The Right Tools
Yogaleme extracting starch from sago
“Look out for those thorns!”
In the rainforest clearing, vicious sago palm needles hemmed in my four bare-footed boys. They were watching Duluba, an Edolo Bible translator, swinging a homemade tool to extract sago pulp from a felled tree. On the other side of the clearing, his niece Yogaleme operated an elaborate contraption, employing palm fronds, banana leaves, rags, water, and muscle power to rinse nourishing starch out of the pulp. For locals, these activities posed no threat, but for my family this was a hazardous environment, an alien way of getting calories. I feared we would soon starve if we had to fend for ourselves in this setting, using these tools.
Back in the little village office, our roles reversed. My wife, Suzanne, ran the solar-powered netbook, while my son Samuel operated the printer. Edolo kids peeked through the windows, watching new Sunday school materials being printed and stapled. Later, I helped the Edolo translators with their computer problems. The software they use isn’t designed for them, and its “sharp edges” keep them from doing important parts of the task. These friends work eagerly and without pay, but they don’t yet have the right tools for their job.
This problem is not unique to Papua New Guinea (PNG), where we work. Around the world, people are eager to take on the many challenges involved in completing a Bible translation project in their own language. But they have little experience with computers, and limited access to education and other services. Until recently, the only tools we could offer them were complicated ones that left them frustrated and unproductive. These men and women have so much potential ... if only there were software designed with them in mind: simple but also durable, directive, and tuned to their strengths.
That kind of software is what my colleagues and I are building.
We first built WeSay, a program that enables communities to build their own dictionaries. WeSay reduces training costs by being task-oriented: “Here’s what you need to do next.” Its simple interface guides the speakers to think about the words of their language, list and translate them for bilingual uses, give example sentences, and more. Students can then use these dictionaries in schools, and translators can search for the best words, as in a thesaurus.
Like all of us, computer novices, too, need a way to back up data. So I built a special program called myWorkSafe. Once installed, it sits quietly, eagerly waiting for the user to insert a usb flash drive. When it “sees” one, it goes to work, finding and copying all the new translation, literacy, and dictionary files that might be scattered around the computer. Then it plays a rewarding tune and goes back to sleep.
John Hatton (right) training the Edolo team how to use the computer for Bible translation
If Bible translation is to have significant impact in a community, the published Scripture alone will not suffice. People need to learn to read their language, so they’ll need many books— everything from basic primers to agricultural and health books to Bible studies. Yet currently, the sago farmer–translator finds creating these as far out of reach as turning a palm tree into dinner is for me. So I’m now building Bloom, a simple book-creation program that will allow communities to produce a library of books in their own language.
My wife and I serve in PNG not only to see Bibles published but also to see them used, and to see lives and communities changed through holistic development. This kind of impact can happen when a community fully participates and takes ownership of the work. Given the right tools for the job, they can confidently nourish themselves, not only physically but educationally and spiritually as well.
John Hatton is a language software developer and innovator for WeSay, Bloom, and other user-friendly programs for non-technical users and local translators.