Two recent studies, in particular, have prompted my thoughts: Theological Interpretation of Scripture by Stephen E. Fowl (Cascade Books, 2009) and the volume on “Scripture”, published by Christian Reflection: A Series in Faith and Ethics by Baylor University (2014).

Of course, as a Bible translator I have thought about translation for decades, beginning in 1958 when by wife and I, as members of SIL International and the Wycliffe Bible Translators, began working in Papua New Guinea. We had been assigned to work as linguist-translators with a group of people known as the Kewa, who resided in the Southern Highlands.

Some Background

The Kewa were Highland people residing in a general region of what was then called Papua, and they had lived there for (probably) at least two thousand years. They were subsistence farmers who cultivated (mainly) sweet potato and lived in scattered homesteads. They traded pigs, women and pearl shells with their neighbors and were linguistically related to some eleven other languages that spread across Papua and New Guinea from the Gulf Province (then called District) in the south to almost the Sepik River in the north. Historically, they had moved south from their homeland in the Enga area, well to their north. Census records from the early 1960s suggest that there were about 25,000 Kewa people speaking three main dialects, but by 2000 (my latest census figures), there were over 100,000 people.

Our job, in 1958, was to learn to speak Kewa, as well as learn all we could about their culture so that we could translate the New Testament. We had received some basic linguistic graduate training at the University of Oklahoma in two summers of study, as well as practical rural living while in Mexico for several months. We both had college degrees, some Bible training, and I had attended a one year missionary medical course in California.

Our training at SIL in Oklahoma had included ing to speak some basic dialogues in the Kiowa Native American language. We also had practice in phonetically writing word lists in a number of Native American languages and in analyzing the structure of one in particular (mine was Arapahoe and Joice’s was Comanche). In addition to regular lectures and practical sessions on linguistics, we had lectures on anthropology, translation and literacy. We were therefore somewhat prepared for initiating work among the Kewa, but not overly so.

By the 1950s the colonial Australian government had established three stations in the Kewa area: Erave, to the south, Ialibu to the north, and Kagua, somewhat in the middle. We did not know it at the time, but each station was in a different dialect area of Kewa.

Missionary work had begun in these marginal areas before we arrived: to the south in a dialect called Pole, where the United Fields Mission (now the Evangelical Church of Papua, or ECP) had built a station and were starting schools; the Catholic mission (Capuchin Order) was there as well. To the north (in Ialibu) both the Catholic and Lutheran missions had established stations and near Kagua (in the central) area the Catholics had another station. Further to the West the Lutherans built a station at Wabi.

On an survey in1958 with Dr Harland Kerr of SIL, we had visited Ialibu and Kagua stations and had hiked to adjacent areas (later Dr Kerr and his wife began work with the Wiru, east of the Kewa). The whole of the Kewa area was not yet “derestricted” but we were allowed (by the government) to begin work in the hamlet of Muli, which was, depending on the weather, some 4 to 5 hours walk south of Ialibu.

Language and Culture Learning

We learned quickly that the Kewa were, for the most part and certainly in the area where we began work, monolingual—they did not speak Tok Pisin (the trade language) or English. Our first attempts therefore depended upon gestures and guessing, although later we had access to a tentative study of the Erave dialect by Murray and Joan Rule of UFM.

However, Bible translation would be several years away: the Kewa language was unwritten and we would need to establish an alphabet to write it in a form that the Kewa people could use. This involved the analysis of stories and the grammar, beginning a dictionary, and preparing reading materials.

We were greatly aided by some “workshops” that SIL held at their center in the Eastern Highlands. Most notable was one in 1962 when Professor Kenneth L. Pike from the University of Michigan (and SIL) came to the center and worked with a number of us on our language problems. Kewa was a “tonal” language, so Joice and a young Kewa man worked on establishing sets of words that would determine tone patterns. Pike, an expert on tonal languages, examined their work and made suggestions. I worked on the syntax of Kewa, having already written a paper (later published) on its verb morphology. We went back to the village greatly encouraged and began some trial translation—the first five chapters of the Gospel of Mark. It was preliminary and needed extensive revision later, but it was a start.

Translation depends on native speakers, so we attempted to train several young men to read and write their language and to assist in the initial drafts. It was tough going: key words and phrases had to be developed and tried: repentance, believe, sin, baptism, even the word for God. It has taken years for some of the key concepts and words to develop within the churches. An example was the word for God that would be acceptable in all denominations and churches. The UFM mission used Jehovah (pronounced Yeopa), the Lutherans used Anutu (from their coastal churches), the Catholics used God (pronounced Ngote) and we suggested a vernacular word, Yakili. Years later the “official” accepted word was Ngote, but references to Anutu and Yakili (or Yaki in the West) were commonly heard in the churches.

Some examples of what we found: repentance was literally “to change one’s behavior”, baptism was “head water”, sin was “to eat trouble” and believe was “to make fast or strong one’s thoughts or ways”. Of course, these are but a fraction of the kinds of decisions that had to be made in our early translation efforts.

Most English speaking churches do not understand or think much about the problems of translation and how the culture is reflected and represented in the words the translator and his team choose. For example, the church of my youth was a “fundamentalist” evangelical church and supported only the use of the King James Version of the Bible. Anything else was “modernistic” and not to be tolerated.

It took several years for my church to discover that the KJV was not my source text and that I used many other versions as well (Greek didn’t count—that was probably OK). As a result, they decided that they would no longer support our translation ministry.

Fortunately, we were able to convincingly show to most of our supporters that a literal Bible translation was not only impossible, but also undesirable. What difference does it make if Jesus is the bread of life to people if they have never tasted bread? Or if he was the Lamb of God if no one had ever seen a sheep? Of course, we could show pictures once people knew how to understand and interpret them, but in the meantime…?

Any translation has to be understood locally, according to the culture of the people, if it is to be accepted locally and not deemed an “outside” interpretation. We can see this in our own culture when young people understand the Bible when it is in their idiom, but largely ignore it when in the language of the KJV.

In addition, and as Lamin Sanneh so convincingly describes (in Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture), Bible translation in the idiom of the people is their theological basis for living the Christian life. He notes that “Christianity has been a transcultural phenomenon, and indeed its doctrinal system remained plausible at all because of the rich variety of cultures that sustained the church” (51). We foster confidence and pride in the vernacular by insisting on its use, not only in translation, but in all phases of church life.

Training a Translator

I learned most about translation by translating, not by reading about how to translate. In the train of thought of C.S. Lewis (“Meditations in a Tool Shed”) I needed to look by means of the culture inside the translation, that is by means of the culture in which the translation was situated and not simply examine the structure of the translation from outside. But, of course, only an insider—a true speaker of Kewa and one who understood intuitively the culture—could look along the beam of the translation. I could try and, with considerable aid from native speakers, begin to understand some of the inside viewpoint. For example, I could appreciate to some extent why “Good Spirit” could not be used to translate “Holy Spirit”. There were no good spirits in the culture—the very word implied ancestral spirits who could be dangerous or certain beings who were malevolent.

My goal was to read through the passage to be translated and understand its exegesis. I could then attempt to explain it to the Kewa speaker and solicit attempts at how to best translate the passage. There were usually several different ways to say something that might seem simple: To say “he is dead”, for example, did I mean “really dead” or was he only “sick unto death”. And how did I know? Was there some evidential marker that needed to be supplied with the verb? The Kewa pronoun in the third person singular is neutral in respect to gender, so did I need to make it clear that it was a male or female who had died? And so on, in a never ending chain of discussions, cultural observations, as well as careful notes about implied information.

Theology of Scripture

I had never thought too much about theology and Scripture—I simply accepted the version I had as the Word of God. I realized that copyists and humans make errors and that these were incorporated into the texts we have today. I didn’t believe that what we worked with, regardless of the language, had somehow miraculously been preserved for our benefit. What had been conserved was the Spirit of God, who operated through the Scriptures to teach, admonish and correct his people. But mainly I looked at the structure and meaning of the Scripture as an outsider; it would be up to the Kewa to read and apply it as insiders.

This became clear to me on a number of occasions. For example, I remember reading through the fifth chapter of Galatians with a number of Kewa men, most of them adults, noting their reactions and questions. We came to verses 16-21, where the reader is reminded what “human nature” is like: idol worship, witchcraft, animosity, fighting, jealousy, anger, ambition, division, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and so on. I had solicited suitable Kewa words for all of these categories and seen some of them in action. As I read the passage the head man of the village listened closely. Finally, he spoke: “Karl, didn’t you tell us that Paul wrote that?” “Yes”, I replied. “And didn’t you tell us that Paul lived many years ago?” “Yes”, I replied again, “hundreds of generations ago.” “Well then,” the chief continued, “How did he know what we were like?”

I had formulated the categories from the outside and, as such they were merely a list of things that people (including ourselves) did wrong. The chief was applying the categories from the inside—the Kewa had participated in them. That is the difference between simply examining Scripture instead of having it reveal something beyond mere labelling.

As I have reflected on this, I can envision the Triune God speaking to the Kewa men through Scripture in a way that I had hoped for, but not totally understood. He was drawing the Kewa men to himself and communicating with them in their language—it was outside of my experience but inside theirs.

My view of Scripture had been a book and, if the book was not sold and read, God would not be able to do his job. My superiors and colleagues told me that only those who read the Scriptures could know what God said, although they might presently admit that hearing the Scripture (usually by technical means) was also fine. Most of us knew that God also seemed to communicate with the people through dreams, but that was outside the experience of most “evangelicals”.

The Scripture Narrative

I was slow to appreciate how telling the Gospel story might be better than reading it. My whole life, so to speak, was wrapped up in the translation and dedication of the New Testament (and later the Old Testament). A good translation would be dedicated with exuberant singing and dancing, coupled with the sale of hundreds of books. If it was read and there were obvious signs of its use, the project was “successful”.

I knew, however, that approximately 70% of the village people would never learn to read and the 30% who did would never read the NT with enthusiasm or very fluently. I also knew that hundreds of languages in PNG and the Pacific had fewer than 500 speakers and, in the next generation or two, were most likely to be absorbed in a larger cultural matrix or simply disappear. The outlook for the use of written Scripture in many languages seemed bleak.

I don’t know why I had not thought deeply about how Jesus operated, rather than on what he said in the Scriptures. Apparently He could read because he could quote the Old Testament, but he mainly told stories (parables). And often those stories did not make immediate sense to the hearers. Without further explication and explanation, they were left to wonder what he was talking about.

Of course missionaries have been telling Bible stories since they first began their work—it is nothing new. For the Lutherans, they had their set of stories, the Catholics had theirs, and many of the parishioner’s listened to recited them from rote memory. But they were still stories told from the outside, and fortunately, it seemed, the missionary was there to tell the listeners what the stories “really” meant. So there was nothing new in the strategy of telling stories or even dramatizing them.

What would be new was to encourage the native speaker to make up his or her own story based on the narrative he or she had heard. Their account might be heretical, of course, but it would be the only way to know if the story was understood from inside the culture.

Unfortunately, it was long after the completion of the West Kewa NT in 1973 that I had an opportunity to get involved in Bible stories with cultural adaptations. At the time, I was not only over a generation in time removed from when the NT had been completed in Kewa, but I was also a continent away from any speakers as well. However, we were able to return to PNG for periods of time in 2002-2004 at the invitation of a Kewa lay pastor named Wopa Eka, who wanted assistance in the revision of the NT.

Wopa was unusual in his zeal and ability. Although he had only 6 years of formal education, he was a fluent reader of Kewa and Tok Pisin and did a passable job on English as well. Like a number of Kewa people I met over the years, he was brilliant.

Wopa became the leader in the promotion of the revised West Kewa New Testament and he also become somewhat of an reformer. He preached from the Kewa Scriptures, read them, taught them and composed music about the messages in the NT. He also began to form some of his own cultural analogies, based on Scripture stories, sometimes combining them into a new story that made sense to Kewa listeners.

An abbreviated example of one of his stories follows and is based on the story of the lost sheep and Psalm 40: A Kewa man had a hunting dog that he cared for and was like a pet to him. He fed it from his own dish, nurtured it and valued it highly. One time the man had to make a trip to another area and would be gone several days, so he asked one of his clan brothers to look after it for him. Unfortunately (for him and the dog), the dog somehow fell down into an open pit latrine and no one was game to retrieve it. A couple of days later the dog’s owner returned to the village and asked about his dog. His clan brothers and others feinted ignorance about what had happened to the dog but the owner heard a dog’s cry in the distance. He determined that it was his and found the dog deep in the mess in the latrine. But it was his dog that he loved very much so he got a ladder, climbed down into the latrine and rescued his dog. He washed it well and now had it again as his own. Wopa concluded his story with this perceptive remark: “We were all in a mess (in the latrine) until Jesus pulled us out.

Wopa, as an insider, had used a cultural motif (a hunting dog) to represent a lost sheep, and in his story the dog had wandered away and had fallen into a mess. Of course this does not happen in the story in the NT, but the theme of redemption is clear and the application is wonderfully relevant to any sinner. As an outsider, I would probably not thought of the analogous possibility of a dog and a sheep and might have rejected the blending of OT and NT stories.

Translation as an Exercise

From the time we began to work in the Kewa language until the NT was dedicated, was a period of 15 years, but not all of it was in the Kewa area. After five years we took a furlough (1963-64) and I studied at Cornell University, graduating with an M.A. in linguistics and anthropology that was awarded in 1965. In 1967 I was awarded a scholarship to study linguistics at the Australian National University and I received a Ph.D. from there in 1970.

In summary, my studies concentrated on linguistics and anthropology, but my research papers, thesis and dissertation were on various aspects of Kewa. Our translation work amongst the Kewa had not been quick, but I hope that it has been through. What I have lacked was any clear conviction that the Holy Spirit could operate effectively through blended Bible stories with cultural analogies.

Unfortunately, Wopa died unexpectedly in 2013 and I have not been able to determine if his successors have used his methods to communicate the Gospel.

Getting it “done” Quickly

In the meantime, organizations involved in translation, including my own, have determined that technology is a large part of the answer: it overrides the inherent difficulties of literacy and living in the village for long periods of time with the people. Translators acquire a working knowledge of the vernacular and train—to some extent—national workers in basic translation principles. The SIL “translator” is now an exegetical consultant and program supervisor and the work is carried out in a place where electricity and communication are the primary consideration. Much like William Carey, they can now become involved in several translation projects at the same time

However, what is lost in many cases, is any sustained interaction with the people in their normal village environment and, without that, any depth of understanding of the culture of the people. A tenacious living model is more like that of Hudson Taylor and Adoniram Judson.

Both models will probably get the translation done, and one is obviously “faster” than the other. In Western cultures, speed is of the utmost importance, so it seems clear that technology will, in most instances, be the preferred model.