Ben’s PNG Diary – Day 8: A smile impossible to erase
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Aitape tsunami changed the face of bible translation

NICOLA MENZIE | The Christian Post

Bonnie and John NystromA MASSIVE TSUNAMI triggered by a magnitude seven earthquake wiped out thousands of villages, claimed hundreds of lives and forever changed the way Bible translations previously had been done in Papua New Guinea.

Two Wycliffe Bible translators credited with pioneering the movement, and who lost many of their friends in the storm, recently shared with The Christian Post how they believe God created a miracle out of tragedy.

John and Bonnie Nystrom, linguists for Wycliffe Bible Translators, recount in their recently published book, Sleeping Coconuts, how the devastating 17 July 1998 earthquake that shook the northern coast of Papua New Guinea claimed 800 lives from Arop village where they had moved 10 years prior to assist local pastors translate the Bible into their own language.

Some reports indicate 2,400 people living in the town of Aitape lost their lives in the earthquake and resulting tsunami, with the villages of Arop, Warapu and Nimas feeling the brunt of the waves. Another 9,500 people were left homeless.

"One out of every three people that we know was killed there, and some of the families that we know lost a lot of people," Mr Nystrom told The Christian Post.

“In fact, after the tsunami, our friend Pastor Peter Marokiki was the only one we knew; we know another family now – where the father mother and all the children survived. Every other family that we knew of, they lost at least some of their family members.

"We were not there in the village at the time. If we had been, we would have been killed because our house and everything else in the village was completely washed away into the lagoon that was on the opposite side of where the village was located," added Mrs. Nystrom.

"We were 300 miles away at the national translation centre in PNG and heard about it the following day."

The Nystroms, who joined Wycliffe in the early 1980s and were sent to PNG to work with SIL International, said that high on the list of demands and needs of the Arop survivors was a desire for literacy.

Villagers wanted to record their stories and tell of family members they had lost in the tsunami. Many local communities began requesting again, despite previous denials, to have the Bible in their own languages.

But such a demand would likely take years to fulfil, as the existing translation model called for a single community or language to be worked with at a time.

"That's what we were doing, the typical thing that our organisation always did, the two of us working in that one language and training the local people to do the Bible translation and then coaching them through the process," explained Mr Nystrom.

But their thinking changed after the storm.

"We knew that if we said no to them, it could be decades, maybe generations, before somebody else would come and do a Bible translation for them," Mr Nystrom added, noting that others felt the tragic climate made such a need particularly pertinent.

So the Nystroms said yes, "knowing that it was impossible."

"But when we said yes, we watched the Lord make it possible by providing more people to join our team, more Wycliffe members, and by the Arop translators that I had been working with taking leadership in the project," he said. "And then we watched Him provide facilities and equipment, everything that we need to make it possible – including an idea on how we might go about working in these multiple languages together."

The Nystroms and their partners developed the Aitape West Translation Project, "an experimental multi-language Bible translation and literacy project that includes at least 11 languages and dialects."

"And all of these pastors, 20-plus pastors, from 11 different languages, multiple different denominations, they all walk to this translation centre each in one day and they come five times a year for a month at a time to work on the translations together," said Mr. Nystrom.

“They work on the same Scripture, at the same place, at the same time.”

He and his wife now work remotely with the aid of technology from their home in Florida with the team in PNG, and make periodic trips there. They provide progress reports on the translation project on their website.

The translation project has resulted in the publication of Luke in three languages and a soon-to-be published single volume of Luke and Acts, with another volume of 1 and 2 Timothy to follow.

The Aitape West Translation Project also has become a form of seminary training and discipleship for locals deeply involved in the project.

Another fruit of the translation project for the US couple and their friends was being able to witness how God reveals His presence in the midst of tragedy and suffering.


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Maureen Wari

Firstly, thank you John and Bonnie for the important and wonderful work you are doing with translation work in the Aitape West area of PNG.

I believe a lot of PNGns concerned about the decreasing number of languages or dialects from our world record of 800+ languages are equally grateful even though it may not show here for various reasons and still do not know there is work going on.

The benefits of your work to us are twofold:

1. For the locals - literacy, thus the understanding of the bible and and other reading material

2. For the country - preservation of languages of this area

Secondly, congratulations are in order:

1. For the publication of the book of Luke in three languages of the Aitape West area out of eleven as I understand.

I am sure the initial work was a challenge given you were using a new method and not the usual and doing this in rural PNG where modern conveniences are most of the time non - existent.

Sidetracked a bit, I see the role wireless communications played in this work after reading Aitape West Translation Project.

2. For hanging in there and giving us and the world Sleeping Coconuts 14 years on. You do love what you do and have a heart for our beautiful country and her beautiful people.

Lastly, a trip down memory lane, if I may.

That Aitape tsunami was bad (no warning and so no preparedness resulting in a large number of deaths, injury and devastation).

Even to this day, we hesitate to recount the events or recall the images that started appearing on our media (Post, National, EmTV and radio stations) because as true as "we PNGns will drop whatever we are doing to help a wantok in need" we were utterly helpless against this one at that particular time.

We could only pray, support the first responders, rely on whatever our government could do and watch from a distance. The world did come to our aid.

I remember praying and giving money to Red Cross Aitape appeal and a non-stop crying spree at each newscast thereafter.

Sad as it was, I truly believe now, along with these two translators, that God did create a miracle out of that tragedy.

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