Bible for the Future

March 16, 2010

Unless you are quite young, or avoided using computers until recently, you know how much the technology has changed in just a few decades. I never used a computer until the mid-80’s, and when I took my first computer classes we kept our files on 5¼” floppy diskettes. You’d be hard pressed to find a computer today that could read one of those. Even the smaller 3½” diskettes (still called “floppy” to distinguish them from hard drives, although their plastic cases were rigid) that replaced them are obsolete now.

We still have some old 3½” diskettes, but only one of the computers on our home network has the floppy drive to read them. (An even older computer has the drive, but no way to transfer the data to our newer computers.) Any of them can read the dozens (hundreds?) of CDs, even the newest computer with its DVD drive. But it’s not hard to imagine a time not so far in the future that today’s CDs would be as hard to read as the old floppy diskettes are today. (I’ve seen the even older 8″ floppies, but never worked on a computer that could read one.)

In the business world, where data has generally been backed up on magnetic tape, a similar process has taken place. I worked with at least three different tape cartridge formats during the seventeen years I was responsible for system backup, and I have seen others. Data that was expected to be needed into the future was kept online, or converted to a newer format, but much archived data was left on the older, now unreadable cartridges.

Corporate IT departments have long been aware of this issue and make arrangements accordingly. A product liability suit may require being able to produce details on some long-ago transaction. Good customer service requires having good records on even very old products, for the purpose of repair and parts replacement. Keeping the needed data available is not cheap, but it needs to be done. And like all their other expenses, they plan for it in their budget, and pass the cost along to their customers.

I never thought about it until today, but non-profits probably are less likely to be so thorough. Chronically faced with needs greater than the donations coming in, the highest priority will generally be meeting current needs, rather than allowing for some hypothetical need to retrieve data from long-completed projects.

When the product itself is information, I would have thought that the situation would be different. But today I interviewed a woman from church about the volunteer work she is learning to do for Wycliffe Associates, so I can write an article for the church newsletter. (It’s not the typical newsletter, giving news of coming events – that is now distributed via email. This one is produced quarterly, and highlights various people and ministries in the church.)

She will be transcribing passages of Scripture using format markers that identify each element of a printed page – book, chapter, and verse divisions, section headings, cross references, paragraph starts, indented text (such as poetry), and more. I was initially puzzled by the need for this, since the source material she receives will already be formatted. But a printed page can be produced in many ways – a word processor (which may be any one of several competing software brands), a graphic image of the page, or a pdf file. It may even have been typed on a typewriter, in which case it exists only on that piece of paper.

If you want to print the Bible, you don’t want to have Genesis in WordPerfect (we’ll assume it was done a while ago), Exodus in Microsoft Word, Numbers in an old unsupported version of Microsoft Word, Leviticus in plain text, Deuteronomy in a pdf, and so on. Unlike a big corporation, missions agencies can’t make sure their people in the field all have the latest version of one approved brand of software (assuming they do have computers). And it’s hardly the best use of their time to have to concern themselves with page layout, when their primary objective is translating the text of Scripture.

In addition, there are apparently many Bible translations that are now out of print, and whatever source was using to make the print run is now gone. I guess I would have thought that some kind of digital copy would have been maintained, but that has not always been the case. Perhaps some have been saved on media that are now obsolete, or rendered unreadable due to degradation of the physical media.

I’ve no idea whether my friend is likely to be transcribing Scripture newly translated by linguists in the field, or making some of those old translations ready for re-printing. Perhaps some of each. But I am glad that Wycliffe Associates is working on preserving the Bible in a format that will be available to future generations. I’ve long thought that if I didn’t need to work for a living, I would like to do some kind of behind-the-scenes work for a non-profit, preferably some kind of computer work. I’ve no idea how many years it will be before I can take an active part in this effort, but I’m happy to be able to write about my friend who can do it now.

Getting ready for Christmas (part 2)

December 6, 2009

Today my son and I talked about another aspect of getting ready for Christmas. Last week I had mentioned that one way we get ready is by studying for tests. Christmas isn’t a test, of course, but there’s lots of stuff to know about Christmas. Some of it is very interesting, but not necessarily important.

I think I finally remember all the verses of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” I usually have trouble keeping them straight once we get past the seven swans a-swimming. But this year I made Al a game, based on Candyland, that includes some cards that let you go forward some number of spaces. I left blanks for the numbers, so you have to remember how many reindeer there are, how many days of Christmas, how many geese a-laying, etc. And after playing it several times, I think I finally have the lords, pipers, and drummers in order.

But Al agreed that knowing those numbers wasn’t all that important – unless you want to sing the carol. (As it happens, his fourth grade class will be singing it for their Christmas concert, and he will be one of the lords a-leaping.) So I asked, what about knowing who brings Christmas presents in different countries? He knew that Santa Claus has different names in other places, but he was surprised to hear that in some countries it’s someone completely different who brings the presents.

For instance, in some countries it is Baby Jesus who brings presents to children. In others, it is the Three Kings. (This seemed very wrong to Al. Baby Jesus and the three kings belong to the Christmas story, not the fun-and-games-and-presents part.) One characters I hadn’t heard of before looking at wikipedia is Olentzero. He is a traditional figure among the Basque people of northern Spain and southern France. According to tradition, he “was a pagan coal worker who went to adore Jesus in Bethlehem. Nowadays, it is said that he brings presents to all good people at Christmas Eve.”

I was interested in learning about what traditional meals are on Christmas. We usually think of turkey or ham, or maybe goose (think of A Christmas Carol). I always liked it when my father served duckling. But if I lived in Estonia, I would probably eat pork with sauerkraut, baked potatoes, white and blood sausage, potato salad with red beet, and pāté. In the Czech Republic, I’d be eating fried carp and potato salad.

And of course there are all sorts of side dishes and desserts – casseroles with liver and raisins in Finland, pickled herring and Janssons frestelse (potato casserole with anchovy) in Sweden. When I lived in Spain, I enjoyed sampling turrón, a nougat candy made of honey, sugar, egg whites, and toasted almonds. (When I think nougat I think Snickers, but traditional turrón is very hard and crunchy.)

Al agreed that was interesting – but not all that important. What’s important, he stated, is knowing that Jesus was born, and why. He eagerly explained that this is what the Christmas play he’s going to be in next week (at Winfield Presbyterian Church, where my husband preached today) is all about. So I’d have to say that, if there were a test for Christmas, I think Al would pass it with flying colors.

A better alphabet?

September 20, 2009

I’ve driven many times past church signs written in a language I didn’t understand but knew to be Korean. Actually, I’m not sure I knew they were Korean until I married a Presbyterian, and learned about the strength of the Presbyterian church in Korea. Mostly, I still thought of the unreadable symbols as another of those Asian languages that don’t use the kind of letters we do.

Beyond that, I never gave it much thought. I like learning languages, but never had any inclination to learn a language that required learning a new alphabet, except for New Testament Greek (which wasn’t too difficult because I knew much of the alphabet from math and science classes, and many of the letters are similar to those in our own alphabet). I tried learning the Hebrew alphabet once, but quickly lost interest.

I do find the whole subject of linguistics fascinating, however, and for several years, as a teenager, planned on becoming a Bible translator. I knew that it meant having to learn a tribal language unknown to outsiders, and then develop a system for writing it down, before I could even begin translating the Bible, or teach its speakers to read and write their own language. The idea was daunting, yet also an appealing challenge, all the more so because it would bring the Word of God to people who had never heard it.

I never imagined using a completely different alphabet, however. There are languages with sounds that our alphabet cannot represent, but the International Phonetic Alphabet can account for virtually all of them. In college, I took a course in which we studied how different sounds are formed by the mouth, and how to represent them all using the IPA. (I also learned that I don’t pronounce “s” the normal way, and that I have a “lazy jaw” which results in a tendency to mispronounce certain vowel sounds.)

It’s been a long time since I did much reading on linguistics, but I was fascinated to read recently, in the Wall Street Journal, about the effort of some Korean linguists to export their alphabet to other countries. The Cia-Cia language, spoken by less than a hundred thousand people on the island of Buton in Indonesia, has never had a written form. Efforts to use our Roman alphabet to write Cia-Cia produced confusion. The Korean linguists are convinced that their Hangeul script is the answer.

Why, I wondered, would the Korean alphabet be better than the IPA? It turns out that Hangeul was designed specifically to make it easy to learn. Most alphabets evolved over time, but Hangeul was created to replace the difficult Chinese and Japanese characters that had previously been the only way to write the Korean language. Not only do the symbols represent the sounds of the Korean language, their shapes even indicate the shape of the mouth for forming those sounds.

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In other words

September 30, 2008

Unless you make your living translating from one language to another, you probably didn’t know that today is International Translation Day. I’ve always loved words and languages, and I enjoy trying to use what language skills I have – but I’ve never developed the degree of expertise in any language to make my living that way.

I was more interested to discover that it is also World Bible Translation Day, presumably also on September 30 to recognize the translation work of St. Jerome (who died September 30, 420). I have long heard figures on how many languages the Bible has been translated into (over 2000 have at least been started), but today is the first time I found a list of all of them. Some include samples of the beginning of the Gospel of John, though I can read only a few of them.

I also found a site where you can read the Bible online in a number of languages. It even includes some limited Bible study tools. I can’t think what practical use I can make of it right now, except perhaps to try learning a verse in German and see if my older son (who is in his second year of high school German) can understand it. (I have a Bible in German but it’s that old style font that I find difficult to read.)

Another online Bible translation I was happy to find was La Sankta Biblio. It’s been decades since I studied Esperanto with my parents (at the home of a man in our town who was eager to share his knowledge of this easy-to-learn constructed language). Even so, between what I did learn, my knowledge of some of the European languages that Dr. Zamenhof used to create this language, and my knowledge of the Bible, I can more or less understand at least familiar passages.

Fascinating as all this is, however, my brain says it’s time for bed. So, good night. Bonne nuit. Buenas noches. Bonan nokton. Gute nacht. Dobranoc. (No, I don’t know Polish – but I found a site that tells you how to say good night in a whole lot of different languages.)

Native Languages

February 23, 2008

I’ve always been fascinated by foreign languages. I remember as a child, when my older sister began studying French, trying to understand what “French” was. As best as I could figure out, it was a different way of saying things. French for “please” was “s’il vous plait,” French for “thank you” was “merci,” and French for “What is it?” was “Qu’est-ce que c’est?” (which in my mind I spelled keskesay).

Having learned those simple phrases, I proceeded to ask my parents how to say “Qu’est-ce que c’est?” in French. They tried to explain that it was French, but I persisted in asking. In my mind, every word or phrase that I could understand had a French equivalent that was foreign to me. Now that I understand a new phrase, there should be a French (i.e. foreign) way to say it.

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Tongues of men and angels

February 12, 2008

I have never “spoken in tongues” nor sought to, but I do enjoy singing praise to God in languages other than English. As a teenager I was privileged to take part in a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. We started rehearsing a full year ahead of time, in part because we had to first learn proper German pronunciation. To this day I can remember the plaintive “Wir setzen uns mit Tranen nieder” with which it ends, a tearful lament at Jesus’ tomb.

The church I had grown up in (whose choir combined with two other church choirs for the St. Matthew Passion) did not shy away from works in other languages. I enjoyed singing Bach’s Christ Lag in Todesbanden, and soon realized that Bach was my favorite composer. I left that church, somewhat reluctantly as I loved the music, to attend a fundamentalist church that preached the Gospel clearly – and insisted that all music had to be in English so that it could be understood clearly also.

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