God Speaks Their Language - Then There was Light
In 1983, my husband and I took our one-year-old son and moved to an Asian island to live with a people group of about 120,000 speakers of the Aleno language. They wanted us to locate in their largest Christian village on the edge of a lake, around which were other villages; some Muslim and some Christian.
Dutch missionaries who lived there from the late 1800s until WWII had produced an Aleno to Dutch dictionary and a Bible story book. The Aleno Christians seemed to understand these stories from the Bible - more on that in a minute. There is a national language (or trade language) Bible but they clearly did not understand the teaching parts of the Bible, particularly any of deep theological truths. Aleno is their first language, or mother-tongue, and it is also from a completely different language family than the national language Bible.
My husband and I wanted to take up where the Dutch missionaries left off and produce a translation of the New Testament for them in their mother-tongue - their heart language.
A very generous family with seven children took us into their household and gave us the largest bedroom in their sago palm, thatched house. I have a picture of them standing in front of it sitting here on my desk.
They cooked for us and washed our clothes for us down at the lake. We accompanied them to church and all manner of social events. They took care of us.
Throughout the day we would ask the Aleno word for this and that object and event. As we got these words down in little books we took with us everywhere we went, and also tape recorded some Aleno dialogue and stories, we explained that we wanted to try the challenge of speaking only Aleno, and not the local market or trade language. Though there were times when either they or we would give in to frustration and switch to the trade language, we gradually grew in our ability to say simple sentences as they diligently corrected our errors. What helped me most with my particular learning style was writing down their tape recorded stories and trying to figure out what each word and parts of words meant, and its grammatical function in the sentence (applying our previous studies in linguistics).
Gaining in Aleano fluency
Over time, even during a furlough back home in the U.S., the sentences of the written down stories that I kept poring over and sorting out stuck in my head. The grammatical patterns of the language stuck so much in my mind that when we returned there after furlough, in just a couple weeks, my Aleno fluency quickly increased.
Soon, we were ready - with just barely enough fluency - to try to translate into Aleno the simplest Bible passages, the stories of Jesus’ miracles. Six years after we had initially moved there, we had the Gospel of Mark completely translated, checked over by a translation consultant and then printed in booklet form as a trial portion.
Bible Translation in Action
The scenario in this video is very similar to what I did. It involved discussions with speakers of the Aleno language themselves to choose the wording of each verse. At the same time, I made sure the meaning that the Aleno wording communicated was the same meaning of the biblical text.
The first trial portions (the next was Acts and then some of Paul’s “easier” epistles) helped us see how to improve the Roman alphabet representation of Aleno sounds and words. The hardest to determine was where some of the word breaks were best placed and a decision to not use the question mark in questions, which signalled to the reader the wrong question intonation. There were some challenges, too, when choosing the right word.
26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a village in Galilee, 27 to a virgin named Mary. She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David.
The right word for ‘virgin’
When we worked on Luke 1:27, I did a first draft and used the Aleno word for ‘virgin’. The Aleno speaker helping me make adjustments to the draft, so it read more fluently, edited that word changing it to ‘teenage-female’.
Wondering why he liked that word better I asked him why he chose that word. He said, “We have to use that word, because if we use 'virgin,' then that would be a miracle.” I agreed with him saying that’s right, it would be and it actually was a miracle. He asked, “Well, why then doesn’t it say that in the trade language Bible?” I explained how the word trade language uses in this verse can actually mean both but in this case it is supposed to mean ‘virgin’ and I saw it excitedly dawn on him, Wow! Mary’s pregnancy was a miracle!
1 John 4
7 Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. 8 But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love.
The right ‘love’ word
When working on “let us love one another, because love comes from God … God is love” (1 John 4:7-8), a choice had to be made between the two Aleno words for love. The Aleno speaker wanted to use in “let us love,” the Aleno word I'll call Love-1, which refers to “affectionate/familial love,” the type of dutiful love we owe to relatives. In “love comes from God” and “God is love,” he wanted to use the word I'll call Love-2. This Aleno word refers to love only God can do or "unmerited love".
However, this was certainly confusing, because that would mean
we are to Love-1 others because Love-2 is from God,
i.e., Love-1 others with Love-2 from God. What??
In discussions with the Aleno church leadership, I saw in their faces a light bulb come on when they came to realize that the N.T. teaches we are able to Love-2 other people through God’s Spirit who Christ sent after he returned to heaven. It was an aha! moment for them to come to know they can love others with God’s love.
We worked on more and more of the epistles, and by 1993 one-third of the N.T. was in draft and checked over by a consultant. My Aleno fluency reached a point where, when we were away from the village, I could roughly draft on my own. Then, when we were back in the village, I could read through the drafts with Aleno speakers looking for parts where comprehension of the draft should be improved. In 1997, two-thirds of the N.T. was in draft and we started digging into the hardest epistles.
By employing the principle of meaning-based translation, translating the meaning instead word-for-word, the Aleno translation used the natural Aleno language structure and words.
In 2002, the Aleno N.T. was dedicated at a celebration service. The Aleno people can now understand God's word more accurately and clearly. The Bible now in their mother-tongue speaks clearly to their hearts. They have just recently formed a committee to work with the United Bible Society to do a translation of the Old Testament.
Mat weaving craft of the Aleno women
How to be involved
- Wycliffe Bible Translators: World Missions for Unreached People Groups
The work I describe in this hub article was done with Wycliffe Bible Translators. Serving Global Missions through Bible translation and literacy in the native language of people everywhere. Check this link out and learn how to get involved.
Battle For The Bible - The English Bible
© 2011 Deidre Shelden