I got to hear some great stories at lunch last Friday from a gentleman named Ernesto. He is on his way back to Brazil to collect words and complete a dictionary for a native language he worked on 40 years ago. He told me about building an airstrip in the jungle and described how when they thought they were done the pilot flew over and then let out a basket with a phone behind the plane and circled the runway to lower it so he could tell Ernesto that it needed to be widened. I’d read about something like that in The End of the Spear and it was neat to hear someone who had seen it done first hand.
Ernesto was clearly excited to be going back if a little apprehensive about jungle living at his age. He told me that he became interested in translation work after seeing a demonstration by Kenneth Pike and George Cowan done in England in the early 1950s. So he became a translator just as Wycliffe was starting to grow into a global organization.
He was in Dallas preparing a computer and getting some training with FLEx(the program I’m currently helping develop) so that he can enter the data. When he was last in Brazil he used a shoebox system that SIL trained him in. The system involved an actual shoebox and index cards, he told me he still has them. Part of the system was to use holes punched in the cards for each morpheme. If the word didn’t have a morpheme you would cut a slot there. Then if you wanted to see all the words which had a certain morpheme you would stick a coat hanger through the hole for a morpheme and lift it up and all the words that had that morpheme would come out of the shoebox. I’d heard that translators used to use shoeboxes, but never had someone who used the actual system describe it before.
Ernesto’s son also became an SIL translator in the 1980s and he learned on the Shoebox software that SIL wrote as computers became more portable. Today I get to work on the latest tool in that line.
The history of Bible translation has so many stories like those of Ernesto, and working in Dallas I get to hear them now and then. That’s one more thing for me to be thankful for today.