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Villagers and traditional dancers in Papua New Guinea celebrate Pioneer Bible Translators’ release of the Gospel of Matthew in their native tongue, Mum.
Photo by Rett Parker

A Bible for every tribe, every tongue

In the jungles of Papua New Guinea, a Christian university student experiences the ministry of Pioneer Bible Translators.

For Rett Parker, Mum’s the word.

It’s many words, actually — an entire language of them, spoken by villagers in the Madang province of Papua New Guinea, a Pacific nation just north of Australia. 

And soon, the people who speak Mum will be able to read God’s Word in their own language.

Parker, a senior at Oklahoma Christian University, spent his summer interning with Pioneer Bible Translators, a nonprofit working to translate Scripture into the world’s 1,600 languages that don’t have a complete Bible. 

In a village of Papua New Guinea, Rett Parker learns about Bible translation.

In a village of Papua New Guinea, Rett Parker learns about Bible translation.

For Parker, a native of Broken Arrow, Okla., the journey to Papua New Guinea began when he enrolled in a Beginning Greek class as a freshman — because he needed the hours.

This summer he learned the reality of the words “it never happens like that” — a favorite phrase of one of his mentors. 

“I got malaria even though I took all my meds,” he said. “It rained so long and hard that we left Anguna (one of the villages where he worked) two days later than expected. Over a dozen outings with nationals that we planned got canceled, often without us knowing why.”

He viewed the challenges as opportunities to learn — and to let go of the “strong Western obsession for control,” he said.

As graduation approaches, he’s preparing for graduate school and considering his options. Regardless of where he ends up — on a far-flung island or in suburban America, he hopes to live a life of ministry. 

Tell us about Pioneer Bible Translators. How did you get connected with them? 

It’s a Bible translation organization that works with the other translation organizations to finish translating the Bible into all of the approximately 7,000 languages in the world. 

Pioneer Bible Translators focuses on languages that don’t have a Bible or a church, and their goal is to see networks of churches using the Scriptures to grow, multiply and expand in all the people groups. 

I heard about PBT when my Beginning Greek professor, Dr. Grant Testut, brought a recruiter from the organization into class one day. The recruiter told us about the work that PBT does and the help that they need. I didn’t act on that experience until a year later, when I really caught their vision at a Discovery Weekend they hosted.

How did you end up in Papua New Guinea?  

Pioneer Bible Translators takes a strongly holistic approach to their ministry, so there are several different jobs and needs that they have. 

I am interested in Bible translation specifically, and in Papua New Guinea PBT has a strong emphasis on many different methods of Bible translation — both in the villages of the bush language groups and in the towns. They even have people who work from the United States and fly in for periods of time. 

Additionally, PBT has a strong support staff in Papua New Guinea, so I got see all the various roles that they play to help the Scriptures impact people, from finance to literacy, even internet work. 

Plus, it seemed like it would be really cool to be out in the jungles of Papua New Guinea.

Is that what happened? Where did you work?  

I spent most of my time in two different villages, Aringana and Anguna, learning from the missionaries stationed there. 

The villages all had houses on stilts, made almost entirely from material from the jungle. Many used morata (leaves woven over a branch) for their roofs. The paths along the villages were often incredibly muddy because of all the rain we got. 

You could get to Aringana by following a dirt road the logging companies made, but to get to Anguna you had to take a canoe down the river. 

We spent most of our time in the houses of the missionaries, but we would often go on forays with the villagers out into the bush so that they could show us how they do things like harvest food and fish and get materials for houses. 

We also spent time in Madang, the regional capital, which had a population of a little under 30,000. There we did most our work in PBT’s Papua New Guinea office.   

What were your duties with PBT?

I was an intern, so my specific duty was to see what God was calling me to do in life — and whether or not Pioneer Bible Translators factored into those plans. The organization brings people into the field and gives them a taste of how translators work. 

My coach and I tried very hard to be an encouragement to the missionaries, and we were generally able to help out with various things they needed.

What can you tell us about the people you encountered?    

The Papua New Guineans were very excited and honored to have two white people visiting, so they often took us out to show us how they did various things, from harvesting yams and sago (a starch extracted from palm stems) to cutting and skinning trees for houses. It was incredible — all the knowledge they had about the jungle. Even the little kids could go out and cut limbum bark off the trees for flooring. 

Many of the people we worked with were involved in the translation work, so they were inquisitive and eager to push the translation through. They had learned how to work through the text and ask the questions that struck at the meaning of it so that they could bring that meaning into their own language in their translation work. 

They were relatively used to white people coming around, so they weren’t surprised at all that we didn’t like their sago or couldn’t walk as fast at they could. 

The missionaries were all so passionate about bringing God’s word to the people, but that didn’t stop them from being a wonderfully fun group. They joked and laughed and bonded. They were as serious about having the joy of the Lord as they were about advancing his kingdom. They also opened up their lives to us, giving us wisdom and guidance on all sorts of things, not just missionary work but also our daily Christian walk.

How did the villagers respond to the work of PBT?    

In one sense, the Papua New Guineans were overjoyed to have the Bible brought into their language. 

In another sense, however, nominalism is prevalent there, too — a belief that there are no real absolutes. So many times, while they would show excitement, I watched the leaders of the translation team struggle to really pull in involvement from the wider community. 

Though we had an amazingly large group of people show up when we dedicated the book of Matthew into the Mum language (roughly 1,000 people, a quarter of the language group), book sales weren’t as high as we hoped. Although reports from the missionary team now indicate that the books are selling well as the translators go and speak to the villagers, so we know that they people can learn to care, just like we can, but it takes intentional work and relationship.

What did you learn from this experience?    

I learned a lot about the process of Bible translation. It is long and complicated because of the necessity of ensuring a solid translation that the native speakers can understand, yet one that remains faithful to the original Greek and Hebrew of the Bible. 

I learned that a myriad of other things come up around Bible translation, including literacy work; Scripture impact; financial, legal and logistical work; and a whole lot of handyman work. 

But I also learned that’s it’s not some giant, insurmountable task. Without downplaying the creativity, analysis, and tenacity that goes into it, Bible translation is doable. And I learned that it’s something I can do.

Website: pioneerbible.org

Filed under: Bible translation Dialogue Papua New Guinea Top Stories

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