The miracle of Sebastian’s translation

In my first blog post I mentioned a Mixtec man named Sebastian. The featured image of the blog has him sitting with me way back in the late 80’s, before I had a computer, translating with him near the door of the small village church. The story of Sebastian is, in my opinion, one of the most inspiring in the recent history of Bible translation, and maybe one of the least known. Back in 1987, one year after I met Sebastian, his story was featured in the Wycliffe publication, “In Other Words.” A number of years later I wrote a short story of Sebastian for a Writers Digest contest, and it made the top 25. A missionary translated that into Spanish and it was published in the Christian magazine Prisma. Wycliffe president Bob Creson’s staff later found the story in 2009, and below I am copying his well written summary of it. (March 2016 update: I just found out that a version of the story of Sebastian is on pages 61-64 of the book by Bob Creson called The Finish Line.)

To set this account up even more, you need to know that in the mid 80’s it was very hard to get a visa to go to Mexico and spend time in small villages. You could only go to tourist spots on your tourist visa. So the question was being asked, “How can we reach all the villages and help them translate the Bible into their languages if we cannot get a visa to go there for more than very short visits?”  It was during this difficult time that I left for a very short trip to try and visit a Mixtec language area. I had permission to spend one night there. In the large market town of the region, I met a missionary who introduced me to a man selling ice cream who was a Mixtec speaker. He agreed to go with me to his village several hours away.

When we got there, a small church service was in progress. We went in and the man who had accompanied us stood up and said, “Brother John has come to learn our language and help us translate the Bible, but he needs someone to go with him to the big city to work with him. Now, if my father can’t go, maybe someone else can.” He had not mentioned anything to me about his father, nor had he spoken to anyone else during the service. But as it was ending, an elderly man came up to me and, well, you can read the rest in the account below.

Notebook cover

Sebastian was 50 years old, an alcoholic with a second grade education, when he trusted Christ as his Savior.  He was 55 – quite elderly for his small Mexican community — when he began translating the Scriptures into his Tezoatlan Mixtec language.  He had no training, no help, not even an alphabet beyond the Spanish one he’d learned in school, but he saw a need.  While he could understand a fair amount of what he read in his Spanish Bible, his wife could not, nor could many others who attended the Bible study in their village.  His heart burned to help them.

Finally one day he decided he had to try. He bought a notebook and set out to translate the resurrection story in Luke 24. It was hard to spell Mixtec words using only Spanish letters. It was even harder to understand the biblical concepts and express them in his own language. It made his usual work plowing rocky fields and hauling firewood down mountain trails seem easy. Nevertheless he kept at it.

He took his beloved notebook to every Bible study, but he didn’t read from it out of fear that he might have mistranslated the precious Word of God.  Then one night as he watched his neighbors sleeping, wiggling or whispering to each other through an unintelligible service, he knew he couldn’t wait any longer.  He slowly stood up, and moved to a position underneath the only light bulb in the room. With trembling hands, he opened his notebook, took a deep breath and began to read. Slowly, haltingly at first, he read those words from Scripture, gaining strength and confidence as he read on.

Several people gasped as they realized that he was reading in Mixtec, their heart language. Then the room grew quiet.  No one moved or spoke or slept. Tears rolled down a few cheeks. The light of understanding shone in their eyes. Sebastian read on for a long time, and when he stopped, he knew that no one present would ever be the same again.

Time passed and Sebastian’s notebook filled up.  His farming suffered, as did his weaving of palm fronds into baskets and hats for extra income.  Money grew tighter, but God always provided for his needs.  He kept translating, and he kept on sharing those newly translated verses with his wife and neighbors. He read at four or five services each week, and the walls began to come down.  God was no longer a “foreigner.” God spoke Mixtec, and the words went straight to Mixtec hearts.

Four years after Sebastian began translating, Wycliffe member John Williams came to Sebastian’s village, looking for someone willing to move six hours away and teach John his language so they could make books and translate the Scriptures.  John could only stay in the village one night, but God led him straight to Sebastian, who asked just one question: “Do you want to leave tonight or in the morning?”

As Sebastian and John worked together, Sebastian eagerly appropriated the new alphabet symbols that made his language easier to write. He just as eagerly contributed to every aspect of their translation and literacy work. Thirteen years later, with joy and thankfulness, Sebastian held in his hands a draft of the whole New Testament in Tezoatlan Mixtec.

Not long after that, God took Sebastian home, his task completed.  The New Testament was joyfully dedicated in 2008 and is now being used by Sebastian’s people in both written and oral forms. Watch the Celebration here.

If you or I had been choosing a mother tongue translator for the Mixtecs, we might have overlooked Sebastian.  He was too old, we might have said, and his health was compromised by his former addiction to alcohol.  He didn’t have a good enough education or knowledge of Spanish.  He didn’t know how to develop an alphabet for a language that had never been written, and certainly he couldn’t translate without one!

But God knew better.  He changed Sebastian’s life first, and then He gave him the vision, endurance and ability he needed to translate many chapters of His Word for his neighbors, providing for his physical needs along the way.  Then He graciously sent John and Judy Williams to help him complete the task.

In the same way, God knows how He plans to reach the rest of the last language communities around the world.  I can’t wait to see how He does it!

Warmly, Bob Creson, President, Wycliffe USA

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