Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Hamba Kahle, Tata Madiba.

The death of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was quite a shock. Testament to the way my world works now I found out via an Australian friend on Facebook. 

Madiba’s death is crushing to South Africa. I've heard it said that for the Born-Frees (those born in 1994 and afterwards), they know nothing different, but for those who lived throughout Apartheid, they understand that South Africa is now floating free without an anchor. I've read many times people saying that the father of South Africa, the great leader and ‘voice of reason’ has gone. 

Madiba endeavoured to speak to the people as one of the people. He said once, 'If you talk to man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.'

He also said, 'Without language, one cannot talk to people and understand them; one cannot share their hopes and aspirations, grapes their history, appreciate their poetry, or savour their songs.'

In many ways this just seems like common sense. Of course in order to speak sensibly to someone who need a language that they too understand. But the idea that you can easily and completely communicate in a lingua franca is false. What Mandiba’s first quote reveals is that your language, your first heart language, shapes the way you see the world. To speak in another language is to see the world differently. When you use another language to converse with someone you effectively leave your own headspace and are forced to move into something different and potentially uncomfortable. 

This is evident in the lives of Australians and other monolingual cultures. Language learning is novel and usually seen as unnecessary (since ‘everyone speaks English,’ right?!) But this issue is vastly different and to my mind, fascinating here in South Africa. 

Everyone, really, everyone is somewhat bilingual. And the far majority of the country can probably speak five or more languages. This isn’t novel or unnecessary. It’s very normal and vital to just being able to live here. (That being said, Nathan and I haven’t really learned any other languages although I am learning Sign.)

South Africa has 11 official languages. Being able to speak/understand more than one language is expected but what seems to happen is that language flows around and through people. Conversations are flooded with loan words, loan phrases and entire loan ideas but because people are familiar with so many languages communication is maintained. Perhaps even enriched by all the mixing and jumbling. 

However, what Madiba was pointing out was that however understandable your words are, unless they are in the same worldview and headspace as your recipient’s heart language, you will not able to truly communicate all that you could have. 

This is part of the fundamental drive for Bible translation. Sure the Deaf of South Africa could read an English or Afrikaans Bible (if they actually had an opportunity to go to school and learn those languages) but there will be concepts and gospel truths they will not ever be able to understand completely unless they first see the Bible in South African Sign. Their heads may well be full of knowledge but will their hearts be touched? 

After all, God can sign in South African Sign Language. He can sign in all the 60 odd sign languages throughout the world. Just as Jesus’ hands held those nails on the cross, Jesus’ hands communicate love, grace, forgiveness and salvation in South African Sign language. 


As an extra comment, the SASL interpreter at Madiba's memorial service did not sign anything resembling SASL. It was a terrible disappointment and confirms that there are many live issues involving language status and language politics in South Africa.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Seeing Voices*

I've been thoroughly enjoying working the Deaf translators as well as being encouraged in my own faith in God. I travel to St James Church in Kenilworth twice a week and work with the team for four hours at a time. Let me tell you what normally happens on a regular working day.

When I arrive I sign, 'Hi' and 'How are you?' to each of the translators (Agnes, Richard and Thabo). They greet me back with, 'Fine' or 'Good'. Then they usually offer me tea. I can sign, 'coffee', 'rooibos tea' and 'hot chocolate'. All very important signs!

We open with prayer. I haven't managed to pray in sign just yet. When the Deaf pray the person praying closes their eyes as they pray. But the rest of the group keep their eyes open to watch the person praying. When I first prayed with the Deaf I, out of habit, bowed my head and closed my eyes. But of course this doesn't work when someone is signing and is actually a very disrespectful action as you are effectively closing down communication. The Deaf often pray in 'one hand' (my terminology!) where everyone prays at the same time. (As an aside, there is a lot to be said about both ways of praying with regards to how public prayer is corporate and mutually encouraging rather than just an individual phone call to God. Being able to watch the person praying forces you to 'listen with your eyes' (there's a single sign for this) just like when one person prays on behalf of a group. While I always enjoy praying in 'one voice/hand' I do wonder what happens to mutual encouragement and the sincere ability to say, 'Amen' at the end.)

The translation process begins and ends with prayer asking God to help us all to understand and translate the Bible well. If we are starting a new passage, we begin by each translator reading the passage in the Easy to Read Version (English). One translator will also read it in the NIV (English) and perhaps in the Xhosa version as well.

The conversation proceeds much like the average home Bible study. The team will ask me about words or concepts they don't understand and we'll all flip around the Bible trying to remember bits and pieces from other parts that help us to interpret the story we are working on. The next stage involves storyboarding the passage.

We have one incredibly talented artist (Thabo) who works diligently to illustrate the story in a very clear, natural and Deaf way. He even draws out the dialogue with little hands! Along the way I'll check what is being drawn and every now and then I'll pipe up with something that the team will need to discuss e.g. theophanies (when God reveals himself to people) are difficult, particularly in Genesis where God and the Angel of the Lord are interchangeable. Drawing 'the Holy Spirit coming down like a dove' from John involved a loooong discussion.

Then the team moves to filming. One person is filmed signing the introduction (the story's title and a few key unknown words and their explanations), one person signs the story and then two people sign a very important little section with some questions and answers. This way each passage is thoroughly dissected and accompanied with helpful titbits much like a study Bible. Thus far the team have translated nine stories from the Old and New Testament. It's an amazing journey to see them grow in their faith and trust in God as they press on. Thrilling work!

*The blog post title is from Oliver Sack's book, 'Seeing Voices'. Amazing and deserving a blog post review of its own in due time.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Can you see what I'm saying?


I sign 'yes' like I say 'yebo' (Zulu) and 'ewe' (Xhosa) and 'ja' (Afrikaans). Multilingual confusion but it all make sense. In my head at least.

I'm loving working with the Deaf. Just loving it. It's incredibly humbling to be on the bottom of the linguistic food chain again but it's so thrilling when I can sign something and be understood! My colleagues are overwhelmingly accommodating and kind and thankfully can lipread English so it's not as difficult if we had no languages in common. But I'm determined to learn as quickly as I can and not rely on what is called, Total Communication, where you sign in Sign Language but speak (to yourself) in English. It's a bit silly that people do this really, since you're actually communicating in two different languages at once which is impossible if you think about it. One language has to take the dominant role and unfortunately for your Deaf conversation partner, it will be English. But people do this for other Hearing people also involved in the conversation and also for the Deaf to lipread. For myself I do it because I still think in English rather than think in Sign Language. But I'm getting there.

It's also a bit of a total mind shift to work only with my hands to communicate. My language learning skill - mimicking - is not getting used as much. Now it's more deliberate copying than mimicking. I'm not sure if that's a real distinction but that's how it feels to me. It's not such an intuitive aural mirroring. I regularly get confused with my left and right as well as placement of my hands. I can manipulate my voice more easily.

I have about 50 pieces of vocabulary that I can sign and 50 more that I can understand. I can follow a (very!) simple conversation if I know the topic first. And after watching the translators practice Mark 7:31-37 and Mark 2:1-17 over and over and over and over and over and over again, I'm pretty familiar with those stories!

We have long and intense conversations about all sorts of linguistic and theological issues. What is faith? Why doesn't God heal me of my deafness? What kind of head coverings did Pharisees wear? What were the house roofs made of in Capernaum? Were the tax booths like the little huts that security officers use at the entrances to housing estates? How far is Tyre from Sidon from the Decapolis from the Lake of Galilee? And their respective elevations?

I'm so grateful that Shiri loves her babysitter so that I can work with the Deaf on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. It's a hard balance to maintain being a full-time mum and a part-time translation consultant. I did try to bring Shiri along to work since the Deaf wouldn't be able to hear her cry anyway (they didn't mind!) but it didn't work out. She's happier at home where she can run amok and have her babysitter sing to her German as they walk to the beach. Shiri is growing strong and healthy and is a wonder to behold. What a blessed privilege to be a mum. I love it.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Next step

My Heart's Desire from Wycliffe Global Alliance on Vimeo.

In a few short days I'll be beginning my work with the South African Sign Language Bible translation project. This is both thrilling and terrifying. Right at this moment I'm thinking, 'Who will look after my baby?', 'What on earth do I have to offer to the Deaf community?', 'I never, ever in my wildest dreams thought I'd be learning a Sign language - can I even do that?', 'Arghgh! I need to revise all my Greek and Hebrew paradigms!', 'Must. Read. More'. You know. Stuff like that.

It's all a wild ride of unknowingness, murkiness and glimpses of light along the way - both for me and for the translators as they better understand the Bible, better understand Jesus' love for them and how to best explain that truth to their community.

I'll be working alongside an expert translation consultant from DOOR (Deaf Opportunity OutReach) to continue my consultancy training but this time instead of the orality of the Fwe in Zambia I'll be delving deep into the 'orality' of the Deaf community of South Africa. Yep, another oral language in the sense that it's not 'written down'. Words really fail us here since Sign Language is, of course, not 'oral' but it's not written down with letters and words so the only alternative in the current nomenclature is 'oral'. It's weird to say that though...

We'll be starting off by translating 110 Bible stories that have been carefully selected to tell the whole story of the Bible. The end goal, is of course, the whole thing but by working bit by bit we can share parts of the Bible more readily with the Deaf community. The Bible portions produced will be on a DVD with an actor signing the story and behind them will be storyboards depicting more about the story. You can have a look at some Bible stories already completed here: Deaf Bibles.

I'm working with four native speakers of Sign Language: Richard, Agnes, Thabo and Christopher. It'll be an incredible journey to get to know them better, to learn Sign Language and also to see Jesus transform the lives of the Deaf here in South Africa.

The Fwe are still near and dear to my heart. They always will be. I hear snippets about their progress now and then and I'm so glad to know that they have a consultant who loves them and is working with them to continue the translation of the Gospel of Luke. I miss that work dreadfully. Maybe one day God will make it possible for me to go back to Zambia but for now Shiri needs me front and centre (literally - she's still being breastfed!).

I haven't posted much about motherhood. I'll tell you what, though, it's awesome. It's frustrating. It's rewarding. It's confusing. And it's the best thing I've ever done in my life.

Just before I gave birth I heard a guest at George Whitefield College that becoming a mother was the best thing she had ever done and nonsense from the feminist camp about it destroying yourself was 'bloody stupid'. I didn't understand. But now I do. Being a mum is awesome.

/eating crow. lots of it.