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Spring 2007 | Volume 30, Number 1 | Features
"Translation" continued

In order to keep people from dismissing Christianity as a religion for Westerners only, Webster and his Branchu co-workers labor long hours to craft an indigenous translation that locals will embrace as their own. “We carefully strip away the ‘Christianese’ and supply a fresh and natural way of putting each verse in the idiom of the people,” says Webster. “It’s wonderfully satisfying to see the light of understanding go on for them.”

Sometimes that light comes at a price. Paul, a schoolteacher and Branchu Christian, was exiled to a village a two-hour walk from his home as punishment for speaking about the Scriptures with a government official. Paul’s reaction? “It’s OK,” he says. “Now I get to share Christ in that village as well, and with students on the trail.”

“These people are my heroes,” says Webster. “They powerfully proclaim a living gospel day after day in a hostile environment. Our goal is to leave behind a sustainable movement of Bible translation and Scripture use — and because of the motivation of the people, we have high hopes of seeing this achieved.”

Admittedly, he worries about the team of Branchu distributors who take the translated Bible into remote regions. But when challenged by police, the distributors don’t flinch from the truth, says Webster: “They say that they are simply selling books about Jesus and helping people understand what the books are about.”

For the translation team, Bible translation has become a method of personal Bible study as well as evangelism. They are constantly asking what the text means, what the author is trying to say. “We began all this thinking that we knew the Bible pretty well; more often than not translation shows how little we really know,” says Webster. “It’s only after we dig in and study together as a translation team that we get a handle on what we think the verse is trying to say.”

The most basic study strategy for a Bible translator, says Webster, is to compare two versions of Scripture very different in style, note the differences, and attempt to understand those differences. He likes to use the New International Version (NIV) and the New Living Translation (NLT) — the NIV because it maintains the Greek structure, the NLT because it tries to use a more natural English structure while remaining faithful to the Greek meaning.

Because he works in a religiously restricted country, Webster comes under the auspices of the national university and local research bodies. He is committed to supporting the secular literacy, linguistic, and language development goals of his hosts, while also working on the Bible translation project.

Recently joining the Websters in their host country are former Seattle Pacific classmates Carl Grove ’87 and Lois Thompson Grove ’86, and son Clinton. Carl Grove left his job as a technical writer for Microsoft in Seattle because of his concern for marginalized people. His University of Washington doctorate, completed in 1999, focused on language policy and sociolinguistics.

“We won’t be directly involved with Bible translation,” says Grove, “but we’ll help the overall effort. We’ll do things like build relationships with government officials and the academic community, carry out research to document how government decisions affect linguistic minorities, and help plan and implement literacy programs.”

For now, the Groves’ chief task is to learn the language. Lois Grove, an elementary school teacher, plans to eventually teach alongside Laura Beth Webster and other educators in the international school that serves children whose parents are assigned to faith-based mission agencies.

Daily life in their Himalayan home includes power cuts, water shortages, and washing all vegetables and fruit in a special solution to kill intestinal bugs. Basic necessities are often delivered right to their doors. The same milk merchant has made daily deliveries by bicycle to the Websters for 14 years. The produce man, fishmonger, and recyclers also arrive by bicycle, shouting their wares.

The Webster boys are a unique international mix with a special “third-culture” status — not exactly fitting either their passport culture or their host culture. Most of their classes at school, just five minutes from home by bike, include a mixture of students representing 10 or more nationalities.

The English church the family attends meets in the gymnasium of the school where Laura Beth Webster teaches and the two oldest Webster boys are students. It comprises 200 people of more than 30 nationalities — and many more denominational backgrounds. National believers enjoy informal and spontaneous worship, praying aloud at the same time, and greeting each other with “Hail to the Messiah.” The Christian population of the nation the Websters call home is one of the fastest growing in the world.

“The longer I’m involved in this work,” says Jeff Webster,

“the more I’m convinced of the necessity of Bible translation for the successful establishment of an indigenous church within a particular people group. Christian history shows that it is a fundamental prerequisite for the endurance of the Christian faith over the generations.”

The Websters, who call the Bible “the gold standard,” say that “the Scripture in our heart language is the only thing that will keep us true to historical Christianity over the generations.” Put another way, Jeff Webster thinks of the Bible as “the moral compass to prevent the world from being shipwrecked on the reef of relativity.”

Whenever a biblical translation begins to penetrate a culture, he and other Bible translators have seen people change. “As it takes root in a culture and finds beautiful new and unique expressions, the gospel truth comes over people,” says Webster. “It provides the lasting foundation upon which they, the future church, can stand.”

*A pseudonym. At the request of the Websters, Response has not named the host country in South Asia where they live and translate the Bible.

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—By Clint Kelly []
— Photos by Greg Schneider

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Websters Groves

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