TBTA Workshop plans in Vanuatu

Steve Beale of TBTA spent three years as a Wycliffe Bible translator’s consultant on Motalava, Vanuatu. We are now returning to Vanuatu with TBTA in tow to help with Old Testament translation in this country with over 100 languages.

We will begin working on Tanna – an island in the south of the country where Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) Vanuatu director, Greg Carlson, and his family spent 17 years translating the New Testament for the North Tanna people group. There are several languages on the island, and the plan is for representatives of each language to attend a TBTA workshop for two or three months. The goal is to use TBTA to produce drafts of the narrative sections of the Old Testament. The workshop is scheduled to occur in 2018, but as you can imagine, planning and actual work is already well underway.

How will it work?

Well, first of all there are a number of logistical things for which we ask your prayers. We will need to transport and house several people per language, and then run a workshop somewhere. The participants will be giving up a lot to attend – normal, everyday things like taking care of their families is a never-ending task. It’s not like they can just go on vacation for three months.  So we ask for God’s provision for them along with practical ideas about how best to run the workshop on a day-to-day basis while keeping a balance between 1) maintaining enthusiasm and attention, 2) getting the work done, 3) promoting an atmosphere of worship, and 4) allowing the participants to do what they need to do for themselves and their families.

What about the workshop itself? In a nutshell, here’s what a TBTA “language description” workshop needs to do. We have an unambiguous “Semantic language” that we developed. We are in the process of encoding the Bible into this language. The resulting semantic (or meaning-based) descriptions of the Bible are very accurate, unambiguous and computer-friendly. SO – for each language, X, where we want to translate the Bible, we need to “teach” the computer how to translate between this semantic language and language X. We can accomplish a large part of that process using our “Grammar and dictionary startup.” For example, we know that we need to be able to translate things like this:

John built the house.

John will build the house (today/tomorrow/next year – sometimes they look different)

John wants to build the house.

John started building the house.

John finished building the house.


So in the workshop we will go through all the groups of such related sentences that make up the semantic language. We will ask each native speaking participant to produce a translation for each. A big part of the process will be to ensure that the translations are natural and really “get at” what we want. We will carefully work through each group of sentences, put them in context, use Biblical examples when appropriate, encourage collaboration between the languages (which are all relatively related and will probably say things “in the same way” even if the exact words are different). And of course we will also need to uncover the vocabulary that is necessary to translate the Bible.

My approach to making this a fast-moving, encouraging process is to focus the sessions on what is needed to translate: first a few verses, then a chapter, then a whole book of the Old Testament. We like to use Ruth for this purpose. It is an interesting book, a relatively simple narrative, and it allows us to proceed through the initial stages of “language description” fairly quickly, grounded in actual Scriptural examples, and allows us to keep enthusiasm high.

I estimate that we can get through 90% of the language description process (for these multiple languages) in a relatively short time in such a workshop environment. Then we will start producing drafts of the Old Testament, adding vocab as we go, and “tweaking” our rules and grammars as we see them in action. Along with this will be modules on the editing process and, if necessary and appropriate, translation principles.  By the end of the two or three months we hope and pray that we will have: 1) the language description pretty much completed, 2) drafts of the narrative sections of the Old Testament produced, and 3) a trained group of editors working on the editing and checking stages.

Please pray with us! During the lead-up time to the workshop we will be preparing the workshop materials and methodology, finishing up the semantic representations for the narrative sections of the Old Testament, and fund raising for the costs associated with travel, food and lodging for the workshop participants.