One Letter at a Time

Apr 04, 2018

One Letter at a Time image

Books, text messages, billboards, Scrabble, this article — none of these would exist without words. But what if you lived in a community that did not have a written language?


In 1975, Dave and Joyce Briley moved to Papua, a province of Indonesia, with the calling to translate the Bible for an isolated community. In order to do that, they first had the task of creating an alphabet and writing system for the spoken language of the Bauzi people, a hunter/gatherer community of about 2,000 people who live along the riverways in the Lake Plains region of Papua.


Both Dave and Joyce attended the Summer Institute of Linguistics in Oklahoma and North Dakota, respectively. There they received instruction on how to discover the grammar and discourse of a language. When they actually arrived at their location, assigned through Wycliffe Bible Translators, they did not know the local language.


“We just pointed a lot until we learned to say, ‘What is that?’” says Dave. “Gradually we built up a vocabulary and we were writing it all down in a phonetic script because we hadn’t made any decisions yet about how the language would be written. It took us about two years before we had a description of all the sounds of their language and what letter of the alphabet we were going to assign to each sound.”


Although the Bauzi people do not speak Indonesian, the Brileys used characters from the national language, which uses a Roman script like English. In the end, they decided on 13 consonants and six vowels.


“We would just walk around with a notebook and tape recorder in our hands and always hope to catch a word here and there,” says Joyce. “We sat around with the people in their homes most evenings and listened to how they told stories to see if we could get the format they used to speak. We picked up a lot of the language that way.”


As the language developed, Dave and Joyce created books they could use to teach the Bauzi people how to read their language. Some of the people in these groups then became the teachers for the rest of the people in the community.


Once the Brileys began to gather sufficient information, they were required by their contract to publish their knowledge in order for the government to learn about this group of people. As the Bauzi people and the Indonesian government do not speak the same language, the Brileys served as a liaison between the two.    


More Than Words

When moving 8,000 miles away, there is more than a new language to learn.


“We also had to study various aspects of the culture so that when we translated the Bible into their language we weren’t giving them a foreign book,” says Dave. “We had to make sure we weren’t communicating things that weren’t accurate.”


This became relevant in the first story that the Brileys translated, the birth of Christ. When they read that Mary had wrapped Jesus in swaddling cloths, the Bauzi people said, “Oh, Jesus was a bad baby.” Trying to hide his surprise, Dave inquired about their interpretation.


In the Bauzi community, women go to the outskirts of their village to have their babies. If a woman returns with a baby covered up, it indicates that she thought he was sickly and might die. In these cases, the women do not show the baby to the father because that way, if the baby should die, the father would have no emotional attachment to the child. But if the father saw the baby and the baby did not survive, he would be angry at his wife for showing him the child.


As a result, after the part about swaddling cloths, the Brileys added “as was their custom” to their translation to communicate to the Bauzi that this was the tradition of another culture.


In a similar way did Luke 11:11 have to be carefully translated: "What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent…” For the Bauzi people, snakes are edible and, in fact, have more meat on them than fish. Through that lens, the father in the verse would actually be benefitting his son by giving him the snake rather than a fish. To avoid this misinterpretation, the Brileys modified serpent with “inedible.”


“We used whatever phrases they had that would accurately translate the words of the Bible so that the concepts weren’t completely foreign to them,” says Joyce. “To check the accuracy of the translation we would ask them comprehension questions so we could tell by their answers whether the correct meaning was coming through the translation.”


Through Perseverance and Patience

In 2008, their translation of the New Testament was published. The already-difficult process of translating from one language to another was compounded by a number of other factors. To begin, part of the contract with the government requires the Brileys to train a member of the community on the work they are doing. Although training someone in translation principle takes time, it paid off in the long run, as that person was able to begin attempting first drafts of his own.


“In the 43 years of doing Scripture translation for the Bauzi people, I have worked to train three different Bauzi men,” says Dave. “It has usually taken about five years to get them to the point that they can help in the task. However, due to inability to stick to the meticulous task, loss of interest, or sickness, these men have left the work, sometimes taking the skills they’ve gained to obtain jobs with the government.”


Recently, the person with whom Dave is now working was diagnosed with a very debilitating disease, which has prevented him from being able to work much on the project. In the event that he can no longer contribute to the work, Dave will not only have to start over training a new person, but he will also have to work on the translation work by himself in the meantime.


Another recent change has also altered the Brileys’ work rhythm. In July 2017, their visas expired. As it is expensive to renew visas, and because they didn’t feel they needed five additional years to complete their work, the Brileys decided to move back to Massachusetts, where Joyce is from originally and where three of their four adult children live. From there they will continue working, combined with making occasional trips back to Indonesia.


Even though during the past 43 years Dave and his Bauzi partners have focused on the translation of the New Testament, some books of the Old Testament have been translated as well. Unlike the New Testament, the translation will not be of the entire Old Testament, but rather a selection (close to 50%). This Shorter Old Testament will include full books such as Genesis, Exodus, Jonah, Esther, Ruth, Joel, Malachi and other prophetic books, as well as portions of many other Old Testament books.


Once the translation is completed, the next step will be to bring it to the Bauzi people and ask comprehension questions to ensure the accuracy of the translation. Next, they will bring in an outside consultant. Depending on the language he speaks (English or Indonesian), the Brileys will translate what they’ve written in Bauzi back into the language of the consultant. In this way the translation undergoes a “quality check.” After the translation passes this test, they will receive permission to publish it.


A Slow and Steady Progression

Translating the Bible into a written language for the Bauzi people is only one step of sharing the Gospel. Because the Bauzi are animists—that is, they believe that all things contain a spiritual element—the idea of one God is as foreign to them as the English language. As a result, many seeds need to be sown in order for fruit to be borne.


“The first person that showed any interest at all in coming to salvation was Isak, the person from whom I was learning the language,” says Dave. “Here in American culture when we speak of a person coming to Christ, we usually speak of it as a split-second decision, but in the Bauzi culture they don’t know everything that’s involved so whatever parts of the Bible they have available to read — if they believed that, then that was an expression of faith.”


“Isak would say ‘I want to stop on God,’” adds Joyce. “He wanted to follow God but he only knew what had been translated up to that point so it was like a progression to the Lord.”


Slowly but surely the Brileys have witnessed members of the Bauzi people group applying the Scriptures to their lives, starting with Isak.


“One day he was ranting and raving against the Lord because his gardens had been ravaged by wild boars so he had no food for his family,” says Dave. “He knew he had made a commitment to God and was wondering why God wasn’t taking care of him. But then he told me that he had read the recent translation of James and understood that God was testing his faith and that he was wrong to be raging against Him. I was so excited to hear the way he was applying what he had read.”


In their years with the Bauzi people, the Brileys have seen a reduction in “revenge killings,” which has long been a standard practice in their community. They have also seen a move away from the tradition of killing the second-born child in a set of twins, based on the superstition that the second twin was fathered by an evil spirit. The fact that the Brileys had their own set of healthy twins may have played a part in this shifting mindset.


Over all these years, the Bauzis are not the only ones who have experienced changes.


“I think our faith is stronger because outside help was not readily available when we were in the village,” says Joyce. “So in everything that we faced — emergencies and health issues — we had to trust the Lord to get us through.”


“In times of crisis now we don’t get shook up,” adds Dave. “We’re more willing to wait on the Lord to work in situations now than when we were younger.”

Thanks to Tim Harold for many of the photos included in this article.