From the cane to acclaim: Tom Little's journey of redemption

Musician and Bible translator Tom Little remembers as a child being caned at school for trying to speak his traditional language, Nyoongar.

‘You’ve got to remember that’s within one lifetime, that’s only 50 years ago,” he says.

He believes Aboriginal languages were suppressed back then as a way of suppressing Indigenous culture and to “demonise us as human beings”.

“The missionaries tried as much as they could to keep us and our culture alive, but unfortunately, because of their relationships particularly with police, but also government, other government institutions, there was a lot of suspicion between us.”

“He has been a key driver in Bible translation in his Nyoongar language.” – Ken Fletcher

Since then, attitudes among Christians have turned around so sharply that Little was honoured at this week’s ACCWA (Australian Christian Churches) state conference in Perth, where pastor and MC Ken Fletcher thanked him for his “contribution to the kingdom of God.”

“He has been a key driver in Bible translation in his Nyoongar language,” said Fletcher, noting to great applause that the Nyoongar translation of the Gospel of Luke was the single longest translation of any literature to the language.

“This work has helped ignite a new passion for indigenous languages which had been on the decline in recent decades.”

Speaking to Eternity to mark International Translation Day on 30 September, Little admits he was embarrassed by the acclaim, saying “Yes, I’m good at this stuff, but it’s only because God has given me the skills, the talent and the will to use it.

“I know this is not from me and I know it’s not for me; this is God and seeing God at work in my life is everything.”

Nevertheless, he was touched and felt it was right that the church should play a role in “this upsurge of cultural remembrance and learning” because “the church was complicit in the original act” of its suppression.

“This is the strongest place I can basically act as God’s eyes, hands and heart on.” – Tom Little

Little, an award-winning musician and songwriter, has been involved in the Nyoongar Bible Translation Committee since 1995, but only “at my mother’s and aunts’ and some uncles’ behest”.

“They were saying to me, ‘Look, you’ve got to come and help us with this.’ And when I said, ‘but hang on, you guys speak the language better than I do,’ they simply said ‘You remember it better than us, and that’s what we need you for.’

“So I’ve come to realise that this whole process is my ministry. This is the strongest place I can basically act as God’s eyes, hands and heart on. So that for me is my whole reason for doing this,” says Little.

So far, only two books of the Bible have been completed in Nyoongar – the Book of Luke and the Old Testament book of Ruth. The first took the committee 20 years; the second Little completed single-handedly in a few months.

Little says he chose to translate Ruth because it features strong faith-filled women who knew what they wanted and went out and got it. “And I grew up in a family full of those.”

“The reason Luke took so long was, we were quite a large committee there, anything up to 14 or 15 people in the room at one time. And the process was very dynamic and very forthright, as you can well imagine because we were absolutely insistent on getting it perfect because we knew that it would become the template for further translations,” he says.

As the longest single translation of any text into Nyoongar, the Scripture of Luke is now being used as a secular tool for teaching and learning the language, which pleases Little greatly because preserving language is a way of preserving culture.

“I’m hoping to get a lot more people involved so that they will learn the language because I’m not as young as I used to be.” – Tom Little

In addition, when Perth priest Keith Truscott preaches on Luke, he preaches in Nyoongar, which he learned during a 10-week course Little gave in Nyoongar language and Bible translation.

As his “star pupil”, Truscott, of Mount Zion Aussie Indigenous Church, is now working with Little on a translation of the Sermon on the Mount from the Gospel of Matthew.

“My whole ethos for doing this class is to train up a new team. I’m hoping to get a lot more people involved so that they will learn the language because I’m not as young as I used to be,” says Little.

“And for that matter, neither is Keith, but we have the passion to teach others the language and the Bible, so they can put them together and translate as well.”

After they finish the Sermon of the Mount, the plan is to do the Book of James and then go back to the beginning and translate Genesis.

Little, an elder of the Bindjareb/Bibulmun people who grew up in Pinjarra, 90km south of Perth, says he has realised that translating the Bible “was a task that I was made for”.

His dream to complete his life’s work was fired when he visited Bible Society’s chief Bible translator, John Harris, in Canberra in 2019.

“While I was there, he took me to the Bible Society’s archive repository. And he showed me the depth and breadth of translation and they’ve done worldwide, which is absolutely amazing. But when we got to the Nyoongar section – because every language has its own section in the archive – there were only two texts. One of those was Luke, and that was the biggest of them, in a space that’s probably a metre and a half of shelving. And my ambition now is to fill that as much as I can before I shuffle off, but also to live through the honouring of God with this process.”