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More than 200 years since the Canadian Bible Society set out on a mission

Translating the Bible into Indigenous languages

05 August 2022

The translation of the Bible into Indigenous languages is a very important fact which is spiritual, linguistic, anthropological, social and cultural. For decades, new translation policies have been moving away from the somewhat paternalistic view of missionaries whose task was to learn the language of the native communities and then translate the Scriptures into their languages.

Far from this vision, which was useful at the time but which has long since been considered to be that of an evangelization of idiomatic, cultural and religious conquest, today the way forward is completely different. A translation into an Indigenous language is only begun at the specific request of that population. Only then does the phase of fraternal dialogue begin, of seeking consensus on when and how to complete the work and the most appropriate translation policy. It is a process based essentially on listening. We need to hear from those who master the language of their ancestors about their cosmovisions of faith, their highly personal spiritual conceptions, their cultural ethos and their idiomatic richness placed at the service of Bible translation. The Johannine concept of the Incarnate Word (cf. John 1:14) must be particularly kept in mind when one thinks of translating the Word of God into a native language. That God who became one, who spoke, dwelt among us and became incarnate, must be reflected in the freshness, vividness and timeliness of the translation. God must speak the language as a member of the Indigenous communities!

The official information on which this article is based is taken from the Canadian Bible Society, which has been dedicated to the translation, printing and distribution of the Bible in Canada for over 200 years.

This Bible Society, member of the worldwide fraternity of the United Bible Societies, declares that “from a position of humility, of affirming hope, and engaging the complexities of reconciliation, we are honoured to be invited to work alongside Indigenous Canadians for the good of their communities”. “In many Indigenous Canadian communities”, the statement continues, “there is renewed hope for the revitalization of language and culture, centred around translation of and engagement with the Scriptures”.

As stated by those who perform this task in communion with the linguistic referents of those communities, languages are living realities that go to the core of our essence. In Canada, as in the rest of the American continent where translation work of Indigenous languages is carried out, translators are almost exclusively indigenous, and usually women. Indigenous women have been and continue to be the zealous guardians of the language which they pass on to their generation with the songs they sing to lull their children to sleep or with the lively stories of their communities heard by Indigenous boys and girls.

These are some of the translation projects into Indigenous languages that have already been completed.

The Complete Bible in Mohawk.

The first-ever Bible Society translation was the Gospel of John in Mohawk in 1804. In 1880, a translation of the four gospels by Sosé Onasakenrat was published. Sosé’s great-grandson, Harvey (Satewas) Gabriel, was part of a CBS translation project in the early 2000s to complete the translation of the Mohawk Bible. The project was dormant for some years, and recently restarted. CBS is working with Harvey and others with the goal of publishing the first complete Bible in Mohawk. The project is a partnership with the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake and the United Church of Canada.

The Complete Bible in Inuktitut

Inuktitut, also called Eastern Arctic Inuktitut, is spoken primarily in Nunavut and in Nunavik (northern Quebec) by the Inuit people. It is one of the official languages in the Nunavut territory. The whole Bible was completed in 2012, and now CBS is helping the Church revise the 2012 publication. Recent milestones include the completion of the New Testament, which is currently available through the Digital Bible Library, the YouVersion App and in print, and the creation of a Children’s Bible in Inuktitut. Additionally, the “Mission: Literacy” series of Bible story books will be translated into revised Inuktitut by Spring 2023, and a recording program is planned once the revision is done.

North Alaskan Inupiaq Old Testament

With the New Testament in hand, completing the Old Testament (OT) will make the whole Bible available. Many people have come forward to be involved in the translation process, and most are volunteers, working out of a sense of calling to complete the OT in Inupiaq, for the blessing of the Church and the community. Their involvement greatly accelerates progress. Inupiaq is the collective term for the Inuit dialects spoken in Alaska and immediately adjacent parts of Northern Canada. It is closely related to other Inuit languages across the Arctic in Canada and Greenland. There are roughly 2,600 speakers. It is considered a threatened language with most speakers at or above the age of 40.

Inuinnaqtun Scripture Portions

Inuinnaqtun is one of the official languages of Nunavut. CBS hosted an Inuit Bible translation conference in Nunavut in early 2017, and participants from the central Arctic requested help with some work in Inuinnaqtun. The first accomplishment of the collaboration was to convert their Bible portions from the 1980s (Ruth, the Four Gospels, Acts) into electronic format and make them available through YouVersion, an online and mobile Bible app. Next, volunteers translated the “Mission: Literacy” stories, which were published by CBS in 2020. Volunteers also did a fresh translation of the Gospel of Mark, which was published digitally in 2021. Portions of the new translation of Mark will be included in the new edition of the prayer book. (Marcelo Figueroa)

Marcelo Figueroa