Translation and Teamwork: A Conversation with Dave Brunn, Part 2

April 2, 2019

What is it like for a team of missionaries to enter a remote village and translate the Bible? Missionary Dave Brunn continues his conversation with TMS students about his ministry among the Lamogai people.

Can you describe the different roles in translation?

There are three main roles in Bible translation. A translation team needs experts in the target language, experts in the biblical languages, and experts in the process of translation.

First, we have to remember that the target language experts will always be the mother tongue speakers, from day one until the end of the project.

As missionaries, we learn the language to a high degree of fluency.  But we will never know the language the way the nationals do. You know how it is – there could be people in the United States who have spoken English for decades, but if they did not grow up speaking English, there is some degree of naturalness that they are just not capable of having. So, that’s the role of nationals.  They are the language experts.

The next key role is the exegetical expert, the person who has extra expertise in biblical exegesis and translation principles– in other words, what is required to communicate a message from one language to another.

In my translation classes, students always ask, “Do we translate from Greek?”  I tell them, “Having studied Greek, I can tell you that is a great asset to translation, but do not think that you are just going to translate from Greek.”  There are people who have spent their entire lifetimes becoming experts in Greek.  I did not do that. I don’t know that I could have been a church planter and Bible translator for all these years if I had.  Yet I have access to the Hebrew and Greek experts.  And so, in years gone by, many translations, including most of the minority language translations, were done by people who had not studied the source languages.  And yet, they produced many quality translations because they relied so heavily upon the resources written by the experts.

One of the scariest times for us in living in such a remote area was when our kids became sick. We just felt helpless. There was no doctor. We were the closest thing to a doctor that there was

And the third area was initially my job—translation expert. I had to understand what obstacles needed to be overcome in order to effectively translate a message from one language into another.  If the right people are found and equipped, this role can be split 50/50 between missionaries and nationals.

The people that I work with now have mastered translation principles.  They understand what is required to communicate with accuracy and clarity the meaning of the source text. They, of course, have no direct access to the source text – I either explain it to them, or they read it in Tok Pisin.  Regardless, they are learning and understanding what effective translation means.  So, this role is split 50/50.

What work are you doing on the Lamogai New Testament?

Our New Testament was published in 1996, which means that it has been in use for 22 years. We are now involved in the revision process.  I have made about five trips to Papua New Guinea in order to work on the revision of our translation.

What we do is project a verse on the wall and read through it together in Lamogai.  Our discussions are entirely in Lamogai.  First, the nationals helped with spelling, and then with terminology that needed to be clarified.  Now our work consists of smoothing out the translation and developing a precise written language.

We have a written language and a spoken language, yet often we do not think of it this way. Let me give you an example of the difference. The word just in Lamogai – the nationals use it all the time – “let’s just sit here” and “let’s just have some lunch.” Their overuse of the word just found its way into the translation.  Now as their written language is maturing, the translation committee wants to only use the word just when they really mean itas in, ‘There’s just one person.’”

This is one of the many translation revisions the nationals have initiated.

Did the Lamogai have a written language before you arrived?

Lamogai was never written down before we arrived.

I studied linguistics, so I was trained to analyze a language and develop a writing system.  We devised an alphabet for them.

Our first literacy primers were called “Trial Primers” because one of the primary purposes of our first literacy course was to make sure that we were correct in our spelling.  When there were things that were difficult for them to read, we assumed that we did not get the spelling correct.

My wife was a literacy teacher.  We produced a set of literacy primers.  My wife and our co-worker’s wife taught the literacy classes together.  They eventually trained some of the students to be literacy teachers.  And today the literacy classes are ongoing, taught entirely by the Lamogai.

In regard to spelling in the Lamogai Scriptures, we are currently revising the spelling of certain words. For example, the Lamogai language does not have an “h” sound, but the national language does.  Then we come across names like Abraham in the Old Testament. The team of translators that I was working with in the 1980’s would absolutely not allow any “h” into their written language. We were in a dilemma, because what they would often do with an “h” sound is drop it; if you drop the “h” sound, how are you to distinguish between Abraham and Abram? Thus, we agreed that Abraham would be spelled as Abrayam.

Now as we are doing the revision of the Lamogai Scriptures, the younger generation is like, “C’mon we know what an ‘h’ is – we don’t have to write it like we can’t say ‘h.’  Go ahead and make that ‘Abraham.’  We don’t have to call him ‘Abrayam’ anymore.”

These are some of the changes we are making in the revision process.

What were some of the struggles of living in a remote part of the world?

We lived in a very remote area of Papua New Guinea.  We had to travel three days to arrive—by ocean, by river, and then by land, hiking through the jungle. Once our air strip was completed, however, it was only a 35-minute flight.  So, we were very thankful when we had that.  But, of course, airplanes only come during the day and when the weather is fair.

One of the scariest times for us in living in such a remote area was when our kids became sick.  We just felt helpless.  There was no doctor.  We were the closest thing to a doctor that there was.  We could sometimes call a doctor on the radio and get some help if we needed it.  We could call the airplane to come in if it was daylight and the weather was cooperating.  That was one of the scariest parts of living in the jungle.  Of course, our kids did get sick from time to time.  They’d get malaria and other things.  Sometimes we didn’t even know what they had.  That was scary.

Another challenge was working as a team.  When we were living out there in this remote village – the closeness between us and our coworkers was a bit unnatural by our cultural standards. In the United States, you work with somebody Monday-Friday, 8-5, and then you go home and don’t see them again until Monday morning.  It just doesn’t work that way in the jungle.  Their house is a stones-throw away from ours.  We know how they spend their money.  We know how they raise their kids.  We know too much about them.

What advice could you give about teamwork on the mission field?

Teamwork is an effort, and I had to learn that there are times when I have to set aside my opinions and my preferences. I cannot just say everything that I’m thinking.  If I am going to go to this person every time I disagree with their manner or method of doing something (and don’t forget that I know too much), we are going to constantly have conflict. So, we had to learn to be intentional about making this partnership work.  The enemy knows that “by this shall all men know that you are my disciples, that you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

There is nothing that the enemy would rather do than show these people we are trying to reach that missionaries can hardly stand each other.  He knows that division can effectively cut the team in half – maybe half of them are going to leave, or maybe they all leave. Sometimes everybody leaves when the team cannot cooperate.  Or if you stay, you are a poor testimony before the unreached.

There is nothing that the enemy would rather do than show these people we are trying to reach that missionaries can hardly stand each other

My wife and I decided that we were not going to sit around and talk about our co-workers in a negative manner.  It is so easy because, like I said, we see everything they do, and we may have a different opinion.  Regardless, we were not going to let ourselves talk poorly of them.  We were not going to be blind to it – if there is an area of need in their life, we’ll commit ourselves to praying about it.  Let’s sit down and list out all the things that we appreciate about our co-workers.  Let’s list the things that cause us to say, “Wow, we are so thankful that we have co-workers here so we don’t have to do this whole job by ourselves.”  When the tractor breaks down to mow the airstrip, and my coworker knows a lot more about fixing tractors than I do, I am so glad that I have a coworker, and maybe I can overlook some of this stuff.

Sometimes we would remind ourselves, “We need to have a duck’s back.”  There is a reason that we have that analogy – ducks have glands where they can spread a waxy oil all over their feathers, and when the water hits the feathers it just runs off.  Because of this, ducks can live in really, really cold water.  Sometimes our co-workers might say something that we could easily be offended by. We would remind ourselves to have a duck’s back, because I know there are things that I say that offend him too.  I know there are.  And it’s worth it to make this partnership work.

If you work with people, especially in a remote area of the world like we did, it’s a challenge, but it’s worth it to see it through.


Jack Smith avatar
Jack Smith is a current M.Div. student at The Master's Seminary and serves as content coordinator for TMS and editor for Grace Books International.

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