Innovating in Translation and Building Capacity in Africa

Yves Léonard's work among the Baka is paying dividends for other oral cultures in francophone Africa

After completing the Baka translation project in 2012, Yves Léonard moved back to Canada with his family. Using his extensive research and reflections from the time he spent with the Baka, he began developing a new oral translation project. 

“When I was doing the Baka project, I thought if I were to do another project, this is how I would do it,” he says. The result of his efforts is the Calao project, an innovative system that will provide oral translations of the complete New Testament or full Bible for three oral language groups in Chad, with the potential for written translations as well. 

The Ndam, Mulgi, and Gula people live in the remote Sahel region of Chad. It’s a difficult area to access, and one that presents a significant translating challenge: local translators have typically only had access to an elementary-level education, not the university training in linguistics and biblical languages that would prepare them for Bible translation. 

The Calao project is addressing this in a unique way, by connecting exegetes from ATALTRAB—a Chadian national Bible translation organization—with local language translators. The exegetes (those who interpret and expound on Scripture passages) train the local translators in linguistics and exegesis at the same time as they work together to translate the Scriptures.  

ATALTRAB is responsible for executing the project while Yves trains the exegetes to develop their skills and roles in the project. He also checks texts and provides administrative support. In the future, he plans to replicate the project for other oral language groups in Africa. 

Just as he did with the Baka project, Yves has spent significant time adapting the Calao project to the local culture, and building relationships with his Chadian teammates. 

“The team from ATALTRAB has very committed Christians. It’s quite humbling to work with a team of people who are so committed and love God so much . . . they want to be heard and they want to be treated on an equal basis.” 

It’s these relationships that have allowed the work to continue during the challenging conditions and travel restrictions of the pandemic: while Yves would typically visit Chad several times a year, his work now takes place over video chat. He’s grateful for the technology, and even more so for the relationships that allow the work to continue. 

“One thing is for sure,” he says. “I could not work remotely unless I already knew the people quite well.”

Ruth Richert is a volunteer writer with Wycliffe Canada.