What Life Looks Like for a Bible Translator In Papua New Guinea

[Editor’s Note:  The missionary in this story is a very good friend of mine and is one of the most gifted linguists and Bible translator that I know. She is not a large woman, but she really knows how to take care of herself out in the deep jungles of PNG.  She has been known to stay out at her remote village for up to six months or possibly longer at a time.  As you read her accounts of these few days, extend that out over a few months period, and imagine that many days look exactly like this.  Enjoy the article.]

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“That section heading says, ‘He put good [healed] the mother-in-law of Jesus and Peter. That’s not right is it?” said the preacher at the checking session. I had come back to the section heading because I was uncomfortable with having Peter as the name in the section heading and Simon as the name in the text, an approach used by some translations to help the reader understand that Peter and Simon are the same person.

I had almost forgotten to ask about the section heading, but I was definitely thankful that I felt compelled to go back and check it. Thankfully the translation problem was solved by adding a subject marker between the two names. They also decided to say “Simon” rather than “Peter”. After that was corrected, I breathed a sigh of relief because I definitely did not want Jesus to have a mother-in-law due to a grammatically ambiguous construction – a reading of the text that I would never have even considered.

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This was one of many interesting translation “bloopers” that we encountered as we checked the book of Mark, which is the first book of the Bible translated in the second dialect of the language I am working in. These last two months have been packed to overflowing with translation and literacy activities. The last check of Mark was completed in a remote village where we lived for a week in a house without walls and bathed in the muddy river (though I sometimes skipped the pleasure of going up and down the steep muddy bank to the river and hoping to come out cleaner than when I started).

While I was in checking sessions, my co-worker and some visitors from the USA who are considering the Bible translation ministry were busy collecting firewood, hauling water from a cleaner stream that was a long walk from the village, and cooking over an open fire. Without their encouragement and hard work, I would have lost a lot more weight than I did during that week of eating bananas, pumpkins and other garden produce in addition to some Western style food.

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On 8 January those three younger folks got up at 3:30 AM, hiked for several hours in the dark crossing log bridges and arrived shortly after dawn just in time for the baptizing of 34 men and women at a neighboring village. Praise God with me for these new Christians. Please pray that these young Christians will grow in their knowledge of God and be able to withstand a whole new set of Western-style temptations that they are facing as the Sogeram River area becomes more accessible to the outside world.

After a week of translation checking during which the river was relatively low, we clearly saw God’s answer to our prayers as the river rose several feet over night. As a result, we were able reach the bridge where the road crosses the river by 10:30 AM after only 4 hours of traveling by boat.

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After hauling all of the supplies to a village near the river, we only had to wait a few hours for a ride into town in the back of a small uncovered truck. During the ride in the crowded vehicle we were only rained on for about 30 minutes – almost a welcome relief from the hot sun.

We arrived in town about 3:30 and I was more than ready to take a hot shower and put on some clean clothes. My days of real “jungle” living are definitely numbered, but the checking session at this village was so good that I am hoping to repeat the same experience next year if we can complete the preparation work on Jude and Titus by the end of the year.

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Life “in the bush” as we say, is so radically different from the comfortable lives that we can live in North America.  Our missionary above speaks about sleeping in houses without walls (good for cool breezes, not so good for the mosquitoes, rats, flies, lizards and snakes that can come inside.)

She mentions cooking over open fires, hauling dirty water from quite a distance, having to walk many hours along the jungle trails, fording rivers and then having to endure the vagaries of the weather (which usually means you end up getting drenched in a downpour).

So why are all of us Bible translators ready and willing to live in conditions just these of my colleague, or worse?  Well, notice the joy that the co-worker and the visitors had when they got to the end of their hours long jungle trek?  They witnessed the 34 baptisms and celebrated in their new life in God.

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And for my missionary lady friend, these checking sessions are very rewarding.  And as she sees the national people really grasp God’s Truth in their heart language, she has already decided to commit to repeating these intense experiences again in the next year.

That my friend is what missionary work is all about: being willing to give up all [comfortable] things in order that we might be able to present the Gospel Truth about Christ, and that others might believe.