Susanna Baldwin loves her work as a translator on the Plain English Version (PEV) Bible for the Australian Society for Indigenous Languages in Darwin. She gets to spend her days reading the Bible, investigating biblical stories, words and concepts, and working out how to express them in the unique form of English spoken by Aboriginal people.
For someone with Susanna’s love of words and a stickler for language rules, it’s a dream job in a wonderful place.
In an ideal world, she notes, all Australians would have access to God’s word in their heart language – but the sobering reality is that the task is too vast, and the workers too few, to see this vision realised in the near term.
The PEV is a stepping-stone in that direction, providing a Bible that is accessible to people who grew up speaking one or more Indigenous languages, and whose English now tends to conform to the grammar and discourse rules of those languages.
To date, she says, about 70 per cent of the New Testament has been completed in the PEV, and just some short excerpts of the Old Testament. “God has provided wonderfully for the project but there is still much to do.”
It sounds like Susanna feels very settled and yet in the back of her head is the nagging feeling that maybe she ought to be somewhere else.
“God has provided wonderfully for the project but there is still much to do.”
Like many missionaries, Susanna has had her mission plans upended by COVID. Her time in the Northern Territory was meant to be an interim project before heading off to Ethiopia to join SIL International’s team of Bible translators.
The London-born, Sydney-trained missionary – who jokes that she warmed to Ethiopia on the basis of its reputed coffee culture – actually did get to Ethiopia back in March 2020, just before the first wave of COVID-19 hit the country.
As a single woman, and a newcomer to the country, Susanna found herself with little to do when the SIL office closed along with the language school where she was supposed to learn Amharic, the main language of Ethiopia. Very quickly her sending organisation, Wycliffe Australia, advised her to leave the field and wait out the pandemic in a safer and more familiar environment.
Susanna used her pandemic isolation to continue writing a book about what it means for a Christian to be a good comforter.
So after 10 days she flew to the UK and spent the next 10 months back in London, living with her mother and sleeping in her childhood bedroom.
Showing that God can bring good things out of every difficult situation, Susanna used her pandemic isolation to continue writing a book about what it means for a Christian to be a good comforter. The book was inspired by her fourth-year Moore College study of Job’s friends, who showed what bad comforting looks like.
“I think that there’s a lot written in the Christian world on the theology of suffering, how to suffer well as a sufferer. But I think there’s less written about how to be the friend on the other side of that suffering and how to support and care for people in a theologically rigorous way when they’re going through hard times,” she explains.
“I think it’s easy for us to feel awkward and inadequate when we try to comfort others – I know I do. I would love to help equip people not only to engage with the emotions of someone else’s suffering but to speak thoughtfully and truthfully about God and what he is doing or what we can know of what he’s doing in those situations.”
Susanna is still working on her book, slated for publication by Matthias Media, in between getting stuck into Genesis during the week and going on weekend camping trips to the Top End’s beauty spots.
Yet the question remains – will she go back to Ethiopia when she’s able? Or has the Northern Territory got under her skin?
“Now that I’ve come here and seen the needs and got involved in ministry here, of course I feel more invested in it than I did before. And it would be a wrench to leave it,” she says in her judicious way.
“But there are needs everywhere in the world and I don’t think we can say that any one language group needs the Bible more than another. So it’s a hard decision to make. I guess I know more about the Northern Territory now than I do about Ethiopia.
“So, from that point of view, I can see in front of me the value of the work here, whereas I haven’t had that sort of tangible connection with Bible translation in Ethiopia at this stage. But I also feel like I did invest in that path to go to Ethiopia and kind of committed to working there.”
“I’m very glad to be doing the work here, but in terms of the environment, I guess it’s not how I pictured my life as a Bible translator would look.”
When I mention that a mutual friend told me Susanna had the ability to be comfortable in even the harshest conditions, she casts this gift in a self-deprecating light.
“I think this is somewhere where I have to watch my own motives a little bit because I think that possibly part of my motivation for going to Ethiopia is that sense of it’s a bit edgy,” she says.
“Darwin is a really easy place to live. I can’t even say it’s a cross-cultural experience really. It’s another Australian city, that’s a bit smaller and a bit more hot and humid than other cities. I’m very glad to be doing the work here, but in terms of the environment, I guess it’s not how I pictured my life as a Bible translator would look.
“And I don’t know whether part of me wants people to be impressed by that fact [that I can live simply]. But there is definitely a sense of, I do feel more spiritually alive and useful in places where I’m not distracted by Western comforts. I know I’ve felt that on short-term mission trips in the past, living in a very basic room without internet or entertainment; I’ve always felt really connected to God and energised for ministry.”
Whether Susanna swaps Darwin for a more challenging location soon is a matter for earnest prayer by quite a few people.
The PEV Mini Bible app is available on Android here.
Bible Society is currently recording an audio version of the PEV Mini Bible.