Lydia and Jeremiah James

Linguists and translators for the Kanu Old Testament Project

‘The mixed smells of charcoal burning and fish cooking wafted towards me, while the ground vibrated to the beat of music. Music boxes from various households were going full volume simultaneously, and I tuned in and out of various rhythms as I weaved my way through the Kanu* community, a collection of beautifully coloured houses set on stilts near the ocean. As I walked, my eyes took in the activity around me. Some houses were quiet, the people inside having an afternoon nap, while others were starting to cook in the area under the house. All around me, children were running around playing their games, leapfrogging in the sand. Men and women alike greeted me warmly. I loved it.’

Lydia carrying out linguistic research – here she is listening to stories from two Kanu ladies to learn how storytelling works in the Kanu language. This helps her in her Bible translation work to ensure the translation is natural.

These were Lydia James’ first impressions when she visited a Kanu community in the Philippines to figure out whether these were the people God wanted her to work with. The inviting smell of freshly-caught fish cooking notwithstanding, the linguistic need outlined by team leader (and now husband) Jeremiah James meant that she walked away that day with a clear purpose for her initial two years in the country.

She hadn’t always wanted to be a linguist or a translator. Northern Irish, she spent much of her childhood in Brazil, but it was when she was back in Northern Ireland at age 15 that she first considered the mission field. A video was played in her church that showed a plane landing to deliver New Testaments to a little-reached people group. ‘It dawned on me that all people didn’t have the Bible yet. It was an emotional response; my heart beat fast. And I thought, oh wow, that’s really cool. I’ll be a pilot.’

She laughed as she thought back to that time. Little did she know that she would end up working as a linguist and translator in Asia and married to an American whom she met out there. She said of her work,‘I came to it with a background in languages, which is actually unusual. Not that many people come to it with a background in languages. A lot of our colleagues have a science background, or engineering.’

Jeremiah is one of those who came from a science background. Now he is also a linguist and translator with the Kanu people. He grew up in Wisconsin, USA, and studied Maths and Physics at university. Before he began working with the Kanu, he was a teacher in a Christian international school in the Philippines. Through some friendships with Kanu individuals, he realised the Kanu people had a real longing for the whole Bible in their language. The New Testament had been published in 1987, but they wanted God’s word in its entirety.

These are my brothers and sisters in Christ, and they’ve asked for something that is very clearly good

‘They specifically requested it,’ Jeremiah says when he thinks about how he ended up joining the project. ‘What it came down to is this: I thought, here are these people, God’s people, my brothers and sisters in Christ, and they’ve asked for something. And they’ve asked for something that is very clearly good. They need it, it would be real service, and God has given me the personality – that’s what it is really – to sit still and work on this. There was nothing stopping me. I couldn’t come up with any reason not to do it.’

In Lydia’s words, Jeremiah is a fiercely loyal person with a strong sense of commitment. If he starts something, he’ll finish it. With a wry smile she adds, ‘and that is very valuable in this work, as the Old Testament is a long book.’ Of course, along the way in the Philippines, Jeremiah has also made another commitment – to share his life with Lydia. They married in Northern Ireland in 2016, and their lovely daughter Tessa was born in 2018. A multinational baby, by nine months old Tessa had travelled more than most of us – as the Jameses spent six months visiting family, friends and their sending churches in the US and the UK as part of their work.

The vibrant Kanu community – their colourful houses set on stilts reflect their warm and open characters
(Photo Nigel Hunter)

Linguistics and Bible translation

The couple share the work of raising Tessa and serving in Bible translation. Both are passionate about linguistics, but they realise that during this stage of their work, although linguistic research is vital and will continue alongside translation, it is the latter that they must prioritise at the moment. ‘We work together. We’re both linguists but we’re not competitive when it comes down to it, and we edit each other’s work. We’re a good team, and that’s really important to us. We also try to be a good team with the Kanu translators, but it is inevitably more challenging as we are still constantly learning about their culture.’

The Kanu community they love to take their boats out for pleasure or fishing

Lydia and Jeremiah’s desire is for the community to reach their own people with the gospel

Why is linguistics research so important, according to Lydia and Jeremiah? ‘Serious mistakes can be made by translating a text following the pattern of the language you are translating from.

‘For example, sometimes research will uncover a feature in the language that signals that a particular character is more central to the story than the others. If, as translators, we don’t know about that feature, we could find ourselves unintentionally communicating to the reader, “Herod is really the main guy in this story; Jesus was just someone who happened along.” That’s one example of quite a subtle linguistic feature that can have significant implications for translation,’ Lydia explains, having spent some time studying how stories work in the Kanu language in preparation for her translation role.

Ultimately though, Lydia and Jeremiah’s desire in carrying out linguistics research and doing translation is for the community to reach their own people with the gospel, being strengthened and equipped for that task through having the whole Bible in their language.

Kanu children playing (Photo: Nigel Hunter)

The Kanu community

The Jameses mention that the reason the community they work with is Christian, despite the large majority of Kanu people identifying as Muslim, is because two Kanu men became believers in the early 1970s and immediately took the gospel to their fellow Kanu. As Jeremiah puts it, ‘These two men reached their people with the gospel without even the whole New Testament. The more tools people have, the better. For the Muslim majority, the Old Testament is important. It’s the bridge for them, a starting point for thinking about the claims of Jesus, without the controversy for them of the New Testament, which will often lead to them flatly refusing to engage with any of God’s word.’

For the Muslim majority, the Old Testament is important. It’s the bridge for them, a starting point for thinking about the claims of Jesus

Jeremiah talking with Pastor J, a close friend and the spiritual head of this Kanu community. Pastor J was Jeremiah’s landlord when he first started working on Bible translation for the Kanu people.

The literacy rate amongst the Kanu is very low, around 10–15%. Thus, the number one way most people engage with God’s word is through preaching by Christian pastors, followed by listening to the Scriptures aurally. Preaching is therefore extremely important. Jeremiah actually lived with one pastor’s family for a year, in order to get to know the people and their language better and build a relationship of trust with them. He and Lydia now have a very warm relationship with Pastor J, who frequently asks them to provide him with more translated books of the Bible for his little congregation. He reads daily from his Kanu New Testament, and his favourite verse is James 1:5: ‘If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.’

Every Sunday, Pastor J rides up the coast to preach to a group of Kanu believers in the park, and then returns to his own community and preaches to them under the shelter of his house. ‘They sit in a circle and sing songs in Kanu with the tambourine. They sometimes use a drum, which will be made of PVC and an inner tube and bits of metal. They share prayer requests, praying all together out loud, and listen to the word preached. When everyone is praying at once, I pray in English, because God understands it, and it’s ok if they don’t. God understands their language too,’ Jeremiah puts it simply.

The group of Kanu who meet at the park requested Pastor J come to preach the word after they lost everything in a fire, in order to minister to them. And that is one of the most precious things that Lydia and Jeremiah have learnt from the Kanu believers. Lydia shares, ‘I’ve learnt things about trusting God – how to be strong in the face of adversity through trusting God. Not paying lip service but genuinely trusting, in circumstances that we can’t imagine. Your roof has fallen off, your kids are sick, there’s no money, the rain’s coming in, there’s no medicine, maybe your child even dies. It’s one thing after another. Physically it is so difficult for them. Yet they even experience real joy – the joy of the risen Jesus – in their lives in the midst of sometimes-intense suffering.’

Jeremiah adds a final note, ‘The Kanu people we know are a lot of fun. Among people in the Philippines, the Kanu are thought of as being sort of shy and reserved, not having a lot to say. But when you’re actually among them, they’re loud, and boisterous, and funny, and colourful. It’s so different to the stereotypes.’

Sarah Graves

A boat outing Lydia and Jeremiah enjoyed with some Kanu friends

Please pray now for Lydia and Jeremiah, and the Kanu translators they work with:

  • Around 97% of the Kanu people group do not know Christ. Pray for the spread of the gospel, and for the Kanu Bible translation.
  • Pray for the progress of the translation team in their current work on the books of Deuteronomy, Nehemiah and Leviticus.
  • Pray for training in Hebrew – both for the Kanu translators and for Lydia. This will mean the Old Testament translation can be more accurate. Currently only Jeremiah knows any Hebrew. Pray for wisdom about Hebrew training for the Kanu translators, as there are no study materials in their language.
  • Pray for Jeremiah and Lydia’s relationship with each other, for their shared faith, and that God will grow their love for him, for each other, and for the Kanu. Pray that they will raise Tessa Joy (and any future children) to know and love the Lord.

*Name changed for security reasons


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