Watch Out for Falling… What?

A lush, hilly field of green grass give way to the woods.

My phone rang. It was Sepa, my village father. It was late and I was tired. In addition, I was still working to bring my Tok Pisin language skills back up to where they’d been before a year in the U.S. took its toll on them. I answered the phone anyway.

Sepa was calling because he had a message for me to pass to Martha, my teammate who lived in his village but who was in town at the moment. I strained to hear his words. “…ee fell … Martha’s house.” 

Huh? Martha had mentioned that the village men planned to cut down a large tree so that it wouldn’t fall on her house and destroy it. So I figured the “ee” in the message was this tree. I asked in Tok Pisin if the house was okay. “Yes,” came Sepa’s answer, a note of puzzlement in his voice that I was too tired to notice. “It fell in the yard. The house is fine.”

I passed the message along, and Martha called him back. They spoke in Apal, the village language. It turns out that he had dropped (and lost) the key to Martha’s house. A key had fallen, not a tree. Martha tried to explain to Sepa what I thought he had said. Naturally in Apal my mistake made no sense because “key” — hɨbɨ lavɨla lavɨla hɨsɨŋ agaŋ — bears no resemblance at all to “tree” — kɨlɨ.

I tried to defend myself by saying that they sound the same in Tok Pisin. But they don’t: ki and diwai. They only rhyme in English.

The moral of the story: make sure your house is insured against damage from falling keys.

Did you have to read this story more than once for it to make sense? Yep. That’s how I felt.

Lindy Van Alstyne
Lindy Van Alstyne served seven years as a Bible translator in Papua New Guinea. She is now a translation consultant, a ministry that takes her to North and East Africa, Italy, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea. She loves art, plants, and playing strategy games and is married to a high school teacher who spent the first five years of his life in Africa.
See All Posts by Lindy Van Alstyne

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