For those living in Vanuatu, and other South Pacific Island nations, God’s word is a treasure, and is acknowledged as a valuable source of wisdom and life. People show an amazing commitment and enthusiasm for translating God’s word into their own languages, yet need a lot of support.
“These Bible translations aren’t about evangelism in the way we often think about it,” says Dr Sam Freney, Bible Translation Consultant, who recently returned from a visit to Vanuatu where the churches are strong, the culture is Christian, and people have access to the Bible in English and in Bislama. Sam explains,
“These projects aren’t for an unreached people who need the Bible translated so they can hear about the Gospel. Rather, they’re about providing God’s word for Christians in their own contexts and communities so they can understand more deeply — it’s an exercise of discipleship, of encouraging Christian people in the language of their people.”
In this region there are hundreds of languages without the Bible, and more which are crying out for contemporary revisions. Geoffry Miller, General Secretary of the Bible Society of the South Pacific (BSSP) reports, “This year we have looked at expanding our translation work and that resulted in the addition of a few possible translation projects. The team is still working around the clock looking into other island countries with remaining languages that still do not have a Bible. We are going to target them by translating portions, that is, certain books of the Bible.”
In response to requests from community leaders, BSSP currently have translation projects underway in Samoa, Tonga, New Caledonia and Vanuatu, in multiple languages. Similarly, Bible Society Papua New Guinea (BSPNG) have a project revising the popular Tok Pisin Bible, and another supporting Bible translators in other languages which currently have no Bible. In each case it is the speakers of these languages who desperately want the Bible in their language.
So, Bible Society is working to support the translation efforts, providing consultant checking of draft translations, as well as helping to resource translation efforts, with pens, paper, computers, laptops, electricity and connectivity. Geoffry reports that, “We had to work with infrastructure; there are a lot of needs around the Pacific, and they had to be taken care of. One was the computers. We are so blessed through the Bible Society Oceania Alliance. Through it, computers were delivered to translators in the South Pacific.”
During the recent trip to Vanuatu, Dr Sam Freney and staff from the Bible Society of the South Pacific travelled between communities who are actively working on translating or revising the Bible in their languages. Each of these language groups value God’s word so much that they have committed their time and energy into ensuring their people can access it in their heart languages.
Lelepa is a small island on the north-west of Efate, where a group of elders in the church are working on a Bible translation. During Sam’s visit with the BSSP team, the Lelepa translators were gathered in a room with pens and exercise books, drafting and editing translations of Matthew, James, Ephesians, Colossians and Philippians. “The team would love to be able to share a laptop between them with multiple accounts,” Sam says, “So they can collaborate with reviewing, checking and sharing their work.” Currently the only computer is that of the lead translator, which is often not available for the work because of his other responsibilities. “I might be able to include my daughter in the translation work, as a typist,” one of the older women working on the translation said, “if we had a computer.” This is an appealing thought for the team, as it would both involve the next generation in the work of Bible translation, as well as ensure the translation drafts can be shared and backed up electronically.
The Futuna Bible translation is another project in Vanuatu being supported by Bible Society. The lead translator in the project is 73-year-old Elder Yama, who has already drafted the four Gospels in the last four years. “After I retired, I was interested in doing Bible translation work. I bought a copy of the Futuna Scriptures translated by the early missionaries and presented it to the Bible Society for scanning.” Once the Futuna Scriptures were scanned, Elder Yama began his translation work. “Rev Apenisa came to Vanuatu and ran a Paratext [Bible translation software] workshop. I had my old laptop with me during that training — about five years ago — and had the Paratext program installed in it for translation work. But lately it started giving me lots of problems.”
Rev Apenisa, Translation Advisor for BSSP, continues to work regularly with Elder Yama, mostly over Zoom during their translation checking sessions. “I found that Elder Yama’s computer was very slow, and it can be really frustrating for him. We prayed often that he could get a replacement laptop, as soon as possible.” This prayer was answered by the support of the Oceania Alliance, which provided much needed IT supplies and assistance for Bible translation work in the South Pacific.
Rev Apenisa recalls, “After handing over the new laptop to Elder Yama at the airport, we met up again at the bookshop in town to set it up ready for work.” Elder Yama was overjoyed with the new laptop, saying, “I am so grateful for the new laptop computer. Preisem Masta [Praise God]!”
“The provision of the laptop computer to assist in the written record of translation of the Bible from English into the Futuna language is very much appreciated,” Elder Yama wrote in a letter of thanks.
“This has not only provided us with the means to translate the Bible, but it has also instilled hope and inspiration within our community. It serves as a reminder that we are not alone in our efforts to preserve God’s holy word. Your support has encouraged us to continue our work with renewed determination and enthusiasm.”
Another one of the remote villages Sam and Pastor Daniel from BSSP visited was Tasiriki, on the island of Santo, where the language of Akei is fairly widely spoken in the region. The visit was to investigate the possibility of a new translation project which Bible Society could support. “It’s a four-hour trip on rough roads in a Landcruiser,” Sam relates, “and you hope it doesn’t rain so you can get across the river crossings.”
When the Bible Society team arrived, they discovered that the local elders had already started translation work by themselves, revising the Bible in their language. “They worked on some old translations — from 1904 and 1908 — of a few Gospels and Genesis. They got together, wrote a verse up on a blackboard, looked at the Good News Version and the Revised Standard Version to work out the meaning, and then worked at revising the language to be more modern,” Sam explains. “They made up the process themselves, but it’s exactly what we would have advised them to do. They worked their way through a couple of Gospels, and then got to the point where they realised there’s no way a little remote village church could fund the printing of their work, so they stopped, waiting and hoping for outside assistance.”
Sam and the BSSP team talked with the elders about translation, the process, and the need to check the translation with other communities and different parts of the same community (defined by age, gender, church, etc.). “They were very keen to get going on translation, both at Tasiriki and also at another village about 30 minutes walk away,” Sam recalls. “We said that we’d go away and talk to the Bible Society about starting a translation project there, and they needed to go and form a translation committee, work out who would be translators, who would be reviewers, and various other roles.”
Thinking they had set a future plan — with quite a bit of work — into motion, Sam and the team were surprised again by the commitment and passion of this group of elders. “They came back ten minutes later with two lists of committees, one for the Akei language in Tasiriki, the other for a related dialect in the neighbouring village. So … the next day we started some translation training!” As with many of these translation projects, this one poses many logistical difficulties. Sam explains, “Phone service is solar powered. No-one has laptops. Getting there is difficult, and not feasible in poor weather. But the people are incredibly keen.”
If you would like to support translation projects in Oceania like these, click here to give the means, hope and inspiration to these dedicated local translators.