Everyone’s attention in the room is on Lin Kyaw Zaw as he reaches for the dice in the middle of the table.
The 31-year-old master of arts (MA) student at Payap University in Thailand shakes the dice in his cupped hands, preparing for a magical release. The table game of Dice 10,000 requires a risk-taker mentality and nerves of steel to win. That’s what makes it exhilarating, but also excruciating. Lin is on a roll and his point total is high, but he needs even more points to catch the leader. He’s going for it.
In a flash, the dice land in a series of hollow knocking sounds on the table. While his classmates cheer, Lin’s shoulders slump. His gamble backfired; he lost all his points.
Game nights like this are a valuable break for Lin and his classmates from their theses work. Their new residence, the city of Chiang Mai, is far from home for these students. Most are from surrounding Southeast Asian countries where they have left their families behind to be educated as tomorrow’s Bible translation leaders. Tonight, however, for just a few hours, they try to forget about their burdens and fuel their competitive fire with a handful of dice instead of poring over their textbooks and laptops to prepare their MA theses.
Similar, but finished theses, fill an entire shelf in the office of Art Cooper, who peers at the books while leaning back in his chair. The Ohio native, former department head of Payap MA linguistics program, explains that these big, blue hardcover theses represent hours upon hours of research by the 98 graduates in the program’s 27-year history.
Reflecting on the nearly 100 Payap graduates who’ve written linguistics theses, Art sees a challenging future for Bible translation and language work in Southeast Asia.
“Our students going back into communities have a big job,” explains Art. “We understand that the language communities that are left [in the region] are not the easy ones. . . . Most of those people [groups] have for generation, after generation, after generation, been told ‘You are worthless. Your language has no value. You don’t even have a language.’ ”
Uniquely positioned in the heart of Southeast Asia, the Payap MA program began in 1989 as a result of a dream shared by Payap University and SIL (Wycliffe’s main partner organization): to train language specialists to lead Bible translation efforts and related language work for more than 300 minority groups in the region.
“We’re in a treasure trove of languages here. It’s a beautiful place to have a linguistics program,” says Art. “So often in the number of years I’ve been around here, we’ll have a student say . . . . ‘I want to do my thesis on [such and such] language. There’s a community of them just outside of Chiang Mai.’ ”
To prepare students for the complexities and challenges they will face in their future work, students take 10 courses during the two years of coursework, taught by experienced SIL language specialists with decades of experience.
“If they hadn’t had the classes they would be lost,” says Art. “It’s intense. If we weren’t intent on forming researchers you could do your 10 courses and then [give them] comprehensive exams and a project, and be done.”
The program is about more than just handing the graduates diplomas though; it’s about developing specialists that can help locals translate accurate, engaging Scriptures. With a focus on forming researchers, Art says students will be adept at facing the translation problems that will inevitably come up as they lead Bible translation teams. They will become adaptable problem solvers.
The 10 to 15 students who enrol each year are set up for success in the field by learning the fundamentals in classes specializing in phonetics, phonology, orthography, grammar, sociolinguists and more. And because Chiang Mai is surrounded by diverse language groups, learning isn’t confined to the classroom.
“We get people from rural areas to come in to work with the students,” says Art. “Then they go out on a field trip for a few days out to a village. It’s just the real deal.”
This is a privilege unique to Payap and something linguistics programs in North America can envy, but not replicate. Payap’s convenient access is not only ideal for the students, but crucial for the future of Bible translation in the region.
However, the Payap MA program still has its challenges. In recent years, the makeup of the student body has shifted from the initial vision. Payap originally aimed to train local Southeast Asians to lead the Bible translation movement. In the late ’90s, international students planning to do language work in mainland Southeast Asia began to apply for admission to the program.
Payap leadership accepted the applicants, seeing international students enrolling as a win-win for the school. They believed with classmates from all corners of the planet attending, students would have a valuable introduction to new cultures and intercultural communication.
Still, while diversity is welcome at Payap, the program’s primary aim is to train locals to lead the Bible translation effort in the region. Many graduates will join groups like the Kinsha Bible translation effort in a neighbouring country. That’s why this past year, when there was only one student from Southeast Asia enrolled, it didn’t go unnoticed.
“That’s been a sore point for us,” Art admits. “If we didn’t have minority [language] students, some of our staff would say: ‘So long! I’ll do something else.’ Because that’s what we’re here for.”
The reason for the lack of minority students in recent years has correlated entirely with a lack of funding for scholarships, which is why gifts given through Wycliffe Canada for the Payap MA program go toward the funding of these scholarships.
“They don’t have the finances, or anybody else there (in their language group) to back them to do it,” Art says. “They have abilities, so scholarship funds directly impact our ability to actually impact minority language communities.”
Meet the Future
One Southeast Asian student who attends Payap because of a scholarship is Lin Kyaw Zaw, (the unlucky dice-roller mentioned earlier in this story). This passionate second-year student from the minority Narek* people group, believes his studies at Payap are equipping him to follow his life’s calling—to work in Bible translation in his home country. Although Lin grew up in a Christian home and accepted Christ as a child, he didn’t always think his life would go this direction.
“I never wanted to be a missionary or do something related to the Bible because I knew that they [missionaries] are really poor,” he admits.
However, after failing to find meaning and satisfaction in his early career as an admin-assistant and then as a network engineer, a career in Bible translation seemed to choose him.
Through a former university professor from his undergraduate studies in English, who was also a Bible translation consultant, Lin was offered a part-time job translating a Bible translation guidebook from English to his country’s national language.
“The book explains the meaning of phrases and sentences,” Lin elaborates. “It also shows many examples of how other Bible translators translated [a passage].”
Lin accepted the job to supplement his income, but soon found that he was ideally suited for the work because of his fluency in English and the national language.
“I realized I really liked translation work,” he explains. “I had a conviction . . . or strong feeling that I could do this work for the rest of my life. So, I decided to stop studying network engineering and just focus on translation [work].”
The Next Step
Although Lin enjoyed translating the Bible translation guide book, he soon felt that he was capable of doing even more with his abilities. He wondered to himself: Maybe I can write similar books to help Bible translation work? I can do more than this. Why not?
For that to happen, his supervisor told him that he would need to attend the Payap MA program to get a master’s degree in linguistics.
“You also need to have experience working with certain ethnic groups first,” said his supervisor. “Once you have those things you can write these [books] on your own. You won’t need to adapt other people’s work.”
Since entering the program in 2015, Lin has gained a foundation of skills that will present him with several options of how to best serve in the Bible translation movement in Southeast Asia after graduation. Perhaps he will write books like he initially considered, but he may also take on a new challenge.
“My passion is in translation. I know that for sure,” he says. “Now I have a lot of knowledge about phonology and grammar and things like that . . . I feel like I want to do something related to Bible translation but I don’t know what [yet].”
For Lin and his Southeast Asian classmates, the beauty of their education at Payap is that it opens up possibilities to serve God that they might have never thought possible. As they become the linguistic specialists of tomorrow, they open multiple other doors for the minority language groups in their home countries.
Through their leadership, new mother-tongue Bible translation and literacy ministries will introduce the life-changing gospel to those who have never heard it before.
First, however, Lin and his classmates have a lot of studying to do. That is, of course, after they finish their game of Dice 10,000. ***