Apal language

By Martha Wade

“Based on this preliminary survey, the Apal language group does not seem to warrant a full scale survey at this time. The language group is a rather small one, with small, isolated villages.” This preliminary survey of the Apal language group took place in 1980 just after I had arrived in the country. I’m sure that my reaction to the report was, “Definitely not a place I want to go. Why would anyone want to spend a lifetime working with a small isolated group of people who could be wiped out by one good epidemic!” Besides, I had my eyes on the Mum language group, one of the bigger ones in the Madang province.

God had been preparing the Apal people for his Word and by the late 1970s interest in having a mission come into the area was so high that several of their leaders repeatedly walked four days to Madang to search for any mission that would come and help them. Their persistence led to a joint survey by the Australian Churches of Christ Mission and Pioneer Bible Translators in 1980 and the assignment of a national preacher to the area in 1981. A year or so later teachers were sent so that the young people could learn to read the Bible in the trade language, Tok Pisin. After three years of teaching, over 100 people from the surrounding villages decided to follow God and were baptized at the village of Angguna in July 1984. Since then the church has continued to spread and by 1994 there were churches in 16 villages of the Sogeram River Valley area. Most of the evangelistic work in the last five years has been done by the Apal people themselves using the Bible in the trade language.

In 1985, I returned to Papua New Guinea from furlough looking for a place to begin translation work. The Mum language group was firmly opposed to a non-Catholic translator working in their area, so I had decided to spend the first year of the term just looking at other options. God, however, had other plans. Three weeks after I got back into the country, I had my first contact with the Apal language group, and was convinced there was a real need. Shortly after that I began the process of language learning and then actual translation work.

Living in the village has never been easy for me and when things are at their worst I often think, “The church is growing just fine using the trade language. Why should I have to endure all the hassles of village life for just 500 people, especially since they are now teaching their kids Tok Pisin as their first language?” At the times when I’m most tempted to say, “It’s not worth it,” God always provides something to remind me of the value of having a translation of the Bible in one’s own language.

Bible translation is worth it because the trade language version is not clear. Several years ago I heard sermons by two trained preachers on the subject of the kingdom of God. The term “kingdom” is used only in the Bible and the closest sounding equivalent to this term in everyday speech is kindam which is a “fresh water shrimp.” In both sermons the men were trying to explain what this “kingdom of God” is and they finally used the Apal term for a “big freshwater shrimp.” They went on to explain that God’s “big freshwater shrimp” is inside us in our stomachs. When I heard the sermons, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but I decided at that point that we would definitely not use the English word kingdom in the Apal translation.

Bible translation is worth it because it touches people emotionally. In a recent checking session we worked on the Apal rough draft of Galatians 4:19 which could be translated into English as follows, “You ones who are like my children, as for the pain that I am experiencing, it is like the pain that women experience when they are about to give birth. When you are like Christ, then the pain that I am experiencing will cease.” A month after the checking session a young man came back and said that he just couldn’t get that verse out of his head. It was impossible for him to imagine anyone caring that much about someone else becoming like Christ. This young man had read the scriptures in the trade language, but they were just words on paper. When he heard the scriptures in his own language, he knew it was true and it was embedded in his mind. Sam, one of the village leaders, says that the trade language version is just like a big parable where you have to try to figure out the meaning, but the Apal translation is so clear that you don’t need to have anyone explain it to you.

Bible translation is worth it because it affirms that God cares even about a very small, uneducated group of people that have no value in the world’s eyes. In a recent discussion I was telling someone that even though they were “from the jungle” and had no government schools, they could still teach their own children to read using the primer that we had been looking at. When I said that they were “from the jungle,” the young man quietly told me, “Do you know that a big fight almost started recently when someone from the Nend language described us in that way?” I was a little surprised to hear how sensitive they were to the phrase which would be the equivalent of “hillbilly” in English. Self-worth in the language group is at such a low level that they are teaching their children the trade language as their mother tongue so that no one can say they are “from the jungle.”

The Apal language group knows little about the outside world, but they know Christ and His light is making a real difference in their lives. Before they became Christians, their lives were controlled by fear – fear of evil spirits in the jungle, fear of offending someone who would then hire a paid killer, and fear of spirits of dead people. Now, however, they are becoming more and more aware of the freedom that there is in Christ and this is a new source of joy in their lives. By the grace of God, this little language group that some may consider “not worth the bother” will be God’s means of reaching out to the more prestigious language groups that surround them. Paul’s words to the Corinthians in I Corinthians 1:26-27 are very applicable to the Apal,

“Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” (NIV)

Martha has served as a Bible translator among the Apal people group since 1985.