Does Discourse Analysis Matter?

Some of you know that Stacey and I spent most of our furlough completing Master’s degrees in Applied Linguistics. For my thesis I focused on discourse analysis. That is to say, I intensely studied ten stories told by Kwakúm people in Kwakúm (Why yes, thank you for asking. You can read it in its entirety HERE).

“Wait a minute. What?! Why would you do that?” you may be asking. It may seem like studying Kwakúm stories would be a waste of time. Well, I am glad to say that my time was not wasted. The more that I studied, the more I realized that we could not faithfully help the Kwakúm to translate the Bible in their language without first understanding how they tell stories.

What exactly is discourse analysis?

When we tell a story (a narrative discourse) we use certain conventions that we don’t necessarily use in everyday speech. For instance, in English when we are telling a fairy tale we will often begin with “Once upon a time…” It is important to know that this phrase occurs in fairy tales because when we are translating the Bible, we don’t want to begin the Gospel of Matthew with “Once upon a time…” This would communicate something that we don’t want it to: namely, that the story is not true, it is fiction. So, with narrative discourse analysis our job is to look at how people tell stories, look for patterns, ask questions, come up with hypotheses, test those hypotheses, and then draw conclusions. Though I have never really before, I now consider myself to be a scientist. I consistently used the scientific method in an effort to better understand Kwakúm stories.

So, how important is discourse analysis?

In one of our classes at GIAL (now Dallas International University) our professor gave us a great example of the importance of discourse analysis. He told us that a missionary had been working with a people group for a very long time. So long, in fact, that he had begun teaching people the Bible in their own language. He got to the famous verse in John 14:6 when Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

The people immediately responded, saying, “If that is what Jesus said we will worship you.” You can imagine the missionary was a bit shocked to hear such a response. He figured that he must have worded it incorrectly. So, he tried again, Jesus said “I am the way, the truth, and the life…” And the people responded again: “We have trusted in Jesus, we believe what he says. So, if he said that, we will worship you.”

Well after much confusion, study, and testing, the missionary discovered something about this language. He found that they never did direct quotation. So, they might say, “James said that he was tall,” but they would never say, “James said, ‘I am tall.'” This is not particularly troubling, We can translate the passage “Jesus said that he was the way, the truth, and the life…” without losing much if anything. But if you fail to do your homework, and translate with direct quotations, they are going to end up worshipping YOU instead of JESUS. That is a big problem.

Time for the Kwakúm

Fortunately, Kwakúm has direct quotation, so I did not need to work too hard on that issue. Instead, I decided to examine the way they use their tense markers (the way they indicate time) when they are telling a story. Kwakúm has four past tense markers, one present tense marker, and three future tense markers. So, obviously they have a lot more to choose from than we do in English. And the reason I chose to study their use of tense in stories is because I had listened to their stories and I couldn’t follow them well. I knew I was going to need to invest some serious time.

So, over six months, the vast majority of which was spent in the library, I analzed Kwakúm stories. And I found out that not only do they have more tense markers than we do, they use them very differently in stories than they do in conversation. While I would love to go into it in detail, I will try to summarize my findings.

The main takeaway was that the Kwakúm tell their stories in the present tense. This is not something that we do in English (though sometimes we do it at the climax of a story). The Kwakúm, everytime, will begin their story using the past tense. But, when they arrive at the main storyline, they switch to the present tense. They use their past tenses to express past tense in relation to the storyline, but they would never use past tense for the whole story. It would sound to them like you are just giving setting information the entire time. In order to give you an idea of what I mean, I am going to tell you a short story about something that I did the other day. In doing so, I am going to use the English way of giving setting information (be clauses; active verbs with inanimate objects for you nerds out there).

So, here I was here in Dimako, our town in Cameroon. The air was hot and dry because we are in the dry season. A man was approaching me when I was getting into my car. His hand was gripping onto my arm tightly as he was asking me to give him some money. I was resisting him wondering if I should sweep out his legs and knock him to the ground. I was pulling my arm away and his body was falling backwards. My car door was shutting. My locks were engaging and my car was driving away.

Now, my guess is that my story felt weird to you. It felt as though I was setting something up, but never getting to it. But that was the whole story! And that is what it would be like for the Kwakúm people if we told stories using only the past tense. They would understand the words, they would get the overall sequence of events, but they would walk away wondering what the rest of the story was.

What does it matter?

Now, you might say, “What does it really matter? I mean, if they get the overall gist of the story, why worry about it?” Well, our goal is not just to translate the Bible, but to translate it well. And, when you are dealing with the words of God, getting the gist is not sufficient.

One unfortunate tendency that can be seen in any translation project is that people want to make their translation as close to the source text as possible. While this practice might seem like a good thing, it means that our translators will be tempted to put entire narratives in the past tense, because that is what they see in the source text. What my analysis is going to allow us to do is look at the different portions of the text of Scripture, figure out how they would be coded for tense in Kwakúm according to the patterns I indentified, and then use tense not like Greek/ Hebrew/ Aramaic/ French/ English, but like Kwakúm. Then, they will not read the crucifixion of Christ and wonder if it is a kid’s story, or wonder what really happened in the end, but they will understand the story as a whole.

I have spent the last 13 years of my life trying to be prepared for the translation task. I have studied the Bible, French, Kwakúm, and linguistics. And this is my goal: to be faithful. I want to do everything I can to translate God’s Word faithfully. And now that I have studied (and am studying) discourse analysis, I can guarantee you that we could not be faithful without it. I am so glad that we have been able to benefit from those who have gone before us. But please pray that we will continue to learn, to analyze, and to struggle so as to not run in vain. Please pray that the Lord would guide us and strengthen us to above all, be faithful.


Author: David M. Hare

Dave is a husband, father of four Africans, and is currently helping the Kwakum people do Oral Bible Storying and Bible translation in Cameroon, Africa.