By Mike Herchenroeder
The Akukem people of Papua New Guinea are a small language group nestled in the jungle not too far from the much larger Aruamu people group. They were acutely aware that Bible translation was underway for the Aruamu people. They were also aware of how very much they desired this same blessing for themselves.
And so they did the only thing they knew to do. They started praying. They pled with God to send someone to translate His Word for them so that they, like their Aruamu neighbors, might have it in their own language – the language in which they think, talk, dream, and sing to their children.
And God answered – but not in the way that any of us could have anticipated. Using the Aruamu translation and complex computer software developed specifically for this kind of situation, a rough draft of the entire New Testament in Akukem was generated.
That was the easy part. The adaptation was very rough, requiring a lot of checking and revision to get it ready for publication. Additionally, complex spelling issues surfaced that needed to be resolved. And because we had no translation specialist living among them to provide technical assistance and to work with them to make accurate revisions, they would need to come to town to work with part-time advisors. They could also learn to do some of the corrections themselves.
They were eager to begin. And so, for the past few years, groups of Akukem men have made regular trips from their remote village into the town of Madang for checking sessions that typically last two to four weeks. During each session, a translation specialist sits down with a team of four or five Akukem men to go over the translation verse by verse. One man reads the text, and others explain to the translation specialist in the Tok Pisin language what the Akukem text says. Together they work to make the text readable, understandable, and accurate.
Sometimes small things can make a big difference in the accurate interpretation of a text. For example, in Matthew 23:24, Jesus’ scathing criticism of the Pharisees’ habit of “straining out gnats and swallowing camels” came across very differently to the Akukem. They understood it to mean that the Pharisees picked ants out of their camel meat before they ate it. To people living in a rural tropical environment, removing little creepy crawlers that invade the food supply is perfectly normal. Why be upset about that? One small change corrected the text, and Jesus’ words are now ready to address 21st-century Akukem legalism as powerfully as they confronted 1st-century Jewish legalism.
Some problems are not so easy to fix. Occasionally the advisor will spend half a day with the team on a couple of verses. Sometimes this happens because their world view must be challenged by the truth of Scripture, such as when the team insisted that their term for “good sorcery” was the correct way to identify Jesus’ miracles.
Checking sessions are not the only reason the Akukem men come to town. Sometimes they come for computer training, or to work on spelling corrections. At other times someone will come to develop literacy materials for use in teaching school-age Akukem children to read and write in their own language. Sometimes just one person will come in for a few days to clean up a few chapters in preparation for a checking session.
Whenever they come, we provide them food and a place to stay, a place that they share with people from other language groups like the Mbore, the Aruamu, the Mum, the Waran, or the Apal, people who, like themselves, are pursuing the desire of their hearts. We are grateful that we will soon have sufficient housing for these and for the many others that God will send to us in the years ahead.
Mike is the acting Director of PBTPNG and also the current Director of Language Affairs.