01 - A Calling Without Equal
by Borneo Sabda Team
This is an edited extract from A CENTURY IN ECLIPSE - The Story of the Malay Bible, an upcoming book that gives a first-hand account of the long and intense journey taken to birth the Alkitab Versi Borneo in 2016.
In January of 1983, Hua wrote her prayer partners the upbeat words, “I want to do practical training in the Bible Society before returning home.” There was more to those aspiring words than meets the eye.
Hua was pursuing a degree in Theology at the South East Asia Theological Seminary when she rallied for the production of Christian literature in Bahasa Malaysia, the standard Malay language. Script after script, her prayer letters heightened the same heart stirrings, which also intensified her burden to produce Christian materials in Malay.
When it was time to graduate that year, lecturer Rev. Stephen Tong uttered a weighty impartation to Hua: “Go back to Malaysia and translate the bible into Malay.” Those words were curiously unusual. For a fresh graduate, that was an improbable long shot. Yet, the astonishing moment came three decades later, when Hua presented her former lecturer the real thing, as a physical memento, and recounted those long-ago words.
A Road Not Taken
At a time when every other high school graduate pursued further studies in glamorous places, Hua launched into theological studies in a local seminary in 1980. Armed with a diploma in theology in 1982, she took another plunge to further her studies in Indonesia. Even her Indonesian seminary mates were baffled by her decision at that time - “Mengapa Indonesia?”
Why Indonesia? Clearly a burden was forming within Hua. While her contemporaries routinely felt that Malay was a language of another community forced on them, Hua published articles, translated materials, and spoke at meetings - all in Malay! Yet, she was keenly aware of her shortcomings in the language. The solution then was to pursue theological studies in Malay, and to do it in Indonesia.
Even then, how on earth would a career in translating Christian materials into Malay make sense for a Christian graduate. Her church support base was in Malaya, but there was little demand for educational materials in Malay in the early 80’s. There were hardly any Malay-speaking churches in Malaya then.
Yet, upon graduation Hua threw herself into full-time Malay publication work with Scripture Union. Always in a hurry for the next step, she skipped her seminary convocation ceremony altogether. Mentored by an elderly Christian statesman and church elder Mr. David Boler, Hua took on translation and writing in Malay as her profession for the next two decades.
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A Bible to speak to the heart
In the mid 90’s, an expatriate fluent in the Indonesian language agonised over the lack of a suitable Bible for native Malay speakers. To him, the Indonesian Bible was a clumsy substitute for the locals, while the local paraphrase version was not acceptable.
“The Indonesian bible hijacked our national language!” he lamented. “We need a new translation in the standard language of the nation.”
In 1997, he went out of his way to meet Hua in Ipoh. He poured out his vision to produce a fit-for-purpose translation of the Bible in Malay. For Hua, it was an opportunity that could not be missed. She had waited long enough, having honed her translation skills for a long time. And so, Hua began the Bible translation journey.
Elsewhere in Malaysia, a calling entirely unknown to Hua was revealing itself. It was about another lady who had been waiting in the wings.
A Historic Opportunity
“Atuk served God by co-translating the bible into Malay in his time,” Elly thought of her grandfather’s work often.
Elly was advanced in age and an accomplished translator - she had translated the literary classics. She spent much time ruminating on her family’s history line in Bible translation. Many years had passed, and with them a sense of urgency had grown in her. “Lord, when will I do as Atuk did?”
In 2000, Elly had drawn closer to God, eager to obey Him with a renewed vigor. Atuk co-translated the Malay bible in his time, nearly a hundred years ago. Now, a new generation desperately needed a modern translation to hear the Word of God in their heart language. Already in her 60s, Elly knew that her time to serve was now.
The Untold Story
In the late 19th century, Atuk came to Malacca from Indonesia as a teenager. From there on, he worked his way up as a successful writer and a respected language teacher. Atuk had everything going for him, and then it got worse. The Bible translation work was to be the task that came with untold sorrow for him.
Atuk’s prominence in the Malay language destined him to be the personal language teacher of a British missionary and Bible translator, and thereafter to work alongside him. The Bible translator treasured his tutelage so much that he moved his family to Malacca in 1903 to benefit from closer interaction. Through relationship and understanding, the foreigner benefitted immensely from a total immersion into the local culture, which then allowed him to blaze a new trail in the translation of the Scriptures.
A series of seemingly insignificant events followed which led Atuk to his most consequential moment - he took on Bible translation as a co-translator to the British missionary.
But the endeavour took a great toll on Atuk. In 1909, before the work was completed, a tragedy befell Atuk's family. Two of his children died from poisoning. The heartbreaking circumstances of the tragedy were hushed up in their family’s oral tradition.
The individuals responsible for the episode were remorseful and later came begging for Atuk's forgiveness. Despite forgiving the perpetrators, Atuk still had to face an unsettling environment. Another son was accused of abandoning their age-old tradition, causing another commotion. Conditions grew from bad to worse that Atuk then uprooted his family to move further South.
A Calling Without Equal
When Atuk took on the life-changing challenge of Bible translation, his community was not ready to accept him. It was a pre-colonial era, and many of the villagers were influenced by the Achehnese saying, ‘biar mati anak, jangan mati adat’ (Literally meaning: ‘Let your children perish but not your tradition’). Yet Atuk pursued his calling in the Malay Bible.
Elly’s sense of calling led her to follow in Atuk’s footsteps, even though the risk of threats in her lifetime had not lessened.
Hua on the other hand shook off the hangover from her predecessors’ legacy in Chinese temples, and followed a new calling that got her hung up on the Malay Bible.
One began unexpectedly late-in-life, and another prepared from youth and fitted for the long haul. Both had the same mission.
Destiny had paired the two individuals and they were about to cross paths . . .
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This extract was taken from the first chapter of A CENTURY IN ECLIPSE - The Story of the Malay Bible, by Borneo Sabda.
This account reflects the authors' present recollections of experiences over time. Some names and characteristics have been changed for privacy reasons, while some events have been compressed and some dialogue has been recreated.
If you have input on the emerging story, or are interested in the hard copy when it is published later this year, do drop us a line at email@example.com