Noel Pearson says living languages need the Bible

The ancient Guugu Yimithirr language of Cape York Peninsula in northern Queensland reverberated around the room as Aboriginal Australian lawyer, academic and land rights activist Noel Pearson read from the Guugu Yimithirr words inscribed in German missionary Georg Schwarz’s own handwriting. 

Translated back into English, it said, “My friend, you will soon forget what I have to say. I put God’s Word into your language in this book. This you must never forget. Always keep it in your mind and always speak it. Muni.”

Noel Pearson accepted an invitation to speak at Wycliffe Australia’s recent conference in celebration of 60 years of work. Pearson shared candidly, from the very depths of his heart, about the values of his family, the legacy of Lutheran missionaries in Hope Vale, and the importance of translating Scripture into Indigenous languages.

Noel Pearson (centre) is presented with a Kuku Yalanji dictionary (created by the Hershbergers in 1986) reprint by Wycliffe Australia CEO Barry Borneman (left) and translator David Blackman

Noel Pearson (centre) is presented with a Kuku Yalanji dictionary (created by the Hershbergers in 1986) reprint by Wycliffe Australia CEO Barry Borneman (left) and translator David Blackman

According to Pearson, had it not been for Schwarz (who came to the Hope Vale mission in 1887 at only 19 years of age and stayed for a further 55 years), “the community would have perished”. For Noel, who, along with his father and grandfather, was born at Hope Vale, Georg Heinrich Schwarz was a “towering figure in [his] childhood imagination”.

Pearson yearns for the day when the New Testament is fully translated into Guugu Yimithirr.

Though he died before Noel was born, Schwarz’s memory lives on in Hope Vale’s Guugu Yimithirr community. Earning the name “Muni” (the word for black in Guugu Yimithirr), Schwarz “understood very early on that the gospel spoke through the Guugu Yimithirr language to the people”.

Despite many voices over the years predicting the imminent death of the Guugu Yimithirr language, it has defied the odds. Noel believes that the language community was actually “revivified by the stolen generations” as it was taught to the children who came to the mission community. When Noel was in primary school, American linguist John Haviland compiled a grammar and dictionary of Guugu Yimithirr – an important foundation for language maintenance. And local pastor George Rosendale was a great exponent of the  Guugu Yimithirr language through his sermons and oratory, hymn singing and Bible reading. As a result, Guugu Yimithirr has stayed alive through to this day.

Nevertheless, Pearson yearns for the day when the New Testament is fully translated into Guugu Yimithirr. “The advent of a Guugu Yimithirr Bible is something that’s still a matter of great anxiety to me and the people of my community. I really think that I will feel reassured about the future of Guugu Yimithirr when we have a full translation of the New Testament.”

Speaking cheekily, yet in all sincerity, Noel put the invitation out there: “anyone interested in 20 years of effort, we’d be really grateful to hear from you!” Noel is adamant about the importance of Bible translation, not only for the purpose of communication but as an important means of preserving Australia’s rich heritage. “I really think that the work that has been done on New Testament translations around Australia is just the most important work.”

Apart from his beloved Guugu Yimithirr language, Noel also has strong connections with several other languages. In fact, the very first linguistic research, undertaken by Wycliffe Australia linguists Bill and Lynette Oates in 1963, was in Noel’s mother’s language – Kuku Yalanji. Norman Baird, Noel’s uncle, was “the driver of the original Kuku Yalanji dictionary with Lyn Oates and very anxious about the perseveration of the Kuku Yalanji language”.

Ruth Hershberger and her class among the Kuku Yalanji tribe.

Ruth Hershberger and her class among the Kuku Yalanji tribe.

Noel also acknowledged with appreciation the work of Wycliffe translators from the USA, Hank and Ruth Hershberger, who dedicated 25 years of their lives to completing a Kuku Yalanji New Testament as well as the book of Genesis. Noel feels that his mother’s people are “really blessed with the work that the Hershbergers did”.

In spite of the many adversities endured by his people, Noel reminisces on his years at the mission with fondness. “No more privileged life was there than the one I had. I heard of all the hardships of the past but I had a really keen sense that what the missionaries and my grandparents had achieved was a great achievement.”

Even so, his distress over the “social unravelling of the last 40 years”, where “a whole lot of very precious things have crumbled and fallen apart” is very apparent. He regrets the failure to better prepare for the transition from mission life, the scourge that came from the introduction of and reliance on welfare, and the destructiveness of government policies. These things, Noel laments, tragically resulted in previously non-existent problems spreading “like wildfire through [their] communities” as people failed to understand the “real things [they] needed to defend”. 

And yet, Noel has “every reason for optimism”. With their examples of great character from the past, and leaders in the present who are seeking a better future, he maintains that, through well-delivered education and taking a determined path, even the most horrific of situations can be turned around.

In a moving conclusion to a heartfelt speech, Noel read from the Hershbergers’ translation into his mother’s language of Kuku Yalanji. For the second time in the evening another ancient language speaking of the love of God in Jesus Christ reverberated around the room as Noel gave an intermittent translation back into Engl
ish from Romans chapter eight:

“Jesus Christ tells us God really loves us. He gave us his son to die for us. He gave his son freely. He cleansed us. Jesus Christ died for us. He’s pleading with his Father for us. He loves us. Who can separate us from his love? No way. Nothing. We might have trouble. We might be sick. They might be talking bad about us. They might have anger towards us. We might be poor and hungry. They might want to kill us. He’s steadfast with us. God will never leave us.”

Noel Pearson and his people well know the kind of trouble the Apostle Paul describes here. But into the deepest difficulties life throws at us, the gospel of Christ speaks great hope. Just as Muni exhorted the Guugu Yimithirr people, it is a message worth holding on to. “Always keep it in your minds and always speak it.”