The PE and TE Puzzle

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

I wish we had taken Mark Twain’s philosophy to heart way back at the beginning of our Bible translation and linguistic research work in Brazil. If we hadn’t been so sure, we would not have made such a big mistake. Here’s the story:

The Discovery
In the first year of studying Canela, back in 1968, we made the interesting discovery that Canela verbs seemed to have two past tenses—one to indicate the recent past, the other the distant, long ago past.

Here is an example showing the differences in CAPS:

  • When a hunter returns from a successful deer hunt, he would say,
    Wa iTE po curaN = I past deer kill = I killed a deer.
  • When he sat by the fire telling stories of previous hunts, he would say,
    PE wa po cura = distant-past I kill deer = Long ago I killed a deer.

The immediate past always seemed to use the longer form of the verb, curaN instead of cura as well as a little word TE preceded by a 1st, 2nd, or 3rd-person prefix.
All the legends and myths of long ago started off with PE and the shorter form of the verb, cura.
It was a very clear, easy-to-see distinction. It had to be easy, of course, since we would never have discovered it so soon in our research if it had been difficult.

During the next few years, we wrote and published some learn-to‑ read booklets and printed well-known legends for the Canelas to practice reading. We even published a beautiful 150-page illustrated Life of Christ book. Naturally, since Jesus lived long ago, we used the distant past time marker, PE and the shorter form of the verbs.

The Problem
There was only one thing that bothered us. Once in awhile the Canelas told us stories about things that happened in the distant past. And there – right in the middle of all the distant past PEs – would be a string of regular past TEs. But, we had other, more confusing aspects of the Canela language to study, so, thinking that maybe the storyteller had slipped and made a mistake, we decided to concentrate on these more complicated aspects and leave the PE-TE problem for some other time. Bad decision!

Several years later we participated in a linguistic workshop taught, as usual, by a Ph.D. linguist. “What aspect of the Canela language are you going to study?” he asked. “Well,” I replied, “We should probably get this little PE-TE problem cleared up before we go on to more important things.”

The Research
He agreed, gave us some instructions, and we equipped ourselves with some highly sophisticated linguistic tools – two highlighter pens, one orange and one blue. We then coloured our way through a huge stack of distant-past stories. All the distant-past PEs and short verbs we circled orange and all the inexplicable TEs and long verbs we circled in blue. By the end of the day, we realized the problem was not rare at all. Every single one of the stories started off in orange, turned blue towards the middle and then went back to The Solutionorange at the very end.

So, we sat down with our linguistic consultant and asked the important linguistic question; “Why do these orange stories turn blue?” After many days of pondering, praying, and testing, we got the beginning of an answer.

The Solution
It turned out that in stories set in the distant past, the orange parts, the ones with PEs and short verbs, tended to be descriptions, settings, bits of explanation, background information, and summary, etc. The blue parts, those with the TEs and long verbs were the important story-lines, the main actions, and the climax.

What an eye-opener! We were very glad for the break-through, but were sad to realize that our beautiful Bible-story book was orange from cover to cover. All background, all settings, all description, all supporting explanation. No main actions, no vitally important things happening. No climax, not even in the story of our Lord’s resurrection!

The Prevention
Linguist-Bible translators don’t need to make these types of mistakes anymore. In the past forty-five years, vast amounts of linguistic research have been gathered and are now taught at places such as the Canada Institute of Linguistics (CanIL). A summer training session will be held in Trinity Western University. Check it out here


Three Different Languages: Three Impactful Bibles

What was the most powerful biblical influence you had as a child?

My Dutch Children’s Bible
My Mama started showing me pictures and reading me stories from the Dutch Children’s Bible, De Kinderbijbel, when I was three years old. From age five on, I read it myself. Even now, seventy-seven years after I first heard them, I can still quote some lines from those stories written by W. G. van de Hulst in 1926.

The first thing we all need to grow in our Christian life is having a clear and accurate modern-language translation of the Bible in our own language. The next thing is to have a Bible in the language our young children can understand.

The New Canela Children’s Bible
That is why I was delighted to learn that this year, the Brazilian Bible Society has published Pahpam Jarkwa Ahkrare Caxuw, the Bible for Children in the Canela language. The partial Bible that Jo and I worked for twenty-two years to translate was published in 1990. It had some illustrations, including some pen and ink drawings by a Canela artist. This new publication, however, is profusely illustrated throughout with excellent, informative pictures in full colour, specifically aimed at being appreciated by Canela children.

The English Bible Translated for Children
This year is also notable for the publication of The Best News Ever, a Bible for children in English. It is not a book of stories for children, but an actual translation in the language of children. The New Testament is done, and translation of the Old Testament is well on the way.

The translator, Jan Harthan, is a personal friend of our family. We lived for many years on the same Wycliffe mission centre in Belem. Dave Harthan was the area director. Their sons and our daughters went together to the same mission school. Jan keyboarded and formatted hundreds of pages of the Canela Bible for us.

Jan Harthan started this work when she began to tell Bible stories to her own grandchildren, and quickly moved on to translate passages into language they could understand more easily. Jan is highly qualified to do this work having worked as an editor in some major publishing companies. Her translation was checked by veteran Bible translators Carl and Carol Harrison, also personal friends.

The Best News Ever has a limited vocabulary, using simple words, and relatively short sentences. Compare the average length of sentences: the King James Version: 30 words, the New International Version: 20 words, the New Living Bible: 16 words, and The Best News Ever: 10 words.

Check out this excellent translation in the languages of your young children and grandchildren on this informative site where you can compare multiple passages with other versions.

Praise God for These Three Bibles

  • I thank God from the bottom of my heart for a godly mother and for the Kinderbijbel she read to me as a child. The rest of my life was built on those stories.
  • Thank God with us that Canela children can now see the pictures and hear the stories from their own Children’s Bible.
  • Praise God for this The Best News Ever Bible translation for children in English and buy copies for families with children and pray God will impact them as He did me through my Kinderbijbel.

How God Stamped His Word “Holy” to the Canela

The Problem
Each time I told a story to the Canelas about Jesus performing a miracle they told me a story of the great exploits of some Canela culture heroes from their legends and myths. We tried to tell them that the stories from the Bible were special, true, real, and unique. They were Holy, having to do with God. They didn’t get it. We prayed – a lot.

Then it got worse. The Brazilian government changed, and the new officials refused to renew the permissions missionaries needed to live and work among indigenous peoples We found ourselves exiled from the Canela village. We prayed – a lot.

The Permit
We kept on working on the mission centre in the city, completing seven easy-reading booklets and the books of Luke and 1&2 Thessalonians. When the newly printed books arrived, we made a formal request to the government to visit the village and deliver the nine books. We prayed – a lot.

We praised God when we received a notice that permission had been granted but with exceptions. I flew to Sao Luis to see the government official. He gave me the permit and asked me to read it. I noticed that although we were allowed to leave the seven reading booklets in the village, the books of Luke and 1&2 Thessalonians were excluded. I had to sign a promise that I would not leave the books of sacred Scripture in the village.

I took my pen, shot up a prayer to God to work this out in His own way, and signed the document. On my return to the centre I told my missionary colleagues, and we prayed – a lot.

The Excitement
The next day, John, a fellow missionary, and I loaded a steel drum with seventy sets of books packed in plastic bags onto his pickup truck and left for the Canela. Several days later the Canelas received us with great joy since it had been several years since we were there. Their joy turned into wild excitement when they saw the seventy-five parcels of nine books in their language. The chief and elders immediately ordered me to the village central plaza and report.

I showed them each of the seven reading books. The elders were pleased to see several of their favourite legends in print as well as the health and hygiene booklets. When I finished, the chief pointed to the two remaining books, the Scripture books. “What about those books?” he asked.

“Oh, those are different. I can’t leave them here.”

“Why not? What are they about?”

“One is about Jesus, the Son of God, when He lived on earth long ago. And the other is the counsel of Paul. He was one of the elders of the Jesus group.”

“Well, you can at least tell us what is in those books,” the chief said.

The Explanation
So, for the next hour I gave an overview of the life of Jesus, reading excerpts from Luke, then read parts of Paul’s letter.

“We really want those books!” the chief exclaimed, “Why can’t you leave them?”

I explained about the government permission and that I had promised not to leave the Bible books. “I will leave them with my friend Sr. Duca in town,” I said, “You can go there and pick them up and bring them in yourselves.”

The Canela elders were not pleased with that idea at all. “It’s seventy kilometres to town,” they said, “it’s a two-day walk and two days back.

“Do those government people have these stories in their language?” the chief asked.

“Yes, they have. These stories about Jesus were translated into Portuguese hundreds of years ago. All Brazilians have been able to read them for many generations.”

“Then, why won’t they let us have them?” the chief exclaimed. “Why can’t we read those books and choose for ourselves if we want them or not? They did!”

“Just leave them here,” one of the elders advised, “We won’t tell anyone you did.”

“No, I’m sorry, I can’t do that,” I said, showing them my copy of the document, “I promised the government chief that I would not leave them here and signed his paper.”

The Chief’s Anger
Suddenly the chief sprang up, pulling his machete from its sheath. He laid the sharp edge on his forearm, and, with his face inches from mine, shouted, “If I cut my arm what comes out? Blue stuff? No! Red blood. We Canelas are human beings just like those city people! Why do they treat us as if we aren’t people? Why can’t we have what they have had for a long time?”

I couldn’t answer, and we sat quietly for a while. Suddenly the chief said, “The counsel will talk about this some more, and in the morning, we’ll tell you what we have decided.” So, John and I went to our house in the village, and we prayed – a lot.

Making the Transfer Outside the Gate

At sunrise on the central plaza the chief gave us his orders. “Put all those books back into that steel drum. Load it onto your truck and drive back up the road twenty kilometres through the gate where the Indian land ends. My son will follow you on the government tractor. He will bring the drum back on the tractor and distribute the books. That way you will have kept your promise to the government, but our seventy readers will have all the books.”

God’s Solution
And that’s what was done. We heard later that the first books everyone wanted to read were, of course, the special books, the forbidden ones. Our prayers were answered!

It was a clear example of Psalm 76:10, “Surely the wrath of man shall praise thee” (KJV) when God used the government’s prohibition to draw attention to the uniqueness of His Word. From then on, the Canelas treated the Bible stories as special, true and unique.

When, ten years later, the partial Bible was published it was called, Pahpam Jarkwa Cupahti Jo Kahhoc. The Book of God’s Highly Respected Word