Oral Bible Translation

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A Story of One God

Olivia* and her OneStory team walked almost three hours into the Philippine mountains to reach the animistic tribe they worked with. Most of the time, the place didn’t have electricity. Olivia had to do her laundry by hand. And with few prepared foods available, she spent more time cooking her meals.

“A OneStory project might be kind of intense,” she explained. “It has a specific goal within a couple of years to just work on oral stories. The OneStory group tends to go to some physically difficult places.”

After a year of learning the language, Olivia and her team set out to craft 32 stories in two years. Olivia spent mornings with a mother-tongue translator. They studied the story in Scripture, then the translator retold it. If that draft went well, they found someone who had never heard the story to give feedback. Then they edited the story some more.

They tested each story in the community to see whether people understood the story, how much they remembered and how much they could retell. Then consultants checked the final drafts multiple times.

“We really want to make sure that every line is anchored in Scripture,” Olivia said. She tried to back up every line with Scripture. If she couldn’t find an exact verse that had the idea, she needed to provide cultural evidence and commentary to prove that part of the story was accurate to Scripture.

“Some people would say they’re not Scripture,” she said. “I would probably disagree. It wasn’t verse for verse…It was definitely a dynamic translation. It was story for story or idea for idea.”

OneStory is only one method of storytelling. Some methods focus on memorizing a passage of Scripture word for word. Some methods craft the Bible passage into a summarized version.

A story Olivia worked on was a compilation story, in which the team combined separate verses into a narrative to explain one issue. The Bible says God created all angels, even the ones known as evil. But the tribe she worked with had other beliefs.

“Usually with animistic tribes, they end up needing a story to explain how God created spirits,” Olivia said. “They believed in evil spirits. They believed in evil creatures. But they believed the evil creatures and demons were created by Satan—that he was the creator of these evil creatures and therefore he had the authority over them.”

Olivia crafted a story that explained how God created all things, including angels, and had authority over them. When one angel disobeyed God, others followed him, she explained. Olivia used Paul’s writings on demons and false gods to make connections with the tribe’s religious system, which included gods of the air, rice and river.

“It gave pause to people who were listening to that,” Olivia said. “They were surprised to hear that God created all of them.”

Retelling the Story

Olivia had done short-term trips in college and knew she wanted to do cross-cultural work long term.

After college, she paid off her student debt by working as a school recruiter. It was her job to interview people who were thinking about joining school. She asked questions to figure out what people needed and how she could help.

“I learned in English first how to ask good questions and dig deeper,” she said. “I think that helped when I had to do that in a second language and to dig deeper into why people believe what they believe, what they infer from the stories they hear and therefore what we need to help explain.”

An internship in Papua New Guinea got her interested in oral storytelling. The organization focused on chronological storytelling, and Olivia became convinced of its effectiveness as part of reaching people who needed to see the big picture. She also saw that an oral storytelling method encouraged local people to use the stories even without the presence of a foreigner. People without biblical knowledge or formal education could retell the stories to others in their community.

“I’m naturally a storyteller,” Olivia said. “I see the advantage of narrative just because that’s how I tend to communicate. Communication is one of my strengths.”

These communication skills helped her in the oral storytelling process.

“A big part of the process for our storytelling methods was to test the stories in community and find out what was understandable, clear, natural and accurate.”

Olivia said she is definitely a people person. The OneStory process did require a lot of documentation. But she spent most of her time with other people. She worked on a team with translators and story crafters. She got out into the community and heard people’s stories. Sometimes she heard how a Bible story affected people’s lives.

If a people group has only a New Testament translation, Old Testament stories can help fill in their biblical understanding. Some groups don’t have any translation yet and have to use another language’s translation; stories in their own language can help them understand the Bible better.

When Olivia worked on the story of Sarah, Abraham and the three visitors, she needed to find someone to listen to the story so she could figure out what to clarify or change. Olivia found an older woman who was a friend and had her listen to the story of Sarah’s barrenness.

“She said, ‘I can’t have children myself. That’s my story,’” Olivia recalled. “It was really touching to her to hear a story about how God blessed someone who had been barren for so long with the child of promise. She didn’t get that ending, but she was still touched that God saw that and that he cared for the barren woman.”

Unnoticed by Olivia, a little girl was sitting near them and listening to the Bible story. A friend later told Olivia that the story impacted the girl so much that she went and retold it to “everybody.”

After her three-year term with OneStory in the Philippines, Olivia saw a need in Scripture Engagement. In her new position, she uses her oral storytelling skills to record materials and to ask questions—still with the goal of impacting lives through God’s word.

*not her real name