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.

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.

The Bigger Picture

Some of the crowd looks on at the dedication.

Some of the crowd looks on at the dedication.

Last week was an exciting time for the Urat people of the East Sepik province. They had been waiting nearly forty years for God’s Word to come in their heart language. Three different missionary families or singles have been part of the program over the decades, along with PNG co-translators David, Enoch, and others. July 30 was the big day. Hundreds from the surrounding communities as well as nearly forty visitors from outside the language area came to witness the event. Commercial flights from the US, Finland, Thailand, and various parts of PNG, as well as two SIL Kodiaks from Ukarumpa carried the visitors to Wewak. Then everyone boarded a large PMV (public motor vehicle) and two other rental trucks to make the six hour drive over pretty rough roads. We were very grateful that the roads were dry or there would have been additional challenges.

Singsing group that led the procession

Singsing group that led the procession

Bibles carried in a traditional limbum bag

Bibles carried in a traditional limbum bag

In the beginning, the sky was fairly overcast giving the crowd a respite from the heat. The event began with a singsing group leading the procession to the grandstand area. Behind the singsing group and in front of the visitors were five women from various denominations carrying traditional bags holding some of the newly printed New Testaments. After arriving at the grandstand area, the visitors were shown to their respective seats and everyone settled in to enjoy the ceremony. Many speeches by denominational leaders, mission representatives, community leaders, and translation committee personnel challenged the people to take God’s Word and read it in their homes and churches.

Pastors praying over the Bibles

Pastors praying over the Bibles

The communities were also challenged to work as a team, whether in their villages or across denominations. Two of our experienced Oral Bible Storytelling (OBS) trainers come from the Urat language group. They shared a drama about the man who was paralyzed and his four friends picked him up and carried him to meet Jesus. Upon realizing they couldn’t get him near Jesus, they made a hole in the roof and let their friend down in front of Jesus. Jesus then healed the man. However, had the four men not worked together, the cripple would have never gotten to see Jesus. As believers from a variety of denominations, part of what needs to be seen by the outside world, is unity amongst them. After the speeches, there was a time of laying hands on the Bibles and praying over them by the pastors in the area.

All of the languages that the SPES project is working with have translated Scripture in an oral format, not in a written form like the Urat language. We have already begun to see the effects of God’s talk making a difference in their lives. Pray that people will hunger to read God’s Word for themselves. As they experience God’s Word in a way that communicates clearly to them, it can truly change their lives and the lives of others in their communities.

Through sickness, hardship, pain and struggles, it has been worth it all. To God be the glory, great things He hath done!

Freed from Lies

Four trainers ready to board the Kodiak

Four trainers ready to board the Kodiak

For the team of four trainers, most of the last two weeks was spent at the Abau Training Centre in Sandaun province running a Culture meets Scripture workshop. Leading up to the course, there were significant hurdles that had to be overcome for the course to take place. Even a few days before, the training centre was under water from so much rain, but many around the world prayed and the waters receded. Due to circumstances beyond our control, we were short of the number of needed trainers, but God again came through in a specific way for us. There was concern about not having enough food, but no one went hungry during the course.

Discussing the armor of God

Discussing the armor of God and our identity in Christ

Early on in the course, it was quite evident that there was a battle raging for the hearts and minds of the participants. God brought together this group of trainers with different giftings to lead these men in understanding more of God’s truth. Each day was filled with teaching sessions as well as practical sessions where they looked critically at their cultural practices. Teaching times included understanding the three realms (people, angels, and God), strongholds,who I am in Christ, and dreams. Dreams are a huge part of this culture. Dreams are always to be followed and never questioned. So this teaching time proved eye-opening as they began to understand that not all dreams are from God nor should they be followed. The teaching times continually took the participants back to God’s Word to discover what God had to say about a given topic. They looked at cultural practices related to hunting, gardening, the mourning haus (how people respond after someone dies), as well as specific topics related to how they view women.

Throughout the course, conversations amongst participants were overheard.   “We have been believing lies all our lives. What we have followed in our culture is not true. Now we understand what God says about these things.” “This teaching has been so helpful for us. We need more of it.”

Talking about cultural practices

Talking about cultural practices

After the course ended, the trainers met a man from Samanai who had previously come to the Oral Bible Storytelling workshops. He planned to come to this course, but then a young man died in his village. They suspected a woman of sorcery related to the death, so they killed her the same day the young man died. These very topics were discussed at the workshop. Had they known the truth of God’s Word, it could have removed their fears and the results could have been different. How tragic as these people are still in bondage to the lies of the evil one. As one of the course participants was returning home, he learned that his older brother had just died. Please pray that the truths the man has learned at the course will make for a very different outcome in Miarfai. Pray that God’s talk will continue to go out not only in the participants’ villages, but also in the surrounding areas and that people would be freed from lies they have believed for so long.

2016 – What’s ahead?

A clouded mountain in the Sandaun province

A clouded mountain in the Sandaun province

As we embark on 2016, it is with both excitement and a bit of apprehension. Sometimes we think how simple it would be if we could just see months or years down the road, but then are reminded how that thinking is faulty. How can we really trust God if we know all that is going to happen? How can we rely on Him to guide our steps and plans when we think we already have the plan? This year promises to be one in which we need to trust fully in the One who knows what tomorrow holds.

One of the planes that carriers our participants and staff

One of the planes that carriers our participants and staff

It is easy to prepare for the workshops already on the schedule. But, there is always the unexpected. Who knew how hard it would be to find consultants for the Lumi Oral Bible Storytelling (OBS) course that starts in under two weeks? After trying for many weeks to find the needed consultants, the third one was finally confirmed late last week. How will the weather be when it is time for the workshop to start? Will the airplane be able to get the participants or will the airstrips be too wet? So many things force us to depend on God. We are expecting nearly fifty participants, as well as twelve trainers and other staff. The logistics have potential for unexpected things to come up.

There will also be personnel changes in the new year. Gary and Denise Abbas will be going on home assignment for about six months to share about SPES with their partners and families.  Rocky and Wendy Dede will be more based in Ukarumpa than Wewak this year. There is potential for others returning to Wewak, as well as possibly some new faces. As we deal with many transitions, pray for unity among the team and people to fill all the necessary roles.

Besides OBS, there are a number of other training opportunities that will occur this year. Some of those have been confirmed and others are still in the planning stages. We look forward to the opportunities we will have to share God’s truth with the people of Papua New Guinea and how that can have an impact on individuals and communities.

A small group welcomes the canoe and team.

A small group welcomes the canoe and team.

For the language communities that have already finished OBS, this year will be a time of dialogue to find out if and how these groups want to continue in some kind of translation work. This is probably the area where there are the most unknowns (partly because we are trying to have this phase be community driven), but we know God will direct each group to the plan that best fits their needs.

We also hope to begin engaging with language communities in a new part of the Sepik, so that they are poised for the next intake of OBS. This will involve a fair amount of research regarding different groups, as well as visits to each of the areas. There are still lots of groups that we haven’t worked with, but we want to be hearing where God wants us to go.

Are we ready for what 2016 will hold? We can say yes because we know that God will lead us each step of the way.

New Language Profile page

We are excited to announce a new page on the SPES blog.  We have added a Language Profile page where you can check out some of the language groups that are involved with the SPES project.  Learn more about these groups and how you can be praying specifically for them.  We hope to add more in the months ahead.

The Pig and the Garden

We often use metaphors to relay information in a culturally appropriate manner that can more easily be understood. The story of the Pig and the Garden is an example used to help the small people groups with whom we work to better understand some facts about the languages they use. The discussion usually starts with one of us asking some questions…..

Pig and garden

Question:        You have pigs here in the village don’t you? Do they have value to you?

Answer:          Yes, they are used as a bride price… they are protein for our diet… we can sell them for money…

Question:        You have gardens don’t you? And are they valuable to you?

Answer:          Yes, we have many gardens and they provide food. Life would be very difficult without pigs or gardens.

Question:        What happens when the pig gets into the garden?

Answer:          Not Good! The pig destroys the garden.

Question:        But you said you need both the garden and the pig; so how can you have both?

Answer:          We put a fence around the pig or we put a fence around the garden if there are wild pigs. We sometimes blind the pig or tie a rope to its leg.

This simple discussion then leads to a discussion about the languages they use. The Sepik languages we work with have not had any previous translation activity, and the languages they use are the trade language of Melanesian Pidgin (Tok Pisin), their mother tongue vernacular language, and a little bit of English used in the schools (if they have a functioning government-run school). In all of the 28 Sepik language groups that we are currently working with, the vernacular has by far the highest value because it identifies who they are and it is strongly tied to their culture. And in all cases, it is in jeopardy and rapidly being taken over by the trade language of Tok Pisin. The people know that Tok Pisin is gaining in usage, but they have not yet fully realized how much jeopardy their mother tongue language is in. We start showing them that if their children are not learning and using the vernacular language, then they are only one or two generations away from it not being used at all and possibly forgotten. They then start to see the true picture, and many times we have people in tears, mourning for what they now realize is the beginning of the loss of their language and identity. Their first reaction is to believe that the trade language is bad and they need to get rid of it.

The pig and the garden story can help them. We explain how the garden is their vernacular language and the pig is the trade language. Just like the pig and the garden, they both have value and it is hard to live without either one. Actually, in their current society it is important that they are multilingual. Their mother tongue is so closely tied to who they are and has such a high value to them that they need to find ways for the trade language and the vernacular to co-exist. They will need to treat their language like the garden and put a fence around it, protecting it from the trade language that will destroy it.

Part of our work is helping these small language communities develop an awareness of what is happening to their vernacular and culture in a rapidly changing world. Their living environment has changed from the stone-age to the introduction of the modern 21st century in a mere 50 to 70 years. Many of the old traditions and customs are dying, many times without new positive practices being introduced to replace them. This is just one of the reasons why it is so important to have them firmly grounded in Christian faith and why we need God’s Word to speak to them in the form that they can understand best.

by Gary Abbas