Translating the Bible in Papua New Guinea
by CHRISTY ARMSTRONG
Sep 19, 2012 | 2859 views | 0 0 comments | 23 23 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Translating the Bible in Papua New Guinea
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DANIELLE JENNINGS spends quality time with a baby in the village of Levege in Papua New Guinea.
Whether or not they believe what it says, many Americans are somewhat familiar with the Bible. Verses are often emblazoned on bumper stickers, and copies of Gideon Bibles still occupy drawer space in many hotel rooms. However, Cleveland resident Danielle Jennings has discovered that people in some parts of the world are not familiar with the Bible at all.

A 21-year-old Lee University student from Bel Air, Md., Jennings spent part of her summer helping translate the Bible into a tribal language in Papua New Guinea, joining a group of others on a trip with Wycliffe Bible Translators.

The group of seven young women and three leaders from Wycliffe visited a village called Lavege in the West New Britain province of Papua New Guinea, a country just north of Australia.

Jennings said she learned about the trip while speaking with a representative from the organization during the university’s missions emphasis week last fall. The senior children’s ministry major was looking for a way to share the Bible overseas, and it seemed like a good fit.

She is president of and a flutist in the Lee University Symphonic Band and got her very first taste of international travel when she performed with the group on a trip to Cuba during the summer of 2011. However, this Bible translation trip was her first mission trip, the first on which she would be able to share the Bible directly with people overseas.

The Wycliffe group spent a week in Dallas preparing for the trip by learning about Bible translation and memorizing as much of the village’s language as they could.

After the group left the U.S., the events of the trip played out like movie scenes rife with action, drama and comedy.

“The first day we were there, our van was attacked,” Jennings said.

The van was surrounded by three men carrying a gun, a machete and a large rock, respectively. Their intention was to rob group members of their belongings and steal the van. Jennings said there were some very tense moments, but all escaped safely. That event just confirmed for them that the Bible translation work they would do was important, she said.

There were a few more uplifting moments that happened while the translations were taking shape and even some humorous ones that happened when both trip participants and villagers ran into language barriers.

Papua New Guinea is home to many different languages. There are approximately 863 languages spoken in the country, close to 10 percent of all the languages spoken in the world, according to the U.S. Department of State.

Jennings said they were translating the Bible into a language called Mangseng, one only spoken by people living in the area. Villagers from Lavege have to speak different languages when they visit other villages and cities, so many are multilingual. Children learn multiple languages in school, including at least one of the country’s three official languages, Tok Pisin, Motu and English. Still, residents of many small villages can only read in their first language — the one spoken in their village.

While the Wycliffe group learned some of the Mangseng language during their time in Dallas, Jennings said it was sometimes difficult to understand what people were saying because languages were often mixed together in conversation.

“It was kind of hard to pick up when they switched between languages,” Jennings said.

On this trip, each person with the Wycliffe group teamed up with a villager who helped translate portions of the book of Psalms. The native English speakers explained the meanings of more obscure English words, and the Mangseng speakers knew how to phrase things in ways the other villagers could easily understand.

According to the U.S. Department of State, 96 percent of all Papua New Guineans classify themselves as Christian. However, language barriers mean many Christians do not have access to the entire Bible.

“They are very spiritual people,” Jennings said. “But they don’t have the Old Testament yet.”

She said some verses were difficult to translate because there are words in English that do not exist in the Mangseng language. One example is a verse in Psalm 1 that uses the phrase “and its leaves do not wither.” In Lavege, the trees do not wither; they just turn yellow when they die. Since there is no Mangseng word to describe withering, the translated verse will say “its leaves do not turn yellow.”

As part of the translation process, group members would often take newly translated verses around to villagers to make sure they could easily understand them. Jennings said she will never forget talking to an elderly woman who had happy tears streaming down her face because a particular verse was especially meaningful to her.

“Seeing them hear the Psalms for the first time was an unbelievable experience,” she said.

Jennings said it was very hard to leave the village because the travelers had built good relationships with villagers in a short amount of time. She also said she left with a new perspective on what it means to serve other people, both through her own service as well as the hospitality villagers showed to the group.

“I learned the true meaning of selflessness from the people — just them giving up so much for us,” Jennings said.

The villagers gave members of the group many handmade gifts such as jewelry and grass skirts and held a feast and tribal ceremonies in their honor. The group stayed in villagers’ homes, and she said some men volunteered to give up their own beds so the women guests would have safe places to sleep at night.

Jennings’ trip took place from July 15 to August 9, so she did not have much time to recuperate from her trip at home before the first day of classes at Lee University on Aug. 22. She went from doing translation work in a Papua New Guinean tribal village to juggling the busy schedule of a college student and musician in Cleveland.

“It was hard. My sleep pattern was still off,” Jennings said. “It was definitely rewarding, though.”

She doesn’t see the trip as having just been about a group doing something good for a small, foreign village. What made the biggest difference for Jennings was seeing how excited the villagers were about living out their faith. She said that reminded her of what was important in her own life, and she hopes others will see that as well. Words being lived out are more powerful than words being read.

“I hope they see the impact we made on the culture and the impact they had on us,” Jennings said.