Bethan and her family spent seventeen years on Tanna, an island in the south of Vanuatu, translating the New Testament into one of the local languages. Seventeen years! Most people who speak that tongue also speak Bislama, the national trade language. Bislama Bibles are readily available. Children in Vanuatu are taught English and French in school, languages with dozens of modern Bible translations between them. So, why are people sent to these islands to spend decades translating the Scriptures for people who already have access to them?
That’s the question that was put to us when we visited SIL headquarters on Saturday afternoon. SIL is the organisation responsible for the Bible translation projects that are happening in the country. We had the privilege of sitting down with the translators, hearing what they do, and learning why it really is worth the effort.
We heard why English Bibles just don’t cut it. People in Vanuatu see English as a more sophisticated language because it’s used for education, but most understand it very poorly. They are taught to read the letters and sound out the words, but they do not comprehend what they read. This hit home for me when we visited a church on Sunday morning. Most people carry an English Bible into church with them, because it is seen as a mark of spirituality and piety. But the books sit on pews and remain closed even while the word of God is read and preached, because people do not understand them. Bislama is better understood, but for most people it is still a second language at best.
SIL translators spend years trying to address these issues by learning the local language that people grow up speaking, giving it an alphabet, teaching people how to read, and translating the Scriptures. And when people hear Jesus’ words in their mother tongue for the first time, they come to grasp the gospel they have heard all their lives but never truly understood.
All this effort does not go unappreciated; the locals want the Bible, and they’re willing to put the effort in too. I was dumbstruck when I saw this draft translation of the book of Acts, handwritten by one of the translators on the island of Ambrym. He’s not employed by SIL, he’s a Vanuatu local. He volunteers as a translator in his spare time, while trying to grow enough food for his family to survive. That will make me think twice next time I complain about not having enough time to translate six verses of Acts each week for my New Testament class!
Pray God would show more and more people why they should bother continuing this vital work of bringing people the word of life. And pray that he would bring many to faith as they hear his mighty works declared in their own tongue (Acts 2:11).