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Main  |  A Passion for Translation   |  Inside Translation  |  Native Languages
World Languages

Inside Translation
Bible to speak in native tongues
by Ron Csillag, National Post

Religion from across Atlantic gives boost to endangered languages
Reading the Bible in translation (meaning not in Hebrew), wrote the late Hebrew poet Chaim Nachman Bialik, is like kissing your bride through her veil.

Nick Didlick, Vancouver Sun

Traffic signs are easier than sacred scriptures to translate into aboriginal languages. These signs are in Iqaluit, in Inuktitut and English.
Because Muslims believe God revealed the Qur'an to the Prophet Muhammad in Arabic, for them any translation is mere interpretation. But Christians are called upon to spread the good news of the Gospels far and wide, in any language as long as it's Bible, not babble. That would include Mohawk, Cree, Mi'kmaq, Inuktitut and more than a dozen other Canadian aboriginal tongues in which the Good Book has appeared, or is in various phases of translation.

The work is performed by teams of aboriginal experts trained in the philosophies of translation, orthography, syntax and idiom, and is spearheaded by the Canadian Bible Society, in partnership with Wycliffe Bible Translators, with financial help from several Christian Churches and public donations. It is slow and painstaking and offers rare glimpses into the often frustrating inadequacies of human language.

The religion that is accused of wreaking havoc on native Canadians by very nearly destroying aboriginal culture, language and spirituality, and that ran residential schools where native children suffered horrors, is now helping to pump new life into native languages through translations of the Old and New Testaments.

The work takes on added significance given this week's report by the Worldwatch Institute warning that at least half the world's languages, especially aboriginal tongues, are on the brink of extinction. In Canada, only three aboriginal languages, Inuktitut, Ojibwe and Cree, have enough speakers to be considered safe, the report noted. And according to Statistics Canada, only a quarter of the 800,000 Canadians who claimed aboriginal origins in 1996 spoke an aboriginal language as their mother tongue.

Several Churches named in lawsuits involving residential schools have contributed to the $1-million translation effort. The United Church of Canada, through its Healing Fund, has donated $20,000 toward a Mohawk Bible. The Anglican Church of Canada and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops have also made sizeable contributions.

It hasn't been out of guilt or paternalism. "We respond to demand," explains Hart Wiens, director of scripture translation for the Canadian Bible Society. "The Catholic, Anglican and United Churches are key players in First Nations communities. Native communities want these Bibles, partly as a way to restimulate interest in native languages, especially among younger people. I suppose it's an irony that the same churches that took away so much of native ways are now giving them back, but the best way to reconnect with culture is through language."

Over the past 14 years, and unofficially for decades before that, the Canadian Bible Society has been facilitating the translation of Old and New Testaments into more than a dozen aboriginal languages spoken in Canada. Teams work from the Revised Standard and New Revised Standard Bibles, in English, producing new translations or updating and completing old ones that were turned out by 17th- and 18th-century European Jesuits and Anglican missionaries.

On June 30 in Mistissini, Que., near Chibougamau, a rendering of the entire New Testament in Eastern (James Bay) Cree will be launched. Previous translations of the New Testament have appeared in Moose Cree, Mi'kmaq, Algonquin, Western Cree (also known as Plains Cree) and Ojibwe (an Ojibwe Old Testament is almost half complete). Work now continues on a complete Bible (both testaments) in Inuktitut and Mohawk. In the planning is the New Testament in Dogrib, a member of the Dene language family spoken around Yellowknife.

Some, like Cree, Ojibwe and Inuktitut, use native syllabic scripts; some are written using the familiar Roman alphabet. Others employ both.

Wiens observes that translation tends to be easier, if that term can be used, in cultures where the written word prevails. But where the oral tradition is paramount, as in aboriginal societies, "you have to work at meanings a lot more." For example, it's rare to find a noun in many native languages that accurately conveys the meaning of "salvation."

Cultural variances are many. For example, how does one translate "fig tree," the name of a plant that grows in arid climes, into Inuktitut, spoken in Labrador and Canada's Arctic? "That becomes very difficult," Wiens sighs. "You have to start out with a base word, such as 'tree,' and then tweak it." Many of the translations are also illustrated for added explanation.

Inuktitut, like many languages, also has no words that mean simply "brother" or "sister." There's a generic word for "sibling," but four different words connote "older brother," "younger brother," "older sister" and "younger sister." Thus, translators working on the Book of Chronicles struggled to find the word that best described the relationship between two brothers called Joab and Abishai. "In the end, they went with the assumption that Abishai was the older brother, even though Joab was more prominent," Wiens says. "It was the same for Jesus's apostles. The translators had to make decisions about the relative age of two sets of brothers: Peter and Andrew, and James and John.

"The stumbling takes place not always on literal meanings, but on secondary meanings."

Including on the word "word." In most native languages, words and meanings distinguish between the inanimate and the animate. The words for "word" are inanimate. Thus, a big challenge is how to impart the following from the Book of John: "In the beginning was the one who is called the Word. The Word was with God and was truly God."

For that matter, translating "God" hasn't been easy either. Careful not simply to transliterate the word, which would make it foreign, translators try to find equivalents that respect aboriginal spirituality. Thus, "God" in one of the Cree languages is Chishemanituu, a combination of "great spirit" and "creator." In Mohawk, God is rendered as Rawennio, literally meaning "good words."

Nancy Ackerman, The Gazette

Cecile Wawanolet, an Abenaki language teacher, reads old books in the schoolhouse where as a girl she was forbidden to speak her mother tongue. The Abenaki live primarily in Quebec and Maine.
Mavis Etienne, the host of a weekly radio gospel show in Mohawk near her home in Kanehsatake close to Oka, Que., was frustrated a few years back with having only the Four Gospels in Mohawk. Etienne, a negotiator during the 1990 Oka crisis, later discovered that all the New Testament, except for 2 Corinthians, had been translated into Mohawk between 1787 and 1839. From the Old Testament, only Isaiah had been translated.

She assembled a volunteer team initially just to translate the missing texts. "But I knew all along that we would do the whole Bible," she says. In just 2 1/2 years, her group, consisting of three retired schoolteachers now into their 80s and a tool-and-die specialist in Montreal, have completed modern Mohawk editions of nearly a dozen books of the Bible, and hope to publish 2 Corinthians and Ruth by year's end. An audio CD is also planned.

But the work is time-consuming, and a completed Bible is years away. "I told my ladies they can't die until they're 150," Etienne quips. Single words can be daunting. For instance, "flesh" was coming out as "meat." The team struggled for a word for "Church" -- not the building, but the community. They settled on thonethakwen: people who believe.

Partly what makes the work so labour-intensive is the striving for accuracy. But rather than word-for-word translation, natural flow and meaning are stressed. "For years, form was stressed in Bible translation," Wiens explains. "But the tendency now is to focus on meaning and nuance over form, in as natural a way as possible."

That's why chunks of completed aboriginal translations are translated back into English. These "back translations" are then checked against the original Hebrew or Greek for exegetical accuracy, as opposed to what translation theorists call communicative accuracy: how closely the translation preserves the original text, versus how well the audience understands the intended message from a source text.

Canada is a leader in the field. Earlier this year, Choctaw Christians from Mississippi and Lakota Christians from South Dakota met near Stratford, Ont., to upgrade their computer skills for their own Bible translations. They received training from the Canadian Bible Society in Paratext, a magical bit of software that provides access to Hebrew and Greek source texts and permits users to create lexical and morphological databases in target languages. The program also allows editing and analysis of translations.

Well-trained by now in the art of expression, Etienne offers the following response to what motivates her and others to complete the translation of the Bible: "We're doing it to please the Lord."

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