Have you ever wondered what the daily life of a translator actually looks like? Dave and Stacey Hare are Bible translators in Cameroon, West Africa. They met recently with students of The Master’s Seminary to answer questions about the blessings and challenges in the life of a Bible translator.
Please tell us about yourselves and your ministry in Cameroon.
Stacey Hare: I’m Stacey and this is Dave. We are Bible translators with World Team in West Africa, in a country called Cameroon. We’re in the eastern region of the country.
Dave Hare: In 2004, we graduated from The Master’s University and went to The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Both Stacey and I graduated from there in 2009. We then went to the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics (GIAL) to learn linguistics. Then we headed overseas. We first studied French, since Cameroon has French as its national language. Then we lived with the Bakoum for two full years, just learning their language. It’s a hard ministry. It’s not easy. It’s not like studying Greek and Hebrew in seminary. It’s not like going to Starbucks
We live among the Bakoum people in a village setting. There’s about 10,000 people in this ethnic group. They don’t have a written language at all. So, our task has been to learn their spoken language. And right now, we’re back on furlough and studying at GIAL. We’re working towards producing a written language so that we can begin Bible translation when we go back to Cameroon in August.
It’s a hard ministry. It’s not easy. It’s not like studying Greek and Hebrew in seminary. It’s not like going to Starbucks. But when we see the many struggles the Bakoum have, we realize that their biggest problem is that they are distant from God and they don’t know Christ. So, our goal is to be there with them, and to serve them as we translate the Bible together.
Usually it takes fifteen to twenty years to translate the New Testament into a language such as theirs. We’d like to do the Old Testament as well, so we have quite long-term goals with the Bakoum people. We’re Bible translators, but we see the goal as having self-sustaining churches in Cameroon.
Can you share a little about the state of the church in Cameroon?
SH: There’s a huge variety. There are 270 distinct language groups. And in the eastern region, the state of the church is, I would say, marked by an overall ignorance of biblical truth. Because church is usually done in French, it’s kind of like the Latin of where we live. The people just don’t understand it. So, there’s incredible ignorance of biblical truth. One day I was telling some of the local ladies about the Tower of Babel and why there’s so many language groups. And I looked up and there were six ladies huddled around and looking at me with an expression that said, “Really? That really happened?”
I’d also say that the state of the church is very syncretistic. There is a complete allegiance to traditional African beliefs. You have people coming to church, but these same people are still wearing cords around their waists. And that means that they’re putting their trust in that cord for their health. But there’s not a call from church leaders to abandon that allegiance to traditional beliefs. We see the end goal as self-sustaining churches run by nationals
And then I would also say that, where we are, there’s also heresy—a lot of prosperity theology. There are a few good churches; our church and our pastor are really solid.
DH: Our pastor teaches in French because he doesn’t know the local language. There are some people from other ethnic groups that come to our church, and they benefit greatly because they understand French well. But the Bakoum people just don’t understand French. So, it’s really not benefitting them at this point.
Part of the problem is we have churches but we don’t have Bibles in the local languages. So, there’s nothing to keep the people in orthodoxy. They don’t have the word of God to be their guard. The pastor can get up and say whatever he wants. And there’s no way for the congregation to check what he is saying. Because they don’t know the word of God, there’s nothing to correct that.
Why do groups like the Bakoum still not have a Bible in their own language?
SH: I think we assume because we can access information so easily, that everyone can. And it’s just not true. We can enter the word “chair” in our iPhones, and we just assume that the Bakoum word for chair is going to pop out. That works for certain languages, like French. But there are so many language groups that don’t even have an alphabet in their own language written down.
What role does Bible translation play in the local church?
DH: I think historically Bible translation has always been tied to the church. But then in the modern era, we’ve created a kind of specialist who goes out and does Bible translation separate from the church. But I think that we’re actually seeing now the fallout of that.
We see the end goal as self-sustaining churches run by nationals. That’s our end goal. Bible translation is one of the aspects of getting there, because it’s really hard to have a self-sustaining church if they can’t access the Scriptures. But the end goal is not the Scripture, it’s having disciples. It’s having leaders even that can then make more disciples as well.
As far as the details of translation work, what does “a day in the life of a translator” look like?
DH: Bible translation isn’t me sitting in a dark room with a candle and some other guy. There’s a group of people who work on exegesis, looking through different commentaries, wrestling through the words in whatever particular passage. Another group will translate the passages into the Bakoum language. Another group will take it out and read it to somebody who was not involved in the first steps of the process and say, “What did we just say?” So, it goes through this really long process, to make sure that we’re really understanding what is being translated. Translation involves a team of people.
SH: As a Bible translator, you need to be both an introvert and an extrovert. There are long hours of technical things like charting a text. But for me and Dave, I enjoy more being outside with the people. I love language learning. I love doing linguistic workshops, working with people. So, my taking up my cross is being locked in my room. And I need to do that, because that is an important step. Whereas Dave is the opposite.
DH: Also, we have observed that there is more to Bible translation than just the process of translating. We need to be involved in evangelism and discipleship and teaching the Bible. It’s an amazing, long, intense process.
Why would a translator need linguistic training?
SH: If I came up to you and asked you to go to this remote people group, write a dictionary for them and a grammar, and come up with a system of writing for their language, would you be able to do it? The answer would be no, right? That’s what linguistics is. It’s the scientific study of language, and it’s basically a tool for taking a language that’s only spoken orally and getting to the point where there is a grammar available and a dictionary, so that you have something to work with.
DH: Understanding the people themselves is also a big part of Bible translation. When you’re learning their language, you have to learn not only what the words mean as far as an English gloss, but what does it really mean to the people. You also need to understand how they’re going to read different passages of Scripture.
For example, in Cameroon, people put ashes on their face in certain places when they’re excited or rejoicing. So, when you read in Jonah that the people in Nineveh put ashes on themselves, the people are going to read that wrong. And that doesn’t mean necessarily you have to change the translation itself, but you have to work with the people so that they’re actually understanding what it really means.
Can you speak a little more to the process of creating the alphabet and then teaching them to read it?
DH: Stacey just finished a literacy workshop, so I’ll let her answer that one.
SH: The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is a set of symbols that you can use to write down any sound you find in any human language in the world. For any sound we hear in Bakoum, there’s a corresponding symbol we can use to write it. So, you go into a people group with a notebook and pen, and you record everything that you hear people say and write it down in your notebook in the IPA. You analyze it and look for patterns, and then you come up with a proposed alphabet, a proposed system of writing. Then you go back and, alongside the people, decide what kind of letters you want, what system of writing you want. And then last would be starting literacy classes. Our role would be to teach people to teach their language.
For someone who already can read French, how long does it take them to learn to read the new writing system?
SH: It depends how close the language is to French, and the sounds and the system of writing. Sometimes you can just hand people a one-page sheet and explain to them the corresponding sounds and symbols. But it could take much longer if they don’t already know how to read.
DH: And then hopefully those people can go out and start being literacy teachers themselves.
How great would you say is the need for translation work today? Especially the kind you’re involved in?
DH: There’s 7000 living languages in the world today. There’s only 670 that actually have the entire text of Scripture, 9% of the world’s languages. There’s quite a bit more that have New Testaments; I think it’s around 1500. There’s more that have some portions. But the estimate today is that between 1800 and 1900 living, vital languages don’t have a single word of Scripture. They are definite needs.
What would you say in closing to a seminarian considering the need for Bible translation?
SH: Love of Greek and Hebrew is awesome, but you need to love more than that if you’re going to be a Bible translator. You really need to love the people. And ministry is really, really messy and difficult. So, I would start praying for a heart to love people that are void of God’s grace in many ways. And it’s good because God really humbles you through that process. But it’s a package deal.
Dave and Stacey Hare are graduates of The Master’s University currently serving as missionaries and Bible translators among the Bakoum people in Cameroon, West Africa. You can read more about Dave and Stacey Hare, and the work they are doing, at their website Hare Translation Journey.