Translation and Literacy Must Go Together
Translating the Bible into the minority languages of the world is the primary task of Pioneer Bible Translators. It has been my privilege to serve with PBT for 17 years now, and I have transitioned from being a translator working on one language in a remote area of Papua New Guinea, to where I am now a translation consultant, helping to check the final draft of a translated book of Scripture for many language groups.
As important as Bible translation is, there is anther task that is just as critical as the task of translation. I am referring to the task of Literacy. We know from experience that there are some projects that do finish translating the New Testament, or even the entire Bible, but because the people were never taught to read their own language, the translated book sits on shelves and collects dust.
What a shame that is to have worked for decades to complete a translation, only to have it be shelved and not read by the people. That is one reason why during my linguistic training in Dallas to become a translator that I took a course called, “Literacy For Translators”. This course gave us an appreciation for literacy, and we put our hand to the task of trying to create and teach new alphabets to each other in the course.
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In this course, we learned the importance of starting out slowly, giving students one sound and symbol at a time. Even if students are able to read in a trade language, we must not assume that it will be an easy and automatic skill for them to read in their own language, which up until the time of Bible translation, had never been written down before.
The final project for the course was to come up with a new alphabet for the English language, and to write lessons and a story in the revised alphabet. This is much more difficult than you can imagine since we all were highly literate and fluent in our native tongue, English. But consider what learning English is like for someone who is learning English as a foreign language.
For example, we can say the words “through”, “threw”, and “thru” which all sound the same, but are each spelled differently and also have different meanings. A harder problem for many is when you see the same vowel set and find out that the vowel is pronounced quite differently in each word. Take for example these words “though, trough, rough, bough, and through. And many more examples can be found.
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What we try to do then as linguists is to find a symbol that represents one and only one sound, and that each sound has one and only one symbol to represent it. In our village language, we were able to identify 6 significant vowels and 19 significant consonants. Other sounds were heard, but they did not produce significant changes in word meanings and so they did not become part of the official alphabet.
It certainly is a lot of work to create these alphabets, but once established, especially if they have this one-to-one symbol to sound correspondence, then it is possible for new readers to begin to learn how to read fairly quickly. In my official “Revised English” (Reeviyzd Ingglish), I determined that there were 25 significant consonant sounds and 15 significant vowels and diphthongs (a slide between two vowels.)
In the remaining space below, and in the next week’s article on “Teaching Literacy in East Africa”, I have taken a portion of two ladies’ newsletters. These two women were teaching the concept of literacy for two language groups. By the end of the two weeks, each language group had prepared a full “Primer” (pronounce with the “i” in “bit” not “bite”) to take back and teach other people in their language group the alphabet and the basics of reading. Please pray that all of the projects where we are translating the Bible will also be able to get full literacy courses off of the ground so the people can read God’s Word.
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a, i, l, k, w
Can you rearrange these letters to make words?
Now use those words to create a short story.
This was the first of many challenges given to the 15 local writers at the primer construction workshop this month. For two weeks guest consultants guided teams from two language groups to write 72 lessons. These will help adults learn how to read in their own languages.
This was the short story created by one of the teams for the first primer lesson using the letters above:
Ali ikala. (This is charcoal.)
Alila kawa. (That is a cover.)
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The first story is very simple, but as the lessons continue the stories get longer and introduce many more letters and words for the new readers to learn. By lesson 12 the letter “Y” is introduced and also the word “Yesu” (Jesus). At least one of the stories for each subsequent lesson focuses on the life of Jesus and His teachings.
These reading primers will be one step toward helping people who cannot read at all to learn how to read the Bible on their own. And those who haven’t heard the gospel will have the opportunity to learn about Jesus while they’re learning to read.
Praying over the finished Primers before they were sent to the publishers.