In this episode, Belinda Pollard, Alison Young and Donita Bundy interview Bible translator Albert Castelijn, who has spent 28 years as a missionary worker in a remote village in the Philippine jungle. Albert shares both the practicalities and the miraculous moments of working with words across culture and language barriers.
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In conversation in this episode:
- Belinda Pollard, author of mainstream crime novels, writing coach, accredited editor with qualifications in theology, writing and publishing blogger at smallbluedog.com, and Gracewriters founder
- Alison Joy, romance author, former early childhood teacher and mother of 4 adult children
- Donita Bundy, writing teacher, preacher and author of the Armour of Light urban fantasy series
- Albert Casteljn, Bible translator and missionary worker in the Philippines
Topics covered in this episode:
- The years of preparation, learning both language and culture, to translate for a minority people group.
- The miracle of cross-cultural communication, and how it is one of the imprints of the image of God in us.
- The joy and wonder of seeing God’s Word work in people by his Spirit.
- Translation as a team effort, with times of solitude.
- How Albert moved from a career as a carpenter into missionary translation work.
Connect with Albert
- Albert’s wife Lynne microblogs on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/sunshine_epiphanies/
Please use the sharing buttons at top and bottom of this post to share on social media or directly with Christian writers you know.
Belinda Pollard: Welcome to the Gracewriters Podcast – Christian Writers Changing Popular Culture. Hit subscribe on your favourite podcast player so you never miss an episode and find show notes, useful links and a full transcript at gracewriters.com.
Today on the podcast, Bible translator, Albert Castelijn.
I’m Belinda Pollard. I’m an author, editor and publishing consultant with a theology degree and 20 years in the publishing industry. Find links to my books, blogs and online courses at belindapollard.com.
Alison Joy: Hi, I’m Alison Young. I’m a former early childhood teacher living in south-east Queensland. I have four adult children and I write romance under the pen name, Alison Joy. You can find all my information at alisonjoywriter.com.
Donita Bundy: Hi, I’m Donita Bundy. For the past 20 years, I’ve been using my theology degree to underpin my preaching and, more recently, to inspire my urban fantasy series, Armour of Light. You can find out more about that and my other projects at donitabundy.com.
Alison Joy: Albert Castelijn has spent 28 years living and working in a remote village in the jungle in the Philippines working with a minority group. His work has included church planting, medical work, literacy education and Bible translation. Welcome to the podcast, Albert.
Albert Castelijn: Hi there! It’s a pleasure to be with you this morning.
Belinda Pollard: Now, we like to subject our guests, first up, to the rapid-fire five so we can get a little bit of an idea about them as people and as writers. Are you ready?
Albert Castelijn: I think so!
Belinda Pollard: Who is your target audience?
Albert Castelijn: It’s a group that we’ve been working with called the Banwaon and they are people who live in the remote mountains in the southern part of the Philippines.
Belinda Pollard: And this will be an interesting question for you, what is your main genre?
Albert Castelijn: Yes! So, because we’re translating, of course, the Bible has lots of different genres but the majority part of it is narrative and then, of course, you’ve got the trickier parts – the Epistles. Then, of course, there’s poetry mixed in there and other genres, as well.
Belinda Pollard: So many, isn’t it? Yes. When is your optimum time for writing?
Albert Castelijn: Whenever I can fit it in! Living in the jungle like that we’ve got lots of different calls on our time but I think I get the best work done through the mornings but you have to fit it in in the afternoons and sometimes, some of the other parts that don’t require so much brain space, at night-time.
Belinda Pollard: And where’s your favourite place to write?
Albert Castelijn: Okay. Well, I do my best work right there in my home office in our house in the jungle surrounded by the trees and where I can also work with my translation helpers who are Banwaon men who have been trained and work with me on translation.
Belinda Pollard: And very briefly, how did you get into this type of working with words?
Albert Castelijn: Well, as a new Christian, when I was 19, after a couple of years the Lord really challenged me into missions. When he directed us to the Banwaon people group, one of the needs there was for God’s Word to be translated into their language and so, I was already interested in that, had some training for that, and that’s when we really got into it in 1999 when we started on the actual translation work.
Donita Bundy: Albert, obviously, Bible translation is a complex process. Is it possible for you to give us a Cliff notes or an abbreviated version of what’s involved?
Albert Castelijn: Yes. Okay, so I’ll try my best to be brief. For us, we do what we call meaning-based translations. So, our goal is to transfer the meaning from the originals into the language of the target group so that they can understand what it’s saying, have the same sort of impact on them as it had on the original readers.
So, it starts off with understanding the meanings so that’s the exegetical study that you have to do and then you write up a draft in the language and then I go over that with my translation helpers who are local Banwaon men. We’re working more on the word level and how do you actually say this in your language, all these different concepts which is often quite hard because of the cultural difference and everything.
Then we make a revised draft and we actually go over that again with the same guys but we’re looking at this stage at higher level paragraph and that. How does it flow? What’s the naturalness like?
One of the processes we do is a recording. So, I read it to them paragraph by paragraph. I record it. I listen to how they say it in bigger chunks like that and make adjustments based on that. Then another big part is we do a lot of comprehension checking. So, we get people who haven’t been involved in the translation process, so far, in. We read it to them, again, in paragraphs, so bigger chunks and ask them to tell us, “Okay, what did you hear? What did you understand from that?” And that gives us an idea how it’s communicating. If there’s parts that aren’t clear. If there’s parts that are dropping out.
We actually translate it back into a very literal form of English and send that off to a consultant and he looks over it. We’re making sure that nothing is dropped out in the whole translation process because sometimes when you’re focusing on being natural, little details and that can get left out or sometimes even parts of verses. So, the consultants help with that.
And then they actually come in and we do a sit-down check with translation helpers from the tribe. We go over it, over paragraph by paragraph and, the same sort of thing, read it out, they tell it back, I translate it for the consultant and then we make adjustments, as needed, to make sure that it’s really accurate and natural and communicating the meaning as much as possible.
Of course, then, we can finally print it, put it into the Banwaon Bible which is actually held together with screws and we’re adding to it as we get different books checked. And then, of course, there’s the continued evaluation that happens as it’s taught in the churches.
Donita Bundy: With all of that recording, is it also a goal or a possibility to record or release the translation for audio for people to listen to rather than have to read?
Albert Castelijn: Yes. So, part of the work was, in the early days, to learn their language and their culture but then also to be able to teach them to read so that they can have the Word of God in a written form and be able to read it any time they like. But, yes, audio, with technology improving all the time and actually some of the people there in the mountains, even, are getting smart phones. So, yes, definitely.
There have been different things that have been tried over the years. In the early years, did you ever see those hand-wound recorders? They were put out by different groups and people would wind it and that’s because it didn’t have a battery or anything and they would listen to it. So, we’ve tried different things like that over the years, but they think there will be definitely ways to get it in an audio format, as well.
Donita Bundy: So, Albert, when you’ve explained that process, it sounds like you’re pretty much hands-on from the beginning of the process all the way through to the end. Are you also involved in teaching the villagers how to read? Is that part of your work as a Bible translator, as well?
Albert Castelijn: Yes. We joined the team when there had been other missionaries already there for a number of years. The actual work in this group started in 1979. So, a lot of that initial evangelism and even literacy teaching had happened and there were people in the village trained to teach others to read. At the same time, the department of Education started to build schools in the area and so that helped other children to read in a trade language which is similar to the tribal language and so they were able to read and we had to help them with that as well.
It’s a goal that I have to improve that system so that it’s even easier for them to be able to read and to write in their own language. Yes.
Donita Bundy: So, you said that when you went there, the process had already been started by somebody else and so was it a handover situation and you picked up the project from where they’d left off?
Albert Castelijn: Yes. So, work had already been started on the translation because, of course, you can’t teach anything unless you’re teaching the Word of God. But those provisional translations all needed to be revised as we learnt more about the language as we went through the full translation process.
Sadly, the missionary who started the work, his wife got really sick and they had to go back to the States and they weren’t able to return. She went to be with the Lord. And so, the team needed somebody else to pick up that other job and that’s where we, sort of, fit in.
Donita Bundy: So, where are you up to now in that process of translation of Scripture?
Albert Castelijn: Yes. So, portions were done of the Old Testament so that when we started teaching the people in evangelism we could start with, “In the beginning,” and the highlights of the Old Testament. But the main focus of my work has been translating the New Testament. We’re at 63%, I think it is, at the moment. Just this last week, I’ve been working on getting Ephesians and a revision of that from the early days and Hebrews ready to add to their New Testament.
This week, I’m starting on Mark, some work that I can do while we’re back here in Australia so that we can, hopefully, in the middle of this year or later this year get those books checked and open up the screws on the Bible and add these books into the Banwaon New Testament.
I’ve already started on Matthew so once those are done that just leaves the Gospel of John and that would mean we’d be at 90% and finishing the Gospel of John would get the whole New Testament done and we have to have that done in the next couple of years. So, we’re pretty excited about where things are going.
Alison Joy: Now obviously you said you got called to go to the Philippines, you don’t actually just rock up and start doing it. You obviously have to have some training. So, what exactly is the process that you have to go through?
Albert Castelijn: Yes. That’s a good question. We did a number of years of, at first, Bible school and then missionary training. Part of the missionary training we did was focused on translations so, we did some preparatory training of that but the way our mission approaches it is that the training you get is best at the time that you need it.
So, because it’s a long process to go to the field after you’ve done your partnership development and then, for us, we had to learn a trade language so that we could communicate in that area of the Philippines, so that when we went into the remote mountain village where nobody spoke English and not that many people spoke the trade language we, at least, had a stepping stone to learn their language.
We got training on the job and there were seminars and workshops that we went to and, of course, consultants coming in to work with us as we got into the project and moved along with that.
Belinda Pollard: So that’s the trade language, the local language, presumably biblical languages as well, because the Bible wasn’t written in English – so that’s a lot of languages, isn’t it, that you’ve got to learn to be able to do this work.
Albert Castelijn: Yes. It’s certainly a long-term thing. It took us two years to learn the trade language and then another two years to get to fluency where we’re able to start work on the translation but I’m still learning in the language.
Of course, we continue to learn English as it keeps changing. It’s a long process but very, very worthwhile.
Belinda Pollard: I’m interested in the process of translating and transferring meaning from one brain to another, from one heart to another, from one spirit to another and also from one language to another. We, even us with our English translations of which there are many different ones that we can choose from, I’m going to read it slightly differently to someone in the US or someone in the UK because I have a cultural context around that.
So, there’s a lot of things there, isn’t there? How do you work on learning and understanding the cultural setup, as well? The way that new language you’re translating into works in that cultural setup.
Albert Castelijn: That is very much our goal is that the meaning of the Scriptures is clear to them in their language. One of the advantages that we have, you mentioned in English there’s so many cultures that people speak English but have different cultures and so that means sometimes they can read the same English and get a different feel or a different read, different meaning.
We don’t have that issue because the group is a group of 10,000 people and so their culture is what it is there but, very much so, we’re studying the originals to understand what the meaning is and that’s why we heavily involve the people, themselves, in the process so that as we work on the translation we can see how that meaning comes across to them.
To me, the whole thing is, really when you think about communication, it is one of the things that makes us in the image of God and it is, more or less, miraculous that you can get this concept and transfer it through the medium of words and be understood by someone else and have an impact for them, as well.
We are very much wanting to see that, as they read it, they can tell us back what they’ve understood and you can even see the impact it’s had in their lives. Honestly, that has been the greatest motivator for me. The greatest joy is to see the impact that God’s Word has on these people and how it’s brought them out of darkness and into light and how it’s set them free from bondage and fear. And given them joy and peace, the salvation that they have now and their walk with God. It’s just a very exciting thing to see how God’s Word does its work.
Of course, one of the great advantages that we have is that the Holy Spirit is also helping them to understand and apply it in their lives, as well. It’s an interesting, amazing thing to be part of.
A good translation will be understandable and what the Holy Spirit does, then, is apply it to people’s hearts so that they will have the power to make the changes they need to and that it can have the full impact that it should have and He will give them insights.
You know how you read a verse and then you read it again a number of years later and it’s like you see something new in there that you never saw the first time? You think, “When did this get added into this verse? How did I not see it until now?” It’s been exciting to see the Banwaon people experience the same thing and, of course, it’s based upon our understanding. As our understanding grows then God’s able to open our eyes to deeper levels of truth that were always there but it’s cool to see how that’s happening as they read God’s Word, as well.
Belinda Pollard: Writing is often seen as quite a solitary process but what you’ve described here, Albert, is very much not solitary. It’s quite a team effort, isn’t it? There’s all the different people bringing all the things together. How do you find that working in that team environment to get the words right?
Albert Castelijn: Yes. Well, of course, that adds layers of complexity because you have different personalities and everything. We really thank the Lord that He’s given us some guys who are very faithful and very committed and very gifted, as well. We’ve been able to work with them, now, for over 20 years on this project and that’s one of the things that helps you speed up as the translation goes along, is they get better at it, you get better at it.
It’s interesting because just like I have a bad day, sometimes, some of those guys are struggling and at times we’ve had to stop and just pray and even take a day off and just let guys have time to work through issues that they need to. There’s that whole sensitivity and then with the consultants it’s a matter of coordinating busy schedules to get together and then you throw COVID in the mix and that’s why Ephesians and Hebrews, which were ready to be checked in 2019, still haven’t been done.
It’s a joy, as well, to be working with others on this. You know when you see somebody’s eyes light up because they’ve understood something. The truth has impacted them that they’ve never had before. Particularly, for them going through Hebrews for the very, very first time and, for instance, hearing about this cloud of witnesses and how it encourages us in our walk with Jesus.
Just exciting to see them growing in their understanding by the Word of God and just to say, too, there’s plenty of solitary time, too. There’s lots of the parts of the process that involve other people but there’s plenty of hours that I sit there at my desk. At least, Lynne is there with me in the jungle, as well, so that’s really good.
Belinda Pollard: And you’ve got a lot of other tasks to do, haven’t you: church planting, discipleship, medical work, community development, literacy, education.
Albert Castelijn: You’re making me tired just reading it out!
Belinda Pollard: I know! I feel tired, too! How do you fit it all in? If other people out there listening would be feeling a stirring and they really want to get involved in Bible translation, do they also need to have all of those other complementary skills?
Albert Castelijn: The Word of God is the most important thing and that’s what I keep coming back to is that I need to keep making it a priority.
I’m a fairly practical guy. My background was as a carpenter and a builder so, in a lot of ways, it would be more fun to get out of the office and work with the guys that I’m training as carpenters and that. I realise that God has sent us there so that the church would be planted and built and know that they would have his Words. So, I have to keep making it a priority.
Lynn’s really, really helpful with that. She runs interference and people have to get through her if they want to get to my office. She’s pretty good at telling them, “Look, now is not a good time. Maybe come back later.”
But as far as other people who may be interested in translation, it’s certainly not a pre-requisite that you have other abilities or skills like that. We, as a mission and other missions are like this too, really prefer to see translation done and church planting done in a remote place like that with a team of people. And so, when we joined the work, we were going to be the third family to fill the team. Sadly, within a few years, both of the other families needed to leave because of medical things and so we ended up ‘carrying the baby’, but thankfully there was already a strong church and a growing church there. And so, we’ve got a lot of the tribal people, the pastors that have been trained and the elders and the deacons and that as co-workers so, that’s been good.
One of the challenges is that you are in a remote place and people aren’t wealthy there and they suffer all sorts of challenges by being in a remote place so, like even medical things. We were the people who had the most medical knowledge out of anyone and our second bible for the first years, particularly, was a book called, Where There Is No Doctor, because people would just come to us with all sorts of medical issues and we didn’t know so we’d be reading that up.
You’re constrained by the love of Christ that you see needs and you want to help as much as you can with the gifts and abilities that God gives to different people. He knows what He’s doing when he puts people in different places and there’s many missionaries, many translators and they sit at a desk and that’s what they’re really skilled and good at and that’s what they totally focus on and because of that, they end up getting translation done quite a lot quicker than I’ve been able to.
Belinda Pollard: I find it interesting, though, that you’ve come from a carpentry background. There’s good precedent for that, by the way! Jesus was a carpenter. But did you always have an interest in words or was that something that developed as you went along?
Albert Castelijn: So, my dad was a builder and I grew up working with him on job sites and so I loved being outside and working with my hands. But I did okay at school and my teachers were a bit annoyed that I wasn’t going to go onto university but it just wasn’t something I was interested in back then.
So, yes, I’ve always been interested in words and, of course, as a Christian so much of how God communicates to us by His Spirit is through his Word and, of course, you just know how important that is, personally and so, as a missionary you want people to have that same opportunity to know God and to know His Word and to have His Word impact on them.
Alison Joy: So, how has your Bible translation impacted your faith and relationship with God?
Albert Castelijn: Yes. It’s something that I always pray because you do get a lot of thorny translation issues and you’re reading these heavy exegetical commentaries and notes and you’re digging in and what does it mean and does it mean this or that or how do you communicate it?
It takes a lot of time going back and forth, digging into the language and all of that but my prayer always is that as I work on God’s Word that it will have that personal impact on me, as well. Many times, as I’ve been translating a verse it’s just like a, stop and praise the Lord for the truth that’s in there or it’s challenging me in my personal walk with Him.
Overall, it’s been hugely encouraging. What a privilege to have as your job to be studying the Word of God so deeply and then to be translating it for other people. To be part of the impact it’s having in their lives so, it’s very, very encouraging and at times, very challenging. It’s a huge, huge blessing.
We went to the Philippines back in 1993, initially. I started my training in 1987. It was actually six years before I was able to start on the translation so, learning the trade language then learning the tribal language. What’s that now? We’re up to 22 years so, it actually has been quite a while. I’m just so thankful that we’ve had a chance to be involved in that over these years and I’d do it all again!
Alison Joy: So, you think you’ve got, maybe, two more years ahead of you?
Albert Castelijn: It’s a funny thing, when we went on our first furlough back in 1999, people would ask how long will the translation take and naively, thinking because it had already been started, I said, “Oh, maybe six to ten years.” Well, we were on furlough, again, four years later and they said, “How long?” and I said, “Oh, six to ten years!” and then ten years later!
Belinda Pollard: That sounds like me writing a novel!
Albert Castelijn: Right, so you can relate to how they can be stretchy! I think, we started to say, about three or four years ago, that we have to have it finished in two or three years but then, of course, COVID happened and that slowed things down. We’ve got some family things where I need to be back in Australia to help our parents.
We’re really hopeful that within two years, maybe, we’ll be able to get the remaining work done. That would be actual translation but then it usually takes another six months or 12 months to actually get to where it’s printed because there’s all these final checks that have to be done as you go through the process of getting through the printers, so hopefully two, maybe three years.
And the Banwaon people, they’re great because they’re always encouraging me. They’re like, “Come on, get this next book done. We really want to have a New Testament complete and in our language.” It’s a wonderful encouragement but it weighs heavily, a little bit, at times. It’s quite a responsibility.
Alison Joy: So, I understand right, that earlier on you said that the Old Testament is basically just the highlights of the Old Testament?
Albert Castelijn: Yes. Well, so, this comes down to how long are we actually going to live! But, of course, for the Banwaon we would love to give them as much of the Old Testament as we can. Where do you stop?
That’s something we’re going to be asking the Lord for wisdom with. Certainly, there’s some of the Old Testament that we’d love to give to the Banwaon people but I don’t know if we’d be able to get all of it done but that’s down the track, still.
Belinda Pollard: It’s fascinating work and so important. Thank you so much, Albert Castelijn, for your inspirational stories and ideas today. We really appreciate that.
How about we pray for you?
Albert Castelijn: Lovely.
Belinda Pollard: Heavenly Father, we thank you for the work of Albert and Lynne and their family over so many years in helping to bring your Word and your truth into the heart-language of these people that they’ve been working amongst.
We pray that you will strengthen and sustain them for the task that still lies ahead. That you will encourage and bless them. Give them wisdom, perception and an ability to work really, really well together. We just pray for Albert and all of his team who are bringing so many different aspects to it, and we thank you that as your people we do work together.
And we pray for those out there listening who are really interested and feeling a stirring towards a ministry in Bible translation. And we pray that you might lead them to the right doors to knock on and open the way for them and help them to become equipped and encouraged to move forward into this ministry.
We ask these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Alison Joy: Amen.
Donita Bundy: Amen.
Albert Castelijn: Amen.
Belinda Pollard: Albert Castelijn, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast, today.
Thank you, Donita Bundy and Alison Joy.
I’m Belinda Pollard and we will see you next time on the Gracewriters podcast.
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