It’s hardly surprising that people and communities celebrate when they get their newly translated New Testament or Bible. It affirms that they matter to God. It’s also the culmination of years – normally decades – of dedicated work. And sometimes, remarkably, the translation work is done in the midst of civil conflict, death and tragedy.
The fact is, the work of Bible translation is not quick or easy. It requires steady application over many years, and the overcoming of many obstacles. Invariably there is much pre-translation work – often the language is oral only and has never been written down. Years of analysis of the language, developing a writing system that will be easy to read, and other elements need to be done before translation work can begin.
Decades of work will have gone into producing this vital and life-changing book! Hence the massive community-wide celebrations – as seen on 25 April as four language groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) celebrated the launch of their New Testaments. For the Lobala, Mono, Ngbandi-Ngiri, and Pagabete communities it was a day full of joy, singing, dancing, food and happiness, especially given the disruptions caused by civil conflict over the years.
Starting from scratch
But this launch event was also the fulfilment of work that David Morgan, who serves with Wycliffe, and others began some 37 years ago.
‘I first went to this part of the world in 1984,’ says David, ‘where I carried out survey work, including these four language communities. My task was to investigate the need for Bible translation in various parts of northwest DRC.
‘Surveying was basic and decidedly old-fashioned. On the first survey expedition we travelled in dugout canoes from village to village, noting where each language was spoken, taking word lists and asking many questions. It was very slow work that needed weeks of preparation and then weeks of analysis afterwards. Through that, we identified Lobala, Mono and Pagabete as key needs in terms of Bible translation.
‘In 1986 I started to focus on Lobala and went to live in a remote Lobala-speaking village. Initial language work involved writing a description of the grammar and the phonology (the speech sounds of the language), creating a dictionary, and collecting stories, proverbs and cultural information. I filled umpteen notebooks as initially I had no computer. I strengthened contacts in the community, and working closely with the local church. I then identified a potential translation team from the local community, gave them initial training and we got started.’
This equipping of local translation teams was crucial to these four New Testament translations. Those serving with Wycliffe got the whole process started through their surveys, orthographic work, drawing in the community, and training local people in Bible translation, but the actual translation was done by the Congolese translators.
A long story… with a happy ending
And the translation work? ‘It’s a long story, sadly with civil war, death and displacement featuring heavily,’ says David.
‘The Congolese civil war had a marked impact on the Lobala-speaking community. As an example, the remote village of Imesse where I was based for a time changed hands between government and rebel forces no less than 11 times. The entire population fled the village, living under plastic sheets provided by the UNHCR. The church was bombed by aircraft. Some Lobala people I knew were locked in a house and burnt alive. My dear friend Botoko, who worked so hard on creating the Lobala dictionary with me, was killed by lightning while transporting livestock in a canoe on the river. Those were dark times indeed for the Lobala people.
‘The civil war forced us to re-configure everything from afar. Much of what we envisaged back then, especially our involvement in the project, came to nought. But God’s plans triumphed. Local colleagues stepped in to lead and manage the projects. High-level training was often fast tracked, as was the case with (see ‘Aside 1: Bolobo’ below).
These interruptions, coupled with the training needed to get the local translators fully equipped, meant that translation work on the Lobala New Testament did not begin until 2007. It was completed in 2017. (The translation work on the other three New Testaments took between 15 and 17 years.)
‘The work of Bible translation is never a short sprint. It’s always a marathon – a story of steady, gradual progress. It involves a lot of preparing the ground and providing training before the translation work can begin.’
But all the effort is so worthwhile. Now the 65,000 Lobala speakers have the printed New Testament in their language. As do the Mono, Ngbandi-Ngiri, and Pagabete.
‘The translation is complete and the first stage finished,’ says David. ‘Now we need to ensure that these vital conduits of God’s word are used – that they don’t just sit on a dusty church shelf somewhere, being food for termites or ants or houses for mice and spiders. They need to get into the hands of the people, be read by them and help to transform their lives and their communities. Only then has the work of Bible translation truly achieved what it is meant to achieve.’
James Poole, Executive Director of Wycliffe, comments: ‘These four New Testaments are testimony to God’s faithfulness in making his word available to all people, and the willingness of the teams to put the needs of others above their own for the sake of the gospel. Thanks to supporters in the UK, over the coming decade we could see a dramatic upsurge in the number of Bibles and New Testaments being finished. This is crucial to building a world in which everyone can know Jesus through the Bible.’
Aside 1: Bolobo
I involved an able young student called Bolobo in checking some of the early translation work and then took him to Yaoundé in Cameroon to help clarify the tone shift patterns in Lobala. Apart from going to DRC in the first place, that was probably the single most significant thing I ever did. I could see a role for him in translation work. He attended courses and learnt English in Yaoundé (Cameroon), and returned there under his own steam on several occasions. He then studied in Bangui, did very well and was selected for MA translation studies in Kenya. This all happened while the civil war raged in DRC. After completing his studies, Rev Bolobo (as he now is) returned in 2007 to re-start the Lobala translation project, revise the orthography, work with a wider range of churches and people than I ever did, and complete the work.