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25 October 2019

The Word for a New Generation: Updating a Bible Script

In 1866, American Baptist missionary Josiah Nelson Cushing arrived in Burma (now called Myanmar) as a missionary appointed to the Shan people.
Few, if any, of the Shan people in Southeast Asia had heard about the Lord Jesus Christ. Through Cushing’s and his fellow missionaries’ efforts, that was about to change.

 

Mine is the precious boon
To tell His grace,
His matchless power to save
The human race.

Tireless my feet must bear
His word to all,
Ceaseless my voice must sound
His holy call.
‘The Irresistible Call,’

Josiah N. Cushing, from Mandalay, Burma, 1887 (more than 20 years after his arrival in Myanmar)

For most of the next four decades, Cushing traversed throughout ‘Shanland,’ telling them of his Savior. When he wasn’t on the move, Cushing labored at composing a Shan dictionary and translating the Bible into the Shan language. He eventually succeeded, producing what many Shan Christians today still refer to appreciatively as the ‘Cushing Bible.’

Following in Cushing’s Footsteps

More than 120 years after Cushing’s Bible was printed, a group of Shan pastors and church leaders, along with workers from OMF and SIL, are following in Cushing’s footsteps, gathering near the Thailand-Myanmar border and huddling around copies of Cushing’s work in order to transform the old script he used into the newer script more commonly used by Shan people since the early 1970s.

‘The old dialect is hard to read, especially for the new generation,’ said Sai Khun Seng, a member of the translation team. ‘If this project is finished, a new generation of Shan Christians can read the Bible effectively, I hope.’

Cushing’s translation, which was based directly on the Greek and Hebrew of the Bible, is still widely respected by Shan Christians. The new script will make the translation more accessible to present-day Shan, while also building on Cushing’s monumental work. An OMF worker helping with the project noted that an updated translation ‘is important to the churches there to honor Cushing’s legacy, and to preserve the particular language that has shaped and formed their faith.’

The translation team has met twice thus far, once in May and again in October, while also collaborating online. Their work has not been easy. Although the Cushing Bible has been reprinted several times, until now it had never been re-typeset or digitized since it was first produced. Thus, one of the first tasks in the project was for two Shan pastors to type the entire text of the Cushing Bible from scratch. Following that, text merging software was used to find errors in the typed text. Word breaks were then added and a text adaption tool created by the United Bible Societies was used to convert the text from the old script to the modern Shan script.

Deciding on Spellings

The translation team’s main work now is to proofread the Cushing Bible in the updated script. That’s not an easy task, either. Building consensus regarding spellings and dialect preferences for certain words is one of the steepest challenges for a team that comes from various parts of Myanmar and Thailand.
‘Some vocabulary, some terminology, we have to explain to one another,’ said Pastor Sai Htun Kyaw, the leader of the team. ‘We don’t memorize all of the word meanings. Some people have never heard of a (certain) word. We try, we are patient, we explain.’
The Shan, numbering approximately 6 million, mostly live in Myanmar (5 million), but also are found in large numbers in Thailand and China. Overall, although there are some vibrant, long-established churches, less than one percent of the Shan, a predominantly Buddhist people group, know Christ. Even so, Sai Htun says that the Shan are often willing to listen to the gospel and have respect for the stories of the Bible, which frequently use imagery that Shan people can relate to. As he explains, many Shan are farmers and thus are ‘touching God’s creation’ on a daily basis.

The translation team hopes an updated version of the Cushing Bible will result in many more Shan professing faith in Jesus. As an added bonus, the Shan church leaders on the translation team have had their own faith renewed through the project. ‘(Because of this project) We already read all of the Bible,’ says Peter, one of the Shan pastors. ‘It’s very inspiring to us because it’s the Word of God.’

Notes

  1. Found in St. John, Wallace. (1912). Josiah Nelson Cushing: Missionary and Scholar. Rangoon: American Baptist Press, p.9.
  2. The translation team has finished proofreading the New Testament and is now working on updating the script for the Old Testament. After that is done, the complete, updated Cushing Bible will be sent to the Myanmar Bible Society for typesetting and printing.

Will you pray for The Task Unfinished?

  • Give thanks for the work of Josiah Cushing in translating the Bible for the Shan and the desire of Shan pastors to make the Bible more accessible to readers today.
  • Pray for diligence and perseverance in the task of proof reading
  • Pray that the updated script will help Christians to be able to read and understand the Bible more clearly. Ask that as they engage with the Bible, the Holy Spirit would help them apply the Bible’s words to their own lives.
  • Pray for the updated script to help Shan people engage with the good news about Jesus for the first time.

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