Imagine an island in Eurasia. A place with no church, no believers and no written language. It’s a place that the Fini* people call home. A land of shepherds and fishermen.
It’s also a place a couple called Steve* and Nikki* knew that God was calling them to. Before they left, there were significant challenges. They discovered that their main supporting church in the UK was having major problems, Nikki’s Mum was having serious health issues and a local believer who knew them had been arrested by the security police, all of this happening in the two weeks before Steve first went to visit the Fini people. The spiritual opposition was intense, proving just how valuable their work would be.
The Fini people were scared of death
When Steve first did a location trip there in 1997, exploring what the language situation was and if there was a need for translation, he was surprised at people’s reaction. When he approached two or three people about writing down their language, he was told, ‘Shush, don’t say anything,’ because they were so terrified of what the authorities might do.
This wasn’t the only fear that they had. The Fini people were scared of death. Terrified of dying, of witches, and of demons called the jinn. Lots of their folklore involves stories of witches and people coming under the influence of evil spirits. Steve knew that if he could help them to know Jesus then they’d be able to know the power which would protect them from those influences. But in order for them to know Jesus, they needed to have a Bible, and how could he introduce them to the Bible when they didn’t even have an alphabet?
To begin the process, Steve knew that he’d have to talk to the local authorities, but he was wary of approaching the governor because of what he’d heard. But God nudged Steve to go and speak with the governor, who was a local man, and when he did, he discovered that he’d already been trying to develop the alphabet himself. Steve and Nikki coming alongside scratched the itch in the perfect place. This also matched with one of Steve and Nikki’s goals, which was to preserve the Fini language, creating literacy material so children could read and write in the language they understood best. Wanting to do this gave them favour with the local authorities. But first they needed an alphabet. And to create an alphabet you need a team.
The first book for them was the book of Jonah
Steve and Nikki’s team consisted of a linguistic consultant and a literacy consultant. They also had input from the Fini community. Once they had an alphabet, translation of the Bible could take place, a project which takes years. So where do you begin, in this library of 66 books? Often it’s one of the gospels, Mark or Luke, to share the good news of Jesus, but not for the Fini. The first book for them was the book of Jonah, one of the Minor Prophets, greatly respected by followers of the local religion, and also a book which says so much about God’s nature and of his love for his creation. The Fini people live on an island; they’re a fishing community, so Jonah speaks perfectly into their worldview. Alongside fishing, sheep and goats are a huge part of their culture. Steve can tell the story of Jacob (Genesis 30:37–31:16) more easily in Fini then he can in English because all the vocabulary is there.
You may be wondering how the processes of translation works. It goes like this. First Steve and David*, the Fini mother-tongue translator, sit down and look at the passage they are going to translate. They try to predict what problems may come up, though this isn’t always possible. David then translates the passage from the Bible in the language of wider communication, which is David’s second language. This is then typed into the computer and translated back into English so Steve can understand what David has written. Translation is done by mother-tongue speakers because they are the only ones who can make it fluent, natural and accurate. Steve sits alongside David so he can bring his knowledge of the Bible to bear on what David has translated. Then if needed he will suggest changes so that what he has written reflects the biblical text. Some time later, Steve and David review the biblical materials they have produced using a list of basic comprehension checking questions. If possible, the same questions are also used to check the text with other Fini community members – in this case, a gentlemen called Alan*.
A real answer to prayer
Alan’s arrival in the team was a real answer to prayer. David had been working with Steve and Nikki for ten years, but they needed an additional person to work with.
Alan had come to faith though an advert on a Christian TV programme. A consultant coming out to provide some training for David bumped into the man who was discipling Alan. This then meant that Steve and Nikki could meet with him and so get the book of Jonah checked by a Fini speaker who had not been involved in the translation. Checking the text with Alan was the perfect way to see if it was as clear and understandable as they hoped it would be.
The main focus of Alan’s work is revising previously translated Scriptures to check how well they have been translated. Whilst going through the book of Jonah, Alan was easily able to understand what was written and to answer comprehension questions about what he had read. He even felt so comfortable that, when reading chapter three aloud, he put on a special voice for when Jonah announces God’s judgement on the people of Nineveh.
After Alan has given his input the text is sent off to a translation consultant for any changes that he feels are needed. Once that stage is reached, there is a checklist of people who have to sign off on the text. Finally it is ready to be published – but not in the traditional sense.
The Scriptures will be published on an app in three languages: in English; in the language of wider communication, a language people commonly use to communicate across language and cultural boundaries; and in Fini. Publishing on an app for smartphones is the best option for two reasons. Firstly, this works a lot better in an area where almost 100% of people are non-Christian and it could be dangerous for someone to carry a Bible in the street. Secondly, it cuts out the challenges of distribution and the logistics of transporting Bibles to the Fini region. There is hope that there will one day be an audio version too so people can listen and follow along as they read.
My dream would be that they would take the gospel somewhere else
Their next goal is to publish the Discovery Bible Study with a selection of Scriptures from Genesis to the Gospels. And Steve has other ambitions too: ‘My dream would be that they would take the gospel somewhere else. There are two related languages, one of which is hard to reach and very resistant to outsiders, but because the Fini are similar then that could be a route in to see a community of faith on the island and for the language to thrive, especially in schools, learning to read and write in their own language. If the Fini church/community is at a level where they are taking the gospel elsewhere, then the gospel really has taken off on that island. That’s a dream I’ve got – that would be a cool thing to happen.’
When Steve arrived, there were many challenges, and looking back it’s amazing how far they’ve come. It is still early days, but the fact that a whole book of the Bible is ready to be read and shared, and has the potential to transform lives, is news worth celebrating.
This is only the beginning of a long journey, but it’s one that could transform an entire nation. So let us pray that the ripple effects of God’s word coming will be huge, that their fear of dying, of witches, and of the jinn will become part of their history instead of a present reality, and that one day, their faith in Jesus will be so strong that they will be able to ‘take the gospel somewhere else’.
Martin is the editor of the Wycliffe prayer diary in Words for Life magazine. Click below to sign up for Words for Life by post.
*Names changed for security reasons