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Mar 25, 2009

Machetes for the 'Romans' jungle

Written by George P.
paytons_and_ugandan_trlrs Paytons assisting Ugandan translators
at a workshop on Romans

In November last year I got an email from Grace, a Wycliffe colleague of ours in Uganda. The Ugandan translators from the Gwere (pronounced GWE-ray) and Nyole (NYO-lay) languages had started drafting Romans in their languages and had found it very difficult. They asked Grace if a consultant could come teach a workshop to help them translate Romans.

We don't have any consultants here in Uganda who could conduct one. And we would like to have the workshop in January ifp ossible," she said. None of the other consultants were available. I looked at my schedule and January was open. The only problem was I had never taught Romans before. But if our Ugandan translators needed help and no one else was available, how could I say no? With a pressing deadline, I juggled my intense Roman's preparation with family time during our kid's school break. During that time, Grace wrote to say the translators from the Gungu (GOONG-goo) and Bwisi (BWEE-see) languages wanted to come too, making a total of eight men from four languages.

My wife Wendy works advising one of the translation teams here in Mbeya and is still growing in her job. She wanted to accompany me because it would be a good experience for her to learn from Romans. So, at the beginning of January our family went to Dar es Salaam. Then Wendy and I boarded a plane to Entebbe, Uganda. The workshop was held at our offices in Entebbe, on the north shores of Lake Victoria. The Entebbe area is hilly and green, and the weather was comfortably warm. Our goal for the workshop was for the translators to draft as much as they could in the two weeks we would be with them. The first hurdle was in understanding what the text of Romans said.

We pored over several English and Swahili versions, the Greek text and different commentaries in efforts to dig out the Apostle Paul's intended meaning. Phrases like "obedience of faith," "the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith" and "whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith" are just some of the (many!) verses we struggled with.

Once we understood what the passage meant, the next step was for the men to rephrase it in their languages in a way that was biblically accurate, meaningful and clear to the potential reader. In order to make it understandable, they often needed to say openly what Paul meant but had left implied. They found this step of writing in their languages less challenging because we had thoroughly studied the meaning. That is why the first step is so important--without understanding, you can't translate it well.

'Righteous' is a major theme in Romans. It can have several meanings, and we had to translate the word differently to fit each context. In Romans 1:16-17, Paul is talking about how God counts or considers people right. In Romans 3:25-26, God's attribute of being righteous is in focus. In other places, the life of the Christian believer is in focus, as in "righteous living.

The men were grateful we were able to get to the core of Romans, to the heart of its meaning. They likened the process of digging into the meaning as cutting our way through a thick jungle. Many days the progress was slow, but we made our way forward. At the end of the first week one of the men said, "We appreciate how you have helped us understand Romans. But can you show us how you did your study, so we can use the same principles? Can you give us machetes for cutting this jungle, so we can do it ourselves when you are gone?"

The next week I devoted time to reviewing how to use different resources, some of which they already had, to study and interpret scripture. Then we used these as we worked through more chapters. These tools included general Bible knowledge, knowledge of the Old and New Testaments, the context and knowledge of language principles that apply to any given language. Those who knew Greek could also use it as a tool.

Before coming to Uganda I had several doubts. This was my first time working in Romans. I knew we would not be able to finish the whole book. How much should we plan to do? The translators were unsure what Romans meant or how to translate it. What could I possibly  teach them in just two weeks that would make a difference? Should I focus on just teaching them the meaning and leave out any training?

By the end of the workshop I was pleased we had covered the first five chapters of Romans in depth. Even more, the men felt confident that they could translate the rest of the book themselves. I felt we had succeeded in this workshop because they now had the "machetes" they needed to "cut through" the difficult parts in Romans and come up with ways to translate them.

Moses, one of the men, summed it up well. "Now that I have these skills, if someone asks me why I translated a verse in a certain way, or why I thought the verse meant what I said, I can tell them myself with confidence."

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