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Local effort translates literary works into obscure language

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Most of the students had never seen the words of the Bible translated in their language.

All of them spoke Lisu, an obscure Asian language. The Lisu people number about 1 million throughout the world, and their culture has very little printed material. Even the Bible has only been translated a few times.

But with the help of Franklin resident V.L. Vawter, the college-age students watched in wonder as verses, chapters and familiar biblical passages appeared on a screen in front of them, all in their native Lisu.

Now Vawter’s work may open the floodgates of understanding for minority languages throughout the world.

The Vawter File

V.L. Vawter

Age: 66

Home: Franklin

Occupation: Computer programmer

Education: Bachelor’s degree from Grace College

“It’s been told to me, ‘This will change Asia.’ It will raise the educational level. It will change their lives,” Vawter said.

During a five-month period last year, Vawter taught a series of courses at the Lisu Bible Institute in Thailand. He simultaneously finished a computer program called RegionsReader that allows minority cultures such as the Lisu to study the Bible and other literature in their own language.

By the time it’s finished, RegionsReader will allow teachers to take existing writings, imported into the program, and view the works in Lisu. Together with a translating program, it will allow for the comparison and deeper study of a wide array of literature.

Vawter is also in the process of organizing drives for used computers and mobile devices, which would be given to leaders in these communities for free.

His work has drawn excited interest from linguists, biblical scholars and other academics as a way to open small pockets of people throughout the world to literature and the written word in ways they never had been before.

“This could really, really affect thousands and thousands of people, and raise them up educationally, raise up their thinking, free them economically,” he said.

Vawter never anticipated his teaching stint in Thailand would result in a potentially culture-shifting development. The Franklin resident was recruited by friend and missionary Jesse Yangmi to teach for a semester at Lisu Bible Institute.

Yangmi, a Burmese native, founded the school in 1999 in the northern region of Thailand. Though he had been educated in the U.S., he returned to Southeast Asia to work as a missionary. His specialty was language — he spoke nearly 10 different languages, and had translated the Bible into Lisu.

Franklin Memorial Christian Church had supported Yangmi’s mission work in the past. Vawter, being a member of the church and active in its ministry, had invited Yangmi to use translation software in his home.

“I’ve always been impressed with that kind of work, translating Scripture. He and I clicked,” Vawter said.

Their friendship grew from that point, and Vawter had been asked on multiple occasions to come teach for a semester in the mountainous district of Chiang Dao.

Though he had turned it down in the past, Vawter felt the time was right in early 2012.

Vawter was charged with teaching a series of biblical courses at the college on subjects such as the revelation of the Holy Spirit and how to study the Bible.

While he stood in front of the class, an interpreter translated his words.

“My number one concern was to be able to teach them, and to be able to connect with them emotionally,” he said. “With many of these languages, you can’t use any social illustrations or metaphors, because they won’t understand them.”

When describing his lessons, Vawter instead had to use illustrations and examples they’d understand — family interaction and nature. To bridge the language gap, Vawter used physical comedy to connect with his students. He would use slapstick, faking falls or injuries to make them laugh.

But while his main job was teaching, Vawter also had been creating a digital concordance for the Lisu Bible that students and professors could call up on their computers. A concordance allows people to look up any word and search for the individual instances within a body of text.

Vawter’s program would be like a search engine for the Bible.

For example, if he wanted to look up “truth,” he could type it into his search function and find all of the ways it was used throughout the Bible. Scholars could compare the idea of truth in both the Old and New Testaments, or how different books of the Bible interpreted it.

Concordance software is already available for free online. But RegionsReader is specifically built for individual minority language.

“They don’t have anything to read and refer to. They don’t have the means to do it,” Vawter said. “This is one of those things where you think you did one thing, but as it opens up, you realize it’s a lot bigger than you thought.”

Vawter had been a programmer with the U.S. Navy, working in the intelligence field in the early 1980s. Working in Berlin, Germany, he was in the middle of the Cold War conflict with the Soviets.

He wrote a statistics program to help sort through the frequency of data coming in, a program that was eventually honored by the National Security Agency.

Afterward, he continued computer programming, something that extended after he entered the ministry. Mostly, he worked in databases, as opposed to games or graphics.

“I want to be able to give people the information they need,” he said.

That meshed well with the needs of the Lisu people. They were not only poor economically, but they also lacked any kind of literature in their own language. They have no newspapers and very few books.

The books that do exist in Lisu are so expensive that the average person can’t afford them, Vawter said.

“They have nothing. The stuff that is translated is often unintelligible, because a translation is only as good as the person who translated it,” Vawter said.

His first step was developing a program that would let him search through the digital version of the Bible, and display it on the projection screen in the classroom.

In order to better understand the Lisu language, Vawter found an English-to-Lisu dictionary online written by a linguistics professor from Australia. Vawter contacted the professor, David Bradley, to get a digital version of it.

The two men continued a back-and-forth conversation by email to discuss Lisu and other languages. Bradley said he would be in Thailand in September, and wondered if they could meet.

Showing him the usable concordance, Bradley grew more and more excited about its potential. Vawter described it as someone figuratively knocking the sunglasses off of your eyes, allowing him to see the light.

“This will be very useful for Lisu speakers and for anyone interested in Lisu language, as the software makes it easier to find strings of Lisu text,” Bradley said. “This is a valuable new way to organize Lisu materials electronically.”

The more he heard from specialists in Southeast Asia, the more Vawter began to understand the far-reaching results of such a program. Working with longtime Lisu missionary David Morse, he saw that this could introduce a written Bible to cultures who lack any kind of literature.

The software is aimed at teachers, preachers or anyone else who would be teaching the Bible.

“These teachers have heard the verses read to them, but they don’t have copies. You have no books to discuss them. All you have is your memory and any notes you took,” he said. “Now, do your lectures. It will be very hard.”

But it also has the potential to work with ballads, folklore and other written works. Since the program doesn’t read the language, but looks for patterns in it, it can work with any minority language, Vawter said.

“You’ll have history you can read. You’ll have poetry you can read. You’ll have exposition to read. You can learn by it,” he said.

Vawter brought a series of special talents together to make this project possible, Morse told him. He is theologically trained, he’s studied literature and he has worked extensively in software. Most of all, he had passion to succeed.

Since returning to Franklin at the end of October, the software program has dominated Vawter’s time. He has named it the RegionsReader Text Analyzer. Right now, the program is simply a prototype. Vawter is in the process of writing a cleaned-up version and streamlining some of the search functions.

Vawter has no plans to sell or market this program for a profit. His true aim is to get it into the hands of underserved cultures. He is in the process of setting up an organization to distribute his program to minority cultures throughout the world.

The way it’s being written, it will run on any kind of computer or mobile device. Vawter is planning to team up with nonprofit organizations that collect used computer equipment to distribute with his software on them.

Teachers will be instructed on how to use the software and free mobile devices given to them so they can return to their remote locations to help others learn to read and understand their native literature, Vawter said.

He’s already had a request to do a second language, Ahung, another Southeastern Asian language spoken by about 100,000 people. Those in the missionary community, as well as secular experts in linguistics, see this as a way to empower small pockets of people throughout the world.

Much as the printing press made literature available in Europe, this will do the same for these minority cultures, Vawter said.

“Impoverishment doesn’t just mean poverty of economy, but of poverty of learning,” he said. “I want as many people using this as possible. It’s going to change everything.”

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