A few years ago, I took some classes at Southwestern Seminary’s Houston campus. If you get the chance, take a course there. They’ve got a great bunch of guys. One gentleman, Dr. John Laing, is an absolutely fantastic instructor and a solid all-around human being; not a waste of a carbon footprint at all.
In one his courses, Dr. Laing briefly threw out an intriguing concept: there are non-Christian biblical Greek scholars out there! These are folks who choose to major in a specific language (Greek) during a precise point in history (first-century AD) as used in a specific area (greater Palestine). As Dr. Laing expressed it, these are scholars of the highest level researching and studying the same language in which most New Testament books were originally written. And boy – they’re good, apparently.
The reason this was such a fascinating concept was that some Christian Greek scholars were locked into a debate over the appropriateness of using a non-Christian Greek scholar. Proponents argued that koine Greek is koine Greek, regardless of who is doing the translating from Greek to another language. Opponents counter with the fact that sometimes the Word is not exactly clear, and only through the illumination of the Holy Spirit can a translator capture the original meaning and intent.
The underlying concept in this debate has suddenly become relevant for Stacy and I. We work in Ecuador among Deaf Ecuadorians, a largely unreached people group. They are what ethnologists call oral learners; this simply means they prefer non-literate ways of learning. If you want to know more about oral learning and oral teaching strategies, see here and here. This bent towards non-printed forms of learning means our Spanish language Bibles are fairly useless. It means that in order to express the Bible to the Deaf, we must translate, essentially, the printed English or Spanish word into local sign language. No, I do not read but a little Greek, so we’re not using anything that approaches the original format or language.
In our search for a local Deaf adult to help us translate the printed word into sign, we’ve encountered a problem: no one has time. The Deaf Christians work hard and are always reliable. Their families know it. The community knows it. They are absolutely never, ever available. Ecuadorians as a general rule are very, very hard workers, proudly laboring long hours. The only person we can find to help us translate the stories and produce them onto a DVD for general distribution is a seeker, not a Christian. Our candidate possesses all the necessary skills: literate enough to access the written word, beautifully expressive linguistically, highly intelligent, able to understand translation/language issues, and would love to see the scriptures put into Ecuadorian sign language. She’s just not a Christian.
So what do we do? The Greek translation debate centered on the translation of the original language, koine Greek, into a target language. Since the Holy Spirit did the original inspiring, I can understand the reluctance of Christian Greek scholars to use non-Christians who lack access to the Spirit. However, we’re not using the original language of inspiration here. We’re going from two different Spanish translations into a language that has no printed format – Ecuadorian Sign Language.
What would you do? Use a non-Christian? Or just wait patiently until the right Christian is available, knowing how long it might take? I could do it myself, but I’m not a native user of the target language. I could simply tell the signer what to say, but that renders their linguistic skills irrelevant.
Please, no suggestions on how to convince the Christians they really do have time. No ideas on producing a written form of sign language. Let’s see if we can shed light on this one, tiny subject. If it helps, pretend that the target language in question is spoken Navajo or Klingon.