Feature

A Long and Changing Road

Serving for five-plus decades, a Wycliffe veteran has seen amazing progress in the Bible translation movement.

Wanda Davies works with linguistic consultant Frank Robbins in1970 to analyze the complex tone system of the Chinantec language in Mexico. They used a reel-to-reel tape recorder to capture the language, then listened and wrote down how different tones are used in words to convey meaning. Today, software does most of the work by displaying tones on a computer screen from uploaded digitally recorded audio files of a language.
(Photo: Courtesy of Wanda Davies)

WHEN WANDA DAVIES GRADUATED FROM SEATTLE PACIFIC UNIVERSITY WITH A SPANISH MAJOR IN THE EARLY ’60S, SHE PICTURED A DOWN-TO-EARTH LIFE FOR HERSELF. She’d teach Spanish at a rural school in Washington State or Oregon, the states where she spent her childhood. And then she’d meet a farmer and marry him.

“That was going to be my life,” recalls the 75-year-old member of Wycliffe Canada. “Missions never really was on my horizon.”

As it turned out, in her life as a missionary, Davies would rarely know what was too far ahead of her. Her’s was a life played out one step at a time. It all started when missionaries, serving in Mexico, were back home visiting Davies’ church. They found out that she had just graduated with a Spanish degree and asked if she’d consider teaching their kids in Mexico.

I’m graduating at 21, I’m going to teach high school kids, Davies thought to herself. Maybe another year of practising Spanish somewhere wouldn’t hurt and I would feel more confident.

Little did she know that over the next five-and-half decades she’d be a part of Bible translation ministry during an era of historic change and growth. And she would be a prime example of the kinds of transformation Bible translation personnel have experienced since Wycliffe Canada became a registered charity in Canada a half-century ago.

Currently serving as a part-time teacher at the Canada Institute of Linguistics (CanIL), Davies uses much more advanced technology than a half-century ago. Here she instructs literacy workers in an online course
she has developed.

Joining Wycliffe Easier Then

When Davies prepared to go to Mexico to teach in 1964, she had to apply to Wycliffe as a short-term assistant. However, once she applied, she discovered that the short-term program was still getting organized.

She was told, “We’re not quite sure how we take in applicants for the short-term program. Here’s a regular form. . . . Why don’t you just go ahead with the missionary family from your church travelling down to Mexico in a couple of weeks. We’ll let you know afterwards if you’re accepted.”

Like all missionaries prior to leaving for the field, Davies needed to raise finances for her ministry. She says it was pretty easy back then, though, since all she needed was $100/month. Most of her friends were graduating from college and getting their first jobs and were happy to contribute $10/month. Once she received support from her parents and her church, she was ready to go.

Currently serving as a part-time teacher at the Canada Institute of Linguistics (CanIL) (where Wycliffe Canada personnel are trained), Davies has seen how much more difficult it is for new recruits these days.

“They start their partnership development [building a financial and prayer support team] right after they leave CanIL, and they have to raise thousands of dollars. It’s unbelievable.”

In 1990, Davies checks Scripture text with two Ndogo Bible translators, working around her then technological centerpiece: a Sharp computer, with an eight-line screen, a hard-drive that saved data on floppy disks, and a dot matrix printer with fan-fed paper.
(Photo: Courtesy of Wanda Davies)
“In those days we were just collecting words on little 3x5 cards, [stored] in a shoe box.”
Huddled around the screen of a powerful laptop computer, Wanda Davies and two translators in a language of eastern Africa recently checked the translated script with accompanying scenes from the “JESUS” film. The well-used movie was not in existence during her first field assignment in Mexico in the early ‘70s.
(Photo: Taylor Martyn)

Once she arrived in Mexico, Davies was thrown right into the fire, teaching a dozen missionary kids from grades one to eight, in the southern town of Mitla, located in the state of Oaxaca. As the only teacher, she was forced to develop her own style of teaching and to learn how things should be done.

Her time in Mexico might have only been a one-year teaching assignment, like she had planned, if it wasn’t for an invitation to go out to a remote village to see Bible translation in action.

“I didn’t know anything,” she says. “What was linguistics? I didn’t really know.”

In this remote village, Davies was deeply impacted by how expat missionaries interacted with villagers and how they learned the language. She came to realize that if it wasn’t for the Bible translation work in this community, the villagers would never get to hear—and understand—the gospel in their mother tongue.

She thought to herself, Well, I’m comfortable with teaching school, but I really feel like I would like to get into the “real work.”

“In those days that was kind of how you looked at it,” she admits. “But now I think we realize that it takes a team, including various support personnel, to have a Bible translation that will be used by the speakers of a language.”

Linguist for Life

As Davies considered her future, she found an opportunity to join another young woman in starting a Bible translation for the Chinantec of Comaltepec, a language spoken by about 4,000 people at the time, in the mountains of southern Mexico. By 1970, after attending Wycliffe’s field orientation program called “jungle camp,” and attending Wycliffe’s summer linguistics program, she and her colleague arrived in the village.

“In those days, we had to walk in . . . several hours [to get to the village]—all downhill,“ she explains. “We’d get somebody to meet us with a couple of mules and then you could put your loads on the mules.” Today there is a dirt road into the village, so it can be reached by car.

Even though the ladies were the first “gringos” (white people) many of the villagers had ever met, the Chinantec accepted them into their community.

“The people, I think, probably didn’t really know why we had come or what we were doing, other than we were interested in learning their language and writing
it [down]. . . .

“In those days we were just collecting words on 3x5 cards, [stored] in a shoe box.”

Today’s Bible translation workers have computer software, such as Fieldworks Language Explorer, to record a language’s vocabulary and create dictionaries.

Davies draws from plenty of field experience to interact with students at CanIL, which trains the newest generation of workers for the world’s Bible translation movement. Like their experienced elder, young people have the same passion to see God’s Word come to all people in a language they can understand best.

After learning the language, Davies and her colleague did the translation work themselves and then had local speakers fine tune it to make it sound natural. It’s an approach very different from today, where main translators are mother-tongue speakers and the expats from Wycliffe, with education in linguistics, work as advisers and consultants to the translation work. 

Literacy for Engagement

Davies spends some time sharing mother-tongue picture books with children speaking the Chinantec language in Mexico nearly 50 years ago.
(Photo: Courtesy of Wanda Davies)

Davies emphasizes another difference: literacy wasn’t always valued like it is today. Now it’s universally understood by Wycliffe staff around the globe that the Bible won’t be read and won’t have an impact without people becoming literate.

“I remember distinctly when I was new . . . that we were told our goal is to get them the New Testament,” explains Davies. “The rest of it, the Holy Spirit and the Church would take care of.”

Beyond a shift in strategy, Davies has also witnessed a renaissance in technology. Early in her career, with personal computers and digital recorders decades away from invention and common use, everything was more time consuming.

For example, to learn Chinantec, Davies used a reel-to-reel tape recorder to interview a local speaker. However, to edit the recording, Davies had to physically edit the tape.

“You could cut the conversation up into bits and cut the tape and splice it together so that you could play it over and over, practising with it on this loop on your reel-to-reel tape recorder.”

Davies has witnessed many advances in printing translated text—from using a typewriter and duplicating machine (THIS PHOTO), to working on laptop computers with complex non-Roman scripts (BELOW).
(Photo: Alan Hood)

Prior to the personal computer, doing drafts of a Bible translation was grueling too. The translation had to be written first by hand and then typed with a manual typewriter. When Davies wanted to change something, she had to retype one line and paste it over the incorrect typewritten copy. Then when the rough draft was finished, it had to be retyped to make a clean copy.

“Certainly the computer did turn out to be a valuable thing.”

Today, Davies and most Wycliffe language personnel can communicate face-to-face around the world with mother-tongue translators via Skype and the miracle of the Internet. As a result, working remotely is possible and effective.

Changes

Like the advent and evolution of the personal computer, change was a common theme in Davies’ story. The next ministry change happened in 1975. After only a few years working on the Chinantec translation, Wycliffe leadership encouraged Davies to get her master’s degree in linguistics at the University of Texas at Arlington, so she would be qualified to be a consultant. However, before her degree was even finished, she was asked to consider a completely different role. Would she help to start a bilingual education program for the regional government of southern Sudan?

“It was like, ‘Where is Sudan?’” Davies recollects. “Africa was like the moon to me. All my interest had been in Latin America.”

Nonetheless, Davies accepted the change in direction. In 1977, she and her colleagues became the first full-time Wycliffe staff in Sudan, a country that has had civil war and unrest since its independence in 1956.

Beginning the program from scratch, Davies and her colleagues only brought what they could fit in their suitcases, having to buy everything for the project and their living arrangement in Nairobi, Kenya, before continuing on to Sudan.

Some things haven’t disappeared during the past 50 years, such as reading primers in language projects the world over, a key tool to help promote literacy.
(Photo: Alan Hood)

“I thought I was living really remotely in Mexico, but I didn’t know what remote meant,” she explains about her life in the African savannah. “There was no postal service outside of major towns. No public transportation service at all in southern Sudan. . . . There was no market in the area where we were staying—nothing. It was a couple hours' drive to get to a town to buy anything of any consequence.”

Working Remotely

Davies first task was to assist in developing introductory literacy material for nine regional languages, which she was told already had New Testament translations. She had a quality team to work with, leading a team of educated local speakers, many of whom were former school teachers from when Sudan was a British colony.

She enjoyed the work a great deal, but after only a few years, another civil war in Sudan appeared evident. By 1986, she and her team were unable to work in many of the necessary remote locations. This made the literacy program almost impossible to continue. Davies wondered what to do next.

To her surprise, however, Davies discovered that the Ndogo language, in which she had been working most closely, didn’t have anything other than a few Bible stories and liturgies. The Catholic bishop in the area was keen on Bible translation and soon selected a man to work on an Ndogo translation.

Having a basic understanding of the language and a master’s degree, Davies asked to be the facilitator for the Bible translation project. She and the team were able to work away from the civil war in a city, where they could interact with a community of Ndogo speakers who had immigrated there.

“I’m willing to keep working as long as I’m well enough.”

Unfortunately, after several years, Davies was no longer able to obtain a visa for that location. Even so, the work continued with others giving consultant advice. By 2000, the Ndogo Bible translation was completed and dedicated in 2002.

On the Move

Before the published Ndogo Bible was presented to the Ndogo people in 2002, Davies had an unexpected celebration of her own. On New Year’s Day 2001, at the age of 58, she married John Davies, a widower from Vancouver, B.C., whom she met in Kenya. Meeting John was a surprise to Davies, who thought she’d never get married after joining missions in the ’60s.

“When I was finally making the decision that I was going to do Bible translation work under Wycliffe, I felt God had confronted me saying, ‘You know that might mean you would be single your whole life.’ And I had to think about that at the time and I finally had said, ‘Well, that’s okay because I think this work is worth it. It’s important and so I’m okay with that’.”

After marrying, the couple continued working with SIL’s Sudan Branch for five years before Davies transitioned into a teaching role at the Canada Institute of Linguistics. Teaching has kept Davies busy for the past decade. And despite John passing away in 2015, she doesn’t have any plans to retire.

“I’m willing to keep working as long as I’m well enough,” she says. 

Davies means it too. This past fall she started working as a consultant for the Ndogo-language version of the “JESUS” film. The well-known movie will help give the Ndogo people access to the gospel story, as many of them haven’t engaged with God’s Word because of their lack of literacy. Even though Davies works remotely, with today’s technology the thousands of kilometres between Canada and Africa isn’t too large of a barrier. She’s able to correspond with colleagues via email and fly across the world to attend workshops with colleagues when needed.

For Davies, the work is just as fulfilling as it was when she started ministering so many years ago. She couldn’t imagine her life any different.

“I’ve loved what I’ve been doing. I’m so grateful,” she says. “I never had a call to missions. I just kind of did [the] one thing that was ahead of me and then it turned out to be something that was a big deal.”

That’s not surprising, really. God has been equipping personnel with Wycliffe Canada step-by-step, in much the same way, for the past half-century.

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