Linguistic masters in their own right, Dale and Lillian Nesse recently celebrated the gift of language with a whole culture.
Nesse, a German and Spanish language teacher at Sequim High School, and his wife Lillian, a paraeducator for students learning English in Sequim elementary schools, visited Cañar, Ecuador, in the high elevation of the Andes Mountains, to attend the dedication of the Quichua Cañar Bible.
As missionaries the couple worked from 1983-1997 translating the New Testament into Quichua before dedicating the translation and moving to Sequim. Over the next 14 years, Nesse consulted with an Ecuadorian translation team via e-mail, phone and a few trips to help translate the Old Testament.
“People had all the training they needed if they wanted to continue, so they did,” Nesse said.
After 28 years, 5,000 copies of the Quichua Bible became available March 19 at the dedication ceremony, where the Nesses and more than 1,000 people marched, sang and celebrated the occasion for two days.
The Nesses feel the translated Bible not only promotes the Christian faith but also preserves a dying language. Quichua is an Ecuadorian dialect of Quechua, a language family used by millions of indigenous people in the Andes.
Nesse said school systems and trades in Ecuador mostly center on Spanish, whereas the Quichua language is used by s ome adults but few children.
“Some of the people there, the older adults, they see the risk of their language losing its value and not being spoken anymo re,” he said.
Several speakers at the recent dedication spoke on the theme that the Quichua Bible would help the people have better self-esteem because typically they’ve been overlooked and underappreciated.
“We’ve seen they feel so much better about themselves now compared to when we first went there,” Lillian Nesse said.
Some elder Quichua Indians said they are going to use it to help teach their younger people the language, Nesse said.
Lillian Nesse said that in the 1980s, there were about 3,000 languages without any translated biblical scripture.
“Only 10 percent of all languages have the whole Bible in their language,” she said. “We felt that we could help change that.”
Nesse learned Quichua through study; Lillian Nesse came to it by immersion.
“I didn’t have time to sit down and study like he did,” Lillian Nesse said. “I just had to converse with people as we cooked together in the kitchen or took care of the girls.”
After some time, Lillian Nesse shared some of Nesse’s translated scripture with the women to see if they understood it.
Nesse found one of his biggest translation assets was a series of books by Bible translators.
“You can’t translate word for word,” he said. “You often times have to use a phrase or the meaning and
not the word.”
He gave the example of Jesus calling himself the son of man: “If you translate that literally, people think he had no mother and was born of a man, so we translated it to ‘The one who came to become man.’”
Nesse said the hardest parts in the New Testament to translate were Romans and the epistles because they are so dense: “’Kingdom of God?’ What is that supposed to mean? It’s a church term. In different contexts it could mean different things. In one context, it could mean God is king in your life. It could mean heaven, where God reigns. It could be a place or a relationship.”
Nesse said translators of the Old Testament ran into problems with Psalms because it’s poetry and hard to interpret.
The Nesses said they found blessings a lot of the time they were in Ecuador.
One of the men who worked initially on the project couldn’t continue, so he asked Nesse to take on his brother-in-law, Reinaldo Chimborazo.
“I didn’t think he was going to be much help at all because he was timid, but he ended up being the one who finished the whole project,” Nesse said.
“We saw how God touched his life. His little boy had been sick. We prayed for him and he went to a nearby clinic. Before the boy got there, he was healed.”
Lillian Nesse said since that event, Chimborazo has been a different person. “He’s been the faithful one for all these years.”
“The second miracle is that this boy joined a gang,” she said. “I think he was stabbed, lying behind a car thinking he was going to die. He told God he was going to turn it around — two years ago.”
Now Chimborazo’s son helps with computers.
Nesse said the local churches were so impressed with Chimborazo’s work that he was asked to translate apocryphal books for the Roman Catholic Church.
“He said he’d only do it if he was allowed to train younger people,” Nesse said.
Going to Ecuador seemed to be a higher calling for the Nesses.
They met while going to Lutheran Bible Institute in Seattle, now called Trinity Lutheran College. Both said they had a knack for languages and a sense that God wanted to use those talents. Lillian Nesse needed to fulfill a seven-week internship to graduate from the school, so the couple went on her sister’s advice to visit Ecuador.
A chance encounter, said Lillian Nesse, was a sign from God: “While there, we visited a little church on top of a hill and a little Quichuan man approached us. He had no idea what was in our hearts. We were intending to go to linguistics school and to go on the bible translation track. He didn’t know that. He said to us, which has stuck with us for many years, ‘We’ve been praying for years that someone would come to our area and translate scripture into our language.’ He said that out of the blue. That touched our heart and we continued on.”
The Nesses studied for a year to become Bible translators. They began translation work in 1983, with 1-year-old daughter Maia in tow.
Three more daughters were born in Ecuador: Angela, Sonia and Gloria. All four graduated from Sequim High School.
At the end of the school year, Nesse will retire from teaching.
His hope is to return to the area of Cañar as part of Scripture Engagement, a program of Lutheran Bible Translators through which he and Lillian will visit the area to reinforce and encourage people’s faith.
“We were very pleased with what we saw,” Nesse said. “We want to go back and spend more time. It was just like being teased going back for just a week.”
Lillian Nesse won’t be retiring quite yet, but she said they are interested in helping missionaries in the short-term with translation, if needed.
“We want people to know that it’s not just for the sake of translating the Bible. It’s so people’s lives can be changed and that’s the most exciting thing,” she said.
“It changes your life.”