Bible translation software development

When people ask what I do, I usually say something like “I develop software to help Bible translators.” That is probably about the shortest accurate answer to that question that I can muster, at least for my “main” job. I do many other things, too, but this is the bulk of what I spend my working hours on. I often see a puzzled look in response to that question. Every once in a while, I get a pleasantly informed response from someone who knows about software development who asks a question indicating that he or she really gets it. I really don’t have room to explain things very well in our newsletters and emails, because of the artificial limits we place on ourselves for length. We know that our partners are mostly busy people and won’t take the time to read much detail, for the most part… but some do care to know more. For you who care, we have this blog. πŸ™‚Old computers on display at JAARS

Software that Bible translators use covers a broad range of things, on a broad range of platforms. Computer technology keeps advancing, making the older computers and older software seem rather quaint, but even the old stuff really helped Bible translators to do their work. There are many things that computers help any missionary to do, such as email, accounting, correspondence, mailing list management, etc. There are also more specialized tasks related to Bible translation. These include:

  • Studying culture and language.
  • Analyzing language elements in many ways, including audio processing of speech samples, analyzing phonetics, phonemics, grammar, vocabulary, and discourse.
  • Preparing linguistic reports.
  • Developing and using writing systems, where needed.
  • Preparing literacy educational materials so that people can learn to read and write their own language, including the Holy Bible.
  • Editing, analyzing, checking, printing, and publishing the Scriptures.
  • Adapting the Scriptures from one language to one or more other closely related languages.

Right now, my focus is on the publishing side, taking Bible translation raw text in whatever format it is available in, preferably Unified Standard Format Markup and Unicode, and turning it into any of several formats for publication in print and various electronic formats. (Eventually, I hope to do more with the Scripture adaptation area, building on some brilliant ideas in existing products and adding a little more inspiration and work to the mix.) This turns out to be a rather interesting process, with all kinds of twists and turns with complications caused by economics, different writing systems, different (and often strongly-held) ideas about what constitutes good Bible publishing, and different cultural viewpoints. I have written some software that works (WordSend), and is easy enough for the Bible translators to use themselves. Of course, there is always more in the way of requests. My current work list includes:

  • Integrating WordSend into the JAARS/SIL Translation Editor via a plug-in mechanism.
  • Making the build and acceptance tests of WordSend more automatic.
  • Reworking the user interface for better user-friendliness.
  • Reworking the user interface to support localization to various languages.
  • Recreating the work done to export to Microsoft Word XML document (WordML) format to export also to Open Document Text (ODT–the native format of Writer). This not only makes using WordSend on Linux useful, but also opens up easy access to taking advantage of the SIL Graphite complex script rendering that is being built into products, but not Microsoft products. Some minority lanugages need that capability.
  • Making the GUI user interface of WordSend work cross-platform with Microsoft Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X. (The “guts” of the program already works on all three platforms.)
  • Integrating several new features into WordSend affecting layout within WordML and ODT documents and supporting a larger subset of the USFM standard.
  • Creating export and import functions for several additional Scripture file formats to facilitate electronic publication via the World-Wide Web and Bible study software.

Who writes specialized software for Bible translators? If the software is something useful for other purposes and profitable to sell, then it is usually written by commercial interests. However, an increasing amount of free software is being written for philosophical and practical reasons, and much of this also suits some of the needs of Bible translators. However, some of it is so specialized that it really only is of benefit to Bible translators, who form a market so small and so cash-challenged as to not merit serious commercial consideration. Therefore, it is generally the same sort of people who do the Bible translation who do the Bible translation software development: missionaries on support, with some volunteers who work other jobs but contribute a little part time. The majority of the code, of course, is written by those who devote their full-time efforts to this job. This includes teams at JAARS and SIL located at Waxhaw, North Carolina, and Dallas, Texas, USA, as well as contributors scattered on various mission fields and home country locations. It also includes individual or small team efforts scattered around the world. We try to coordinate efforts with communication via the Internet (using mailing lists, wikis, chat, web sites, etc.) and face-to-face interaction like we had at the recent Computer Technical Conference and Workshops in Waxhaw. This helps us keep duplication of effort down to a healthy level and helps us achieve data format compatibility between applications.

Because of the economics of Bible translation and software development, the vast majority of Bible translators and Bible translation software developers prefer to develop free software, provided that the software developers’ needs are met by financial partners just like the missionaries they serve.

What kinds of computer hardware do Bible translators use? They vary from cutting-edge performance to almost-good-enough-for-the-missionary hand-me-downs. While most run Microsoft Windows (including some ancient versions), some run Apple OS X or 9, some run Linux, and some run Palm-OS-based low power computing devices. There is a great deal of interest in the One Laptop Per Child low-cost, low-power, rugged computer project. It’s computing specs are really whimpy, but the ruggedness, low power, and low cost make it attractive for use in very remote locations lacking commercial power. Most of the software being developed for Bible translators now is written for Windows XP, and probably runs OK on Windows NT, 2000, or Vista. Some is cross-platform, running on Linux and/or Mac OS X, as well; but not enough that most Bible translators can work comfortably in Linux most of the time. I have been inspired by some great examples of cross-platform software, like Thunderbird, Firefox, the office suite, etc., and have resolved to follow suit in my contributions to Bible translation software to the maximum extent practical.
What is my biggest challenge? Right now, it is defeating the temptation to move back into a high-paying software engineering job instead of contributing to the work of Bible translation and living on missionary support. πŸ™‚ Still, I would rather not disobey the calling of God, so I press on.

Preserving a Pure Heart in a Pornographic World

Some things are not easy to write about, but this one has been on my heart, lately. This isn’t just my war for righteousness, but it affects you, too.
Today, at lunch, a friend told me of his son’s adventures in a college art class. They had a day devoted to pornography, and were showing examples on a screen in the room. He walked out… but most of the students didn’t. A flood of porn on the Internet, in print, and in video media entices many men and some women into lust, lewdness, addiction, and sin. It is a threat to believers in Jesus Christ as well as to others. The battle of the mind is one that rages daily, and if you don’t put on the right armor and stand your ground, you may be injured, maybe seriously.

What is pornography, anyway? I define it in terms of what goes on in the hearts of those who produce, promote, publish, and consume it. Pornography is any visual image that portrays, produces, or is intended to produce lust or sexual sin.

Pornography is degrading and exploitive of both producers and consumers. Pornography can be addictive, and in some cases very addictive. As with most addictions, continued addictive behavior often defies logic. Pornography is attractive to some degree because it uses God-given beauty and attractions, but it twists them in unholy ways. It is kind of like a sugar-coated drug. If you let it, it can produce a physical addictive response. It is not just another kind of art. Good art doesn’t do that to people.

Blessed is the man who endures temptation, for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life, which the Lord promised to those who love him.Let no man say when he is tempted, β€œI am tempted by God,” for God can’t be tempted by evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each one is tempted, when he is drawn away by his own lust, and enticed. Don’t be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom can be no variation, nor turning shadow. — James 1:12-17 (WEB)

Lust is the hook that pornography baits. Lust is coveting what you see, earnestly from your heart wanting something or someone for yourself that you cannot have in godly righteousness. Lusting after a woman is the moral equivalent of adultery in the heart. Lust is not a passing thought or a temptation, but the result of dwelling on what pleasures you might imagine would come from a certain sin. Lust is not simple appreciation of beauty, but an inappropriate desire. Don’t go there. If you nip a thought in the bud by replacing it with something better, it never takes root and becomes a full-grown lust. The most powerful way to overcome such a temptation is the way Jesus did, but quoting relevant Scripture. Make sure you read the Bible regularly so that the Holy Spirit has some good material to remind you of in time of need.

Do you want to win this battle? Then here are some words for the wise:

  • Spend time in Bible study and prayer every day.
  • Avoid situations where you may be tempted. Make like Joseph and run from the temptress. Consider using an Internet filter with a password known only by someone else.
  • Meditate on relevant Scriptures.
  • Consider the moral implications of not just looking from afar, but what if you were there?
  • Consider the effect of your example and your witness.
  • Be aware that things you do in secret affect what you do in public, even when you think they don’t.
  • If you stumble, repent and seek God immediately. It isn’t like He doesn’t already know.
  • Find healthy, righteous, and pure things to think and do.
  • Seek God’s help in dealing with spiritual and emotional pain in your life.
  • Find wise counsel and accountability from a trustworthy Christian brother.
  • If you are married, concentrate on being a better husband.
  • Read things that will help you, like the material at

Rocks on Mount Princeton

Finally, brothers, whatever things are true, whatever things are honorable, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report; if there is any virtue, and if there is any praise, think about these things. — Philippians 4:8 (WEB)

Fear is the enemy of security.

While traveling by air, I am often amazed at the nearly world-wide response to a single terrorist act or threat. I’m not so much amazed that the response is wide-spread, but at the apparent inability of those who make and those who enforce these reactionary rules to think logically. For example, a few weeks after the infamous events of September 11th, 2001, I witnessed a security guard confiscating a cuticle remover of about 4 cm in length from a business man flying out of Los Angeles. One evil-doer tried and failed to detonate a bomb concealed in his shoe in flight, and now millions of travellers with no intention of doing any harm are made to remove their shoes for x-ray inspection before boarding an airplane. A plot was uncovered and foiled to smuggle liquid components of explosives on board an aircraft, and as a result, I couldn’t bring juice aboard for my 20-month-old daughter and an empty water bottle got confiscated by airport guards. Obviously, fear of repeated or even potential terrorist crimes interferes with people’s ability to think rationally. Has anyone ever considered the statistics on number of successful shoe bombings before and after the x-ray rules? (No improvement– both zero.) What about the number of serious crimes committed aboard aircraft in flight by toddlers wielding sippy cups with juice in them? Just how far will we disregard the Bill of Rights, especially the fourth amendment of the U. S. Constitution, and limit our freedom in a futile attempt to improve security?
I could rant on and explain what rules I would change if I were in charge, but I’m not in charge, so let me jump to the solution. Perfect love casts out fear. When the fear is gone, replaced by the perfect love of Jesus Christ, we are capable of thinking rationally about security. The airport security guards really can’t stop every possible attack on traveller safety. Not even close. Love them anyway, and be polite. Love the rule-makers and pray for them. Love even the people who are so decieved that they believe they would do God a favor by murdering people, and pray that they would see the Truth and be set free of the bondage of sin (preferably before they kill someone). Pray for protection for those who travel. Pray that the plots of the enemy of our souls would be revealed and defeated.
AA MD-80 jet at Colorado Springs

Pray. Now there is a security precaution with no bad side-effects, and you don’t have to convince a government agency to do it. Just do it. πŸ™‚

Vote God’s way!

I am pleased that I was able to vote in the current election in Colorado. I really tried to vote absentee while living in Papua New Guinea, but the slowness of air mail into and out of PNG made that impossible each time. I value the priviledge of voting. I take seriously the responsibility to vote in a way that pleases God. In other words, we need to pray and seek God’s guidance on how to vote on issues and which candidates to vote for… then do what God indicates we should do.
Fighter Jets at PAFB