How does Oral Bible Storying work?

Saturday marked the end of our second Oral Bible Storying (OBS) weekend! This is a really exciting time because now, for the first time, we have started to translate biblical content into Kwakum. We have spent a total of two weekends working on the Creation narrative from Genesis 1-2, and currently have a very good draft that we will soon be sending to consultants to check.

I thought some of you might want to know what that looked like, and how OBS relates to Bible translation. This post is going to go through what we did for these two weekends, and will be pretty thorough. I think if you stick with it, it will be worth it to see how this process happens.

OBS is Not Bible Translation

One of the first things that I did in the workshop was to let the workers know that OBS is not Bible translation. That is, when we translate the Bible we are committed to not take out one idea, or add one idea. However, with OBS we are producing a summary of each Bible story that does not necessarily communicate all the details of the biblical account. In that sense, OBS is more like a children’s storybook Bible, but entirely oral.

In order to prepare for the workshop, I created a French summary of the Creation account. I basically took a reduced version of Genesis 1 and added some details about the creation of Adam and Eve from Genesis 2. Then, I adapted the French to match Kwakum discourse features. For instance, in the French the story is all told in the past tense. However, when the Kwakum tell a story they use mostly the present tense. So, I changed the tenses in French to match what the people would say in Kwakum. This helps in the process of translation by getting people away from thinking in French, and into thinking in Kwakum.


In order for OBS to work, the Kwakum people need to be able to understand the passage. That is, they need to be able to visualize what happened, and remember even the details. So, I memorized the text in French and then retold it to the group (about 20 people who all attend a variety of churches regularly) in a somewhat dramatic fashion. Then we went through the story section by section and made sure that we understood each concept. Certain concepts were hard because they were foreign (read through Day 2 of creation and think about how to explain it to someone who had never heard it before. Keep in mind that the “Heaven (ESV)” that it is talking about is the space between the waters on Earth and the water in the clouds).

Sometimes issues came up because people already had ideas about the meaning of the text that was not supported by the text. For instance, when we began to talk about what it meant for man to be created in the “image of God” I asked what they thought that meant. The very first response came from the back of the room: “We are created in the image of God in that God has a body and our bodies look like his.” So we had a lively discussion about whether or not God had a body. I was surprised to find that even some of the village pastors that were there were defending the idea.

My goal was to drive the conversation to the passage. What do we see in the passage? In Genesis 1 we see that God creates man in his image, and then immediately blesses them tells them to go and have dominion over the animals. So, just in what we see in that passage, how is man in God’s image? He rules like God. Are there other ways we can see that man is like God? Sure. But I tried to keep drawing them back to the passage.


After spending quite a long time making sure that everyone understood the passage, we began to translate into Kwakum. The team was broken up into small groups and each group was tasked to translate the same section. Then, one person from each group stood up and spoke their translation. I recorded the one that seemed the best to me and we moved on.

Along the way we stopped to have discussion about different words, with an emphasis on what we call “Key Terms.” Of course, all the words are important and we want to get them right, but not all of the words have the same weight. For instance, there might be several ways to communicate that that Spirit of God hovered over the water, but the words we use for Spirit of God are far more important.

Throughout the process we had several flame ups. Turns out, people are really passionate about their language, and about their opinions. There was a lot of talking over people, and at one point we just felt like no one was listening. We decided to take a break and I encouraged them to pray for unity. Then, when we came back I wrote James 1:19 on the board: “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” We translated this together into Kwakum. Most of the people at the meeting are church goers and I reminded them that I refuse to translate the Bible with them if we are going to ignore what it says.

I also shared with them about a people group in Papua New Guinea where there were two main dialects. The dialect group that was working on the Bible translation was mostly reached, whereas the other dialect group was not. These men and women actually chose to translate into the other dialect, meaning it would sound less like them and more like the lost group. They chose not to use their own dialect so that others could have a better chance at understanding the Bible. Several of our workers audibly gasped. It was so inconceivable to them that someone would not put their own preferences first. Praise the Lord, it only took about 5 more minutes after that to come to a conclusion together. And the conversation was much more civil.


After translating the passage we selected one person who would record the story in an audio file. With everyone listening and making corrections as we went along, we recorded a rough draft of the Creation narrative. We spent some time internalizing/memorizing, but were reaching the end of the first weekend. So, we talked a little bit about how to test the draft translation in the villages. Most people have cell phones, so we were able to pass out the translation to many of the participants.

They went home for the week with the homework of listening to the translation at least five times. They were also supposed to listen to it with at least two other people and write down their answers to very specific questions. The questions were aimed to determine if people were understanding the facts of the passage. For instance: “What happened at the beginning of the story?” “Who was there in the beginning?” “What did the Earth look like in the very beginning?” There were some specific questions about the key terms we decided on, to make sure that we chose well.

I went out with one of the translators and played the file and asked the questions. We found some very clear problems. For instance, we had chosen as a group kisasambu kíSambu for ‘the Spirit of God.’ However, when we asked what that meant we were told each time that it meant “God’s shadow.” We talked about what a spirit is, how it is invisible, and asked for a better word. Each time they said nsisim. Very clearly they said that kisasambu was something that was visible, but that nsisim was the invisible part of a person.

Retranslation and Internalization

We came back together this last Friday and wrestled through the testing. We prayed specifically that we would not have any major blowups. And…God answered our prayers. Everyone who actually did the testing found the same problems and though there was some discussion, overall everyone was on the same page. It was really great.

After agreeing on which terms/phrases we were going to change, we started to internalize the passage. We broke everyone into groups and we did skits, sang songs, drew images, anything we could think of to really get this story into the hearts of the people. I have been reading a book called Telling God’s Stories with Power, which has been very helpful in learning how to effectively train people to retell the stories. There are four main emphases for story-tellers, according to this book:

  1. Fidelity
  2. Facial Expressions
  3. Gestures and Body Movements
  4. Voice

The idea here is that we first want to make sure that we are being faithful to the story. This means that we are not adding or removing any element. We are not preaching, I told them. We are sharing a story from God’s Word. And then we have to make sure that our facial expressions, gestures, and voice are telling the same story as our words. So, when Adam has named all the creatures and does not see anyone like him, we should not be smiling. He is sad. When he first sees Eve, and he rejoices that she is like him, we should not be frowning. We need to modulate our voice, making subtle changes to help people follow the story.

So, we broke back up into the same small groups and now they worked not only on saying the right words, but on telling the story well. We all came back together and told the story as a group. And it was incredible! People that were walking by outside came in to listen. We had maybe 10 children sitting in the back and watching, and several other adults. There was laughing, gasping, and just overall enjoyment. This is how God’s Word is meant to affect people! It was such a joy to see people understanding and enjoying the Bible.

What Now?

Right now we are working on a back translation (from Kwakum into French) so that outside consultants can review our work. Our consultants (Dan and Lisa Friesen) have been involved in Bible translation for ~20 years. They helped to translate Genesis and the entire New Testament into the Oroko language. They will be able to be an outside perspective, helping us to see if there are any danger areas. Once we have a final translation, we will encourage those in the workshop to take the audio file and listen to it many more times. Then, they will go out and start telling the stories. Assuming we do not have a lot of work to do after the consultant check, we will hopefully be able to finish up with the Creation and start on the Fall this next weekend.


There were a couple of reactions that surprised and excited me during this process:

  1. Several people during the testing stage said that they had never heard this story before. That means, that for probably many of the Kwakum, these stories will be their first encounter with the Word of God!
  2. One pastor who is in the workgroup took me aside and told me that this was much more rigorous than anything he had ever done in Bible school. He said, “You want us to think about every word!”
  3. During our first weekend we had together written out some questions in Kwakum. After the meeting was over, Stacey saw one of our translators holding a flashlight over his notebook, sitting in front of his house. He told Stacey that he had never learned to read and write in French, and he did not even know how to hold the pen. We told him that we would work with him on reading and writing, but we were so happy to see his diligent effort. Since then, he has been working with Stacey on his ABCs.

This is only the beginning. It has already been much more work than any of us were expecting. We still have some editing to do, and our translators still need to spend the time listening and relistening so that they can be faithful. But this is such an awesome beginning. The Kwakum are hearing the Word of God in their own language for the very first time, and they are enjoying it. Please pray that we (Stacey, the translators, and I) would not grow weary in doing good. Pray that we would endure to the end. Pray that we would produce an excellent product. And please pray that God would use his word to change hearts.


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.