Benin: tech breakthrough in translation

A team of Wycliffe Bible Translators has developed a keyboard that will help people interact with the Bible in the Mbelime language.

The Mbelime language is a minority language spoken in West Africa by around 100,000 people. Mbelime speakers are largely monotheists, and interest in Christianity has been slowly rising over the last two decades. An estimated 10% of Mbelime speakers now attend a local church.

Johannes Merz, who together with his wife Sharon serves with Wycliffe in Benin, said: ‘In the past few years, smartphones have become an integral part of life for many people in Benin. Many people use them for the same purposes as others may use a computer. For Mbelime speakers, however, there has been a problem. How can you write in Mbelime on your smartphone when you don’t have all the letters and accents available? These people wanted to write messages to each other in their own language… but they were frustrated. Mbelime speakers kept asking: ‘When is there going to be a Mbelime keyboard for our phones?’ It was painful repeatedly saying we didn’t know. Imagine not being able to write your language on your phone!’

A new app

However, all that changed when Keyboard App Builder was released in May. Johannes downloaded the app and got to work. First came learning the software, then creating an Mbelime-specific keyboard and the Mbelime word list to add the predictive text feature. After that, the development tools packaged the keyboard into an app that installs it on Android smartphones. It is now available on Google Play and people can pass it on directly from phone to phone.

Thank you!

The feedback from Mbelime speakers has been really positive. One Mbelime translator wrote: ‘Thank you for all your efforts! I’m very happy with you. Together with you, I have faith that our Mbelime language will continue to advance.’ The President of the Association for the Promotion of the Bible in Mbelime (APBM) shared via a WhatsApp group: ‘Thank you, our partners the Merzes, for their total involvement in seeing our language progress.’

Sharon commented: ‘Mbelime speakers always feel they’re a step behind the rest of the country, and others tend to view them negatively, thinking they are backward and need to be civilised. Using Mbelime in relation to technological advances is thus key in promoting and valuing Mbelime. This, in turn, is crucial for motivating people to use translated Scripture.’

Johannes concluded: ‘As the translation team completes books of the Bible [in Mbelime], we’re preparing to publish them as Scripture apps. Such apps make it possible to listen to the Bible text and read it onscreen at the same time. They have proven popular in other languages. We’re looking forward to seeing the first Scripture app in the next year or two. The Mbelime keyboard will help people interact with these apps, such as doing text searches.’

The project to translate the Bible into Mbelime began in 2012. A number of books are being made ready for publication, including Mark, Luke, Acts and James.

James is scheduled to be published as an app later this year. The translation team are also currently working on John’s Gospel, which should be released in 2021.