe is known for doing Bible translation. But ‘Bible translation’, as a specific technical task, is part of a broader program of giving people access to Christian materials in the language they understand the best. And within this broader program, there are dozens of jobs that don’t deal directly with the translation process. Thus it is true that Wycliffe does ‘do translation’, but it also does many other things like linguistics, development of writing systems, literacy, anthropology, ethnomusicology, curriculum development, and more...activities that are all a part of and serve the broader program of helping people use their most precious human tool (language) in their spiritual and social lives. So although it’s a widespread assumption that ‘Wycliffe’ people translate, relatively few in our organization actually ‘translate’.

When asked that question, I usually get a little uncomfortable and feel the need to explain and perhaps justify why ‘translation’ isn’t going all that well for us. Actually, it’s not really going at all and hasn’t for almost two years. The first paragraph of this post is there to show how this could be acceptable from the point of view of Wycliffe: lots of activities besides translation fall under the broader program as I explained above. But in addition to organizational flexibility, there are more personal reasons why we aren’t translating.

Fourteen years ago I committed my life to helping take the ‘Word of God’ to remote ethnic groups around the world. I assumed my role in this endeavor would be that of ‘Bible translator’. To someone like me who had a knack for languages, it seemed like the highest and most glorious career I could have. Some people envied the clarity of my calling, but in fact, since those earlier years, my calling has been anything but clear. 

After I and Amber got married in 2005, I started on a master’s degree in Bible translation. As it turned out, my experience getting trained for Bible translation really rocked my boat. I came away from that confused, and not at all sure whether I wanted to do Bible translation. But because for years I had planned to do it and had told others about my plans, the sheer momentum of my personal history propelled me forward, across the sea to Uganda. I came here, to the Ik people, to translate the New Testament for them. And not only was I going to translate the New Testament, but I was going to do it faster than anyone, that is, in ten years or less. God must’ve really chuckled at that one. Here we are, in our eighth year in Uganda, and none of the New Testament is officially translated into Ik. 

That’s not to say we didn’t try. Feeling the weight of my own perceived identity, the expectations of Wycliffe, and the expectations of our supporters, I tried to get a translation program up and running a couple of times. Both times I strongly disliked the experience, and both times it eventually fizzled out. I won’t go into all the details, but the combination of Terrill, the Ik church as it is, and the people available to translate with me did not produce fruitful results. This too was confusing and disillusioning, that is, until the last time we pulled the plug on translation (June 2013). That time it was blissful relief, and I’ll never forget the lightheartedness I felt on that day. At last I understood that I had been barking up the wrong tree all along.

It has taken me more than ten years to finally realize and accept that I am not a Bible translator. I’m sorry it took that long but still glad I eventually figured it out. We still believe that we are to clear the way for the ‘Word of God’--much like John the Baptist did for Jesus Christ--but through linguistics and mercy ministry rather than translation. Because my pride and identity were so wrapped up in the BIBLE TRANSLATOR persona, it has had to be painfully and slowly uprooted.

In this regard, God really spoke to me through a book I read this past January, called The Intellecutal Life by A.G. Sertillanges. In it he writes, “It is very important to work in joy, therefore with relative ease, therefore in the direction of one’s aptitudes. By going forward first on different paths each one must discover himself, and when he has found his special vocation, pursue it.” For me, the joy and relative ease definitely occur in linguistic work rather than in translation. But it was so difficult for me to relinquish translation, to relinquish the glory and the worth others attribute to it (whereas few will admire or praise boring linguistic work!). Sertillanges encourages me when he says that “We are obliged to accept necessary sacrifices. It is a painful thing to say to oneself: by choosing one road I am turning my back on a thousand others.”

“Everyone has his work,” says Sertillanges. “He must apply himself to it courageously and leave to others what Providence has reserved for others.” This sentence helped me find the courage to release Bible translation into God’s hands, and into the hands of whoever else He will employ to accomplish that task. It doesn’t have to be me; it isn’t me. After all, “we are not much, but we are part of a whole and we have the honor of being a part. What we do not do, we do all the same; God does it, our brethren do it, and we are with them in the unity of love.” Getting His Word to the Ik is God’s work, God’s business. For years I must’ve thought I would get some of the credit, a piece of the glory, but it has become clear that I get to have a much humbler, less well-understood, less appreciated, more behind-the-scenes part: laying a linguistic foundation.

Finally, just this morning I read a passage from the book An Infinite Journey by Andrew Davis. He reminded me that “to each one of us grace [a spiritual gift] has been given as Christ apportioned it” (Ephesians 4:7). Davis writes that “part of spiritual to discern one’s own role in the Body of Christ, and be faithful to do that ministry. Discovering one’s own spiritual gifts, developing them, and then using them with great perseverance and skill are essential parts of the healthy Christian life.” As spiritual gifts, certain ‘primary ministries’ are given to Christians to get ‘the flow of good works’ going. These primary ministers are apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers. “All these gifted people have one thing in common: they directly minister the word of God to the people.” To this list we could add Bible translator, someone who directly handles Scripture for the mission of the Church. It’s been hard for me to accept that I do not have a ‘primary ministry’. I am not an apostle in the traditional sense of someone who plants new churces. I am not a prophet, evangelist, pastor, or teacher by natural bent (though of course I may engage in such activities as the opportunites present themselves). No, I have a more lowly task: preparing for and supporting those who handle the ‘word of truth’.

My friends, I am not a Bible translator. I am a linguist. Learning foreign languages, analyzing them, writing about them, and developing them--all the while loving their speakers through charitable presence and merciful aid (Amber’s ministry)--is my vocation as best as I understand it. Through a long and tortuous process I have come to this conclusion. We have not accomplished much in the way of ‘Bible translation’ for the Ik, and may never be personally involved with it (or maybe we will?). That said, I hope and pray that the relational and scholarly foundation we have laid these last seven years will allow a great army of ministers to further build the House of God among the Ik. 

What about you? Do you have too low a view of your gifts and have more or less given up trying to ‘change the world’? Do you have too high a view of your gifts and are trying to do too much for your own glory and pride? For those of you like me, who have had a view too high of your ‘piece of the pie’, or have been confused about what your piece is, let me close with Sertillanges’ admonition that “you leave to God...what does not belong to your proper vocation. Do not be a deserter from yourself, through wanting to substitute yourself for all others.” (Italics mine). Jesus Christ has given each one of us a spiritual gift (or two). Our only responsibility is to discover it and apply it faithfully. This is cause for much freedom, joy, and thankfulness.


Janet said...

Our failures (the label man puts on them) are God's successes. You've been caught up in attacks on your thinking (I call them fiery darts) but you finally found the Truth Thoughts that set you free. Proud of you!

The Reeds said...

I love this and will share it with others. I think you are a great linguist and both of your days in Ik land are worth so much. Thanks for sharing~Georgia
p.s. big hugs to Amba.

Richard and Sally Hoffman said...

Terrill, your wise and apt quotations from Christian scholars put to shame this slacker (Rich) who reads mystery novels in his own spare time๐Ÿ˜„๐Ÿ˜„. But your identification with JOHN THE BAPTIST has long struck a chord with us in the MANY ways we have seen you and Amber PREPARING THE WAY FOR THE LORD among the Ik over all these years. I Thess. 2:8 is still our verse for you as we see Him working through you four to bring the Ik into His Kingdom๐Ÿ˜ƒ๐Ÿ˜ƒ๐Ÿ˜ƒ๐Ÿ˜ƒ.

Robert said...

Now that all that's off your chest, meet me for coffee next Wednesday. I've been thinking of some thoughts that are better thought about with friends.

Hyasinta Izumba said...

Terrill, I have been inspired by your words together with your stuggle to utilise the gift that u have been given by christ..nimebarikiwa sana na maneno yako, I have the passion of being a linguist, hope to join you in that career very soon, I pray. Hongera sana and keep it up.