With a trendy baseball cap on his head and a small goatee on his chin, you might expect to see Joe Aputa walking down a street in Los Angeles rather than sitting in a rural village in northwest Papua New Guinea (PNG). But here he is with about twenty other Papua New Guineans around a large table, each with his own laptop and an important task ahead.
This is the Aitape West Translation Project — a large team of men representing eleven related language communities, all working together to complete Bible translations in their own mother tongues.
Joe is one of the youngest translators on the team, a fact that’s not hard to guess based on appearance. He’s also one of the newest members, having come to his first translation workshop less than five years ago.
As a kid, Joe only went to school through the sixth grade, not because he didn’t want to learn, but because at that time PNG schools had to charge student fees in order to keep their doors open; Joe’s family just didn’t have the cash. He struggled with disappointment about having to quit school, so he began to pray regularly that God would make a way for him to go back to school — somehow, sometime.
God eventually answered that prayer in 2009, but it wasn’t quite the way Joe expected. That was the year that Joe’s friend Jack, who was already working on the Aitape West team, asked Joe to come help him translate the Bible in Bauni-Barupu, their village’s mother tongue. At the time, Joe didn’t fully realize how God was going to use the experience to answer his prayer, but he was excited about the opportunity and quickly said yes.
Since then, Joe’s learned a lot as he’s worked alongside the other translators in an environment that’s very much like a classroom. He’s had quite the education on languages, computers, leadership, and the translation process.
Joe’s also learned an awful lot about spiritual things, and God’s used this opportunity to teach him lessons he wouldn’t get from a typical classroom experience.
When Joe first joined Jack on the project, Jack was in the middle of translating the Gospel of Luke. As they continued to work on the project together, God started using the Scriptures to convict Joe about some areas of his life where things weren’t right. For example, at that time he was drinking quite a bit of alcohol and God told him very clearly that he needed to stop, which he did.
God also began to refine Joe’s character. Joe used to have a very quick and explosive temper, but God’s been teaching him gentleness and showing him how to deal with conflict in a more constructive, biblical way. Joe admits it’s a process of refinement and that he occasionally slips up and says hurtful things, but there’s no doubt that he’s a much different person today than he was five years ago.
Joe’s also learning to rely on God’s strength in ways he’s never had to before. Recently the Aitape West Translation Team leader asked Joe to travel to Ukarumpa — the home base for work going on all around Papua New Guinea — to teach other translators how to use Paratext* software. Joe does a good job working with Paratext, but he was afraid of speaking in public. However, after taking some time to pray about it, he realized it was the right thing to do, so he agreed.
The day before he taught the class, Joe was pretty nervous, but he kept praying and God gave him peace and confidence to give the presentation. The experience helped Joe see that he can rely on God for everything he needs to accomplish this work.
This September, the first portions of Bauni-Barupu Scripture were dedicated — the full Gospel of Luke, the Christmas story, and the Easter story. The team has been busy distributing both printed copies and audio Scripture devices so that people can begin taking in God’s Word in their own language. Meanwhile, Jack and Joe are continuing to bring back drafts of their ongoing translation work to the community for review.Joe hopes that as people experience the Bible in Bauni-Barupu, they’ll understand the importance of this work and will let the Scripture soak into their lives as more of it becomes available, letting God use it to change them just as it’s changed him.