One recent night, linguist John Nystrom signed on to his computer to collaborate with a translator thousands of miles away in Papua New Guinea. It was 7 p.m. in Florida. In the tiny village of Arop, it was 9 a.m. the next day. This was a new way of working for Nystrom and his wife, Bonnie, after a quarter-century as missionaries in the South Pacific nation north of Australia. They are back home in Seminole now and have written a book, Sleeping Coconuts, telling of their experiences and work helping villagers to translate the Bible into their own languages and dialects.
Bonnie, 51, has always seen such work as her life's calling.
"My parents were actually doing this same work in Peru when I was born," she said, adding that she chose a major in computer science to aid her vocation.
John, also 51, grew up in the Chicago area. After learning that speakers of more than 2,000 languages across the world did not have access to a Bible in their own tongue, he decided to join Wycliffe Bible Translators, with headquarters in Orlando. He met Bonnie in 1982 while training with Wycliffe. They married the following year and moved to Papua New Guinea in 1987 with their daughter, Brianna, who was just 11 months old. Son Eric was born in the South Pacific nation.
"Both of them would never trade growing up in Papua New Guinea for anything," Bonnie said of the now-adult children who have settled in the States.
The Nystroms' task initially was to give speakers of the Arop language — one of more than 800 spoken in the country — a Bible of their own. The couple, whose home church is First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks, first had to learn the unwritten Arop language.
The Nystroms, who relied on solar energy and a generator to power their home and computers at their language center, trained a few Arop men as Bible translators. By 1993, the book of Mark was published, but a natural disaster would radically transform their mission.
On the evening of July 17, 1998, a tsunami wiped out Arop, which sat on a narrow stretch of land between a lagoon and the sea. Nearly 3,000 people in the region, including about a third of those who lived in Arop, perished. One was a Bible translator the Nystroms had trained.
"We were not in the village. We were 300 miles away at our national training center.'' John said. "I was getting ready to come to the States for a meeting.
"We got a phone call at noon the next day,'' he said. "The person on the phone had heard that there was some sort of disaster out there and there was massive loss of life."
When the couple finally got news from a pilot who had flown over the area, he said that there was nothing left but "sleeping coconuts."
"What he meant by that was coconut trees were lying flat on the ground," John said. "It was devastating. Everybody who survived was homeless."
In their book, the Nystroms tell of the Arops' struggle to recover and the rebuilding of their village inland. Those now literate in their own language were able to write of their overwhelming loss. Sleeping Coconuts opens with one such account.
The devastation stirred the couple to expand their work beyond the Arops to surrounding villages with similar languages.
"It's turning out to be a great way to do translation," John said. "There are so many benefits to be gained from working together."
Technology is helping to speed the process. The Nystroms have trained translators to use software that takes advantage of the similarities among languages. The books of Ruth and Jonah were the first to be completed under the new program.
"They are easy to translate and they were short," John explained.
Luke and Acts are about to be published, and with the aid of Skype work is continuing on the first book of Timothy.
John has been chronicling the process on thenystroms.org. "Arop has no word for conscience, but it occurs several times in 1 Timothy," he wrote. "Our best effort for 'with a clean conscience' so far sounds something like this: 'He knows he has done nothing wrong in God's sight.' I don't know yet what we'll do for 'seared conscience' in 1 Timothy 4:2."
Reach Waveney Ann Moore at (727) 892-2283 or [email protected]