Found Through Translation

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 27, 2007

Most Christians search for the meaning of the New Testament. But for Alpheaus Zobule, the quest wasn't remotely metaphorical.

Growing up on a South Pacific island where life stops twice daily for church, he knew Christianity -- or thought he did. Yet he hadn't read the Bible; few people on his wave-whipped island had. They speak an oral language, Lungga, making them largely reliant on Methodist missionaries and lightly trained preachers to translate their faith.

Until recently, that is. Driven to make the Bible available to the 5,000-plus people who live on Ranonga in the Solomon Islands, the 37-year-old son of subsistence farmers came to the United States, earned master's degrees in linguistics and theology and spent six years figuring out how to write down Lungga -- all so he could translate the New Testament.

He played with word breaks, interviewed villagers to analyze their speech patterns, then wrote two fat books on grammar. Three years ago, the Bible Society of the South Pacific published 2,500 copies of Zobule's Lungga New Testament.

"Christianity became meaningful" only when he left his tiny village for high school, learned English and began to read the Bible, said Zobule, now a doctoral candidate in biblical studies at Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond. "I thought: My people don't have this. These people have been Christians for 100 years but haven't even read the most important book."

He didn't just want them to have access to what many Christians see as God's word. Zobule wanted them to have access in their own language .

Missionaries to Ranonga had long ago translated hymns and parts of the New Testament into one of the region's more widely used oral languages, Roviana. Roviana became known as "the missionary language." But most people, he said, have a very basic literacy level in Roviana and English, the official language.

An example of Zobule's translation comes from 2 Timothy 3:16: "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness" is rendered in Lungga as: "Na Kukuti Tabuna doruna sa i Tamasa sa singonia ko sa poreveveina pana vaivagigalai, pana ule votunia na sela tana tinoni, pana vatuvisia na tinoni sa sela beto pana vaivatavagigalania na uana tuvisina."

Said Zobule: "In school, we'd be punished for speaking our own language. We had to speak English. It builds a thought in us that our languages were not good; it affected our identity. When people got this translation, they said: 'You mean our language is important? You mean we are important?' "

When the translated text was launched on Ranonga, Zobule recalled a pastor saying: "Now God has arrived in our culture."

Zobule found that interpreting the Bible meant making endless judgment calls about what certain ancient parables really represented and about even what is behind common, powerful words, such as "justification" or "hope" or "sanctification."

"I used to think it was simple to translate, but 'meaning' isn't a linguistic thing," Zobule said from his office in a lofty library at the Richmond seminary.


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