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Dog-Earred Scriptures
To see worn-out copies of God’s Word among the people is the ambition of a dizzying, 22-language Bible translation effort in the Timor region.

It is mentally tough following Wycliffe’s Chuck Grimes’ monologue. He stands in front of a wall map of the Timor region, giving an overview of the dynamic Bible translation movement among a cluster of languages here, 600 km northeast of Australia.

Though Chuck speaks slowly and articulately, the sheer volume of places and language groups he points to, and the accompanying anecdotes he shares, can be, well . . . dizzying.

A few things are apparent, though. Eighty-plus languages are spoken throughout the region. Their speakers live on dozens of islands scattered around the Sabu Sea. Upwards of 100 local people are currently involved in translating Scriptures and other materials into more than 20 of these languages. And Chuck, his wife Barbara, along with Australians Stuart and Maryanne Cameron, have the seemingly impossible task of giving leadership, advice, mentoring and training to the whole vertigo-inducing effort.

“In one sense we’re overwhelmed by what God is doing. We’re overwhelmed by just the range of it,” admits Chuck later. “I know a lot of people in Bible translation don’t have the privilege of seeing fruit during the time they’re working. But we are overwhelmingly blessed by having people grateful for the translations, using the translations, and having lives transformed by the translations.”

“It’s that kind of stuff that energizes us, in spite of being logistically very busy,” he says.

Sea of opportunities

You begin to sense this busyness—aptly described by the Grimeses as “almost drowning in a sea of opportunities”—on a tour at their place of work. It is the one-storey headquarters of the Language and Culture Unit of the Evangelical Protestant Church of Timor (known locally as GMIT), located in bustling Kupang, the provincial capital of West Timor.

It’s a comparatively slow day at the office, but in one room, a four-man translation team from the Lole language, spoken on the nearby island of Rote, sits around a computer screen. While it is wearily hot and humid outside, the team labours in air-conditioned comfort on the final draft stages of the New Testament for their people.

“If they work in air conditioning, they can work eight-hour days, rather than the normal nine to two, which is what a lot of the government offices do,” says Chuck. “So they find the air conditioning gives them a lot more stamina.”

At any one time, varying numbers of the 20-plus, far-flung translation teams come to GMIT’s Language and Culture Unit office. They get advice from the Grimeses, review the results of testing draft translations in their communities, or work with outside consultants to check translation. Some visit to record audio Scriptures for CDs or Bible videos. It is not uncommon to have up to 40 people in the office’s courtyard dining area for lunch.

As translated Scripture portions and other materials continue to arrive from a printer in Jakarta, Indonesia, the storage room contents have spilled over into a second meeting room. “Which means the teams are kind of lining up, on top of each other, asking to use rooms,” says Chuck.

“We don’t want Scriptures in here or in boxes. We want them out there. But there has to be a place to start [the distribution]. “Last year we probably moved through 250 boxes of Scripture portions, from full New Testaments to single books,” explains Chuck. “We quite regularly average distributing 30,000 Scripture portions a year.”

As the translation movement expands in the Timor region, the overtaxed office (sitting like a small sibling next to GMIT’s four-storey headquarters) will need to double in size. A Wycliffe Associates construction team is returning this year to do more upsizing.

Multi-lingual challenge

Chuck and Barbara Grimes—kids of parents who served in Mexico with Wycliffe, and in Brazil with technical partner agency, JAARS, respectively—came to Timor with no agenda for a vigorous Bible translation movement.

They had worked as Wycliffe translators in Maluku, Indonesia, for ten years. Then, while pursuing their PhDs in Canberra, Australia, the Grimeses rubbed shoulders with a studying Timorese man. Rev. Dr. Tom Therik was academic dean of GMIT’s Christian University in Kupang and adviser for a fledgling Bible translation project for his Tetun people.

Therik invited the Grimeses to teach Bible translation principles to the Tetun translation team and introduced them to the Christian University leaders. The Grimeses accepted an invitation to teach at the university’s theology department in 1995. It was through this relationship that GMIT leaders saw Bible translation close up and personal, as the Grimeses worked on the side with visiting mother tongue translators from their days in Maluku.

GMIT, a Timorese-run denomination with a Dutch Reformed heritage, celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1997. Leaders were reminded that church-founding missionaries from Holland had championed Bible translation in the 1920s among one language group on Timor—with amazing and lasting spiritual fruit. GMIT is one of the largest churches in Indonesia, with 1.3 million members, 900 ordained ministers and 2,300 congregations, some having as many as 8,000 members. But a major challenge GMIT faces is its multilingual membership.

“The logistics and economics of ministering to over a million people who speak 60 different languages is really challenging,” says Chuck. GMIT ministers in an area with great poverty, lower levels of education and limited proficiency in Indonesian.

“The Indonesian Bible is very hard to understand, even for educated Indonesians, even for people with university degrees,” he adds. “One of the reasons why some pastors tell us they rarely preach from books like Romans, Ephesians, Colossians or Hebrews, is because in the national language Bible, it’s even hard for educated ministers with theology degrees to understand.”

As Rev. Dr. Eben Nuban Timo, current GMIT moderator, has put it: “If we remember the command of Jesus before He ascended to heaven, He commanded the disciples to bring the Good News to all people. And Timorese people . . . are also the people of God. They need to hear the gospel according to their own languages.”

Deeper roots

“The diversity of languages among GMIT members is valued as a resource that is a gift from God,” explains a church strategic plan, “and at the same time this diversity is a cross-cultural communication challenge in the life and ministry of GMIT.”

Wanting to address the need for increased vernacular ministry, GMIT created a Language and Culture Unit to serve all churches in the region. The goal is to translate at least the New Testament and the book of Genesis for every one of the languages in the region that needs it, as well as Christian material, such as liturgy, confessions of faith, Bible dictionaries, devotionals, Bible recordings, Christian education and scholarly material. To enable this to happen, in 2004 GMIT signed a formal agreement with Wycliffe’s partner field agency, with whom the Grimeses and Camerons serve.

Barbara Grimes says vernacular Scriptures and related materials will go a long way to deepen discipleship in GMIT so it can be increasingly used by God as a light to the greater region. “He actually will do a lot of amazing things with a strong church. But until you have the roots in the church grounded deep in the Scriptures, it’s just going to be a ritualistic kind of Christianity.”

While the Timor region language projects are multi-faceted, the Grimeses put a special emphasis on translating God’s Word so it will be used.

“Barbara and I say we want to have worn-out, dog-eared copies of the Scriptures out there. That’s one of the evidences that we can see that people are actually in the Scriptures and using them,” Chuck says. “We’re confident that if they do, that we’ll see transformed lives.”

To that end, translated Bible portions and other materials have been circulated as quickly as possible after the usual careful consultant-checking process. This ensures extra user feedback on how adequately a language is written and whether key biblical terms are communicating correctly—and it whets people’s appetite for more heart language Scriptures. Besides printed booklets, the translated materials are distributed on CD, the Internet, and even cellphones (see related story, pg. 30). They are also used as content for broadcasts in various local languages by several radio stations.

Can’t put them down

Tagging along with the Grimeses and various translation teams as they travel around Timor illustrates the great receptivity to the translated materials. After a Sunday service at the Mizpah Church, in a village 40 minutes drive east of Kupang, a table of Scriptures, books and CDs attracts an energetic circle of believers. Kids pick up Bible storybooks and New Testaments in Kupang Malay, the region’s trade language and their mother tongue, and begin reading with ease.

Many have never read their language before. However, they are able to transfer their familiarity with the efficient writing system of Indonesian—which they often may not understand well—over to their own language.

“Do you see that?” asks Chuck, smiling with satisfaction at the chorus of eight kids almost entranced as they individually read aloud. “Once you get them started, they just don’t put it down.” And the Scriptures are making an impact, sometimes even before they are distributed.

The Grimeses tell the story of how one translator, a pastor and counselor, was approached by village people distressed that a neighbour had packed his bag to leave his wife and family. Uncertain what to say, the pastor read from a proof sheet of a yet unprinted booklet on marriage. It is based on the 1 Corinthians 13 “love chapter” that had been translated into Kupang Malay.

“The guy just started bawling his head off and said, ‘Why hasn’t anybody ever told me that before?’ ” recalls Chuck. “The problem is, the meaning of that beautiful passage just doesn’t come through when they read the Indonesian Bible. He heard it one time in his own language and it went straight to his heart.”

The husband reconciled with his wife.

Gripping the heart

In another case, a highly educated senior GMIT church leader started reading Scriptures translated by a Language and Culture Unit team into his mother tongue.

“He said after several months, ‘You know, I have been reading that stuff and one of the things that I realized is the national language Bible never alighted on my heart the way the Scriptures in my own language do,’ ” recalls Chuck. “He used the same verb as that of a bird alighting on a twig. So, in other words, we would say, ‘it never gripped his heart the way the Scriptures in his own language do.’ ”

Then there is the secondary impact of the translations, stress the Grimeses. Some older Timorese, after reading Scriptures in their mother tongue, have grown in their hunger to access more useful information for daily living, deciding to pursue more education. Youngsters are eagerly reading the Gospel of Mark because it is in their own language, developing reading skills far beyond the usual for their age.

Explains Chuck: “A school teacher father [of one such child] said, ‘We really need to continue doing this translation, not just for the spiritual growth, but for the educational progress and literacy growth of our whole society.’”

Player/coaches

The Grimeses describe their role in the Timor language work as “player/coaches.”

“The challenge that we were given from the church,” explains Barbara, “was that we were to train Timorese to do the job and to not depend only on bringing in foreigners to actually do it.”

So from the beginning, the goal has been to train, mentor and advise teams of usually three or four mother tongue translators.

The teams consist of both younger and older people, male and female, and represent a wide range of backgrounds, from subsistence farmers, to schoolteachers and even a few ministers.

The translators come from language groups, explains Barbara, which are quite different from each other. Some are mountain people, growing corn on the hillsides and raising cattle for their livelihood. Others live in coastal lowlands, where the short rainy season provides enough moisture for wet rice cultivation, and people tap palm trees for sugary sap. Still others make their living primarily from the sea, as traditional fishermen and seaweed growers.

“Another difference is linguistic,” Barbara adds. “We have two major groups of languages in this region representing languages that are as different as English and Chinese.”

Holy jealousy

Initially, the Grimeses and Camerons worked with four language teams, but then “holy jealousy” began to increase that number.

“Probably the last 14 or 16 languages have started on their own,” explains Chuck. “People heard about translation going on in these other languages and said, ‘Our people need this, too, and we want to be involved in this.’

“So for several of the languages, the first time we ever knew something was happening, or met anybody involved in translation, was when they showed up at our doorstep with a draft of the Gospel of Mark. They said, ‘Now what do we do?’ ”

As current mother tongue translators gain experience and further training, the Grimeses envision more and more of them becoming advisers and consultants.

“They are already operating as managers and co-ordinators at a very high level,” explains Chuck. “If for some reason our plane should fall out of the sky, we want them to be able to keep going—keep going well, keep going robustly and keep going with very high quality.

“People see Chuck and Barbara Grimes, and Stuart and Maryanne Cameron and think, ‘Wow, four people working on all these languages.’ We don’t see it that way,” he stresses. “We are part of a much bigger team. Our team includes church leaders. It includes 100 or so indigenous translators and Timorese advisers. It includes Timorese administrators.”

25 more years?

The Wycliffe personnel serving in the Timor region are amazed at what God has done so far.

“We cannot stand up and say our brilliant five-year strategic plan was to do this,” says Chuck. “God had much bigger things in mind. He’s taken it way beyond what we thought or imagined.” One senior GMIT leader has gone so far as to call the cluster language work the beginning of “a revolution” in the region’s churches: “People are hungry for the Word of God, and these translations are feeding that hunger! This has never been possible before.”

The revolution, though, has a long way to go. The agreement for the translation effort with GMIT’s Language and Culture Unit is for a 25-year period. That doesn’t seem to scare Chuck, 54, and Barb, 53, parents of teenage and grown children.

“If God gives us that kind of time, that would be fine with me because it’s such a privilege to be here,” says Barbara. “Our commitment here right now is as long as the Church wants us and God keeps us here.”

With potentially 60 more languages needing Bible translation work in the Timor region, it’s difficult to imagine the Grimeses going anywhere else, anytime soon.

More on the Web: To see differences between some of the Timor region’s languages, visit www.wysite.org/sites/cbgrimes, click “Issues in Translation” and “How similar are the languages?”

Originally published in Word Alive, Fall 2010.

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