What no one tells you about Bible translation is that the closer these faithful soldiers get to completing a translation, the more unbearably awful it gets. And not because the editing and publishing process is so grueling (it is). Rather the closer these heroes get to completion the more intense the disaster-inducing stones thrown at them by the enemy army. I even hesitate to share the details of the stories I’ve heard because they are so devastatingly sad, the most recent involving a translator who lost his three year old to drowning.
The stories of destruction at the enemy’s hands have destroyed me.
The translation team is fierce. The majority of the team consists of nationals (native people who share a particular language group) who commit to voluntarily working on the project. Many of these groups begin without a written language (only 12% of PNG lives in urban areas – the rest live remotely and rurally in villages). The village languages are without clear boundaries which means that the first missionaries begin by immersing themselves in a village, making note of every word they hear, and then walking through the village to find the invisible line where the language changes to another.
Most of these projects take decades. Pioneer Bible Translators has been in Papua New Guinea since 1977. They have only completed three New Testament translations in that time. There are 7 others in the works, two of which are in the very early stages. For these missionaries, this is a life work. There is no instant gratification to offer momentum. Almost exclusively, they are sustained by extreme prayer.
The translators make tremendous sacrifices for the sake of completing a translation. The nationals commit voluntarily. Because they live in remote parts of the country, they leave their families behind in the village, and one month at a time, they stay in national housing provided by Pioneer Bible Translators. Think frat house minus beer pong. Every other month, the translators spend five days a week, 7 hours a day, confined to a conference room while going through the entire New Testament. Word by word, verse by verse, they review it. At the end of the month, they return to their villages with a few basic goods given to them by PBT (PBT also covers their living expenses during their stay in national housing). This is not a for-profit commitment. It is purely sacrifice. The current translation nearest to completion was ready for print last December. One week before publication they discovered hundreds of inconsistencies in the text. Just when they thought the 34 year project had reached completion, they were back to month-long stays away from their families in national housing. It will most likely be another 18 months of sacrifice before they can dedicate this book.
As I have spent much of my time learning from this team, one thing keeps coming to mind. All this work – all these man hours – all these viscous attacks from satan – all of it is worth it knowing that precious souls will hear about the love of Jesus for the first time in their history. The people living in tiny villages all throughout Papua New Guinea are worth it. Every single one of them is worth it.
God says so. And these missionaries and these translators share God’s value for these people.
The people are worth it.
Pioneer Bible Translators and the other translation organizations in the area have only scratched the surface. There are over 800 languages in PNG. 12% of the world’s languages are on this small island (PNG is the size of California. Whereas California’s population is almost 40 million people, PNG’s is 7.) That’s 7 million people, most living remotely, speaking over 800 distinct languages. The numbers are overwhelming.
But these people – these missionaries and these nationals – they don’t talk about that. The numbers don’t discourage them, not a one of them exudes even a hint of fear. Rather every single one of them does not hesitate to offer the same response to my question, “Why?”
“Because I love these people – deeply. If it wasn’t for how much I love these people, I’d be long gone. But I love these people.”
The people are worth it.
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear no, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. Matthew 10:29-31
God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:8