Oral Bible Translation – What Does It Take?

For several years, a few mission organizations have been collaborating together to create some software that could be used to make oral Bible translation happen.  Render is now being trialed in several parts of the world to see how the process works.  Since all parts of the process are done orally – translation, team checking and revision, consultant checking, and recording, it is ideal for communities that operate predominantly in an oral realm.  As the SPES project has been watching Render develop over the last couple years, we have become very excited about the possibilities that it holds for small language groups in the East Sepik and Sandaun provinces of Papua New Guinea.

However, because Bible translation has been written, rather than oral, almost exclusively for decades, this new approach presents its own challenges.  Where will we find people who can come and help us run the Oral Bible Translation (OBT) workshops?  Ideally, these would be people who would feel comfortable switching from a written to an oral process or have received training in oral translation.  Could it be you or someone you know?

Our current staff does not have all the skill sets needed to lead the training.  We continue to pray and trust that God will lead people to us that have the needed skills to help Sepik language groups get God’s Word in a way that clearly speaks to them.  A few of these roles are crucial and without people to fill them, OBT cannot move forward.  The team in Wewak feels strongly that this is a natural next step for language groups who have already completed their Oral Bible Storytelling workshops.  Language groups continue to call and ask when they can begin the next step of translation work.  It is a struggle for us to not be able to tell them when the next steps will happen.

Could this be you?

Each morning, the Bible passage to be translated will be discussed during devotions.  Someone is needed who can help give a good understanding of what is being discussed in the passage from an exegetical perspective.  They would need to be able to check specific key terms and help the teams make sure they are translating those key components in an accurate and natural manner.

Another person is needed who can help the teams understand a bit of how their language works linguistically.  This is not as in-depth as it would be in a written setting.  Some of the details are not needed in the oral realm, like consistency of spelling and punctuation, since it is all recorded rather than written.  However, understanding some of how the grammar works, so that the passage can be translated naturally, rather than word-for-word from another translation will help the teams have translation that can be easily understood.

One translation consultant is needed for each language group.  In the initial pilot project, the current plan is to include three language groups.  The consultants would take the scripture portions that have been translated and go through them with the team to check for consistency of key terms, making sure nothing has been introduced that is not true to the Bible and to make sure that key items have not been omitted.  As they go through each passage, changes that are needed will be noted and fixed before the final recording is released for the communities to use.

Will you pray with us that God will provide the people needed to move this work forward?  If you or someone you know might be interested, please contact us by email or at our Facebook page.

1 Report from the Lausanne Committee on World Evangelization Issue Group “Making Disciples of Oral Learners, page 4.

God’s Word – Living and Active

Groups work together to learn the day's story

Groups work together to learn the day’s story

Eleven Nuku area language groups continue to learn four Bible stories during this two week Oral Bible Storytelling (OBS) course in Wewak.  Yesterday they began learning the story of The Fall from Genesis 3.  As they listened during the devotion time, they grappled with various parts of the story.  Some of their personal beliefs that have been held for many years did not line up with the truth they were hearing from God’s Word.  How do they move forward and reconcile those differences in their own lives?

Michael tells a story

Michael tells a story

Wednesday the same story was told to give them a chance to hear it again and process what was being shared.  After the story is given, questions are asked so that the participants can interact with the story on a personal level.  Wednesday’s questions focused on what the participants learned in the story and which character were they like in the story.  As many honest responses were shared, it was evident that God’s Word was alive and giving people reason to think about their own lives.

“I am like Eve because I listen to others when they tell things that aren’t true and then I follow after those same things.”

“I am like the snake because I tell others things that aren’t true and cause them to do things that aren’t right.”

“I am like Adam.  I go along and do the wrong things even though I know they are wrong.  I don’t stand up for what is right.”

“I am like Eve because I covet so many things.”

Listening to the day's story

Listening to the day’s story

“Now that I have come to this course and know what is true, I need to stand on that truth.  When other people come and tell me things that aren’t true and try to pull me in the wrong direction, I don’t want to follow them.”

“I need to not deceive other people.  I need to leave those ways behind, and do what is right.”

“I need to stand up and take responsibility in my family.  If my wife is saying things that aren’t true, I need to confront her and try to help her see a different way.  If not, it will cause problems for our whole family.”

It is encouraging to hear these responses.  Keep praying that God’s Word will bring conviction and lasting change.

Nuku OBS workshops are launched

Some of the Nuku area language groups in the Sandaun province of Papua New Guinea have been waiting for years for someone to help get God’s Word into their heart language (tok ples).  So it was with great excitement that we welcomed the arrival of participants from Beli, Pahi, Heyo, Mehek, Yahang, Wanap, Laeko Libuat, Siliput, Yangum Mun, Yangum Dey, and Minidien language groups on Monday.

Crossing a flooded river

Crossing a flooded river

Due to significant rains in the area, swollen rivers and muddy roads made the trip to Wewak a challenge for many of the participants.  The PMV (public motor vehicle) carrying many of the participants got stuck Sunday night, but they were able to dig out of the mud Monday morning and make it to Wewak.  Others waited for rivers to recede enough that they could cross (as seen in the picture) or walk to the other side.  We are very thankful to report that by Monday evening forty-one participants were safely in Wewak ready to begin class Tuesday morning.

OBS trainers serving at this course

OBS trainers serving at this course

Fifteen trainers are leading this course, many of whom are learning new roles and responsibilities this time.   A couple trainers are being prepared to launch a new OBS cluster later this year in Sandaun province.  We also have six brand new trainers who just graduated from the Lumi OBS workshop in January and are working to learn the ropes of teaching and mentoring new language groups.  We are so grateful for the capable and enthusiastic team God has brought together to lead this work in the Sepik.

Learning how to use a voice recorder

Learning how to use a voice recorder

As the participants work at learning the Bible stories, one of the tools used is a voice recorder.  After they have internalized the story and can tell it both in the trade language as well as their heart language, they record it on a voice recorder.  The story can then be played back for the group to check the story’s accuracy.  Tuesday they learned how to use the recorders.

Participants have another two weeks to learn a total of four Bible stories from Genesis.  These stories are foundational to understanding many other aspects of the Bible.  They have been learning the story of Cain and Abel over the last two days and God’s Word is already convicting men of their sins.  Pray that they can learn the stories well and that the truth of God’s Word will change the lives of those present even before they head home.  We wait expectantly to see how God will work in the days ahead.

Lumi Oral Bible Storytelling completion

Devotion time

Devotion time

The last two weeks were a flurry of activity as we finished the fifth and final Oral Bible Storytelling (OBS) workshop for thirteen Lumi area language groups. With forty-eight participants and twelve trainers, the Wewak Regional Center was filled to capacity. Participants were eager to learn three new stories from the New Testament that they have now taken back to share in their villages. We know that God’s Word does not return empty, so we look forward with anticipation to how these stories will impact language communities in the future.

Learning how to teach about language and how it shifts in communities

Learning how to teach about language and how it shifts in communities

The groups also received some training that they could share with their communities regarding their tok ples (heart language). How strong is the language? Can all the children speak and understand it? What causes communities to move from one language to another?  How can they hold on to both languages in the midst of pressures to change?  They practiced some participatory activities that they can do in their areas so that everyone can see the vitality or lack of vitality in each language group. Before leaving, they were tasked with raising awareness as they share these activities in their communities.

Group photo of participants, trainers, and other staff

Group photo of participants, trainers, and other staff

Friday, 20 January, was the graduation ceremony. The trainers did a great job coordinating and leading this event and making it a meaningful experience. Those who spoke challenged the groups to continue to carry this work and be faithful, even when times get tough. It is a time to act and not just sit and watch others do the work or just think about possibly doing something.

They have now returned to their homes. Pray that they will have many opportunities to share what they have learned. Pray for wisdom for the communities as they discuss what the next steps might be and how those steps could be achieved. Several of the participants were picked to become trainers and continue helping to carry the work of OBS forward in the Sepik. The next group of languages will begin training in February.

What is Render?

Recently Gary and Sam attended some meetings in Ukarumpa, in the Eastern Highlands province.  Fred Madden, who works with The Seed Company, came to share about a different medium for doing translation.  Oral Bible Translation allows the translators to translate exclusively in an oral manner.

Using the Render software

Using the Render software

Oral Bible Translation works like this. Initially translators discuss any key words, phrases, or concepts that could be difficult to understand or tricky to translate.  Then they listen to a “chunk” of scripture such as a section of a story or a paragraph.  When they feel comfortable that they understand the portion of scripture, they figure out how to say the section in their heart language.  Speaking into a computer, they will then record the passage using some newly developed Render software that records all that is said. This is repeated until everyone is happy with the translation. Then it goes through a series of checks for accuracy and naturalness.  When the team is satisfied that the rough draft is good, it then goes to a consultant who will also add his or her comments orally on the computer and the team can make the needed corrections.

After all the needed changes have been made and the translators and consultants feel it communicates clearly, the recordings can be finalized.  When the recordings are ready, they can be placed on SD cards that can be inserted into mobile phones or use other electronic devices to listen to and engage with the translated scriptures.

As literacy rates are low in many of the language groups that SPES is engaging with, Oral Bible Translation seems like a good fit for at least some of these groups.  This type of approach would allow more people who know and understand their language, but not necessarily know how to write it, to be involved in the work. It also has a better chance of being used by more people in more places. However, this approach involves potentially more people and therefore more costs.  Pray for wisdom to know if this is the way we are to move forward.