The former Buddhist who translates the Bible

‘From that moment on, I knew that there was a God – that he was real.’

Ms. Vatsana Mahaphone*, 71, has a very clear memory of the moment when she first encountered the God of the Bible. It happened in 2004, at a time of great personal loss.

“At the time I was a practising Buddhist – a serious Buddhist woman,” she says. But her faith did not bring her the comfort or hope she needed as she faced the pain of seeing one of her five children die.

“I went to America to take care of my daughter who had cancer.”

“When she passed away a relative visited me and took me to church. As I listened to the preaching, I felt that everything around me was touching my heart and I couldn’t stop crying. It was the Holy Spirit.

“From that moment on, I knew that there was a God – that he was real.”

Started to attend church

Back home in Laos she started to attend church and had the same experience. “I wanted to cry, to laugh,” she recalls. “The Holy Spirit was touching me and I decided to get baptised.”

A short time later, Vatsana found herself weeping again, unable to stop the tears. This time she was at her desk at the Bible Society office in Vientiane, deeply moved as she translated the story of the crucifixion for a Children’s Bible.

“Just six months after I became a Christian, I started working for the Bible Society as an administrative officer and secretary for the translation committee for the Revised Lao Bible,” she explains. “I then started to translate scriptures for children from English into Lao.

Didn’t know much about the Bible

“In the evenings I would read the Bible and in the day I would be translating scriptures for children. I found it very hard because I was a new believer and didn’t know much about the Bible.”

It was the beginning of her deep passion for scripture, which would only grow as she became more and more involved in Bible work and ministry.

Today, she is one of two people working on the translation of the first Lao Study Bible. She is also studying for a master’s degree in theology and is an associate pastor at her church, focusing mainly on women’s ministry.

“Vatsana’s story is unique,” says UBS Translation Consultant Dr Daniel See, who is overseeing the Lao Study Bible project. “When people become Christians, they usually have mentors to teach them about the Christian faith. But shortly after coming to faith Vatsana was working for the Bible Society and translating scriptures. She was directly mentored by the Bible!”

Vatsana has personally experienced the importance of having a clear translation of the Bible because she began her faith journey having to read the old version of the Lao Bible.

Helping the church to grow

“That version uses old language and people today don’t really understand it, and it’s also missing verses,” she comments. “It’s so much easier to read the revised version, which was published by UBS in 2012. It’s helping the church to grow.”

One of the Bible stories that has most influenced her, she shares, is the story of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31). Through her ministry at church, she comes into contact with many desperate people – poverty-stricken widows, abandoned wives, and women whose lives have been blighted by the drug addiction of their husbands and sons. She not only prays and shares the hope of the Bible with them but she also helps to bring them practical help, finding money for medical expenses and other needs. Hers is a life of faith in action.

But Vatsana never dreamed she’d be helping to translate the Lao Study Bible, which is based on the Good News Study Bible in English, and is designed to help people gain a deep understanding of the Bible text. When she was asked by her church, the Laos Evangelical Church, to attend a workshop in 2015, she had no idea that it was because she had been put forward  as a translator.

“I felt like I didn’t know anything, and that my English wasn’t good enough,” she states.

But, says Daniel See, with encouragement, training and practise her ability and confidence grew. Vatsana and her fellow translator completed work on the Study New Testament ahead of schedule, after only two years of work.

Remarkable achievement

“This is a truly remarkable achievement for someone with no prior experience in translating theological terms,” comments See.

“I enjoy my job!” beams Vatsana. “When I translate, I get so involved in my work that if I prepare a hot drink it turns cold before I remember to take a sip!

“I thank God for using me in this way. When finished, this book will help Christians in Laos to understand the Bible more and more.”

The two-month Covid-19 lockdown in Laos in 2020 meant that the three pastors who were asked to proofread the Study New Testament had time to do so. It will be printed in Korea in early 2021.

Ahead of schedule

Work on the Old Testament of the Lao Study Bible is also ahead of schedule. Both translators have been able to continue translating throughout the year, working at home during lockdown. They’ve also been able to work closely with See via Zoom, to do detailed checking of their translation to ensure good quality. The Old Testament is due for completion in December 2022.

“Please pray for the publishing and distribution of the Study New Testament in 2021,” says Vatsana, “and for God to grant us wisdom and good health as we keep working on the Old Testament. Pray also for churches in Laos, as they share the gospel, and for all those people affected by drug addiction, which is a big problem here.”

* Name changed to protect her identity.

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