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November 15, 2013

Philippines: Struggle and Breakthrough

In this firsthand account, TEAM missionary and translation and linguistics expert Keith McCune explains how challenging experiences led to a small yet important breakthrough in translating the Bible into an obscure language in the Philippines.

  • Teamwork

    Keith McCune and his co-workers work diligently to find just the right word for their translations, which can be difficult when it comes to an English word such as "ascribe".

  • Collaboration

    The translation work of Keith and Grace McCune (pictured) would be impossible without the expertise of national colleagues.

  • Welcome Guests

    Observers from around the world came to the recent Mangyan workshop to better understand how the translation process works.

Here at the Old Testament workshop focusing on two Mangyan dialects, I am checking the Psalms in a language called Tawbuid, a sort of orphan language so out of orbit compared to the Philippines’ other languages that we often just scratch our heads. Like an especially good, hard bike-ride, some moments in the revising process are a blend of euphoria and sweat. 

Here is one small example of struggle and breakthrough: Psalm 29:1 kicks off a glorious hymn of praise with the words, “Ascribe to the Lord, you heavenly beings, ascribe to the Lord glory…” (NIV)

Until the ‘60s, the Tawbuid people were isolated Stone-Age hunter-gatherers in the hinterlands of a small island. They do not have a precise word for “ascribe.” The Tawbuid draft we were working to improve said, “Praise the Lord for his glory.” But I wondered if we could somehow mirror the English distinction between “ascribe” and “praise.” Also, I wondered if the verb in question might be a slight step back from the full blossom of active praising. In many cases, Hebrew “yahab” just means “give.”

So we tried that: “Give the Lord glory.” But as we discussed it, one of the mother-tongue translators said, “Doesn’t he already have glory? So how can we give it to him?” The verb “give” in Tawbuid is used very concretely — as in, handing someone an object that he lacks. The word doesn’t form such idioms as “give me a break,” or “give glory.”

So we reexamined “yahab” and concluded this: it’s simply agreeing that God is glorious. It’s a speech act of confession, saying about God what he says about himself. And then it occurred to us: The clearest, most immediate way to represent this idea would be direct quotation. So we put this candidate on the whiteboard: “Say to the Lord, ‘You are glorious.’”

We have a translator-colleague in the Philippines who once told us that comprehension and impact skyrocket when the translation uses direct quotation in this way. So we typed that rendering tentatively in the file, to pray and think and talk about further.

And I went home praising God for the astonishing authority he lavishes on his undeserving children. Could it be that in the Lord’s own prayerbook, we puny mortals are being invited to join the psalmist as he gives a command to beings whom, if we could see them, we might be tempted to worship?

During this, our sixth Mangyan workshop, observers have come from around the world who are interested in watching the three translation teams in action. Our two favorites among these welcome guests are our interns, Ben and Noelle, who stayed with us over the summer to be part of the Mangyan work and to improve their understanding of Tagalog, the official Philippine language.

Once in the Philippines, Ben and Noelle took an overnight vision trip to a Mangyan village. One of the difficult things about this visit was having to cross a hanging bridge straight out of an Indiana Jones movie — long, under two feet wide, swaying in the wind over a long drop, and with rusted-out holes patched with gnarly bits of wood. This bridge figured in one of my personal lessons in Tawbuid.

I have been fascinated and frustrated with a particular Tawbuid verb-root, “seg.” It’s the root of words meaning “worship,” “rejoice,” and “boastful,” among others.

The more I thought about this data, which at first struck me as sloppy, the more I found in it a rich picture of worship. We worship what brings us joy. And if we are in the habit of worshiping the Lord, we will also be in the habit of bragging on him.

And then there is the simpler prefixed form, “gseg.” I was getting used to seeing it used in the Psalms to mean “praise,” as in: “Praise the Lord.”

But then I told my colleagues, Sulyan and Abel, about Ben and Noelle’s hanging bridge. I said to them, “Crossing this bridge would be hard for some Americans. We look at it and wonder: What if it’s not strong enough? But when we finally walk out onto the bridge, what are we doing to the bridge?”

And they said: “Gseg.” “You are seging the bridge.”

Praising the bridge? No, relying on it.

What we rely on, we praise. As we live in the Spirit, the two are never far apart.

-Written by Keith McCune
-Photos provided by Keith McCune