Thankfully, the Achi of Cubulco have received the New Testament through the dedication of Wycliffe translators Mary Shaw and Helen Neuwenswander. Only God knows the number of people who have come to know Him through this labour of love. Today the New Testament in Achi is shaping Christians throughout the Cubulco area. But then again, try to imagine life without the Old Testament. You would have only a fraction of God's Word. Essential parts of Scripture would be unavailable to you: no creation account, no history of the fall, no law to bring you face to face with Almighty God and His holy demands, very little understanding of the covenant, no Psalms to shape worship or give expression to the cries of the heart, no wisdom literature to guide your steps and train your children, no sacred history to teach how God works in the real world, no prophecies to call to repentance and generate hope in the God of history, no Messianic prophecies to awaken and strengthen your faith as you see them fulfilled to the smallest details. This is the task that our churches have been engaged in for a number of years. Translation work is slow. That doesn't mean however, that something is wrong. It is, rather, the nature of Bible translation. Allow me to take you through the steps involved.
The Translation Process
Our two translators, Mateo Matias and Leonardo Andret, work on the passage using various versions and commentaries as they attempt to understand the text. Often they will consult me about the meaning of a text or a word. Once they have a rough draft, they go through it again to ensure a consistency of translation.
We use three basic principles in translation: the translation must be accurate, clear and natural. That is to say, it must reflect the original text as accurately as possible. The translators are deeply conscious that it is God's Word they are translating and have a high view of inspiration.
Clarity is the second characteristic of a good translation. The reader must understand what God is saying in His Word; the vocabulary must be something that he or she understands. Thirdly, it must be a natural translation. All languages are different and care is taken to ensure that the translation is an Achi translation, not a strange blend of Achi words with a Spanish grammatical structure.
In an effort to achieve this goal we have formed two Revision Committees. One deals with reading and comprehension. This committee is made up of Christian men and women from various communities. The translated passage is read to them and then questions are asked about meaning. It is one thing to say that you understand the translation, but the answers to the specific questions ensure that the reviewer has really understood the passage. The second Committee deals more specifically with content. It is made up of lay pastors and elders from our different congregations. Using their Spanish Bibles as a source text, they carefully examine the translation for accuracy. They meet for two full days each month. The translation is also checked with Hebrew. This is where I come in. Ideally, this would be done when the rough draft is prepared as well, but time restraints don't permit this. Nevertheless, we have been able to tighten up the translation in places.
The final step is the back translation. One of our lay pastors re-translates the translation in Achi back into Spanish without the use of a Spanish Bible. This gives us a final indication that the translation is accurate, clear and natural. Needless to say, changes and corrections are made every step of the way. Corrections are entered into the computer. Everything takes time. Thankfully, we have a good harmonious working relationship between translators and revisionists and can usually come to some consensus without too much difficulty. Some passages are particularly challenging and it is always a matter of gratitude when suddenly someone comes with the breakthrough and all the faces light up and say, "Yes! That's it!" Prayer before these sessions is not something superfluous. We work in reliance upon the same Holy Spirit who inspired the Word. The goal is to test portions in various communities before the translation is sent to printers.
We are also working on an agreement with the Guatemalan Bible Society for technical supervision. They work with other Mayan languages and have dealt with many of the translation issues that we face. There is no sense in re-inventing the wheel! To prepare and equip both the translators and the revision committee members, we have yearly translation workshops. We've been privileged to have Mary Shaw come to help us with this. Also, SIL (Summer Institute of Linguistics) an arm of Wycliffe Bible Translators, has been most supportive. Our men have attended some of their sessions as well in different places of Guatemala. In January we dealt with such key issues as figurative language, unknown terms or concepts as well as unique features of Mayan grammatical structures.
In addition to translating the Old Testament, our translators have produced a Song Book. In an effort to promote the work of the Translation Centre and the Achi language as a whole, we had our first ever Achi Song and Poetry Competition last December. It was gratifying and moving to see the participation and enthusiasm for this essential part of their culture. One of the prize-winning teams consisted of four children, three of whom played the marimba, while the fourth one sang. The six-year old boy who played the marimba was so short that he had to stand on a chair! Each week one of the translators, Leonardo, works on the Achi Grammar and Dictionary. This is an essential part of the over-all process and will help with the work for years to come. Leonardo is a gifted young man. He moved down from the mountains to work at the Translation Centre. Since coming here, he has taken classes on weekends. By next year he will be as far as he can go locally and plans to study linguistics at an evangelical University in Guatemala City.
There is not much point in producing a Bible if no one can read. During the last three years the Mission has sponsored the development of a literacy program in cooperation with the government's program. This has been something of an uphill battle, largely because of linguistic differences between the Achi of Cubulco from the Achi of neighbouring Rabinal. This past year the Centre was instrumental in organizing the broader community to say "No" to the imposition of Rabinal Achi. The difference is something like 60% and is causing endless frustrations in the school system. This fits nicely into a paragraph, but it caused something of an earthquake among linguists and educators. However, we are gaining support as people realize that the language is sufficiently different. The Government has formally recognized this Committee and they are currently producing educational materials. All of our translators volunteer time and expertise to this effort and we trust that it will go a long way to the formal recognition and promotion of Cubulco Achi.
Is it Necessary?
One of the most frequently asked questions is: "why don't you just teach everyone Spanish?" The fact is that Achi is still the heart language of most Achi people. I have been in community meetings where the women and children couldn't understand a simple request like, "please stand up for the National Anthem." This isn't going to change in the foreseeable future. Just today, as I walked home for lunch, three young girls about 7-years old were talking among themselves in Achi as they walked home from school. Here, if anywhere, they tend to adapt to the Spanish culture more quickly. When they get home, the conversation will be in Achi. And we sincerely hope that in the not too distant future, their conversation will be shaped by the Achi Scriptures.
Where do we go from here?
No doubt some readers will wonder about the future, given our departure in May. There is simply too much work for Pastor Everts to do once he comes. He will need time to develop his Spanish, learn about the culture, etc., The Mission has decided that he should focus on the church planting arm of the work here for the time being. Naturally, that has caused concern for the whole translation process. However, in the good providence of God we have come to know a linguist who is an elder in the Presbyterian Church and has years of experience with Mayan language projects. Jorge Orozco has agreed to come and oversee the translation project. We see him as an answer to prayer and just one more indication of God's provision and approval of this necessary task. Please continue to pray for the Old Testament translation project, for the translators and revisionist. It is a project that will take years to complete. Nevertheless, we are confident that God will use His Word effectually and that in the not too distant future the Achi will never again be able to imagine what life was like without the entire Word of God in their own language.
Yours in the fellowship of the Gospel,
Ken and Jackie Herfst and children.