Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The Lord Is My...Stockman?

It's taken 30 years and the work of some 100 linguists and translators, but the Bible has finally been translated into an Aboriginal language, Kriol, a pidgin variation that was used by stockmen, and spread far and wide through the Northern Territory.

Only 200 or so other Aboriginal languages to go.

While the Kriol translation will no doubt be read, and welcomed by some Aborigines, it's not exactly going to be a record breaking print run for this version of the Bible. The Anglican Church, who commissioned and oversaw the translation, are showing great ambition, however, by planning to distribute some 30,000 copies of the Kriol translation through the Northern Territory in the coming months.

One of the reasons why it has taken so long to finish the translation is that numerous Bible stories and tales had to be rewritten so they made more sense to traditional Aborigines.

The Dreamtime tales traditionally passed down through the generations by oral storytelling are usually short on examples of Christian-based morality and concepts of kings and individual ownership. Many such stories don't have beginnings, middles and ends, as Western stories usually do, and for the most part were tales told for the benefit of learning how to hunt, what plants and roots were safe to eat, how to read the wind, the clouds and the landscape to forecast the coming season(s), and generally how to survive.

There was also the problem that Aboriginals tend to worship the Earth, more than some formless, all powerful entity. After all, it was knowing and loving and respecting the Earth that enabled them to survive in some of the harshest climates on the planet for more than 60,000 years.

The stories of the challenges faced by the linguists and translators are fascinating :

Peter Carroll, a linguist who worked on the translation, said the phrase “to love God with all one’s heart” was a special challenge. He said: “The Aboriginal people use a different part of the body to express emotions. They have a word that is, broadly translated, ‘insides’. So to love God with all your heart was to want God with all your insides.”

Margaret Mickan, another linguist who has been working on the translation since 1984, said: “If you want to get to the deep things of life and talk about meaningful things, about your beliefs and those sorts of things, then you need it in your own language. What has meaning is something that really touches and speaks to you in your own language.”

Those working on the project needed to check constantly with far-flung communities that their interpretations of language and Biblical concepts were correct – and they were often surprised to find that their offerings had vastly different meanings from what they had intended.

Here's an example of how the "Lo, tho I walk through the valley of the Shadow of Death" passage from the Bible now reads, after re-translation from the pidgin English Aboriginal language Kriol :

Yaweh, you are the best stockman. You care for me continually, and everything I have comes from you. I can’t want more.

You care for me just like the stockman who takes his sheep to rest in a quiet place with lots of grass and spring water.

Every day you make me strong. You show me the way to go because I trust your name to do what you have promised.

Even if I go through a very dark place where anything could kill me, but I am not frightened because you are always with me. You have your spear and long stick to always protect me.