Those Words

Of the roughly 8,000 Ndam people living in Chad, north-central Africa, Kara* was unique.

He was one of a very few who had heard the stories of Jesus read aloud from words penned in Ndam– a language that until recently never existed in written form.

Christian translator, Andrew met with Kara in the cooler part of the day. They were engaged in a key stage of Bible translation known as “testing.” Andrew would read a passage to Kara that had been translated into his mother tongue Ndam, and Kara would respond to it, explaining in as much detail as possible what he understood the passage to mean.

Andrew’s voice cracks when recalling time spent with Kara; Sarah, his wife, reaches over and touches his arm. They wish they knew for sure if in the end the words had found their mark. Kara died of an undiagnosed wasting disease before the shared project was complete.

Since the Ndam don’t speak other languages well enough to benefit from existing Scriptures, Ndam was identified by the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) as a ‘definite’ translation need. So in 1994 Andrew and Sarah set out on a journey of symbols, words, and eternal Truth.

“What are the different sounds, how do they work with each other? That helps you to write an orthography or a writing system.

“You also do anthropological research because the culture has a lot of bearing on how people understand different things that are happening [in the Biblical accounts],” he says. Once an alphabet is developed and a solid linguistic and cultural foundation is formed, the translation process begins. To date it’s taken 15 years.

In close consultation with SIL workers based in Chad, Andrew pressed forward through years of translating, testing, revising, translating, testing and revising. In 2008 the first Ndam translation of Genesis was published.

“Genesis is absolutely foundational to the Gospel, and it’s a great bridge, especially if you’re working with a religious culture,” says Andrew. “They find in it something that they’re already familiar with.” A translation of the Book of Matthew was published in September 2008.

Fifteen years of hard and hot work. Two books. And just about no one who could read them.

Illiteracy is a problem faced by Bible translators the world over, and there is no easy solution. Andrew has worked with an SIL literacy consultant to develop a transitional primer intended for those relatively few Ndam who are already literate in French.

“It’s a commitment to learn how to read and it can take two or three years for adults who aren’t literate in any language. It’s a huge element they’re adding to their life,” says Andrew. Recognizing that many will never learn to read, Andrew and Sarah are also exploring the production of Bible audio recordings.

There is no Ndam church. And there are very few Ndam believers. But it is a testament to Andrew and Sarah’s trust that there one day will be, that the book they have chosen to translate next is Ephesians – a book for believers; a book for the Church.

“It explains to a believer what happened when he believed,” says Andrew, “what he was, what he’s become, and what God has done.” Both Andrew and Sarah know the power of Scripture to change lives. And they both know what it means to have God’s Word written in a language they understand. Those words are what brought them to Chad. And those words are what have kept them there.

* All names have been changed to protect privacy