Bible translators and linguists Mark and Diane Vanderkooi have devoted more than two decades to translating the gospel into Kwong, one of 126 indigenous languages in the country of Chad.
Mark and Diane are two of three non-indigenous people in the world who can speak the language. Along with two Kwong co-translators, the Vanderkoois are building a body of work that will serve generations of Kwong believers to come. It’s a long-term, classical, missionary vision, the type of work Mark says has fallen out of favor in missions today: “The idea of spending a lifetime investing one’s self in one tribe and one language and all the facets of it.”
In it for the long haul
The translation of Scripture fuels development and discipleship. It may not pay fast church-growth dividends, but the investment proves itself over time. “It’s just a travesty we just lost [that vision],” Mark says. “Now it’s ‘short-term’ and ‘unreached.’ I’m thrilled for people who are called to the unreached, but it’s almost like if you aren’t called to the unreached anymore, you’re not a real missionary.”
He and Diane know better. They’ve experienced the challenge of fostering a Christian worldview among a people steeped in tribal tradition. “For a thousand years, Satan has been corrupting these people’s ways of seeing the world, seeing their lives, raising their kids, seeing the universe, what they worship, how they work,” Mark says. “And we think that we can just say that by such-and-such a date on a strategic plan, we’re just going to straighten it all out? Who are we fooling? None of our missionary fore-bearers seemed to think they could do it in less than a lifetime.”
It’s a calling the Vanderkoois say they can’t “walk away from,” even when times get tough. And they certainly have. The Vanderkoois are acutely aware of the harsh reality of life in the Kwong village. “The longer we live here, the more we vicariously enter into that suffering ... we see the needless, pointless death — preventable death, preventable suffering,” Mark says. “During the time that I’ve been here, I’ve come to realize that it is something special, it seems, to live out here and to live amongst community in this village. I feel it’s a special opportunity.”
“They’re real people,” Diane says. “You sit down with them. You live among them. They’re names and faces.”
A passion for people
The Vanderkoois’ passion for the Chadian people has not wavered since Mark arrived in Chad more than 20 years ago as a single missionary, and Diane arrived six years later. Their first meeting was on a 40-minute plane ride, when they got acquainted and learned they had similar backgrounds and training. They married several years later, in 1999, and returned to Chad to work in 2000.
The village where they live is situated between the two main rivers of Chad and is cut off from the rest of the country by flooding during the rainy season. During this time, the Vanderkoois focus on honing their language skills and developing materials for the teaching and preaching that they conduct during the dry months.
They also take advantage of the fact that most Kwong homes have a radio, broadcasting Scriptures and Christian music over a low-powered FM radio station. Documenting the grammar and vocabulary of the Kwong language and translating the Scriptures into the Kwong language round out their busy schedules.
Lost in translation
Documenting the language is a time-consuming task. Diane describes their approach. She makes verbatim transcriptions of stories and conversations that they record in the village. Through careful study of these transcriptions, the Vanderkoois learn more and more how the language behaves. “Believe it or not,” Diane says, “after six or seven years of making these transcriptions, we still find brand new vocabulary in every single story that just never came up before.” Frequently it’s adverbs that require the most work. And they’re much more important in the Kwong language than in French, which is commonly used in Chad, or in English. One Kwong verb might have 10 or more different adverbs that can function with only that verb and none other.
To keep track of all this vocabulary, the Vanderkoois have created a digital Kwong dictionary maintained by Diane. Out of the nearly 6,000 words they have documented, approximately 1,500 are adverbs.
“Just to give you an example of how different the language is — there are almost no abstract nouns in the language,” Mark says. “All the abstract notions of the language are made by an expression composed of the name of a body part plus a verb. So patience is ‘taking your head.’ Faith is ‘putting your chest.’”
“Forgiveness is ‘cooling off your stomach,’” Diane says.
The process of translating the Scriptures goes something like this. First, Mark or Diane carefully reads various English and French translations, researches various commentaries on the passage and, when the text is complex, studies the original text in Greek. They then distill the author’s intended meaning and come up with a model in French they can use as a basis for the translation. François Kinamati and Joseph Demander, the Vanderkoois’ co-translators who know the Kwong language “perfectly,” translate from this model, often adding a spin on the grammar or style of the Kwong text that a foreign speaker would never be able to.
Once a draft is in hand, they debate the nuances of the translation and revise it until they have a solid translation that both reflects the original author’s intended miscommunication. So they refine and refine again.
Finally, a consultant from Wycliffe Bible Translators checks every word of every verse as a final quality control on the translation. Once the consultant gives the OK, the translation is typeset and goes to press at TEAM’s print shop in Koutou, near the provincial capital.
The translation of one of the longer books, such as a gospel, takes six months from start to finish. Some words are easily understood in French or English but difficult to express in Kwong. One of those words is “glory.” It took the translation team 10 years to find the word in Kwong that fit linguistically and theologically. Co-translator Demander found it – “kømø.” It’s a word that’s very rarely used in their language, but is rich in meaning. Mark and Diane heard someone use meaning and sounds natural in Kwong.
At that point, they bring in educated young men from the village and ask them to re-translate the Kwong version back into French using their own words. This is a way of discovering whether people actually hear what the translators intended to say, or whether there is some it in the context of flowers that bloom rarely. “It’s got that element of miraculous, of something not regular but very special,” Mark says. “And it’s got the element of beauty. More significantly it avoids the idea of just shining light, which is what most people think of when they hear the English word glory.”
The race isn’t given to the swift
In all, the Vanderkoois have translated about 45 percent of the New Testament, plus the books of Genesis, Ruth, and about one third of the Psalms. The books that are finished but have yet to be published (along with copious notes) include Psalms, John, 1 and 2 Thessalonians and Revelation. They’ve also developed discipleship materials comprising over 1,000 verses of additional translated Scripture. They estimate that they have six or seven years left in their project, during which time they plan to complete the whole New Testament, Genesis, Psalms, Isaiah and Deuteronomy.
“Marathon isn’t a bad metaphor for it,” Mark says when describing the scope of their work. At the end, they still will not have completed the entire Bible. But they’re undeterred in their work, knowing how far-reaching it is. “This isn’t just for this generation; it’s for whatever the Lord might do in generations to come,” Mark says. This body of work is probably “the last translation effort the Kwong will ever see for 50 years or more,” he adds. “We need to get it right.”
-Written by Cara Davis
-Photographs by Robert Johnson