It was a day I will long remember. I was with a number of brothers from different parts of the world, and we nervously waited in the Governing Body conference room. The Writing Committee was about to enter, and we had been assigned to make a presentation. During the preceding few weeks, we had analyzed problems that translators were facing, and now we had to recommend solutions. It was May 22, 2000. But why was this meeting so important? Before I explain, let me tell you something about my background.
I WAS born in Queensland, Australia, in 1955. Shortly thereafter, my mother, Estelle, started studying the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses. She got baptized the following year, and my father, Ron, came into the truth 13 years later. I was baptized in the Queensland outback in 1968.
Ever since I was young, I have loved reading and I have been fascinated by language. When we went on family road trips, it must have been frustrating for my parents to see me sitting in the backseat reading a book rather than looking at the scenery. But my love of reading helped me in school. In high school in Glenorchy, in the island state of Tasmania, I won several awards for academic achievement.
Then, however, it came time for a serious decision. Would I accept a scholarship to go to university? As much as I loved books and learning, I am grateful that my mother had helped me to acquire a stronger love—one for Jehovah. (1 Cor. 3:18, 19) So with my parents’ consent, I left school and started pioneering in January 1971 at the age of 15, having received the required school certificate.
For the next eight years, I had the privilege of pioneering in Tasmania. During that time, I married a beautiful Tasmanian girl, Jenny Alcock, and for four years we served together as special pioneers in isolated assignments in Smithton and Queenstown.
OFF TO THE ISLANDS OF THE PACIFIC
In 1978 we went overseas for the first time to attend an international convention in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. I still remember listening to a missionary give one of the talks in Hiri Motu. Even though I could not understand a word of what he said, his talk motivated me to become a missionary, to learn other languages, and to give talks like that one. At last, I saw a way to combine my love for Jehovah with my love of language.
To our surprise, on arriving back in Australia, we were invited to serve as missionaries on the island of Funafuti, in Tuvalu, formerly called the Ellice Islands. We arrived in our new assignment in January 1979. There were only three other baptized publishers in all of Tuvalu.
Learning Tuvaluan was not easy. The only book available in the language was the “New Testament.” There were no dictionaries or language courses, so we decided to try to learn from 10 to 20 new words each day. But we soon realized that we did not understand the correct meaning of most of the words we were learning. Instead of telling people that divination was wrong, we were in fact telling them to avoid using measuring scales and walking sticks! We did, however, need to learn the language in order to conduct the numerous Bible studies that we had started, so we kept on trying. Years later, one of those with whom we studied in those early days told us: “We are so happy that you can speak our language now. At first, we didn’t have a clue what you were trying to say!”
On the other hand, we had what some might call the ideal situation for learning a new language. As there were no homes available to rent, we ended up living with a Witness family in the main village. This meant total immersion in the language and in village life. After we had not spoken English for a number of years, Tuvaluan became our main language.
Before long, many started to show an interest in the truth. But what could we use to study with them? We had no publications in their language. How could they do personal study? When they started coming to the meetings, what songs could they sing, what material could they use, and how could they even prepare for the meetings? How could they ever progress to baptism? These humble people needed spiritual food in their own language! (1 Cor. 14:9) We wondered, ‘Would publications ever be produced in Tuvaluan, a language spoken by fewer than 15,000 people?’ Jehovah answered those questions, proving to us two things: (1) He wants his Word proclaimed “among the islands far away,” and (2) he wants those whom the world views as “humble and lowly” to take refuge in his name.—Jer. 31:10; Zeph. 3:12.
TRANSLATING SPIRITUAL FOOD
In 1980 the branch office assigned us to work as translators—a work for which we felt totally unqualified. (1 Cor. 1:28, 29) At first, we were able to buy an old mimeograph machine from the government, and we used it to print material for our meetings. We even translated the book The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life into Tuvaluan and printed it on this machine. I still remember the strong smell of ink and the effort required in the intense tropical heat to print all this literature by hand. At the time, we did not have electricity!
It was a challenge to translate into Tuvaluan, as we had very few reference works to help us. But sometimes help came from unexpected sources. One morning I called by mistake at the home of someone who was opposed to the truth. The householder, an older man who had been a teacher, was quick to remind me that we should not call at his home. Then, he said: “I just want to mention one thing. In your translation, you use the passive form too much. It is not used that often in Tuvaluan.” I checked with others, and he was correct. So we made the necessary adjustments. However, I was amazed that Jehovah had given us this help by means of an opposer who obviously read our literature!
The first piece of literature printed in Tuvaluan for distribution to the public was a Memorial invitation. That was followed by Kingdom News No. 30, released simultaneously with the English. What a joy it was to give something to the people in their own language! Gradually, some brochures and even some books became available in Tuvaluan. In 1983 the Australia branch started to print a quarterly 24-page Watchtower, which gave us an average of seven paragraphs to study each week. What was the reaction in the community? Since people in Tuvalu love to read, our literature became very popular. The arrival of each new publication was announced in a news bulletin on the government radio station, sometimes even making headline news! *
The translation work started with pen and paper. Later, manuscripts were typed and retyped numerous times before being sent off to the printing branch in Australia. At one time, the branch had two different sisters enter every manuscript into the computer, even though they did not understand Tuvaluan. This system of entering the text twice and then comparing the differences on the computer resulted in remarkably few mistakes. Composed pages were returned to us via air mail for checking and then sent back to the branch for printing.
How things have changed! Now translation teams enter the text directly into computers. In most cases, the corrected text is composed locally, producing files that can be sent to the printing branches via the Internet. No longer is there a frantic rush to the post office to send the manuscripts off by mail.
As the years went by, Jenny and I received various assignments throughout the Pacific. From Tuvalu we were assigned to the Samoa branch in 1985. There we assisted with translation into the Samoan, Tongan, and Tokelauan languages in addition to the work we were still doing in Tuvaluan. * Then in 1996 we were given a similar assignment in the Fiji branch, where we were able to give support to the translation work being done in the Fijian, Kiribati, Nauruan, Rotuman, and Tuvaluan languages.
I never cease to be amazed at the zeal shown by those who translate our literature. The work can be tedious and exhausting. However, these faithful ones try to reflect Jehovah’s desire to get the good news preached “to every nation and tribe and tongue [or, “language,” ftn.] and people.” (Rev. 14:6) For example, when the translation of the first Watchtower magazine into Tongan was being organized, I met with all the elders in Tonga and asked who could be trained as a translator. One of the elders, who had a good job as a mechanic, offered to resign the next day and start immediately as a translator. This was particularly heartwarming, since he was a family man and had no idea where his income would come from. But Jehovah cared for him and his family, and he remained in the translation work for many years.
Such devoted translators reflect the viewpoint of the members of the Governing Body, who care deeply about the spiritual needs of smaller language groups. For example, at one point a question was raised as to whether it was worth all the effort to provide literature in Tuvaluan. I was so encouraged to read this answer from the Governing Body: “We see absolutely no reason why you should discontinue translation work in the Tuvaluan language. Even though the Tuvaluan field may be small in comparison to other language groups, the people still need to be reached with the good news in their own language.”
In 2003, Jenny and I were transferred from the Translation Department in Fiji branch to Translation Services in Patterson, New York. It seemed like a dream come true! We became part of a team that helps to develop the translation of our literature into additional languages. For the next two years or so, we had the privilege of visiting various countries to help train translation teams.
SOME HISTORIC DECISIONS
Now let me return to that presentation mentioned at the outset. By the year 2000, the Governing Body saw the need to strengthen translation teams worldwide. Up to that point, most translators had very little training. After we made that presentation to the Writing Committee, the Governing Body approved a worldwide training program for all translators. The program included training in English comprehension, translation techniques, and the cooperative team approach.
What has resulted from all this emphasis on translation? For one thing, the quality of the translation has improved. There has also been a dramatic increase in the number of languages in which we now publish literature. When we arrived in our first missionary assignment in 1979, the Watchtower magazine was available in only 82 languages. Most language editions appeared several months after the English edition. Now, however, The Watchtower is distributed in over 240 languages, most of which appear simultaneously with the English. Spiritual food is now available in one form or another in over 700 languages. This is something that we could only dream about years ago.
In 2004 the Governing Body made yet another landmark decision—namely, to speed up Bible translation. A few months after this, Bible translation was made part of the normal translation work, thus opening up the opportunity for the New World Translation to be made available in many more languages. As of 2014, this Bible has been printed in whole or in part in 128 languages—including a number of languages spoken in the South Pacific.
One of the highlights in my life was the privilege of being assigned to attend the convention in Tuvalu in 2011. For months, the whole country had been in the grip of an extreme drought, and it looked as if the convention would be canceled. However, the evening we arrived, the drought was broken by a tropical downpour, and the convention was held after all! I had the inestimable privilege of releasing the New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures in Tuvaluan—the smallest language group ever to receive this beautiful gift. At the end of the convention, there was yet another downpour. So everyone finished the program with an abundance of spiritual and literal water!
Sadly, Jenny, my faithful companion for over 35 years, did not live to witness that memorable event. She succumbed to her ten-year battle with breast cancer in 2009. When she is resurrected, she will no doubt be overjoyed to hear the news about the release of the Tuvaluan Bible.
Since that time, Jehovah has blessed me with another beautiful companion, Loraini Sikivou. Loraini and Jenny worked together at Bethel in Fiji, and Loraini too served as a translator, with the Fijian language. So now I again have a faithful wife, and together we share in service to Jehovah and also in a love of language!
As I look back over the years, I am so encouraged to see how our loving heavenly Father, Jehovah, continues to care for the needs of language groups, both small and large. (Ps. 49:1-3) I have seen his love reflected in the joy on the faces of people when they first see some of our literature in their language or sing praises to Jehovah in the language of their hearts. (Acts 2:8, 11) I can still hear the words of Saulo Teasi, an elderly Tuvaluan brother. After he had sung a Kingdom song for the first time in his language, he said: “I think you should tell the Governing Body that these songs sound better in Tuvaluan than they do in English.”
Since September 2005, I have had the unexpected privilege of serving as a member of the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses. While I can no longer serve as a translator, I thank Jehovah that he allows me to remain involved in supporting the worldwide translation work. What a joy it is to know that Jehovah cares for the spiritual needs of all his people—even those on isolated islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean! Yes, as the psalmist says, “Jehovah has become King! Let the earth be joyful. Let the many islands rejoice.”—Ps. 97:1.