As militants surrounded his home village in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea (PNG), Bible translator Mark Sipaala [si-PAL-ah] stuffed a pile of handwritten Scripture translations into a rusty metal box and fled into the dense rainforest, with his wife Esther and their two young daughters. It was 1993 and independence fighters told villagers if they didn’t leave, they would be shot as suspected supporters of the Papua New Guinea Defence Force—the “other side” in the conflict that became known as the “Bougainville Conflict.”
Sipaala and his family—minus their son, who had fled with relatives to a refugee centre—spent the next 2½ years living with other villagers in several makeshift jungle camps in the mountainous Sibe (SEE-bay) region. At times, they had to scramble for cover as the conflict escalated and mortar shells peppered the area.
“During that time,” recalls the soft-spoken 63-year-old, “we spent about a week sleeping in a cave.”
One day in the rainforest, Sipaala opened the metal box containing his Sibe Scripture translations and gasped: the pile of papers inside was a soggy mess. With the exception of the Gospel of Mark, which had already been translated and published, years of work on other New Testament books had been erased by the jungle’s incessant rain and humidity.
Delayed but Determined
Sipaala’s work came to a halt nearly four years into the Bougainville Conflict—a bloody civil war locals call “The Crisis.” In the late ‘80s, complex social, political and economic issues sparked a long-simmering independence movement that led to the formation of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) and other factions. When PNG government troops were mobilized to quell the rebellion, civil war erupted in 1989. By the time it ended in late 1997, 15,000 to 20,000 Bougainvilleans had died in the fighting or because health care was not available.
Sipaala’s work on the Sibe translation was not the only project affected by the war. Expatriate staff and their families serving with SIL, Wycliffe’s main partner organization, evacuated early in the conflict. Local translators simply tried to survive, as violence escalated and most government services, including education and health care, shut down. Some local translators nearly perished at the hands of independence fighters.
For nearly a decade, thousands of young people were deprived of basic education and few Bougainvilleans survived without some degree of emotional or physical trauma.
Although this battered region of Papua New Guinea is slowly recovering, many Christians there believe that mother-tongue Scripture is needed more than ever to bring complete spiritual and emotional healing to the islands. But so far, just nine of Bougainville’s estimated 39 languages and dialects have received the New Testament. Several of these groups are now working on translation of the Old Testament, and eight more languages have active Bible translation projects at this time.
Volunteer translation teams still face many challenges to their work, such as oppressive heat and humidity, heavy rainfall, risky travel on rough roads or open seas, malaria and other tropical diseases—as well as the time they must devote to subsistence farming and other domestic duties.
Nevertheless, local believers have served notice that they intend to press on. In fact, they are key players in a comprehensive project known as the Bougainville Advance. This focus project of Wycliffe Canada aims to hasten the pace of translation and give all Bougainvilleans access to Scripture in the language and media that serve them best.
Launched by SIL and local partners in 2006, the Bougainville Advance Project employs three strategies: training, partnership and prayer. The training component equips Bougainvilleans to be translators as well as translation mentors and consultants to other teams.
Furthermore, local team members are learning how to encourage use of the translated Scriptures, conduct literacy courses and grow in their ability to manage language projects.
Main partners in the project include the Bougainville Bible Translators Organization (BBTO), the Papua New Guinea Bible Translation Association (BTA) and SIL International (Wycliffe’s main partner), as well as Wycliffe Associates, The Seed Company and various local churches and communities throughout Bougainville.
Funding partners include Wycliffe Canada and Wycliffe U.S.A., which channel donations to the project from interested Christians in both countries.
Prayer is a vital part of all translation projects and training courses, and project staff work at developing prayer groups in their particular region and beyond Bougainville and keeping them informed.
To expedite training for the growing number of language communities interested in Bible translation, SIL with the help of Wycliffe Associates (U.S.A.) built a small training centre on Buka, the smaller of Bougainville’s two main islands, in 2005. The centre is equipped with a classroom and office space, as well as apartments and dormitory-style sleeping quarters for up to 24 people.
The existence of a local training facility provides many strategic and economic advantages. Formerly, local staff had to travel to Ukarumpa, SIL’s main training centre on PNG’s mainland, which was both expensive and time-consuming. However, funding is still needed to bring qualified trainers to Buka , to acquire needed office equipment, vehicles, furnishings, and supplies and to build a second training centre in the southern region of Bougainville.
The centre offers courses in Bible translation, computers and software, literacy, Scripture engagement and more. They are held at various times throughout the year and often, the facility is filled to capacity.
Finding people to manage the centre has been a challenge too—but for the past two years, Americans Michael and Cheryl McDaniels have filled the gap.
“We’re the host and hostess,” says Michael, whose role as centre manager is a job he could never have imagined during his lengthy career as a “pit boss” in Las Vegas casinos.
“We’re in charge of maintenance, bookkeeping, arranging accommodations, maintaining vehicles, managing the staff. . . .”
“Whatever it takes,” adds Cheryl, who often sets another place at her dinner table for unexpected guests who arrive tired and hungry after a long journey to Buka from the interior or outlying islands.
For the local translators, the centre provides a well-equipped and comfortable place to connect with mentors and other colleagues, and receive encouragement as they grapple with the many challenges confronting their work.
Towards Clearer Understanding
Bougainvilleans Valentine Takahu and his wife Kathleen are frequent visitors to the centre. For the past 10 years, they have been working with a small team to revise an older New Testament translation for 25,000 Halia speakers.
“We are trying to do a translation that is more appropriate for this generation,” says Valentine, who also serves as vice-chairman of BBTO. “When we look through the older translation, we see a lot of words which the younger generation cannot understand.”
The 57-year-old lab technician-turned heavy equipment operator-turned translator began work on the revision in 2004, working alongside veteran SIL linguist Jerry Allen. Allen had returned that year to begin revising a translation of Luke’s Gospel because the language had changed significantly since he helped complete a New Testament translation in the late ‘70s.
The Takahus are working hard to finish the revision this year. Over the past decade, they have also helped produce vernacular media materials, like the “JESUS” film and Scripture recordings for radio. These are especially helpful for Halia people who never learned to read and write their language, like those who couldn’t attend school during the Crisis.
The couple believe that mother tongue Scripture will help their predominantly Catholic Halia people grow in their understanding of God and His Word. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Bougainville shares that view, and has officially sanctioned the use of mother tongue Scripture.
“Parishioners listen to it being read and they understand it clearly,” says Philip Tukana, a Bible teacher and lay preacher at Our Lady of Mount Carmel church on Buka Island.
However, only a few books of modern Halia Scripture have been published and distributed so far. Even so, many Halia people continue to read Bibles written in English or Tok Pisin (Melanesian Pidgin) because they struggle to read and write their own language. It’s a state of affairs Valentine would like to address, with help from the Bougainville Advance project.
“We have adult literacy programs on a small scale,” he explains, but adds that he and Kathleen must keep their focus on completing the New Testament revision before they can devote more time to literacy.
In future, Valentine and Kathleen hope to facilitate writers’ workshops for the Halia. Held in several language groups so far, the workshops help participants develop the orthography, or writing system, if their language has never been written. Students also create reading primers and other materials, such as cultural stories, Bible stories and Bible studies.
The workshops are part of a broader strategy to increase mother tongue literacy and help ensure that translated Scriptures will be used by individuals and churches.
Meanwhile, Bible translation programs still need to be launched for nearly 25 language groups. Robin Rempel of SIL, who served as project manager for the Bougainville Advance until May 2014, believes the best way to accelerate the pace of Bible translation for these remaining language groups is a “cluster” strategy, whereby translators from several related languages share their knowledge and resources.
“When I got out here and started getting a feel for the situation, it seemed ideal for a cluster approach to translation,” she says.
Rempel started her SIL career in PNG in the ’80s before moving on to serve Bible translation efforts in Kenya and Uganda. In 2012, she felt God tugging at her heart to return to PNG—and Bougainville in particular.
“I was considering an invitation to Nigeria, but it seemed that Bougainville was just so . . . ripe.”
She cites the growing interest in many local communities to launch Bible translation programs. As well, she says, there is strong support from key government ministers who have asked for her help to lay groundwork for mother-tongue education programs throughout Bougainville.
As for implementing cluster programs, she has seen it work in Africa and even elsewhere in PNG, and she’s convinced it can work in Bougainville.
“Especially in the northern region, it’s like a chain of languages and dialects. There are six New Testament translations now that have been finished or are in process of completion. Let’s get these remaining New Testaments finished, because we can use the ones that have been finished as resource texts, and just go,” she says, snapping her fingers for emphasis.
For that to happen, however, she recognizes the urgency for more local people to get involved.
“We need bigger teams. . . . This will be a never-ending project unless we finish faster than we have in the past.
“We’ve got to finish, and we’ve got to do it faster and we’ve got to do it with younger teams, so that we have more current language use going into the translations in the first place.”
Rempel’s desire to speed up the pace of translation is echoed by Bougainville native Ben Aringana, the new regional director for SIL, Wycliffe’s main partner organization.
“What I really want to see . . . is language programs moving faster than they do now,” says Aringana, a former pastor and Bible college administrator who began serving as director in September 2013. That can only happen if they are successful in attracting more staff from local churches and communities.
In the Sibe region, veteran translator Mark Sipaala is asking God for additional workers to help finish Bible translation and promote literacy. He was forced to start again, beginning in 2001, after his handwritten translations were ruined during the Crisis.
Though he was deeply discouraged, he wanted to keep his promise to God that he would translate the New Testament for his people. Now assisted by colleague Samson Sukina and at least three others, the team still has many years of work ahead of them.
Sipaala believes the Sibe need Scripture in their heart language to grow spiritually. He also believes that mother tongue Scripture is essential to restore the many thousands of people who experienced unthinkable suffering during the Crisis.
“They will find spiritual healing—and hope—when they read God’s Word in their own language.”