A familiar tapping on the bamboo door announced Aidani’s presence.
‘Come on in!’ Sigmund called, always pleased to see his ‘little brother’.
Their friendship had deepened over years of language learning and Bible translation in Aidani’s home village in Papua New Guinea. They had filled their days with pronunciation practice and vocabulary lessons as Aidani taught Sigmund, from Wycliffe Norway, to speak his language, Umanakaina, and they had plumbed the depths of the language together for the best way to communicate the meaning of each Bible passage. But one concept still eluded them. One word seemed to be completely absent from the language.
Aidani came in.
‘I wanted to let you know I’m leaving tomorrow,’ he announced.
‘Oh, where are you going? Will you be gone for long?’
But he wasn’t planning on coming back.
Sigmund was devastated, but Aidani could not be persuaded to stay. Little did they know, God was about to unveil a beautiful concept that had been hidden in this language for centuries and that would change Aidani’s life, and the lives of many Umanakaina speakers, forever.
Some people believe that the features of your language – its vocabulary and grammar structures – shape your worldview and capacity to understand different ideas. Whether or not that is the case, it is certainly a challenge for Bible translators like Sigmund and Aidani when they are searching for a word that just doesn’t seem to exist. The local language may, for instance, have seven different words for potato, but no word for glory or grace. And without a clear way of expressing important biblical concepts like this, how can people understand the Bible’s message of good news, put their trust in Jesus, or grow in faith?
So what do you do? Sometimes you can expand the meaning of a word that’s already part of the language, and sometimes you need to introduce a word from another language. At other times, God has something entirely different in store.
Norwegian couple Sigmund and Ingjerd Evensen and their four children spent many years living and working with a people group in Papua New Guinea. The Umanakaina people lived in an isolated village that had almost no contact with the outside world. There were no roads into the village, and for many people, the Evensens were the first white people they had ever seen. When they arrived, they couldn’t understand a word of Umanakaina.
Fortunately there were two young men in the village who knew a little English and turned out to be skilled language teachers. Aidani and Taniro would get Sigmund to repeat words over and over until they were happy with his pronunciation and understanding. Ingjerd and Sigmund also went around the village pointing at things, writing down what they heard and recording conversations on a cassette tape. They came to be accepted by the Umanakaina people, and spent 17 years living among them, creating a written form of the language together, and helping to make the New Testament in Umanakaina a reality. Aidani and Taniro became close friends of the Evensens, and eventually became accomplished Bible translators, too.
During the Bible translation process, one word caused some real challenges: forgiveness. The whole concept was apparently alien to the Umanakaina. It seemed that no-one in this culture had ever forgiven anyone for anything before. In fact, the traditional way to react to being wronged was to shame the offending party by leaving the community for good. How then could they begin to understand this thing they had never done and had no words to describe? How could they come to accept God’s forgiveness, or forgive others?
They had been seeking a way around this obstacle for several months with little success until, at last, God intervened. Sigmund was reading by the light of a paraffin lamp one evening when Aidani stopped by. He looked agitated.
‘I wanted to let you know I’m leaving tomorrow.’
‘Oh, where are you going? Will you be gone for long?’
But Aidani wasn’t planning to come back. Sigmund was devastated at the thought of saying goodbye to a friend who had become like a brother to him. And how would the Umanakaina Bible translation progress without Aidani’s special gift of finding the best words and expressions to communicate the meaning of a passage? But someone in the village had wronged Aidani and, by way of retaliation, he would do what his people had always done: shame the transgressor by leaving for good.
‘My decision is final: I’m leaving for good.’
Sigmund felt he knew a better way, and tried to explain to Aidani about forgiveness using passages from the Bible; ‘Father, forgive them’ (Luke 23:23) and ‘not seven times, but seventy-seven times’ (Matthew 18:22). The best word he could think of in the local language for forgive was notagogapani, which communicated the idea of erasing something from one’s mind. It didn’t really mean the same thing, but it was at least a concept that could be expressed. Aidani listened, but hadn’t changed his mind: ‘I can’t forget this,’ he said. ‘Nau denimena kayasugani. My decision is final: I’m leaving for good.’
‘Well, you can say that in Umanakaina, but it’s impossible to do, isn’t it?’
Wait a moment, Sigmund thought. What was that word Aidani had just used, denimena? Here the word seemed to mean a final, unchangeable decision, but when he had heard it in previous conversations, it had seemed to indicate giving a gift without expecting anything back; an autonomous, unconditional, irrevocable, free gift. Could this word have a wider application? Sigmund asked Aidani to pair this word with the word for ‘to erase something from one’s mind’. Aidani paused. ‘Denimena notagogapani - well, you can say that in Umanakaina, but it’s impossible to do, isn’t it?’
Sigmund knew they had finally discovered the Umanakaina expression for forgiveness, literally ‘to erase something from one’s mind autonomously, unconditionally, irrevocably and freely’. The solution wasn’t introducing a new word or repurposing an old one. God had revealed two simple words that, when paired together for the first time, communicated a concept the language had actually been able to express all along. We can’t manage it on our own, he explained to Aidani, but when we pray to our Father God, he will help us.
Aidani didn’t leave the next day as he had planned. He stayed in the village and learnt how to denimena notagogapani – to forgive. Not long after this he would also come to understand what God has done for all of us, and to follow Jesus.
‘These words are like honey. I want them to build houses inside me.’
Eventually, 24 other local translators partnered with Sigmund, Ingjerd, Taniro and Aidani to translate the New Testament, using their expertise to find the most accurate and natural ways to share the good news of Jesus in their own language. As more Scripture became available in Umanakaina, many people put their faith in Jesus. As one young man was reading the gospels, he said, ‘These words are like honey. I want them to build houses inside me.’
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Bryony Lines/Camilla Lloyd