In these monthly discussions we answer one question about language in Melanesia and beyond. This month we are looking at the future of e-books as vehicles for literature in Tok Pisin and other Melanesian languages.
PAPUA New Guineans are hungry to read. Books left by mistake at a bus stop rarely stay untouched more than a few minutes.
Whenever I come back from overseas, I am always asked if I have brought back any paperback novels to read. Those novels get passed from hand to hand until they fall apart.
When books are in Tok Pisin or a local language, they are even more highly sought after. These are more effective than books in English for sharing information or touching people’s hearts, something missionaries discovered over a century ago. There is an obvious desire and use for books about many subjects in Tok Pisin and other PNG languages, but yet the availability of books in PNG languages is much smaller than the market for them. Why is this?
One reason is that books are expensive to print in small numbers. While the cost of an individual book is low if thousands or millions of copies are printed, the number of books printed in any Melanesian language, even Tok Pisin, is never going to be large. This means that the per unit cost of any book in Tok Pisin and local languages is either going to be either prohibitively high or will need to be substantially subsidised.
Another reason is that the infrastructure for the distribution of books is poorly developed. There are few bookshops selling anything other than textbooks or religious works, and prices are high – a paperback costing K40 is several days’ wage for most people.
Paper is in any case not an ideal material for hot and humid environments. Book bindings fall apart and the paper itself tends to deteriorate. Without air conditioning, few books last more than five or six years, especially in coastal areas.
E-books are a way to overcome these problems and may be the way to publish books in Papua New Guinean languages in the future. Mobile phones have now spread to even remote areas, and a growing number of people have access to tablet or laptop computers. With these devices, books can be downloaded as pdf files from the Internet and shared from person to person by bluetooth, just as music and video files now often are.
Unlike printed books, the cost of producing these e-books is the same whether one copy or one million copies are made. They can be distributed anywhere where mobile phones can be used and do not require a storage facility that is free of humidity and insects.
Educational institutions are already shifting in this direction. The Department of Education has made its curriculum material available online, and for some time, Flexible Open Distance Education (Fode) students have been required to have a mobile telephone or laptop to read the textbooks and class notes that were once distributed on paper.
Divine Word University has gone so far as to have a “paperless campus”, where the vast majority of textbooks are distributed to students’ laptops as e-books, and students present their essays and reports electronically.
There are signs that e-book technology is already making literature in Melanesian languages more available. The most widely available materials are religious. There are free mobile phone apps available that make Bible or Bahai scripture available in dozens of PNG languages on both Androids and iPhones.
The PNG Bible Translation Association website (https://tokplesbaibel.org/) has Bibles to download in many languages and the SIL website (https://pnglanguages.sil.org/resources) has both religious and literacy material in languages from every province in the country.
One of the most extensive collections of writing in Tok Pisin is available at the Wantok Niuspepa site (http://wantokniuspepa.com/), with a complete online archive that goes back to its first issue of August 1970. Besides having articles of historical interest, its “Stori Tumbuna” submitted every week by readers provide a valuable bridge to the rich oral folklore traditions of all parts of PNG.
The speed of delivery is an important advantage of e-publishing. As soon as the Covid virus reached PNG, the Asia Foundation worked with Bilum Books to produce e-books about the pandemic to read with children in Tok Pisin, Hiri Motu, and Engan. These can be downloaded for free at www.digitallibrary.io. On that site click on the globe symbol and look for these three PNG languages on the dropdown menu.
They have also produced e-book readers for parents and teachers to read with young children. These are in English, Tok Pisin, Hiri Motu, and Engan and will be available for free downloading in the near future.
Not all e-books are free, however. The Kindle e-book platform at amazon.com has a growing number of e-books that can be downloaded and read on mobile telephones, tablets, or laptops, but they must be paid for with by bank card. These include what must be a world first – a bilingual Spanish-Tok Pisin children’s book!
Publishing books online either for free download or for sale is relatively easy and opens new opportunities for the development a Tok Pisin e-publishing industry and of written literatures in other Melanesian languages.
The Amazon Kindle platform and other e-book outlets permit anyone with basic computer skills to edit an e-book and present it for download or purchase by people around the world.
Guides on how to do this are easily available on the internet. This democratisation of the publishing industry and the fact that e-books are much more inexpensive to publish than printed books, mean that individuals and groups in Melanesia can become their own publishers, producing books about their own lives and in their own languages to be read on mobile devices or tablets.
With e-books and mobile telephones, there might be a brighter future for written literature in Melanesian languages.
- Professor Volker, is an Adjunct Professor in linguistics at the James Cook University Language and Culture Research Centre whose home is in New Ireland. He welcomes your language questions for this monthly discussion at http://firstname.lastname@example.org. Or continue the discussion on the Facebook Language Toktok page.