From Bogor to Borneo
The Story of AVB (Part 2) - The Malay Bible
- 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.
Elly’s calling was connected to a legacy. In what was Tanah Melayu for some, literary legends marked the line of descent.
Long before she teamed up with Hua to co-translate the Bible, Elly's engagement in the Malay Bible was miraculously tethered to none other than her own predecessor, Atuk, a graduate of the highest institution of education in the Malay educational system at the time.
In 1903, Atuk met with a Bible translator in British Malaya - William Girdlestone Shellabear, and took up the role of co-translator. Together, they translated the Malay Bible in the Jawi script.
There were striking similarities between Atuk and Elly; Atuk was a recognized and respected teacher in the Malay language in his time, while Elly was well-known in the world of writing in her time. Atuk co-translated major portions of the 1912 Malay Bible with Shellabear; Elly co-translated major portions of a new Malay Bible that was inspired by the Shellabear legacy and published a hundred years after 1912.
Shellabear set himself apart from the majority of bible translators, through his appreciation of the Malay culture and mindset. In his time, he pursued a lifelong study of classical Malay literature and Islam. His name was synonymous with a legacy of notable works in the Malay language:
“Scholars know him best as an avid collector and publisher of classical Malay manuscripts, and as the author of seminal studies of the Malay language…. Among Islamicists his contributions as an editor and writer for The Moslem World journal, and his studies of mystical texts in Malay, are still acknowledged.”
- [Hunt, Robert. William Shellabear: A Biography.
Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press, 1996]
In the first half of the twentieth century, Shellabear's 1912 translation of the Bible was the regular Malay bible widely across both sides of the Straits of Malacca.
In the 1990s, a Bible translator turned the spotlight on its sentimental significance when he brought a large treasure trove of Shellabear’s materials from Holland to Bandung to be used as primary resource for his fellow workers.
Three Generations Later
Malay was the lingua franca for both Malaya and a large part of the Indonesian archipelago since the 15th century. As time went by, many significant Bible translations were completed in the Malay language, namely Albert Ruyll translation of the Gospels (1629), Leijdecker translation (1733), Klinkert translation (1879), Shellabear translation (1912), and Bode translation (1938).
However, after Malaysia and Indonesia achieved nationhood in the fifties, the standard variety of Malay in the two countries began to diverge along two separate pathways. After six decades, the two varieties of the Malay language were strikingly different from each other in form, expression, terminology and grammatical structure.
An unhappy result of this divergent development was, indigenous students in the East Malaysian states who were influenced by the Indonesian version of the Bible suffered serious impediments when sitting for public national-level Malay language examinations in the 1980’s and 1990’s.
As language evolved with time, words and expressions deviated in meaning over time, while newer and more semantically precise words came into existence. Further, the Bible message needed to be conveyed in their heart language of the Malay-speaking peoples in the land, with minimal cross-cultural issues. Hence the pressing need for a new Malay translation of the Bible for a new generation of readers.
But the Malay project in Elly’s lifetime had to do with very unusual events. It started when a Malaysian pastor visited Indonesia.
Agitated in Bogor
The pastor visited Bogor in 1999 and was stunned to come across a new Bible translation in Indonesian. His ministry fraternity was showcasing the new Indonesian translation that was revised from Shellabear’s 1912 Malay Bible.
He could not contain his disappointment with the discovery: “Shellabear translated the bible for my country but today Indonesia had beaten us to it.” The Malaysia he knew needed a Shellabear-inspired translation more urgently than Indonesia.
He was still hung up with regret when a new front subsequently opened up that would soon blow his mind. In a remarkable providence of God, the pastor got an opportunity to meet Elly back in the Malaysian capital.
Before they met, he had only known about Elly by reputation. When they met, he tested her knowledge of the Shellabear’s Bible. To his amazement, she not only knew about the Bible but recounted how her grandfather had been involved in the translation. Excited by the unexpected reply, he immediately asked if she would like to see the Shellabear’s Bible in modern Malay. Elly had waited for such an invitation; her answer was an emphatic yes. In fact, it was a calling she could not refuse.
Shortly after, an awkward first meeting of two translators, Elly and Hua, took place. They were from vastly different backgrounds but shared the clearest calling into Bible translation. Their coming together was more than half the battle won.
Together, they had experience and fluency in both classical and modern Malay, as well as Indonesian and Arabic. Combining their fields of expertise, the pair adapted well to each other, and even forged a close bond to brace for the arduous journey ahead in the monumental translation task.
But the Going Got Tough
But the nation was going through a difficult time. Religious liberty was severely restricted. In her peculiar situation, Elly had to work in secrecy and avoid unwanted attention.
Hua took on a more visible role in the translation effort. Yet her constant fear was getting involved in a work that was deemed religiously sensitive. She maintained normal employment and routines, to stay clear of suspicions and keep the venture under wraps. The translators met as infrequently as possible, as little as six times a year.
Venue, equipment, and materials were arranged with utmost privacy. Security protocols were elaborate, to conceal the work and preserve the manuscripts. But it was impossible to keep the project completely hidden. Postal mails were intercepted from time to time. Meetings trips were cancelled on more than one occasion due to small breaches of security.
Despite the maximum level of fail-safe measures in place, the task to safeguard the work became increasingly difficult. Going underground for the long term was not a practical option for the team members. But the greatest Planner was light years ahead of them. The Lord God destined an uncommon course for the nascent work to stay hidden.
Hidden in Plain Sight
In the busyness of nativity celebrations in 2001, the Lord called Hua’s family to move out of the country. The call was unexpected. It came through an extraordinary sign with the unmistakable message.
The opportunity then presented itself in 2002 – Hua’s husband was sent to work in Hong Kong, and the whole family moved out together. Hua could continue the Bible translation without unwanted surveillance.
Though the reason was little understood at that time, the next ten years in Hong Kong was providential in inconceivable ways, the main one being that the Bible translation work continued unhindered.
When the ten years were up, the time came for yet another providential and out-of-the-way move. The Lord sent another similar spectacular sign, mysteriously foreboding a new move. Hua and her husband then moved base again in 2011, this time to a sovereign jurisdiction in Borneo Island.
The move to another country did not make any sense for the task at hand, as the larger translation project team was stationed back home. But no one could have fathomed the plot then. It was the Lord’s doing. And Borneo became the new base to work from, for the another decade.
And so it was, the modus operandi was off-centre, and groundbreaking. The translation venture continued, largely unobstructed, yet hidden.
Fast Forward to Borneo
In 2008, the New Testament in Malay was launched in the national capital. Then, no one in the team would have dreamed of when the whole Bible would be completed, nor how would would it be released!
As the LORD would have it, the whole Bible was to be birthed very far away from the national capital. In 2016, the new Malay Bible was launched in North Borneo. Cloistered in a moment with clarity, the new Malay Bible was celebrated as the Borneo Bible.
And the reason why the new Bible was providentially named ‘Alkitab Versi Borneo’, and why was it hugely significant, was to be evident to all at a future time.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
This extract was taken from the 2nd chapter of A CENTURY IN ECLIPSE - The Story of the Malay Bible, by Borneo Sabda.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
This book is memoir. It reflects the author’s present recollections of experiences over time. Some names and characteristics have been changed, some events have been compressed, and some dialogue has been recreated.