Many people wonder if there is a better, more efficient, or cheaper way when they hear about the goal of producing a Bible in the native language of a remote tribe that does not have a written language. One of the most common questions is “why not just teach them English?”.
Many people in Papua New Guinea speak English. If you go to YouTube, there are plenty of videos with locals speaking English well. Anyone in the country could go to the book store in town and buy a Bible in English.
The trade language of the land is the pidgin, Tok Pisin. There is a Bible in that language as well. This, too, can be found at the book store in town.
But those people speaking English in the videos are not the ones that we are going to work with. We are going to work with people who likely speak Tok Pisin as a second language, but have a native tongue that is not Tok Pisin nor English. Their native tongue, their heart language, is their tribal language.
Our plan is to spend two years compiling research into the culture and language of the tribe with whom we eventually work. This is going to be a period of intense study and preparation. We are foreigners coming to a new culture that is very different from Western culture. We will have to learn about a whole host of customs, food, gardening, animal keeping, leisure and work practices, biases, taboos, spiritual practices and understandings, economics, family life, and probably more.
The point of all that research is to produce a Bible and Biblical teaching that conveys the meaning of Scripture in such a way as it makes sense. This is more than just words. I’ll try to explain how the cultural context matters to the teaching and translation.
Let’s start with what it would take to effectively read a Bible in English. To learn enough to read a Bible in English the basics would be English grammar and vocabulary. Then there would have to be more education beyond that since there is more to communication than that. A text has a historical and cultural context as well as a literary context.
There would have to be education about certain historical, cultural, and literary matters that make reading Scripture make sense. The cultures of the past that any student of Scripture have to understand. These things will have to be explained in such a way that it makes sense. But these things are required of any student of Scripture. If reading Scripture in a third party’s language there is even more required learning.
To understand a given English translation, there is an amount of cultural understanding of the target culture that is needed. That target culture is likely North American culture. If the English version chosen is the KJV, that culture is sixteenth and seventeenth century England. There should not be a requirement of understanding the idioms and manner of speaking of sixteenth century England to understand Scripture. It is already a big task to teach the required cultural understanding of the historical cultures.
For further example, the difference could be compared to asking native English speakers to learn German because Martin Luther made a German translation. Why should this be done? Why would we ask English speakers to learn a language that is not their native heart language in order to read Scripture? This is not what happened. We have a long history of English translation and many Christians only ever read English translations.
The tribal language is their heart language. They think in that language. They grow up with that language. Their culture is mated to that language. A people’s heart language speaks to them in a way that a second language usually cannot.
More practically, there is a trade off to be considered. Is it more effective to teach a handful of westerners the target language and culture or to teach an additional foreign culture and a second or third language to all of the tribal people? The westerners will learn once and be done, the other would be an ongoing effort of education. I think it would likely have other adverse consequences for their culture.
The tribal people often cannot read and write their language because it is not written. Providing them with the ability to write their own language is a gift of love to them. It provides them with a way to preserve their cultural knowledge and heritage in written form. Though, we will discourage and not help produce written texts that propagate their erroneous religious beliefs.
When the tribal language has a written alphabet and the people are taught to read, the process of translation can be more direct. The best original language texts that we have can be directly translated to the target language.
For these various reasons, I believe the best course of action is to go, learn the language and culture and then produce a written translation in their language.