Complex and Powerful Orality

If someone asked you to recite all the names, birthdates and addresses of your family members – including your parents, siblings, cousins, aunts/uncles, grandparents, great-grandparents –would you be able to do it? Or even remember what you did last Thursday? In this day of information-at-our-digital-fingertips, the answer would be a definitive “no.” In Western literate culture in the information age, there is no practical need to store large quantities of information because, why go to the trouble of memorising something if you can just Google it or store it on an external hard drive? In today’s blog, we are going to look into the stark and inspiring contrast of how oral communities retain vast amounts of information, and how that informs how they translate the Bible orally into their heart languages.

Oral tradition, also called orality, is the first and still most widespread mode of human communication. More than “just talking”, oral tradition is a dynamic and highly diverse oral-aural medium for evolving, storing and transmitting knowledge, art and ideas. What is intriguing about the creation of heart-language Bible translations within oral tradition is that their highly-formed practices of memorising huge amounts of information is already in place, making Bible internalisation wonderfully effective. Their methods of memorising Scripture mean that they can hear and understand the Bible in another language they are familiar with, grapple with the meaning and deeply internalise the Scripture; and then record that portion of the Bible quickly. It is a much more expedient process than written heart-language Bible translation.

So, how do they do it? From Ancient Celtic bards to Aboriginal Australians, Native American Tribes, Native Hawaiians, West Africans, and Jewish people, people have recorded and passed on vast scores of knowledge to memory and passed it on to successive generations. They encode knowledge in song, dance, story and place. A complex combination of methods is used to retain in-depth historical narratives and the minutia of small details. Practices like memory association with a place, an object or the shape of the landscape around them are used. For example, if you were to learn all the names of the books of the Bible in order, you might walk around your neighbourhood and associate each book of the Bible with a specific feature. Add in a familiar tune and a few friends to join you ... that list will be in your memory bank in no time!

Would an oral Bible translation be a legitimate translation of God’s Word? The answer is “YES!” In the context of the inherent depth of oral culture, once the translator has internalised the Scriptures and recorded them in their heart language, they then go through a robust checking process. OBT goes through the same rigorous checks of a written translation—team checking, community checks, back translation, and consultant checking. As soon as a recording is approved—whether a few verses or a whole book—it becomes available to the community.

This is the testimony of a man who heard the Bible in his heart language:

“When you have the Bible translated into your mother tongue, it sits well, giving hope, assurance, and new life. Because you have discovered something that you have been missing for a long, long time. Death has no power over me anymore, I am alive in the Holy Spirit. Satan has no power over me anymore, and poverty has no power over me anymore because the One who is in me is greater. The joy that I am looking for is found in Christ. The peace I am looking for is found in Christ. The love I am looking for is found in Christ!”

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