By Brad Dupray
You couldn’t write the history of Standard Publishing without devoting a chapter to John Carter Sr., who served the organization for 34 years. Likewise, John’s son, Bob, has devoted himself to a lifetime of ministry. Bob’s work has taken him in a different direction as he has recently completed work on the translation of the Bible into Pijin, the unofficial national language of the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific. Bob and Amy, his wife of 24 years, reside in Waxhaw, North Carolina, where they work with SIL International, a sister organization of Wycliffe Bible Translators. Bob holds a bachelor’s degree from Pacific Christian College, Fullerton, California, and master’s degrees from the University of Texas at Arlington and Jerusalem University College in Israel.
What attracted you to Bible translation?
I was a preaching and youth ministry major at Pacific Christian College, and it didn’t feel like a good fit. I had always done well in languages, and one day I was in the school office and saw a brochure on Bible translation. I was intrigued by that possibility and started looking into it. At the time, I was doing my youth ministry internship with Dick Alexander at First Christian Church in Anaheim (California), and Dick encouraged me to look into Bible translation.
The first step was to go to the summer linguistics program at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, where you’re exposed to the basics of language—how sound systems and grammatical systems work. Within the first week I really knew God had gifted me to do this kind of work.
Tell me about the Bible translation process in 50 words or less.
The translator must examine and understand the meaning of the source text, and with the help of mother tongue speakers, figure out the best way of expressing that meaning into the receptor language.
What’s the best part of translation work?
Getting it right. I remember several times in our translation process, our senior translator, who is a local guy, and I would be working hard on a particular passage and we would suddenly look at each other and start laughing because we knew we had gotten it just right! And then at the end of the process, of course, seeing people hold the Scriptures in their own language and read it for the first time is an amazing experience.
How do you learn a language that hasn’t been reduced to writing?
It involves a lot of training. You have to recognize and learn sounds that you might not be familiar with, along with patterns of those sounds that may not be in your own language. You have to have a framework for analyzing different grammatical systems and you need friendly people who are willing to spend time with you in spite of the fact that you understand and speak less of their language than their 4-year-old kids. And you have to be willing to make lots of mistakes and laugh at yourself when you make them.
How do you find those “friendly people”?
In our particular case we’ve never had a problem finding them. The main thing is to be interested in them as people. If you show interest in their language, which is right at the heart of their cultural identity, they’re much more likely to be friendly. As Amy and I have looked back, we have been amazed that people would let us come into their homes and spend so much time with them. It has been our experience that, for many cultures, people are more important than activity.
As opposed to . . .
As opposed to our culture where it might be, “I’m sorry I don’t have time for you, I have to get to this meeting.”
Is your work a matter of ”starting from scratch” in getting people on track toward the written word?
Not always. There are places where we are working with PhDs who have had all of their education in a national language and are fluent in multiple languages, but their own language has never been translated. And we don’t only work with groups that don’t have a written language. For example, Solomons Pijin has been in writing to some extent, since the late 1970s, but translating the Bible into Solomons Pijin will help the language reach a level of standardization, and this will encourage the church to use the language in ministry, and the government and other entities to use it in education, communicating laws, etc.
If they read in other languages, then why bother with a Bible translation?
The illustration I like to give is that at one point I used to be pretty fluent in German, but I never read the Bible in German devotionally, because it didn’t communicate to me at deeper than surface level. I want to read in my “heart language” (which in my case is English). People also say, “If your God is so great, why doesn’t he speak my language?” That, by itself, means a lot. If God speaks my language, he must be really great, because I can talk to him. Another image people use is food. They say, “If I read the Bible in the national language it’s like eating dry bread, but when I read the Bible in my language it’s like having a sumptuous feast.”
So motivation to read is not an issue?
As far as motivating people to learn to read, we haven’t encountered that problem. Some are motivated to read because they desperately want to read God’s Word in their own language. Some are motivated because they want their language and culture to develop. We have had some people hesitate because of cultural reasons, or because they don’t see the advantage for them or their children. But usually, over time, they will decide it’s important for them as individuals and as a people.
How do you answer the opposition from anthropologists who claim you are harming these cultures?
Some anthropologists want to maintain the “noble savage” idea. They think we’re being change agents, but in our experience we see that change is going to come one way or another. By helping people read and write and develop their own language and culture, we’re helping them have their own say in deciding what those changes will be.
Would most of the cultures where translation work takes place be considered primitive?
That depends on how you define primitive. Traditional cultures cover quite a broad range: from the deserts of Africa to the jungles of Papua New Guinea. As an Old Testament specialist, I see that many of the traditional cultures we work with understand the Old Testament better than we do in the West, because their culture is very close to the Old Testament culture—living with seasonal cycles, agrarian products, etc. When they see consistently, over the entire Old Testament, how God works with his people that he has chosen, that he keeps his promises, that after the flood he says I’ll never do this again, and as long as there is summer and winter and rain cycles I will love them—they get a very clear picture of who God is.
And that whole story points to what happens in the New Testament.
Of course the New Testament is built on that—the Messiah who was promised through the prophets and even before. Jesus came as the fulfillment of God’s promise that out of Judah the King would come. And, of course, Israel, from the beginning, was designed to bless the world and Jesus was the fulfillment of that promise.
So for these people, salvation history starts in Genesis, as they develop a clear idea of who God is and what his desire is and how he brings that about through his Son. And as they see sinful man throughout the Old Testament, they can begin to see the need for an eternal sacrifice that would end the need for a yearly sacrifice.
Does the Bible begin to become routine to you after awhile? Or does translation work make the Bible come more alive?
Yes and yes. Ever since I was studying at PCC this has been a challenge for me. I’m an academically inclined person, so when I approach a text, my first impulse is to try and analyze it, sometimes trying to figure out how to translate it. I’ve asked our support team to pray about that many times. At the same time, spending most of my day studying the Scriptures, and having lived in Israel for more than two years, has given me the opportunity to understand the background and interconnectedness of the Scriptures more deeply.
Does the translation process itself draw people to Christ?
In a situation where there are no believers, often the first ones who come to Christ are the national translators themselves. One of my professors at Texas had a very difficult situation where he worked. It took him seven years just to get somebody to talk to him. This was a culture that believes there is limited good: there’s only so much good in the world and if I give my good away, then I lose it. So they wouldn’t talk to him. It took 23 more years to get the New Testament translated, and at the time he left there were no believers. About 15 years later he started getting reports of small churches springing up because people were reading those Scriptures. We believe the Bible is the Word of God, and God promises that his Word is effective and sharper than a two-edged sword. There is no better tool for evangelism than that.
What happens once the translation work is done? Are there missionaries on the ground to help build the church?
When the New Testament is done, in some cases, the local team is trained to a point where they can go on to the Old Testament. Very few groups are happy with just the New Testament—very few are happy to stop there. In the Solomon Islands we have five or six active Old Testament projects. The people there desperately want to carry on and have the whole Word of God in their language.
Wycliffe is a specialty organization that focuses on Bible translation and literacy work. We also do “Scripture use” work where we work with local nationals and expatriates to make effective use of the translated Scriptures. That could be developing Sunday school materials, children’s storybooks, Bible study programs—working with other organizations to get those translated or written. But our primary role is not church planting and evangelism. What we really want to do is to work ourselves out of a job and hand over the Scriptures to the locals or other expatriates who can help the local people to carry on with churches.
Is your work on the Pijin Bible complete? Where do you go from here?
I’m just about done with Pijin. My two focuses as an international translation consultant are training (training others to be translators and translation consultants) and actually doing translation consulting itself—a quality control step.
How do you provide consultation when you don’t know the language the Bible is being translated into?
In just about every case, the translation team will produce a “backtranslation,” which is basically a modified literal translation back into a language that the consultant knows. As an outsider I can come into a project and give counsel and advice and ask questions about the translation.
What is the future of Bible translation as a mission?
There are about 2,200 language groups that don’t have the Bible in their language, representing about 193 million people. Wycliffe is committed to what we call “Vision 2025.” We want to work with other people and organizations around the world, like Pioneer Bible Translators, for example, to see sustainable translation projects begun in every remaining language by the year 2025. Notice that I said “begun in every remaining language.” There will still be lots of work to do after 2025, and we need lots of people to join us in this work.
Brad Dupray is senior vice president, investor development, with Church Development Fund, Irvine, California.