Why Bible Translation Takes Time

Story by Chad A. Owens

The team departed for the village at 5:30 Thursday morning. The first thing the team leader said was, “We can pray that the truck will be there when the plane lands.” Knowing there would be obstacles ahead, the team proceeded forward with prayer and a sense of excitement. As the journey developed they began to gain confidence that they would arrive at their destination and so began sharing stories of times when they nearly did not: stories of river crossings, nearly losing a vehicle, planes being unable to land on the airstrip, and more.

Having arrived safely in the village, the team leader, Ben Pehrson, told his fellow travelers, “I’m hopeful that we can begin the translation workshop by Wednesday.” There was much preparation work to be done before the team of PNG translators and their consultants would arrive. “We can expect resistance from the enemy; it is our experience that he doesn’t like what we do here and tries to interrupt it,” said Ben.

The Aitape West Translation Project was about to begin final checking on I, II, III John and Jude. This is a process of working with the local language speakers and determining how to best translate each verse. When a verse is completed, a group of four languages then have that Bible verse ready for working through the next step in the process. Would all ten of the language teams arrive?

Friday evening a technical problem was discovered that threatened to delay the work. With the desire to start translation on Wednesday, the team worked tirelessly through the long nights, the weekend, the heat, and the frustration, and were ready to begin on schedule.

On Sunday the additional team members began arriving from their villages, each having traveled a long journey to get there, some walking for an entire day to arrive on time. God was clearing obstacles as they surfaced.

Two of the translators came to the team leader on Tuesday and explained that a dear friend and family member (and former translation team member) had died in the night. The men were torn as they felt they needed to return for the funeral, but also knew that their participation in the workshop was very important. They asked Ben what they should do.

While discussing the issue privately, Ben confided to a close friend, “We have a responsibility to a deadline that many people expect us to meet, but we have a deeper responsibility to show the love of Christ to these men. It is not my place to keep them from their families and their responsibilities. They have to make this decision, and so I have told them that our hearts are with them and if they choose to return we will not be angry. I sort of wonder if we should all go to show support, but we have work that needs doing.”

All the men from that language community left for the funeral the next morning, being unable to leave that evening because the river has crocodiles and it would be unsafe to pass until they were gone. “We don’t expect they’ll be back in less than a week, and will miss out on a lot of work, but we’ll figure that out when they return,” mused language consultant John Nystrom.

On Wednesday translation began and the team leaders were encouraged at the work being done. At the end of the day John reported, “We are working at a rate of 4.5 verses per hour.” On Thursday John reported, “Today was a great day, we are currently at 8.5 verses per hour. At this rate we can finish I John on Friday. But you never know when you’re going to run into something that gives you more trouble than you expect.”

Thursday evening the men who had departed for the funeral returned more quickly than expected. However, that same evening another translator, Petrus, visited Ben and asked for prayer. The team staff assembled to pray for him. To come do this work, he had to leave his wife alone in the village. His brother was away and so was he, so there were no men there to protect her. An issue had come up that made her feel threatened and she was asking for him to return to resolve the problem. Petrus was distraught because he knew his departure would slow down translation work, but he also had family duties and responsibilities.

The team prayed with Petrus and asked God to give him wisdom in making the decision. He decided to stay until the weekend, during which time they finished I and II John and half of III John.

Another man fell sick during this time, temporarily leaving one more gap in the translation team.

For those laboring in Bible translation, each day reveals new obstacles and surprises, any one of which can halt or slow the translation process. The team leaders have come to expect this style of living and working, and adapt where they can, knowing God is in control.

“What astounds me is that through all the surprises, the Lord is faithful to keep progress moving on the translation and providing us with the strength to continue,” John said as he reflected on the workshop.

Ben agreed, “We see the truth of God taking root in the people’s hearts and that gives us hope and encouragement to keep moving forward. Even when translation is slowed, we see God’s word bearing fruit.”

 

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