According to Duane Elmer in his book Cross-cultural conflict: Building relationships for effective ministry. (InterVarsity Press, 1993), Americans handle conflict in terms of a win-lose strategy. In addition to physical force, they use threats, intimidation, silence, and verbiage (with volume). They point out past failures, pull rank, offer rewards, and engage in spiritual one-upmanship. Of course these techniques are not the property of Americans alone. In an Wycliffe Intercom article on Scripture use (“Aiming for impact: We are what we celebrate,” January-April, 2006) we see some of them illustrated.
First of all the authors seem to pull rank. They claim that as Scripture Use consultants they know what is best for every situation. For example, when SIL and WBT celebrate published New Testaments, they are said to commemorate the wrong thing at best, and that “impact” should be given equal footing. Further, “we” (meaning SIL in fieldwork) “pay little attention to the needs of basically oral societies.” As if that were not enough, we translate the wrong things in the wrong order, ignore the languages of wider communication, continue to provide meaning-based translations, overlook certain segments of the society (e.g. women), and are unaware of “advances in the theories of communication and translation.”
These are indeed serious charges and the underlying cause, according to the authors, is because SIL focuses upon a product rather than the impact of the product. It is as if the authors want us to focus on how fast a car will go, rather than how well or how the car is built. Or by another analogy, we should decide if people will like corn before we put a lot of effort into preparing the soil and planting the seeds. That is, we want to know how many people will eat the corn, the most desired recipes for corn dishes and even have corn partnership celebration days before we actually plant and harvest any corn.
The problem with this argument is that there can be no impact without a product. It is not a chicken or an egg conundrum—we know which has to come first. Nevertheless, the authors compare the NT products to “trophy shelves”, presumably implying that the winning translator can gaze at, polish and show off his or her trophy from time to time.
The authors also engage in spiritual one-upmanship. “Can we search our hearts…” so that we will not ignore the desires of the communities and partners, publish “bare New Testament[s]”, celebrate “impact-oriented milestones” and strive for impact goals? There is at least some relief in their argument when the authors recognize that impact goals depend on God, but that relief is quickly disguised when we read that production goals depend upon us. In a Christian worldview, don’t all plans and projects ultimately belong to God?
Solutions to the misguided and traditional NT translation program are outlined by the authors: we should adjust our ethos and step outside our comfort zone. Apparently this will be done when we “celebrate what really matters”, such as panoramic Bibles in audio form, and when we recognize the roles of orality and diglossia. Here the authors pursue a “ready, fire, aim” strategy, with implications that traditional SIL translators are unaware of songs, storytelling, dramatization, and various forms of non-print uses of the Scriptures. We are being fired upon, and even if it is friendly fire, it hurts.
Many traditional translators would claim the appropriate use of the Scriptures has been in the hands of the nationals who are in the churches. In PNG, where translators work, the Lutherans, Catholics, Anglicans, Baptists, etc., various techniques have been used to interest the people in the written vernacular, rather than in the language of wider communication (Pidgin English). SIL was never meant to be a mission and force its methodology on others, although in many countries it functions like one.
To be recognized as current and not old guard these days one must refer to the apocalyptic imagery of Vision 2025, where capacity, partnerships, clustering, Ends statements, impact, strategically designed and other terminology signify a new (and therefore better) approach. To be sure, new approaches are always called for. Few of us would suggest that our national colleagues use typewriters and carbon paper while we have the latest model computers.
However, there should be some common ground—rather than lampooning a “product-oriented language development program” by denigrating honest work and the NT as an end result, why not “celebrate” what has been done well? Let us applaud documenting unwritten and unstudied languages with grammars, dictionaries, and literacy books; bolstering the vernacular in the eyes of educational planners and the government in general; giving vernacular speakers prestige because of their knowledge and use of the language; encouraging creativity in the use songs and stories, and in general supporting all aspects of vernacular language development.
The end result is not Scripture use, it is language use. People need to talk about God and his purpose in their lives in a normal setting, not just in church or when reading the Bible. America has millions of people in communities who own Bibles and thousands who are experts on facts of the Bible, but it does not follow that the impact is such that we are following God as a nation or community.