Recent quake brings memories, renewed vision to Bible translation

By September 3, 2012

Papua New Guinea (MNN) — Strong quakes have been felt around the "Pacific Ring of Fire" in the last few weeks.

One, measuring 6.2 magnitude, shook Papua New Guinea just a couple of weeks ago. Although no tsunami resulted, the incident did remind people of what happened the last time a tsunami accompanied an earthquake.

It was 1998. Wycliffe Bible Translators John and Bonnie Nystrom were assigned to the Arop project. Bonnie says around 6:30 pm on July 17, a quake shook the village where their teams were working. Then, the unthinkable happened. "They believe this underwater landslide is what actually triggered the three tsunami waves. They were 30 feet high, but the spread across the coastline that was affected was actually only about 30-40 miles. "

Bonnie goes on to say that the death took a third of the community. "The particular village that we lived in was on a narrow strip of sand between a large lagoon, about three miles by five miles long, and the ocean was on the other side where the tsunamis came from. It was sort of a double disaster because [people] had nowhere to run. They couldn't run inland, they couldn't run to high ground."

John says nearly every family they knew lost loved ones. The loss was hard to fathom. It was personal and devastating. "We lost a lot of close friends in our neighborhood. We were working with four Arop-speaking men on the Bible translation. One of them was killed in the tsunami; the other three Arop translators survived."

It wasn't long before the Nystroms saw something else. Bonnie explains, "We had been out in the village with the translators just two weeks before the tsunami happened. We had backed up all of the data–everything that they had been working on translating. When the tsunami happened, we were not there, and the data was not there. The [translators] lost all their computers, all their paper, and everything that they were working on. But we had all the backups with us, so we didn't lose anything in the Arop translation!"

The team was still in shock. They were wondering how a community could recover from a natural disaster that wiped out the entire infrastructure. John says one thing kept pressing on him: build on the foundation. "We knew we had to get the Arop translation going again. We knew it would take a while to rebuild and get that restarted. We also started thinking about the people who speak the Sissano language eight miles to our west and the Malayo language eight miles to our east."

Soon, more people sought the translation team out and began asking for Scripture translations in their heart languages. It was an impossible task, says John. "We kept thinking, 'There's no way we can help them. It's too difficult to help them now. Maybe we can help them sometime in the future, but we need to finish the Arop translation first' because doing one Bible translation takes so long, and it's a difficult job."

11 languages later, the pressure was really on. John remembers that "one of the Arop translators said, 'People's eyes are really open. They're much more open to the Gospel. We really need to do this now, even if it means slowing down our own translation project.'"

Then, John heard about a new approach to Bible translation that made more sense: clustering languages. For instance, you could take one "mother" translation and turn it into multiple "daughter" translations in related languages, saving years of work. "In the process of having 20-some translators from 11 different languages working at the same place, at the same time, what they're finding is that it's not a more efficient way to do translation. But the translators love working with people from other languages, and they're getting higher quality translations, as a result."

Bonnie adds that the tsunami did more than change the way they did Bible translation. It also changed their mindset to be more pro-active. "It was a disaster that caused us to think differently. One of the things in Papua New Guinea: moving from the cluster projects that have developed from some very unusual circumstances to saying, 'Is there a way to do this on purpose because of the circumstances we see there without having to have a disaster to change your thinking?'"

Bonnie goes on to say that this foresight prompted another question: When will the translators be able to start passing on their skills to other people? "The dynamics of the project is not just about getting translations done in these groups, but multiplying the training and the efforts of these translators to help the other 300 languages in Papua New Guinea."

In their new book, "Sleeping Coconuts," the Nystroms chronicle their journey from disaster to breakthrough in ministry. Finding hope in the Scripture, available for the first time in their heart language, the Arop people provide unique insight into the good that can come out of tragedy, challenging readers to face their fears and weaknesses with a new understanding of faith in God's goodness.

Tragedy to triumph! It's the story of unshaken faith.


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