Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. – Arthur C. Clarke
As people watched intently in Bulal Village, I worked on some things using a notebook computer, using some of the precious little electricity I got walking a mile to a church that had a connection to a generator. In Melanesian village culture, people watch and listen to learn what others are doing. This works great for basic life skills, like cooking over a fire, hunting, fishing, coconut husking, learning languages, building bush houses, gardening, canoe construction, etc. In the case of things I do on computers, it is a woefully difficult way to learn. You can’t really see what is going on in the computer and in my mind, just by looking. I might visualize data structures, algorithms, and program flow in my mind while all an observer sees is that I am poking buttons and silently looking at incomprehensible (to him) text on a screen. Now, as I work at electronic Scripture publishing in many languages, it is kind of like that even for observers who have much more formal education and who even use computers themselves. I imagine that it looks something like this to the casual observer: I sit down at my computer, wave the mouse, press buttons, study the screen, press some more buttons, and lo and behold, web sites appear on the public Internet with translations of the New Testament and other Bible portions in many languages. The more I do that, the more Scripture translations appear. Cool, huh? Of course, I get some interesting questions about that.
Q: How do you learn all of those languages?
A: I don’t. Teams of Bible translators spend a lot of time, usually between 3 and 30 years, to learn a language and translate a New Testament into that language. I just help with the electronic publishing of the Scriptures once it is ready. The number of people involved in translating all of the Scriptures I have posted so far, plus all who support them, adds up to a true army of people.
Q: How do you type all of those languages?
A: First, I don’t retype Bibles. Think about that. A good typist can type 33 words per minute at simple transcription in a language she understands, and there are about 788,280 words in the Bible. That means it would take about 50 8-hour days of fast typing to do one if I could type as fast with a language I can’t read as a good typist can with one she can read. But I do type small amounts here and there. From time to time, I need to type some characters not found in English, like a r̃ or ŋ. For those, I either use an alternate language keyboard layout, or if it is only a few characters, insert them from a character map. I also made an alternate keyboard layout of my own that contains every character found in every written Papua New Guinean language.
Q: Do you have a computer translate Bibles?
A: No. Machine translation of natural languages is tolerable, if somewhat humorous at times and dead wrong at other times, for a few of the largest language groups. This is the result of a great deal of work and refinement for large customer bases. Nobody does that kind of work for the little tribal languages. Not yet, anyway. Even if they did, it would still take human review to make sure it was right.
Q: Don’t computers help the process of Bible translation?
A: Yes, of course. They greatly assist in the process of Bible translation, especially with some of the new software that is being made available to Bible translators, like Adapt It. Good Bible translation remains utterly dependent on humans who are utterly dependent on God.
Q: Are you a one-man show?
A: No. There is no way to do this by myself. This project involves cooperation and coordination between several organizations and many people. I work with people in different countries helping with different aspects of the process of Bible translation and publication. There are also others who work on electronic Scripture publishing in other geographic areas.
Q: So what do you actually do?
A: I help write open source software that processes Scripture files, essentially typesetting them into different formats. These formats are are then made available to people to read and study the Bible on various electronic devices. I also create and maintain several related web sites. My goal is to post Scriptures without barriers to making and sharing faithful copies so that they can spread to as many people who can read them as possible. I’m focusing right now on the Pacific area, but have helped a few people in other areas.
Q: How fast can you post new Bible translations and formats?
A: That depends on many things. It depends on what format I get the Scripture in and how much work I have to do to get the files into the format expected by the conversion programs. It depends on when I get translations and permission to post. It depends on how long it takes to write software to convert to a new format. The biggest limit to the speed of this work is the time it takes to actually translate the Holy Bible. Actually running the software and posting Scriptures is very fast, once the software is ready and the Scriptures are in the correct input format. This can make for some impressive bursts of speed, but there can be longer delays between postings while working on more challenging input formats (like, for example, paper only) and writing software to produce alternate output formats (like software for specific Bible study programs). The net result looks like intermittent bursts of activity that are hard to predict.
Q: How many many languages have you posted Scriptures for?
A: That is a rapidly-moving target, right now. Check out the current count at PNGScriptures.org and VanuatuBibles.org. I suppose you could count English, too, with eBible.org.
Q: Do you do any actual Bible translation?
A: Yes, for the World English Bible, which I’m the senior editor and chief bottleneck for. Please pray that I stop being a bottleneck and start being more of an editor. Its claim to fame is being free. Free of copyright. Free of hassles. Free to use and publish. It is a bold statement that I believe that God’s Word really belongs to God, not me. If it were copyrighted and designed to make money, there would be no need for it, really. There are already plenty of those in English.
Q: Are the Scriptures you post whole Bibles?
A: Only a few are. Most of the minority languages don’t have a whole Bible translation. Many have a New Testament. Some have a few books of the Old Testament and/or New Testament. Some only have one book. I post whatever has been translated and sent to me for posting.
Q: Does anyone else post freely downloadable Scriptures on line?
A: Yes. One good example is ScriptureEarth.org, which hosts over 230 minority languages spoken in North and South America. We keep in touch with each other and, where practical, help each other. I’m concentrating on the Pacific nations.
Q: Who is going to read and listen to the Scriptures you post?
A: The current primary audience is the diaspora. Those are the people who have moved from their remote villages into towns and cities where they have Internet access, access to computers and smart phones, etc. The secondary audience is those who already have that access in their own villages. The secondary audience will grow in time, and become primary, as access to technology and networks improve in remote areas.
Q: Will electronic Scriptures replace printed Bibles?
A: No, but they make a great supplement. There are many advantages to electronic Scriptures. I carry an impressive library of Bible translations to church in my smart phone, but I’m not ready to get rid of my paper Bibles altogether. People’s preferences and situations will vary. The more ways to get God’s Word to people, the better.
Q: What do you charge for Bible software and Bible web hosting services?
Q: What do you charge people for downloadable Bibles?
Q: Who pays for the costs of Scripture web hosting, other ministry expenses, and your cost of living?
A: Our partners. May God bless them all!