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 https://www.canil.ca/summer/

 

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

The Easter Confusion

It happened during an Easter Sunday service, fifteen ago, but it made such a powerful impact on me I still remember it with awe.

While I served as executive director of Wycliffe Caribbean, I was away from home most weekends and preaching in churches. One Easter Sunday in Trinidad, however, I had no speaking engagement, and walked to a nearby church.

Since I had visited a few times and preached there once, the usher recognized me and seated me in the front pew, next to the pastor and his wife. After a rousing time of musical worship and celebration, the pastor introduced the special visiting speaker, the president of the denomination.

The Invitation
“But before our president brings the message,” he said, “I’d like to welcome our brother Jack Popjes from Wycliffe. Jack, please come up and bring a few words of greeting from Wycliffe.”

Inviting visiting pastors or missionaries to say a few words is customary in many Caribbean churches, so I was not surprised. I took the microphone, knowing I was expected to speak for at least five to ten minutes. I gave a two-minute update on Wycliffe Caribbean and the world of Bible translation, and continued, “This Easter morning I am remembering what happened the first time we spent Easter in the Canela village of Brazil.”

My Story
In he next two minutes I told about sitting near the Canela old men’s council and listening to them arguing over how someone had died. Some insisted he had been executed. Others disagreed saying he had died in a fight, “How else did he get holes in his hands and feet if he wasn’t grabbing and kicking at the spears?” Hey! They were talking about Jesus, His crucifixion and death!

I prayed for an opportunity to speak. Suddenly the chief called on me to sit with them, and said, “Our Portuguese speaking Brazilian neighbours told us that this week everyone is remembering the death of a really important man. But we don’t understand what happened. Do you know anything about this?”

“Yes, I do!” I said and ran home to get the freshly translated story.

That was the first time I publicly read the Passion and Easter story in Canela. Even though it was only a first draft translation, hearing the clear facts about Jesus’ death and resurrection made a huge impact on the Canelas. (Read the full story in chapter 4 of my latest book, The Why & How of Bible Translation, available on Amazon.)

“Hundreds of millions of people,” I told the congregation, “speak over 4,000 languages in which none of the Bible has yet been translated. It breaks my heart that right now, today, this very Easter Sunday morning, they are still just as confused about Easter as the Canelas were back in the early 1970s.”

The President’s Response
I sat down, and the denominational president entered the pulpit. He opened his Bible, arranged his notes, looked over the congregation and said,

“I sense some of you need to respond to what you have just heard. Do you feel God wants you to commit to personally do something to bring His Word to those Bible-less people groups? Maybe you are willing to work overseas. Or you may want to commit to pray or give as you have never prayed or given before. If you want to make such a commitment, come forward right now, and I’ll pray for you.”

That’s when we saw God’s Holy Spirit at work.
One by one, men, women, young people and older folks got up and walked to the front and stood with bowed heads. As more people kept coming, the pastor whispered to me, “I’ve never seen this before. Come with me.” He organized lines for people to be prayed for by the visiting speaker, by himself, and by me.

As the people kept coming, we laid our hands on them and prayed. After over half the congregation had come, received prayer, and had returned to their seats, nearly an hour had passed. The visiting speaker never did preach his sermon. He stood with tears in his eyes, asked everyone to rise, and gave the benediction.

The Results
Some months later, a Wycliffe team led a well-attended, in-depth workshop in that church on how to get involved in Bible translation. Later that year, Wycliffe Caribbean signed a ministry partnership agreement with that major denomination.

God is still at work!
In the fifteen years since I told that two-minute story in Trinidad, people groups speaking hundreds of different languages have received God’s Word in their language for the first time. Currently, Bible translation projects are ongoing in nearly 2,000 other languages!

He is alive! Happy Easter!
But remember that 1,600 people groups are still as confused about Jesus as the Canelas were. They still wait for someone to translate God’s Word in their language.

 

 

What Billy Graham Said About Bible Translation

In Memory of Rev. Billy Graham 1918-2018.
The Reverend Billy Graham went to be with the Lord last week, February 21, at the age of 99.

We all know him as one of the most renowned preachers, evangelists and Christian authors of our time, bringing the Good News to multi-millions of people during his lifetime.

Billy Graham, Promoter of World-wide Bible Translation
What is not as well-known, however, is that he was also a strong promoter of world-wide Bible translation. He was a friend of Wycliffe’s founder “Uncle Cam” William Cameron Townsend, and served on the Wycliffe board.

Thirty-seven years ago, at the Wycliffe Jubilee Service celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Cakchiquel Bible translation in 1981, Rev. Graham shared these words about serving in Bible translation:

Billy Graham Urges Christians to Go, Go, Go!
I was thinking today just what you would read about if you were to get out a file of newspapers from the last 50 years and see what the world has called the significant events during that time.

I have no doubt in the annals of heaven that one of the most significant events of the last half-century has been the explosion of Bible translation, which has brought the Word of God to hundreds of tribes and languages.

And much of this is because of the vision and genius of Cameron Townsend. He was a university dropout, with an urgent desire to serve the Lord wherever the Lord should lead him. And this should encourage many of you that are thinking about going into this type of ministry — that God can take a dedicated heart and consecrate it to his service and shape the world.

You have to face squarely how your talents and your gifts and your training prepare you for Christian service. In fact, it might be said that Jesus only had two verbs: come and go. “Come unto me,” and, “Go into all the world.”

Go out quickly into the streets and into the lanes. Go out into the highways and hedges. Go into the vineyard. Go into the village. Go into the city. Go into the town. Go to the lost sheep. Go thou and preach the kingdom of God. Go, go, go, go — go ye into all the world!

If you profess the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, you have that command and you have to face it, and you have to do something about it.

We have been commanded to deliver a message to every one of the four billion people who live on this planet and especially to the hidden peoples with no written language. And we have a responsibility to see that every language has the Word of God written in it.

Current Statistics are Encouraging
In the decades since Billy Graham made this speech, world population has grown to more than 7.6 billion. We now know that there are over 7,000 languages in the world of which 5,300 already have a Bible, a New Testament or an ongoing translation program, leaving 140 million people speaking 1,636 languages that are still without any of God’s Word in their language.

That means that about 98% of the world’s population has at least some hope of hearing or reading some of God’s Word in their own language. It leaves only 2% without anything, and no one yet assigned to start a translation project. Most business people would be satisfied with 98% of market share — but not God!

In Jesus’ story of the ninety-nine-sheep safe in the sheepfold, He focused on the concerned shepherd who searched everywhere to find and bring the one lost sheep to safety. Surely, Jesus wasn’t just talking about sheep, but about the 2% of the world’s population that is still without any of His Word.

As Billy Graham might have said, “Go and find those who are lost in dangerous places, down in linguistic gullies and stuck in cultural brambles, and bring them into the fold!”